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Philadelphia is a must visit city for families. Why? It’s the heart of America’s revolutionary past, with famous sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. And some of the world’s best kid-friendly museums are in Philly. Plus there are plenty of wide and wonderful open spaces to explore. Here’s TravelingMom’s guide to the best things to do in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is a popular family vacation destination. It’s often included on a northeast road trip with New York and Boston. Or, if you’ve got teens, you might be swinging through on a college visit to tour Villanova, Drexel or UPenn. Because of its small size, Philly is easy to blitz on a long weekend too.
Whatever the reason for your Philadelphia vacation, there are lots of fun things to do and see. We’ve sourced local tips from area moms to give you the info you need to visit the top attractions plus some of the hidden gems in the City of Brotherly Love.
Explore America’s Colonial History
You’ll start your journey through the past at Independence National Historical Park, home to two of the most famous Old City historic sites.
1. The Liberty Bell
Right on Independence Mall, the Liberty Bell is probably the most iconic attraction in Philadelphia. It is one of the most recognizable symbols of freedom in our country.
The Bell itself can be seen at Liberty Bell Center, where you’ll also find exhibits and a History Channel video detailing the history of this cherished icon.
2. Independence Hall
Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed in Independence Hall. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a must-see. Entrance to Independence Hall is by guided tour only. Current information for visiting both the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall is found on the website.
3. President’s House
Another stop to make while touring Independence National Historical Park is the President’s House exhibit. The site was the location of the executive mansion for Presidents George Washington and John Adams. Washington brought nine slaves from his home in Mount Vernon to Philadelphia and this often hidden part of American history is the subject of the President’s House exhibit.
4. African American Museum in Philadelphia
Philadelphia’s rich history presents a layered educational opportunity for touring families. Pair your visits to the city’s colonial sights with a trip to the African American Museum.
The museum’s permanent exhibit, Audiacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776-1876, includes an illustrated timeline of events in the struggle to abolish slavery.
5. The Second Bank of the United States
TravelingMom contributor Mary Dixon Lebeau recommends visiting the Second Bank of the United States. It’s within walking distance of the Liberty Bell Center. Authorized by President James Madison in 1812, the Second Bank of the United States was originally established to respond to the debt the nation incurred during the War of 1812.
The building is modeled after the Greek Parthenon and is now home to an extraordinary collection of eighteenth century portraits by Charles Willson Peale and other artists. The gallery features portraits of many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Lebeau suggests making a scavenger hunt of it…try to find Patrick Henry, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton.
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TravelingMom Tip: The First Bank of the United States is nearby as well, but currently houses offices for the National Park System and is not a tourist site.
Check Out Philly’s Vibrant Art Scene
6. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Tourists and locals alike love the unique zaniness of the urban dreamscape called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. An eccentric artist transformed a building and adjacent lot into a brightly colored mosaic of broken tiles and mirrors. The artist, Isaiah Zagar, used bicycle wheels, bottles and teacups, to build tunnels and sculptures into the space. Philadelphia locals might miss the days when it slid under the tourist radar. Open to the public, for a fee.
7. The Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the country’s top art museums. It’s the home of an impressive collection of pieces, including works by Cezanne, Rogier van der Weydon and Thomas Eakins.
Ricks notes “The Philadelphia Museum of Art has paintings, sculpture, furniture, weapons – even whole rooms! – from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the US.”
TravelingMom Tip: The museum has regularly scheduled children’s programs, so be sure to check the calendar to see what’s available during your visit.
But despite the breathtaking artwork within, most visitors consider the museum “must see” because of the Rocky steps. We’ll get to that in a minute!
8. The Barnes Foundation
A Philadelphia eccentric, Dr. Albert Barnes, collected Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. Curiously, he exhibited them alongside farm tools and other things. The Barnes Foundation is now located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Want More Art?
9. The Penn Museum
Ricks visits the Penn Museum in University City for Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Etruscan and other ancient statues and artifacts.
10. The Rodin Museum
The Rodin Museum is lovely, and small. It’s perfect if you’re traveling with littles who have limited attention spans.
11. City of Murals
And, if you prefer to enjoy your art outside, just look up to enjoy the mural arts. Philadelphia promotes itself as the City of Murals. Snapping these urban beauties is one of the best free things to do in Philly.
The Best Place to See a Game…in the World?
12. Philadelphia Sports Complex
I’m a sports nut. Most of our family vacations have included a sporting event. Or three. One crazy weekend, we saw a college football game in Ann Arbor and Lions’ and Tigers’ games in Detroit!
