Finding things to do in Philadelphia isn’t hard; deciding what you’ll do will be a challenge. Philadelphia is worth visiting because it’s the birthplace of the United States, where the founding fathers formed a new country. It’s also a UNESCO-designated World Heritage city.
I spent several days rambling around during my two-year road trip as a nomad traveling in my van, hiking, seeing historic areas, and staying in short-term rentals. Each place I found brought a discovery, place to visit, or fascinating historical fact to add to my quickly increasing bank of Philadelphia historical knowledge. No place in the country is so preeminent in our minds as America’s. If you’ve ever thought about the American Revolution, constitution, politics, or governance, chances are the visual image in your mind includes Philadelphia. For me, it was due time to see it for myself.
INDEPENDENCE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
There are 62 National Historic Parks and 83 National Historical Sites in the U.S. Of those, 19 are in Philadelphia, but this one is tops. This park spans sites around Philadelphia, including historic buildings, artifacts, structures and landscapes any American school student will be familiar. If you’re looking for things to do in Philadelphia, you can’t miss these sites.
The National Park Service has spectacularly preserved and reconstructed Philadelphia’s history. It’s only too bad that our zest for new things means we don’t maintain the past as we should. Ah, hindsight. Still, they have saved much. Ben Franklin’s home print shop was demolished – but what treasure those would have been! They’ve reconstructed what they could, but it isn’t enough—the same with the “declaration house,” where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Still, what they’ve saved and recreated is spectacular.
1 INDEPENDENCE HALL
Independence Hall is also sometimes called Constitution Hall because it’s where the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were signed. At that time, it was called the State House. This building is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its importance in American history.
As an American, I’ve heard of and seen illustrations of these places, so many times I have an impression of them fixed in my mind. To finally see these rooms and objects feels like seeing fiction brought to life, but it isn’t fiction, it’s our history, and it’s all still here. The Assembly Room in Independence Hall is one I’ve seen depicted so many times; it was hard to believe it still existed, yet it is exactly as described. As flawed as they were, these men did a fantastically bold and brave thing there. It still crackles with that energy. How could it not? In this city where Benjamin Franklin brought energy down from the very sky? Some places have more natural energy than others. Certainly, this place, where the history of humankind turned, is one of those places.
If you want to go inside, ensure you get your tickets online at least the day before. Same-day entry is not an option.
Find it at 520 Chestnut St, Philadelphia, PA.
2 LIBERTY BELL CENTER
Whenever there was news to share or they called the state house to order, the Liberty Bell rang in the tower of the Pennsylvania Independence Hall. They say there’s no evidence that the bell rang July 4, 1776, because no documents or significant letters reference it, and news wouldn’t have traveled that fast, but it would have rung for the news once word came from Virginia.
It’s this bell that would ring to call lawmakers to their meetings and the townspeople together to hear the reading of the news. Benjamin Franklin wrote to Catherine Ray in 1755, “Adieu, the Bell rings, and I must go ….” It was not until the 1830s that the old State House bell would begin to take on significance as a symbol of liberty.
Before it was the “Liberty Bell,” it was just the state house bell that called sessions to order and rang out for news readings. It wasn’t until 1835 that the abolitionist publication “Anti-Slavery Record” first referred to it as the Liberty Bell due to its inscription. “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” The quote comes from the King James Bible and refers to instructions to the Israelites to free enslaved people every 50 years.
Here, you’ll be able to view the exhibits, see the film, and learn why the bell cracked. No tickets are required.
Find it at the corner of 6th and Market Streets.
3 THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE
Beneath the Liberty Bell, across the street from Independence Hall, is the first presidential home’s recovered foundation. In the 1790s, at the President’s House location at Sixth and Market Streets, Presidents George Washington and John Adams lived and conducted their executive branch business. Both Presidents Washington (1790–1797) and John Adams (1797–1800) lived and worked in this house,
City officials ultimately demolished the house, but archeologists discovered the foundation and many artifacts.
stone foundation walls of the original President’s house, the bow window (a large extension with curved walls installed by Washington that was the inspiration for the oval rooms within the modern White House), the kitchen/washhouse root cellar, and an underground passageway between the kitchen and the main house.
