Philadelphia is one of the most historic places in the U.S. It’s where the country was founded, and there is lots of evidence of that. The main city park is scattered with historic mansions that once housed the city’s elite. And, the frisbee golf course incorporates the former home of Ben Franklin’s daughter. Philly has one of the country’s oldest botanical gardens, and an entire center dedicated to the Constitution. The founding fathers patrolled the cobblestone streets that tourists wander every day. And, many of the buildings date back to the seventeen and eighteen hundreds.
Philly may be old and packed with history, but it’s an up-and-coming city for millennials and tourists. Quirky neighborhoods like Fishtown and Northern Liberties offer craft beer, cafes, and art galleries. There’s a BYOB mini golf course, speakeasy bars, a virtual reality lounge, and sensory deprivation tanks. The food scene is internationally known and for a lot more than cheesesteaks. And, this seemingly industrialized city is filled with green spaces, hiking trails, cyclings routes, and gardens.
This city has been a tourist destination for decades. However, there are always new sites popping up. In fact, when you visit Philly, you may want to be picky with your time. The guidebooks will tell you all of the usual attractions to see. But, some of them are more of a tourist trap than you’re led to believe. So, if you want to make the best of your Philly trip, here are the top places to visit, and a few that you should avoid.
20 Must Visit: Eastern State Penitentiary
Also known as ESP, this former prison was one of the largest and most expensive in the country at one point. It was operational from the mid-1800s until the early 1970s and held famous criminals like Al Capone and Willie Sutton. After it was built, the ESP became the model that more than 300 other prisons were built based on. No longer a working penitentiary, ESP is open for audio tours, guided tours, and a haunted tour during October. Visitors can wander the halls, peek into the cells, and see a re-creation of Al Capone’s prison cell.
19 Must Visit: Spruce Street Harbor Park
If you’re visiting Philly during nice weather, you’ll want to pop into Spruce Street Harbor Park. This public space is situated on the Delaware River, overlooking historic ships. The park is lined with food trucks, many of which are offshoots of famous Philly restaurants like Chickie and Petes, Franklin Fountain, and Distrito. There are stands selling local Philly beers, wines, and ciders, and a beer garden area to drink them. Part of the park is filled with trees and hammocks, and there is netted seating for those who want to lounge over the water. This is a great place to lounge when you want to take a break from sightseeing in Old City.
18 Must Visit: Laurel Hill Cemetery
This historic cemetery isn’t usually the first place on visitor’s itineraries. Mostly because it’s a bit of a hike for those who are staying in the main tourist area. However, if you have a car, or are willing to take a taxi, this cemetery is worth a visit. It’s a historic landmark, that was founded in the 1800s. In fact, it was the second rural cemetery to be established in the U.S. The architecture is absolutely stunning, and the views of the Schuylkill River couldn’t be better. Plus, it was a filming location for Transformers and Rocky. Wander through and visit the graves of Philly’s former elite.
17 Must Visit: Kelly Drive Loop Trail
Visitors who like to stay active will love the Kelly Drive loop trail. You can rent a bike and head off near Boathouse Row. Along the way, check out the historic boathouses, the sculpture gardens, and the only working lighthouse in the state. There are twists, turns, and lots of bridges to go under and even over. The trail runs along plenty of green spaces so you can take a break, relax, and have that snack you packed. Cyclists will get a beautiful view of Philly’s Waterworks, the Schuylkill River, and the Philadelphia Art Museum. This is more of a local trail, so you’ll get a feel for the city off the beaten path.
16 Must Visit: Old City
This is a tourist destination that is worth the hype. It’s easily walkable and has lots of history and charm. Wander the cobblestone streets, marvel at the architecture, and check out a museum or two. You’ll have great views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and may even see a Ben Franklin impersonator roaming the streets. This area of the city often has live music, horse and buggies, and events going on during the weekend. Looking for delicious dining options and drinks, you’ll find them in Old City too. Try some hotspots like Fork, The Franklin Fountain, and Amada.
15 Must Visit: The Liberty Bell
This may be the number one most touristy place on the list. However, you have to visit the Liberty Bell when in Philly. It has an interesting history and makes for an iconic photo. Sure, it isn’t much to see once you get up close, but it’s a landmark site of this country’s history. The line can look long, but don’t let it scare you off. It moves really quickly as people just want to get a quick photo and move on. The site is free and is surrounded with information explaining its historical significance. Some say it’s a tourist trap, but maybe they just aren’t into history.
14 Must Visit: The Mutter Museum
This small museum is dedicated to medical oddities from as far back as the 1800s. The museum is full of real specimens, wax models, and antique medical equipment. The building itself is historic, elegant, and a destination within itself. Wander the two floors to see the skull collection, jarred organs, and a doctor’s donated collection of things his patients swallowed (there’s a whole lot of safety pins in there.) There’s also an outdoor herb garden full of healing plants. The Mutter is a local favorite in Philly, and one of the museums that is a must-see while here.
13 Must Visit: The Barnes Foundation
This private art collection is one of the most prized museums in the city. There are over 4,000 pieces of artwork that are worth billions of dollars. The collection was once held by Albert C. Barnes, who made a fortune developing Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used to fight diseases. The museum is home to Modernist, Impressionist, and Post Impressionist pieces. Wander around and you’ll be sure to see original works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cezanne. There are often events, a rotating exhibit, and a garden bar/restaurant.
12 Must Visit: The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Dating back to the 1800s, the Philadelphia Art Museum is a focal point in the city. It’s beautiful on both the outside and inside and is surrounded by greenery and sculpture gardens. Inside, there are multiple floors with specialized exhibits. Check out the recreated Japanese village, the room of armor, and the lavish rooms that are decorated by the time period. You’ll get lost for hours looking at paintings, sculptures, and rotating exhibits. Visit on the first Sunday of the month or every Wednesday night after five for pay-what-you-wish admission. There are free yoga classes outside of the museum on Wednesday nights as well. And, if you’re visiting during the winter, you can take one of these classes inside one of the exhibition halls.
11 Must Visit: Fishtown
Love everything and anything trendy or hipster? Fishtown is the spot to be. Once a working-class part of the city, Fishtown is now a hotspot for nightlife, craft drinks, and incredible food. Float in a sensory deprivation tank at Philly Float before heading to Barcade to play Crazy Taxi while drinking a local beer. Hop over to Garage, a bar that is literally housed inside a garage, and has great music and food. There’s the German beer garden, Frankford Hall, where you can get a giant Bavarian pretzel and play ping pong. And, there’s Evil Genius Brewing, that has an outdoor seating area under the El train. Fishtown is home to a virtual reality lounge, numerous cafes, music venues, comedy cabarets, and a handful of ethnic eateries.
10 Must Visit: Chinatown
Philly’s Chinatown may not be the biggest in the country, but it’s a quirky part of the city that’s worth a visit. Start off at Ray’s Cafe, where you can order Japanese coffee that’s made in a siphon system. Pop into Emei for an authentic, Chinese lunch, and have some frozen rolled ice cream for dessert. See a show at the Troc music venue, or wander over to Reading Terminal Market for some serious Philly eats. Nearby is Hop Sing Laundromat, a secret speakeasy bar with a dress code, and the Trestle Inn, a historic Go Go bar that’s 1960s/1970s themed. The newly opened Rail Park is close by too so you can get a view of the city before heading down below to the newly opened beer garden.
9 Must Visit: Fairmount Park
Comprised of East and West Fairmount, this park is absolutely massive and diverse. The best way to explore it is by car, as it is quite spread out. Fairmount has lots to love as it’s scattered with historic mansions from the 1800s that you can tour. There are also hiking trails, cycling trails, and beautiful views of the river. Visit Belmont Plateau, a popular grassy hill with the best view of the city. You can also visit the Horticultural Center, and the Japanese House and Garden. If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, this park is the place.