Hands down, Philadelphia has the best professional sports complex. Four of the city’s five pro teams play in three top notch arenas – Citizens Bank Park, Wells Fargo Center and Lincoln Financial Field – located near the Walt Whitman Bridge.
Philadelphia’s Famous Steps and More Rocky Movie Locations
13. The Rocky Steps
You know the ones. Sylvester Stallone ran up these steps as the character Rocky Balboa in the original Rocky and the rest was, well, history.
14. …and More Scenes from the Movie
But if you’re a Rocky fan, there’s plenty to see in Philadelphia beyond the Art Museum steps. Once you run up the steps (because you will be running up them, right?), stop by the Rocky statue at the bottom of the stairs. Created for Rocky III , it’s a favorite place for visitors to snap a picture next to the champ.
Want more? Head to the Italian Market, an outdoor market on Ninth Street featured in many of the films in the franchise. The Italian Stallone jogged by the shops of the Italian Market as part of his training and famously practiced his punch on a side of beef at a butcher shop here.
And still more? If you visit Laurel Hill Cemetery, you can find – between the sad statues and eerie memorials – the burial place of Adrian Balboa, Rocky’s beloved wife. Of course, Adrian is a fictional character. But the grave was featured in Rocky Balboa, and the gravestone used in the movie is still on display in the historic cemetery. (Fun fact – Burgess Meredith’s character, the trainer Mickey, was also “buried” here. But his headstone was made of fiberglass, and floated away on a gust of wind.)
Philly’s Famous Food Joints
Philadelphia’s foodie reputation is not the topic here. We’re talking about the comfort food the city’s known for, like those famous cheesesteaks. In addition to the places mentioned here, include a wander in South Philly. Your nose will thank you.
15. Reading Terminal Market
You may go into the Reading Terminal Market hungry, but you’ll leave stuffed. TravelingMom contributor Sarah Ricks gives you the scoop.
“Since 1892, Philadelphians have bought food from farmers, bakers, cheese makers and restaurants at Reading Terminal Market. The small shops are all under one roof. There are no national chains.
My family and I go here for Pennsylvania Dutch farmers’ markets, Italian and Amish bakeries, Middle Eastern pastries and more. We’ve enjoyed Indian curries, Mexican enchiladas, Southern barbecue and Thai food. Don’t miss Beiler’s bakers squirting cream inside the fresh donuts, or pretzel makers stretching the dough. Come hungry.”
TravelingMom Tip: Philadelphia locals know Amish and Mennonite shops in the Reading Terminal Market are closed Sundays.
16. Cheesesteak Corner
According to Mary Dixon Lebeau, “No matter where I travel, I can always find Philly cheesesteaks – or at least an item being called a “Philly cheesesteak” – on the menu. And the truth is, you can find good Philly cheesesteaks all over the city, and the suburbs, and even in South Jersey.”
But if you want to go the the source, the place where it all began, you’ll have to head to the corner of Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue, where Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks compete for the “best of” crown right across the street from each other. Pat’s was the original, opened in the ’30s. Geno’s set up shop in 1966. Whoever said this city isn’t big enough for two all-night cheesesteak joints just doesn’t know Philly.
17. Pizza Brain
You might wonder why anyone would visit Philly and order pizza? Because Pizza Brain is more than just a “slice and a soda” joint. According to Lebeau, “It’s a “cultural experience” – if your culture comes with a side of Ninja Turtles and a couple of Domino Noids.”
Pizza Brain holds the distinction of being the world’s first pizza museum and the curator of the largest collection of pizza memorabilia. (Check out the wall for its Guinness Book of World Records certificate.) Of course, calling it a “museum” is a bit of a stretch, but hey, it’s a lot of kitschy fun, and the menu has a variety of thin-crust choices. Hey, man cannot live on cheesesteaks alone, right?
18. What’s a Vacation Day Without Ice Cream?
Nothing says summer in the city like an ice cream cone, according to TravelingMom contributor Judy Antell. The Franklin Fountain, in Old City, is a recreated old fashioned ice cream parlor.
Bassetts Ice Cream, the quintessential Philly ice cream, in Reading Terminal Market, is open until 6 p.m.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors in Philadelphia
When the weather’s nice, skip the Founding Fathers and museums and head outside. There are a ton of parks to explore in the City of Brotherly Love, including massive Fairmount Park.
With over 2,000 acres, Fairmount Park can consumer your entire Philly visit. Got littles who love animals? Head directly to the Philadelphia Zoo. It’s the first zoo in the US and one of the best.
19. Japanese House in West Philadelphia
Hidden behind a wall in Philadelphia’s sprawling Fairmount Park is a replica of a 17th Century Japanese House and Garden.
“Walking into the traditional Shofuso Japanese House feels like stepping back in time and into another country,” according to Ricks. The house has white screens for walls and stark black perpendicular lines. Woven mats on the floor mean no shoes are allowed inside.
Garden and Koi Pond
In contrast to the stark perpendicular lines of the House, the surrounding traditional Japanese Garden is a voluptuous interplay of rounded bushes, a twisting waterfall, triangular trees, irregularly shaped boulders and sculptures. The C-shape of the garden pond envelopes a whole side of the house in its curved embrace.
Kids may enjoy feeding the bright orange koi, if they can stomach the up-close look into fish mouths. While the Garden is tranquil and inviting in any season, spring’s hot pink azaleas might be an especially dramatic contrast with the brown/white lines of the house. A small gift shop has ceramics and children’s books.
Philadelphia locals especially like visiting in spring, to catch the cherry blossoms, or in autumn, to see the trees adorned in fall colors.
20. Love Park
It’s one of Philly’s iconic landmarks. The famous LOVE statue by sculptor Robert Indiana at John F. Kennedy Plaza in Center City marks the beginning of the Ben Franklin Parkway, home to many of the city’s art museums.
21. Franklin Square
Franklin Square is one of the squares originally laid out by William Penn when he planned the city. There’s a fountain, a playground, mini golf featuring iconic Philly buildings and a carousel. Franklin Square park is free. The food, mini-golf and the carousel charge.
Franklin Square is also home to the summer’s Chinese Lantern Festival. Of the more than 30 lantern displays, the highlight is the 200-foot long dragon!
22. Smith Playground
Only Philadelphia locals know about Smith Playground. This 1899 mansion was built as a playhouse for kids. Each of its 3 floors is a giant open space where kids can ride tricycles, climb into play trains and put on puppet shows.
A huge outdoor playground surrounds the house. The playground is a Philadelphia favorite for its giant slide, 13 feet wide. The slide is polished wood, like a bowling alley. Five kids across can slide down at once, like bowling balls.
23. Paine’s Park
Skateboarders practicing their tricks in Paine’s Park are fun and free to watch. This outdoor skateboard park is adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and to the Schuylkill River.
24. Spruce Street Harbor Park
Ricks’ favorite Philadelphia pop-up park is Spruce Street Harbor Park. This quirky park is a converted dock on the Delaware River (Columbus Blvd and Spruce). Philadelphia locals know the park pops up only from spring to September.
“This urban beach on the riverbank has colorful hammocks and lights hanging from trees. During the day it feels like an outdoor party for all ages. The dock has café seating and a net we’ve sat on that extends over the water. The park is free. Arcade games, food and drinks are not,” says Ricks.
More Places to Splash
Ricks loves seeing toddlers enjoying the splash fountain at Sister Cities Park, a tiny space at 18th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Philadelphia locals bring little kids and their toy boats to float in the “creek” that flows into shallow wading pond. This pocket park has a café and Visitor Center with information about Philadelphia sites. Free picture books are available to read at the park. This is a good rest spot for the Natural History Museum or Franklin Institute, both located nearby. Kids also splash in the fountain jets at Dilworth Park, located at the foot of City Hall.
25. Penn’s Landing
Walk down to the Delaware River from Old City to get to Penn’s Landing where you’ll find an outdoor party every summer night. Free concerts and festivals are held throughout the warmer months. Antell thinks the hammocks and strings of lights make the waterfront feel more French Riviera than Pennsylvania.
Philly’s Wonderful (and Weird) Museums
26. The Franklin Institute
Age doesn’t matter. Everyone loves The Franklin Institute. It’s a terrific science museum. Ricks notes “Our kids remember walking through the Giant Heart, as if they were blood cells. In the Sports Zone, my son liked testing his pitching, surfing, and running skills.”
The Franklin Institute regularly shows movies on its IMAX theater screen.
27. The Mütter Museum
It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but the Mütter Museum is worth exploring if you like oddities. Devoted to medical history, you’ll find skulls, skeletons and more.
Want more weird? Schedule an evening tour of Eastern State Penitentiary, billed as America’s most historic jail. Al Capone was a prisoner here. Shake off the creeps after your tour in the summer beer garden.
28. Academy of Natural Sciences
Older than New York’s famous Museum of Natural History, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has dramatic wildlife dioramas, a live butterfly exhibit and a T Rex in the Dinosaur Hall.
29. Please Touch Museum
Traveling with toddlers? Head to the Please Touch Museum to see their colorful and engaging exhibits. There’s an adorable play campsite and the story behind the Philadelphia invention of the Slinky.
The Visit Philadelphia site has a ton of information about current events and programs in the city. It’s definitely worth checking out.