Find it and the liberty bell at 6th and Market Streets.
4 CHRIST CHURCH BURIAL GROUND AND BEN FRANKLIN’S GRAVE
It was a happy accident that I happened to park in front of a wall that looked like there might be a cemetery on the other side. As a taphophile, I’m oddly attracted to cemeteries, and it’s as if they seem to find me at this point. A walk down the block revealed I was right; I’d stumbled upon an essential early-American cemetery: the Christ Church Burial Ground.
Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia is the final resting place of Declaration of Independence signers Benjamin Rush, Francis Hopkinson, Joseph Hewes and George Ross and Benjamin Franklin. It’s Franklin’s grave that draws crowds, and yes, I mean crowds.
When Franklin died in 1790, he was buried in a family plot in the corner of the grounds. It’s easy to spot because it’s the only part of the wall \with a metal fence instead of brick. This is so tourists can look in without entering the cemetery, allowing Franklin’s admirers to see his penny-covered grave. Why pennies? Visitors leave them in honor of Franklin’s famous words, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
It costs $5 if you’d like a look around the small cemetery and another $2 for a map of famous graves. The map is handy since many of the stones eroded and are challenging to read, plus the fees help fund the preservation. The cemetery features several unusual “table tombs” with a flat slab elevated off the ground by six pillars or legs. It’s an old style, prone to breaking and rarer every day.
Find it at 340 N 5th St, Philadelphia, PA.
5 ELFRETH’S ALLEY
Elfreth’s Alley is the oldest continuously inhabited American colonial street in America. The alley wasn’t even part of the original plans for Philadelphia, but because of street crowding in 1703, two men who lived nearby opened the alley as a cart path, which has stood the test of time.
Now, residents and local historians preserve the colonial street. It’s reminiscent of a street in “A Christmas Carol” with small brick homes on the bottom and businesses on top along a narrow cobblestone street. These Georgian and Federal-style houses are small “trinity houses” with one room on each story with a narrow, winding staircase connecting the floors.
Today, 32 historic houses, once belonging to artisans and tradespeople, line the alley and make it a National Historic Landmark. The Elfreth’s Alley Museum is at houses 124 and 126. Inside, visitors will learn more about the alley, see many historical images and experience the interior of these homes.
Fun Fact: City officials named Elfreth’s Alley after Jeremiah Elfreth, a blacksmith and land developer who built and rented many homes. It was previously named Cherry Street.
Walking down the alley, you will notice old-fashioned flower boxes, ornate, colorful doorways and shutters, Flemish bond brickwork and other architectural details, including fire marks.
BEN FRANKLIN’S COLONIAL FIRE MARK
On some of the houses, you’ll notice a symbol on the second story of four hands holding four wrists. This historic symbol dates to 1752, when Benjamin Franklin created the Philadelphia Contributionship insurance company. The “Fire Mark” symbol was “proof of insurance” for insured homes, alerting firefighters to put the fire out.
Fun Fact: Ben Franklin created the first fire department in 1736.
Find it starting at 126 Elfreth’s Alley, Philadelphia, PA.
6 BETSY ROSS HOUSE
Right down the street from Elfreth’s Alley is the Betsy Ross house. You’ll spot it by the big flag hanging out front. Boy, did I get an education here. My public school history books taught me that Betsy Ross made the first American flag. It didn’t mention that there is a debate about whether it was her!
The only proof Betsy Ross sewed the first flag is that she had sewed for George Washington before and that her family has sworn it was she. There are no official records that prove it, however.
According to the oral history, in 1776, Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross visited Betsy in her upholstery shop and showed her a sketch of a flag with thirteen red and white stripes and thirteen six-pointed stars. Washington asked if she could make a flag from the design.
