Philadelphia is packed full of history and culture. Here are 10 best things to do that provide first time visitors a glimpse of what this historic city has to offer.
While Washington might be home to the White House, and New York is internationally known for its attractions, neither can claim the importance to early US history that nearby Philadelphia can. It was home to Benjamin Franklin and was where the founding fathers would meet. It was also where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and several battles against the British were fought nearby. It even served as the new nation’s capital while Washington was being built. As if that wasn’t enough, it was home to the USA’s first hospital, zoo, stock exchange, and it was where the US Marine Corps was founded. Its influence in popular culture continues to the present day with famous films such as the Rocky series being set there...and yes the “Rocky Steps” are a very popular attraction.
Philadelphia is not just a destination for history enthusiasts, it is a lively city where visitors of all stripes will find something exciting and interesting. It has world class restaurants, and tons of fantastic bars selling an impressive array of beers and cocktails - from both local microbreweries and exotic foreign countries. From avant-garde arts galleries to the famous cheese steaks, the city has everything I love and more. All of this taking place against a backdrop of Georgian architecture and handsome brick buildings, interspersed with modern glass skyscrapers.
Philadelphia is a city with a proud history that continues to contribute to the country’s art and culture up until the present day. I can happily spend a day wandering around and admiring its architecture, while the art keeps my mind dreaming and the food keeps my belly extremely satisfied!
If you read this blog regularly, you will know that Chris is from New Jersey, so this is his home territory. Whenever we see his family (who live just a short drive across the Delaware River), we stay in downtown Philly and hit up our favorite spots.
Chris never used to be very excited about heading back there (it’s true that you always take for granted the areas you know), but I have always enjoyed our trips and the chance to see how different the place is to San Diego. Maybe my enthusiasm has infected him, because now he is much more interested in spending time there...or maybe it’s just the growing additions of craft beer bars? After seeing so much of the world, perhaps he sees it with new eyes – there is no question that a lot has changed since his days as a teenage skateboarder riding the city’s streets!
You don’t get much more historic than this without leaving the USA. Elfreth’s Alley dates back to 1702 and is the oldest residential street in the country! The beautiful old houses have been lovingly looked after, and provide a window into the how our forefathers lived. Even if you are not into history, it is an incredibly charming place to walk through and to get some great photos.
Few places are as important as Independence Hall. This is where our nation was born. Here the Declaration of Independence was signed and the rooms (complete with a draft of the famous document) have been left more or less as they were at the time. Aside from the momentous events which took place there, the building is an excellent example of colonial architecture and on its own it is worth admiring. Outside is the famous Liberty Bell, and together these two sights are a must visit if you are in the city.
The Ritz Carlton Lobby
Philadelphia’s branch of the Ritz Carlton is worth laying eyes on, even if you aren’t staying there. Housed in a converted bank, the facade is an impossibly grand imitation of the Roman Pantheon complete with columns, portico and spectacular domed roof. The marble columns continue inside, and the dome creates a feeling of endless space. The entire ambiance and grandeur of the building takes you back to a time long gone. The Aqimero restaurant is right in the middle of the lobby and serves world class cuisine, so visit in the evening and enjoy a dinner or cocktail in this special location.
Philadelphia City Hall
The city hall of Philadelphia is not just the seat of local government, but also one of the prettiest buildings the city has to offer. It looks like it has been picked up from central Paris and dropped here on the other side of the Atlantic. It also has a clock tower which is larger than London’s Big Ben. Sandwiched between elegant tall buildings (but not being overwhelmed in the slightest), it makes a great focus for photographers – especially around sunset.
Spruce Street Harbor Park
If the weather’s good, there is no where better to spend an afternoon than Spruce Street Harbor Park. Crammed full of pop-up shops and bars, the boardwalk is the perfect place to stroll which enjoying the sun’s rays and a cold beer. There is even a beach which has been built with imported sand! At night the whole place lights up and at different times of years there are different attractions set up. From funfairs to ice rinks, there is always something going on.
Reading Terminal Market
This has to be one of the best food markets in the country. This used to be a train shed and so the building has a quirky industrial feel, but since 1976 it has been home to food stalls of every flavor. Make sure you come hungry as you will want to sample almost everything you see. There is plenty of hot food, but you will also find grocers, butchers and cheesemakers with goods you can take home.
South Street (and the surrounding blocks) is known for its bohemian atmosphere and awesome street art. Once a run down part of the city, it has grown into a creative hub and has a lively nightlife scene. Today its streets are lined with art galleries and independent shops, while live music drifts out of its bars most nights. There are also plenty of beautiful street murals which add to the character...it reminds me of Haight Ashbury in San Francisco.
Another fine old Georgian building, Carpenters’ Hall dates back to 1770. Over the years it has hosted Benjamin Franklin’s library, the USA’s first bank and the Carpenters Guild. It was also where the first continental congress took place and this was the first step on the road to independence.
Eulogy Belgian Tavern
We couldn’t write a list of places to visit in Philly without mentioning at least one bar. The tourist attractions are great and all, but it is harder to know the best place to get a drink without insider knowledge. Eulogy Belgian Tavern has an outstanding selection of beers (as Chris says, “it’s truly impressive”) and the scene is laid back and dark . The beer culture is old and strong in this part of the country, so duck into a bar and enjoy some incredible craft beers from all over the world.
One Liberty Observation Deck
Wandering the streets is the best way to get a feel for the city, and absorb its energetic East coast atmosphere. Getting a bird's eye view however, can tie it all together and help you make sense of the city as a whole. The best place to do this is One Liberty Observation Deck, which sits right in the city center on the 57th floor. Needless to say, the views are spectacular.
Where to Stay: Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia
I mentioned the Ritz Carlton’s dramatic lobby earlier, and in truth, you won’t find a better place to stay in the city. The domed lobby must make this one of the most unique and grand hotels in the city if not the whole East coast! It's a place of timeless elegance that will take you make to the early 1900s, an impression that is compounded by the high class Ritz service. The location is another plus, as are the spa and the dining options. If you want to stay in style, this is the place to choose.
If you'd like to learn more, read our full review of the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia.