Known as the ‘birthplace of America’, Philadelphia is packed with landmarks that tell the story of the country’s formation. These historic sites, in addition to a whole host of other tourist rites of passage, such as running the ‘Rocky’ steps and devouring a Philly Cheesesteak, have made Philadelphia an exciting destination to visit. But there's many more things to discover if you know where to look.
As the second-largest city on the US East Coast, Philly has one of the country’s most impressive art museums, plus hundreds of eye-catching street murals peppered throughout the city. There’s also an abandoned penitentiary where history meets haunting stories, and a diverse dining scene with treasured culinary traditions.
1. Scout out the city’s historic landmarks
Start your deep city dive at the Independence National Historical Park, which is home to the 2,080lb Liberty Bell, which has served as a symbol for abolitionists and suffragists. With its wide crack, the bell no longer rings, but its inscription sends a resounding message: ‘Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof’.
Other historically significant sightseeing stops in the park include Carpenters’ Hall, where early leaders met to oppose British rule, and Independence Hall, the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. After this, be sure to stop by the Victorian-style City Hall, which is the country's largest municipal building, and stroll through cobblestone Elfreth’s Alley, also known as one of America’s oldest residential streets.
Like this? Continue your US history tour with a visit to Fort Mifflin. The British fired 10,000 cannonballs at the fort, making it the American Revolution’s most significant bombardment site.
2. Get your culture fix at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection includes paintings by some of the greats like van Gogh, Picasso and Renoir. It’s also home to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ iconic gilded goddess Diana whose gracious presence can’t be missed in the Great Stair Hall.
The collection, which spans 2,000 years, can be experienced through both guided and self-guided audio tours. This includes some unique-to-Philadelphia finds, too, like illustrations, a marble bust and other artistic depictions of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Museum-goers can also peruse contemporary pieces from homegrown artists and marvel at the immaculate details of the lace wedding dress worn by Grace Kelly, a Philadelphia native who went on to become Princess of Monaco.
Like this? Philadelphia’s art scene isn’t all contained in hushed galleries; more than 4,000 colourful murals can be found throughout the city, creating an outdoor urban museum of sorts. Mural Arts Philadelphia’s app will help you discover murals that illustrate the city’s residents, sports teams, flora, fauna, history and more. Fifty to 100 new pieces are commissioned every year.
3. Brave a nighttime tour of Eastern State Penitentiary
Built to evoke a sense of penitence from prisoners, the Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, becoming one of the most expensive prisons in the world. British-born architect John Haviland designed the penitentiary, which had vaulted, skylit cells, a walled recreation yard and a surveillance rotunda for guards to keep watch over prisoners like ‘Scarface’ Al Capone and most-wanted bank robber ‘Slick’ Willie Sutton. Today, the cell blocks are crumbling and the penitentiary that once imprisoned 85,000 people is hauntingly empty. For the full story of the now-abandoned penitentiary, join a nighttime tour.
Like this? Visit the medical history Mutter Museum, where you can learn about a variety of interesting medical specimens such as Siamese twins, the “mega-colon” and view slices of Albert Einstein’s brain. Or stop by the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the red-brick residence of the writer known for his mysterious poetry and inventing modern detective stories. For a history-meets-haunted excursion, join in on one of the candle-lit Ghost Tours of Philadelphia and visit Benjamin Franklin’s haunts, as well as secret gardens and a spooky cemetery.
4. Enjoy an authentic Philly Cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market
No trip to Philadelphia would be complete without enjoying a quintessential Philly cheesesteak. In its most basic form, the sandwich is a crusty roll stuffed with thinly sliced sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese. Some cheesesteaks may also include a ‘whiz’ (a cheddar-style sauce). Toppings include everything from sauteed onions to sweet ‘long hots’ peppers.
Get a solid introduction to the almighty cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market, a public food hall that’s one of the oldest and largest in the country. Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheesesteaks puts creative spins on the sandwich and has a vegetarian version made with seitan (a high-protein substitute made of wheat gluten). By George Pizza, Pasta & Cheesesteaks has lots of variety, including a build-your-own cheesesteak option, and also a charitable component, donating to organisations working to end hunger.
Like this? Why not hit the culinary circuit in Philadelphia, which has a few hundred ‘bring your own bottle’ restaurants, as well as vegan spots, a craft beer trail and more must-try specialities like tomato pies, soft pretzels and butterscotch krimpets. Get a taste of Philly’s culinary scene in Fishtown, with stops at Johnny Brenda’s for live music and a Cubano sandwich, or grab a beer, sample a bratwurst and play ping-pong at the Munich-inspired Frankford Hall.
British Airways, American Airlines and Aer Lingus, fly nonstop from London Heathrow to Philadelphia International Airport, while several other UK airports offer connecting flights. If your first stop in the states is another major East Coast city, the Megabus and BoltBus lines connect Philadelphia with New York, Washington, DC, Boston and Baltimore. For more information and to book your trip, go to northamericatravelservice.co.uk