“I do not know, but I will try,” Betsy is reported to have said. This line was used in the sworn statements of many of Betsy’s family members, suggesting that it is a direct quote. Alas, and alack, we may never know the truth. But I’m happy to believe it was her, regardless.
It costs $8 to go inside the 300-year-old house, but the courtyard, including Betsy Ross’s grave, a seasonal medicinal herb garden, and a gift shop are free.
Find it at 239 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA.
7 THE ROCKY STEPS
You need to know two things about the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One, it’s world-class with an excellent modern art section making it among the best in the country and two, it’s a cultural icon, thanks to those steps at the front. You know the ones, a guy named Robert Balboa, aka “Rocky,” ran up them in a movie after the same name in 1976. Today, almost 50 years later, people are still running up them.
There are 72 steps leading up to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These are informally known as the “Rocky Steps.” In the movie, running up the stairs was part of Rocky’s exercise regime. Today tourists do it for the photo op; if you’re walking by, you sort of have to, don’t you? I did, though granted by step 50; it was more of a slog than a jog. Hey, done is better than perfect!
I was shocked by the number of people running up those stairs. I walked past twice over a few hours and saw dozens of people doing it. Dozens. It’s been 50 years! Even more surprising was the line, about 20 people long, waiting to take a picture with the nearby Rocky statue, arms raised in victory. A solid half of these people wouldn’t even have been born when the movie came out. That’s cultural relevance for you.
8 PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART
Of course, it’s the museum that should get the attention as an awesome thing to do in Philadelphia. It’s spectacular. It is also filled with stairs, so you’ll get your workout one way or the other; just embrace it. Inside, the prominent architectural feature is a Great Stair Hall. At the top, a golden “Diana” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens balances upon a ball and holds an arched bow and arrow. She used to have pride of place as a weathervane at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where she was, for a time, the highest object in Manhattan. The building is an architectural delight inside and out.
My favorite part was the world-famous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by Renoir, van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas, and Cézanne, among others. A few highlights:
- “The Large Bathers” by Paul Cézanne has a significant area and pride of place.
- Vincent van Gogh has five paintings in a central gallery and several drawings.
- Henri Matisse has over 100 drawings and paintings in an entire section.
- Claude Monet has 23 paintings featuring lovely flowers and landscapes.
- Pablo Picasso – has a ton of excellent work on display – perhaps more than any museum outside of Barcelona.
- Diego Rivera – has a few paintings and an excellent collection of drawings
- In over a dozen paintings, Pierre Augusta Renoir captures the light in his signature style.
Find it at 2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia, PA.
9 EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
Eastern State Penitentiary is America’s most historic prison. It started as the brainchild of Dr. Benjamin Rush and other well-known society members like Benjamin Franklin not too long after the revolution. It was the first attempt to reform prisoners and house them in a safe environment.
This prison also significant from an architectural standpoint with vaulted ceilings, decorative ironwork, and efficient design. Still, the central heat, running water, and flush toilets made it unique. Even the White House didn’t have those amenities at the time.
Some say the prison is haunted – and you can find out for yourself. Self-guided tours are available for $19 per person.
Find it at 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA.
10 EDGAR ALLAN POE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Unable to find work in the late 1830s, Poe moved from Baltimore to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and lived six years in various rentals here. His only surviving residence is a small house within walking distance of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Today the National Park Service maintains the home as the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site.
This home has been preserved as it was when he lived there. One fun feature the guides point out is the original floorboards are loose and creaky, and historians speculate it may be where Poe got the idea for “The Tell-Tale Heart.” A story about a man who hides the body parts of a victim under his floorboards!
Find it at 532 N. 7th Street, Philadelphia.
Read more about Edgar Allan Poe sites on the east coast here.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN PHILIDELPHIA
There are dozens more sites and things to do in Philadelphia; it’s just up to you to step out of your front door and stumbled upon them. They won’t be hard to find.