8 Must Visit: Wissahickon Park
Located on the outskirts of all the action is Wissahickon Park. It’s full of hiking and cycling trails and is the place to go if you want to wander off into the woods. Visitors cross wooden bridges over streams and hike to Devil’s Pool, a popular, natural swimming hole. The park is especially beautiful in the fall when the leaves are turning various shades of orange and red.
7 Must Visit: South Street
South Street is a classic Philly strip that is full of quirky shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Start on one end and work your way up, popping into oddity shops and grabbing a cheesesteak for lunch. Have a frozen cocktail at Fat Tuesday’s and drink as much as you can at Tattooed Moms. Visit the Magic Gardens, a quirky art gallery made of mosaics and recycled materials. And, make sure to do some shopping at the boutiques for some quirky souvenirs, or see a live music show at the TLA.
6 Must Visit: East Passyunk
This area of Philly is relatively new and is taking over the foodie scene. It’s lined with boutique shops, but most importantly, innovative new restaurants. Some of the top spots to eat are Bing Bing Dim Sum, an Asian and Jewish fusion spot, and Le Virtu, an authentic, Italian eatery. Visit Birra for unusual pizzas and Italian craft beers, Noord Eetcafe for Scandinavian cuisine, and Fond for romantic, French dining. This strip also offers Pho, tacos, Portuguese, Thai, and Laos cuisine. You can satisfy all of your foodie cravings and do a little bit of shopping here too.
5 Avoid: The Rocky Statue
Drive past the art museum and you’re bound to see a line of tourists at the Rocky Statue. It’s located on the side of the museum and is a popular spot for visitors to get their photo taken. The line can be really long, and the statue isn’t all that impressive. While people may associate Philly with the Rocky movies, they don’t have much to do with the culture of the city itself. Unless you are a serious fan of the movies, you should definitely skip this attraction. It’s really pretty boring, and standing in a long line during hot Philly summers or frigid winters is no fun at all.
4 Avoid: Ben Franklin's Grave
Tourists often line up to see Ben Franklin’s grave. The tradition is to throw a penny on it for good luck too. The cemetery itself is not very impressive, and the grave isn’t either. If you find your way over here, you’ll be sure to be met with crowds of people, all fighting for a photo. If you happen to be walking by, it could be nice to pop in for a photo. However, don’t go out of your way to visit. There’s a museum dedicated to Ben Franklin that is way more interesting than just throwing coins at his grave.
3 Avoid: Philadelphia Zoo
The Philadelphia Zoo isn’t anything special. If you’ve been to a zoo before than you can pretty much expect the same from this one. Much of the zoo is lackluster, and a bit run down. It can be extremely crowded and the animal habitats often look a bit sad. Plus, the zoo is in a pretty dismal part of town with lots of traffic and some sketchy passersby. If you absolutely adore animals and never have seen a zoo before, you might want to check it out. Otherwise, skip it. You aren’t missing anything.
2 Avoid: Love Park
There’s a lot of hype around Love Park, but it doesn’t really deserve it. Found in Center City, this park consists of a small sculpture that says ‘Love’ and a fountain behind it. There’s usually a line of people waiting to get their picture taken in front of it. Anyone who travels knows that the exact same sculpture can be found in multiple locations around the world. It isn’t really that special to Philly. So, if you want to wait in line to get a photo with a word, go ahead. Otherwise, skip Love Park because there’s nothing else to do there.
1 Avoid: Betsy Ross House
If you have a passion for history, you’ll probably like the Betsy Ross House. Otherwise, just avoid it. It’s a bit of a tourist trap and is usually crawling with groups of school kids on a field trip. In fact, most Philadelphians don’t visit this house on their own accord, since they are forced to do it in school. The house itself is cute, but Betsy Ross isn’t all that significant to people who don’t care about American history. Don’t force yourself to visit just because it’s a top attraction. Only spend time there if you truly find it interesting.