Philadelphia is known as one of the most family-friendly cities in the United States. It’s steeped rich in history, has many cultural and art centers, is easy to navigate, and the people couldn’t be nicer. It’s a pleasant city to stroll around and take in the sites, and never feels too overwhelming.
We recently spent a weekend in Philly and all four of us loved it. It’s a great place to take the kids and educate them on U.S. history. Stand in the room in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed, take a walk on Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest neighborhood in America, see Ben Franklin’s grave, even visit the nation’s first zoo.
There are many other things to see and do in Philly, including museums, picturesque parks, good restaurants and pretty tree-lined neighborhoods. It can be hard to know what to leave in and what to leave out. Below is a list of all that you can do in Philly. For us, we wanted to first make sure to see the sites that focus on Philly’s historical importance – it is, after all, the birth place of America!
The first thing you want to do when arriving to Philly is to head to the Independence Visitor’s Center. Here you can get maps and talk to the staff about the best way to navigate Philly for your family. They will steer you in the right direction and show you where everything is on the map, and suggest good walking routes. The Visitor’s Center is located in the Old City Cultural District right near the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, so it’s in a convenient location.
Sites to see in Old City Cultural District
This section of Philly is where all the historical sites are located and the perfect place to start seeing the city.
Independence Hall is where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed and adopted, so it is a must see! Stand in the very room where the United States was “born” – it’s great for all ages. Our guide was phenomenal and very engaging with the kids and knew how to make it interesting for them. The whole audience was into it. It’s about a half hour long.
Note: Independence Hall requires reserved timed tickets. You can get them from the Visitors Center day of, but best to reserve them online ahead of time as they sell out quickly. There’s a $1.50 per ticket charge if you get them online. Also, you have to pick up the tickets from the Visitors Center – you cannot show them on your phone, which is what we mistakenly did! Plan to arrive 30-45 minutes ahead of your entry time for security check.
The Liberty Bell, America’s iconic symbol for liberty and freedom for all, once rang in Independence Hall. It’s now on display a block down from Independence Hall and can be seen throughout the day. Tickets are not required, but a long line does form quickly. It’s best to either go first thing in the morning or at the end of the day. If the line is too long you can view it from the outside through a glass window.
Betsy Ross House
It is said Betsy Ross, a seamstress, made the first American flag and lived in this house while designing it. I wasn’t sure if my kids would like the Betsy Ross House because I thought they might find it boring, but I was wrong. They have audio sets for children, which makes it fun for them, and you can even meet “Betsy Ross” herself. Learn all about how things worked in the 18th century and the daily lives of people like Betsy Ross. It’s a short tour and the whole thing from beginning to end doesn’t take more than half an hour.
This was one of our favorite things we did during our stay. Elfreth’s Alley is America’s oldest residential street, with 32 Federal and Georgian style homes. Take a stroll down the street and go back in time to the Colonial days. It’s fascinating for all ages, and fun to see the different residences that make up the alley.
People still live in the homes, and just by chance we got to see one of the homes from the inside! We were looking at a cat in front of someone’s front door, when it swung open, and this nice family invited us in. We had a nice chat with them about what it’s like to live where they do (they love it, tourists and all!). This was definitely one of the more unique experiences of our trip.
Christ Church Burial Ground
Ben Franklin’s grave is in the Christ Church Burial Ground, across the street from the Visitor’s Center. It’s $2 to enter the cemetery, however you can also view it without entering, from the other side of the fence. The graves of many other signers of the Declaration of Independence are here as well, so many people choose to walk through.
National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center is an institution dedicated to bringing awareness about the U.S. Constitution. There are interactive exhibits, live shows in a 360 degrees state of the art theatre, and a ton of educational material on display. We know people who rave about the center, but for us it wasn’t necessarily a highlight. There is a lot of dense material to get through, perhaps my girls needed another year or two. Having said that, they loved the show, as well as casting their “votes” in the voting booths, so it wasn’t a bust by any means. It just wasn’t our favorite thing.
Strolling through Rittenhouse Square District
Rittenhouse Square is one of the loveliest urban parks in the United States. We love this area of Philadelphia for its charming park and tree lined streets, great restaurants and shopping, picturesque brownstone homes, and its overall fun, yet sophisticated vibe. No trip to Philly is complete without a stroll through this neighborhood. Dine at one of the many bustling restaurants (we had a wonderful meal at Marathon), window shop, or let the kids roam about the beautiful park.
One Liberty Observation Deck
Located in the Northeastern section of the Rittenhouse Square district is One Liberty Observation Deck, where you can see “Philly from the top”. Take the elevator up to the 57th floor and get 360 degrees panoramic views of the city. It’s a lot of fun, and at $39 for 4 people, we thought completely worth it. The kids loved it.
A couple blocks away from the One Liberty Observation Deck is the Comcast Center. This is not in your typical guide books, but my husband being an architect – and having been an architect for this building – he thought the lobby would be a lot of fun for the girls. And it was! There are statues of people everywhere, some on the ground, and many of them walking on beams across the lobby high above.
Two Must-Sees in Central Philadelphia
Philadelphia’s City Hall is in the center of the city and very accessible. The largest municipal building in the United States, it has over 14.5 acres of floor space. It’s a beautiful, striking building, and one that we came across many times in our walks through Philly (we stayed in the Convention Center district, right next to it). Every time we walked by it it seemed we had a new vantage point of this impressive building. It’s covered by sculpture throughout, and all designed by Alexander Calder. There is a central courtyard where you can walk through the building on all four sides, and here musicians are out playing their instrument and kids running about. I highly recommend a stroll by, it’s central and easy to get to and trust me you will be impressed.
Reading Terminal Market
I cannot say enough about how great this indoor public market is! We went three times! But we also stayed in a hotel right near it. Like one gigantic farmers market, in Reading Terminal Market you will find fresh produce, meats, cheeses, baked goods and sweets, seafood and more. Some of Philly’s best vendors are here, such as Metropolitan bakery and Carmen’s (for famous Philly cheese-steak). There are restaurants and stores, so no matter your appetite you’ll find something delicious. There is so much good food here, highly recommend.
Full disclosure, we did not see any museums while we were in Philadelphia but this city is known for its art and cultural institutions, that I could not leave museums out. Truth be told, on our last day it was the first nice Spring day we had, and we decided to walk around outside and take in all the charm. We know that we’ll be back!
The Franklin Institute is Philadelphia’s science museum, full of fun interactive play. There are 10 permanent exhibitions and a variety of temporary ones including the current Jurassic World exhibition.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Perhaps Philly’s most famous museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is an internationally renowned museum full of European, American and Asian art.
Please Touch Museum
The Please Touch Museum is regarded as one of the best children’s museums in the country. Featuring interactive exhibitions to promote creativity and exploration, those with kids 7 and younger love heading here.
An affiliate of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum has the largest collection of work by sculptor Auguste Rodin outside of Paris.
The Barnes Foundation is an educational art institution with a collection mainly comprised of Modern and Impressionist arts.
This is by no means a complete list of Philadelphia, but rather the highlights we think most people would want to see in a weekend. Apart from these, we simply enjoyed just walking around the city and admiring all the historical architecture and picturesque streets.
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