Until March last year I knew very little about Philadelphia. It wasn’t somewhere I had really thought about visiting and beyond the famous Liberty Bell, I really didn’t know much at all about what there was to see or do in the American city. Had it not been for my travels taking me through the city, on the way from Washington DC to New York, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you much more about it today. A bit shocking really when you think that Philadelphia is considered to be the birthplace of America!
Having spent two nights in Philadelphia, my eyes were opened as to quite how much is on offer. Both days were packed with sightseeing and ticking off the different recommendations that we had received from the concierge in our hotel and, even then, it felt like we only just scratched the surface. The city not only exceeded my expectations, but has also made it onto my list of places to revisit in the future. So if you’re looking to discover somewhere new, here are my 8 reasons to visit Philadelphia.
Independence National Historic Park
It would be a crime to start this list with anything other than Independence Park; a 55 acre park which makes up a large chunk of Philadelphia’s historic centre. If you skip this park, you are basically passing on American history. The centrepiece of the park is Independence Hall, home to the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Across the way you’ll find the famous Liberty Bell displayed behind glass in the Liberty Bell Centre. The park is also home to the First Bank of the United States, Franklin Court (a Benjamin Franklin museum) and City Tavern, a recreated colonial tavern.
The Philly Cheese Steaks
Aside from the history, another thing you shouldn’t miss when in Philadelphia is a Philly cheese steak sandwich. This messy treat is essentially a sandwich made from thinly sliced pieces of beefsteak and melted cheese in a long roll and I’ll tell you what, it was very, very good! Whilst we got ours from a fast food truck not far from Independence Hall, (which locals later told us was a mistake), head to Pat’s King of Steaks (1237 E Passyunk Ave), where founder Pat Olivieri invented the sandwich in 1930.
The Street Art
With my love of street art and murals, I really should have been aware of the fact that Philadelphia is one of the most colourful cities in America. In fact, due to its flourishing street art scene and a mural arts programme, Philadelphia has gained international recognition as the “City of Murals”. With up to 100 new pieces of art created every year, the entire city is essentially a huge outdoor art gallery with something to see wherever you go. If you are into your art and want to see the best of what there is, there are plenty of public and private walking tours on offer, or if you want to hunt down some of the murals yourself, the Mural Art Program’s website has a handy tracker. You can find that here.
If you’re a culture vulture, then Philadelphia is the place for you! The city has so many museums that you will be kept busy, whether you’re visiting for a weekend or a week! From the Barnes Foundation, Rodin Museum and Please Touch Museum, to the Liberty Bell Centre and the Academy of Natural Sciences, there is something for everyone, whatever your interest. Make sure that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is also on your list, because even if you aren’t interested in the artwork, you will recognise the sweeping steps from cult film Rocky. For a full list of museums in the city, follow this link.
The Open Top Buses
Not necessarily a unique suggestion, or something I regularly do when I visit a new city, but an open top bus tour of Philadelphia is great fun! Quite a few of the city’s sights are relatively far apart so on our second day we decided to hop aboard the Big Bus Tours, which not only saved our feet from more tiring walks , but also meant that we learnt so much about the sights we passed as we went along. We were also able to see some extra sights that perhaps we would otherwise have missed, including Fairmount Park and Memorial Hall.
Reading Terminal Market
Another city and another market for me to explore, made even better by sharing its name with my hometown in the UK. The market was established in 1893 inside one of the Reading Railroad Company’s train sheds, making it one of the oldest enclosed markets in the city. The market boasts everything from fresh meat and handmade confections, to exotic produce and a large selection of Amish specialities. You will also find stalls selling kitchenware, cookbooks, and even table linen. So once you’ve had your cheese steak and are looking for something else for lunch, the Reading Terminal Market is the place to find it!
The Magic Gardens
Along with the amazing street art, I was wowed by the unique and beautiful Philadelphia Magic Garden on South Street. Spanning half a block, it is essentially a large gallery space featuring the largest work ever created by the famous mosaic artist, Isaiah Zagar. As well as a number of indoor galleries, there is an extensive outdoor labyrinth made up of bicycle wheels, china plates, colourful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors. There is a small fee to get into the gardens but if you’re looking for a unique experience, it is worth it. There is really nothing quite like it!
Eastern State Penitentiary
Visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary, once the most famous prison in the world, was another unique experience we had whilst in the city. This gothic-style prison with its vaulted, sky-lit cells was once the home to America’s most infamous criminals including “Slick Willie” Sutton and mobster “Scarface” Al Capone. Opened in 1827, it was operational for nearly 150 years and served as the model for more than 300 prisons around the world. We spent a good few hours inside the prison following the audio tour and exploring the various sections – it was fascinating and definitely worth a place on this list!
From its rich history to its unique attractions and tempting food scene, Philadelphia is a thriving city that has all the right attributes for a great trip. My short visit taught me so much about American history and, along with the other stops on my East Coast tour, gave me a much deeper insight into American culture. There is definitely far more to the east coast than New York and I will definitely return to Philadelphia in the future – I mean, there are plenty more cheese steaks to be eaten!
What did you think of these 8 reasons to visit Philadelphia? Are you thinking of visiting Philadelphia or has this post inspired you to do so? If you enjoyed reading this, please leave me a comment in the box below. Love V x
Want to read more on Philadelphia? Look out for my Philadelphia City Guide, coming soon.