Philadelphia has been keeping things punk and edgy since before America was even a country. With so much special history, awesome food, and effortlessly cool personality, a visit here should be high on anyone's bucket list. Whether you're a history geek, a film buff, a foodie, traveling with kids, or just looking to see take in some weird and unexpected sights, sounds, and flavors, Philly is overflowing with things to offer. Experience the Brotherly Love in Philadelphia for yourself with this essential guide!
Head right for Independence Hall once you arrive in town. Knowing the city's background, and the super important role it played in our country's very existence should set the tone for your trip. To snag a free ticket for a timed tour, get there early, or book online in advance for a tiny fee of $1.50. This is where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and where the Constitution was drafted, and everyone from Ben Franklin and George Washington to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson spent lots of time here. Tour guides provide super cool added insight to this fascinating time in American history... just don't even think about re-enacting "National Treasure" here!
Right nearby Independence Hall is the iconic Liberty Bell. Once again, it's free for the guided tour, and you definitely want to hear the story of this famed symbol of American freedom. Learn about the bell and its notorious crack, and how it became synonymous with Philadelphia, and American independence. Even if you just go for the photo op, it's worth a visit.
Another historic gem in Philly is the Reading Terminal Market. Home to restaurants, shops selling food and specialty ingredients, boutiques peddling goodies, and tons more, it's a great place for snacking, souvenir shopping and people-watching. DiNic's is popular for their mouthwatering roast pork and broccoli rabe sandwich, Termini Bros. is notorious for their cannoli, Beiler's makes a mean, Amish-style donut, Bassetts is great for ice cream... I could go on and on, but you don't want to fill up too much here, since you're gonna be filling up on cheesesteaks for dinner.
I argue that the Founding Fathers were totally edgy, punk rock forward-thinkers, and the tradition of genius is something that Philly takes a lot of pride in. From political thinkers to artistic geniuses, there's a lot of inspiration here. Philadelphia's Magic Gardens is a special spot that's totally unique and downright incredible.
Philadelphia's South Street has a reputation for being funky and artsy- it's one of the city's most popular neighborhoods, even with tourists, but it owes a lot of its charm and character to the work of one forward-thinking artist: Isaiah Zagar. Zagar, who is a renowned muralist and mosaic artist, started bringing his unique brand of art to South Street in 1968 when he and his wife Julia moved in and opened up a gallery. South Street during this era was sort of run down-- the city was planning on building a highway overpass right through it and the real estate situation was, in short, kind of a mess.
However, as public opinion began to grow against the proposed overpass, artsy and punk and bohemian people (like Zagar and Julia) began to move back in, lured by the cheap rent and the chance to revitalize the neighborhood. While people began to open little shops and restaurants and bars, Zagar started to decorate the once-dilapidated buildings with bright murals. It wasn't until 1994, however, that he purchased the lot that would become his largest contribution to the area-- Philadelphia's Magic Gardens. In 2002, the community even came together to help him purchase the two lots next door to complete his masterpiece.
It was declared officially finished in 2008; it encompasses 3,000 square feet of brightly tiled labyrinth. If you look closely when you visit, you can see themes emerge and familiar places and events come together-- everything from Las Pozas to Dia de los Muertos to 9/11. Even though the neighborhood has changed quite a bit since Zagar moved in, the Gardens continues his mission to beautify the area and to keep it quirky by also serving as a hub for artists in Philadelphia-- they host events, workshops, performances and more. Or you could just visit and get lost exploring the incredibly detailed wonderland!
And now, the moment you've been waiting for... It's cheesesteak time. As many know, there are two main cheesesteakeries in Philadelphia: Geno's and Pat's. Both claim to be the best, but that's for you to decide... and in order to do that, you have to try each of them. Geno's is famed for its... maximalist signage. Note that there's no bathrooms or indoor seating at Geno's... and don't even think about bringing a cheesesteak from Geno's into Pat's, or vice-versa. And, definitely don't order your cheesesteak without the cheese whiz. That's also very frowned upon.
Pat's is a little more humble, the kind of place you'll find a lot of old locals. It's the preferred cheesesteak of Rocky Balboa, (and of the writer of this guide, for the record). Simply specify "wit" or "wit out" (translation: with or without grilled onions) and the kind of cheese (cheese whiz if you want to keep it real) and get ready to enjoy melty, meaty bliss. Add cheese fries if you want to get really happy.
If you've got a belly full of cheesesteak and are looking for a beer? Khyber Pass. If you're a vegetarian who doesn't have a belly full cheesesteak and are looking for a beer? Khyber Pass. The gastropub serves up Creole cuisine (with loads of veggie options) and features a massive beer menu of harder-to-find brews. Snack on sweet potato fries or boiled peanuts and enjoy the dark and historic atmosphere as you sample a few beers. There are a lot of other great bars in the area if you're looking for some bar-hopping action.
McGillin's Olde Ale House has been open since 1860, and as Philly's oldest operating tavern, it's a must visit. They have lots of cocktails, plenty of beer, old-school eats, and a killer karaoke night. It's got the classic Irish pub feel that's synonymous with drinking in Philadelphia, and is decked out in old signs and pictures from Philly's history. A history lesson while you throw back drinks? Classic Philadelphia.
If you really want to fully appreciate the Rocky Statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you have to make like the boxer and take a jog up the stairs in the morning to watch the sun rise over the cityscape. The statue was used in "Rocky III", and Stallone donated it to the city after filmed ended. Of course it was installed at the spot where the most iconic scene was filmed! If you're feeling cultured, pop into the museum itself... it's a really, really great art museum.
This casual cafe is the perfect brunch spot. It's so beloved by locals that it's opened multiple locations across the city! The stuffed challah French toast is one of their most popular dished, and it is perfectly decadent, but they also offer steak and eggs, omelets, burgers, sandwiches and more. Plus, with huge portions, great prices, inventive dishes, and free coffee refills, it's really no surprise that this joint is so beloved!
If you have a weak stomach that's filled with stuffed French toast, tread lightly at this next stop. The Mutter Museum is one of America's most... interesting museums.
While the building isn’t huge by any means, the curators have managed to jam it full of some of the weirdest medical oddities ever cut from the human body.. and in some cases, the entire corpse. Mutter Museum began humbly enough in 1858 as a small donation of weird specimens by Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. As the years went on, so many freakish oddities and outliers were added that it required its own building.
Today, the Mütter Museum has taken on a kind of steampunk attitude, its wood and brass accents contrasting heavily against the squishy things floating in faded jars. There’s a whole section dedicated to mutants (the kind devoid of laser eyes or adamantium skeletons), a cabinet filled with well over 2,000 strange items swallowed by a single person, and the twisted corpse of a woman whose body turned completely into soap. Oh yeah, ever wanted to know what tanned human leather looks like? They’ve got that too. And all of that is just the beginning... but I don't want to spoil too much. Or scare off anyone! Just go, and enjoy the weirdness.
Philadelphia is a city filled with fascinating history, but surprisingly, the City of Brotherly Love's most intriguing attraction isn't Independence Hall or The Liberty Bell... it's Eastern State Penitentiary. Don't believe that an old, run-down prison could be more interesting than the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed? Think again! From the odd conditions that prisoners were held under to its most notorious inmates, ESP is a slice of history that is definitely worth checking out.
The prison, built in 1829, was originally notable for its unique design-- the cells built into a wagon wheel shape were intended to keep inmates as separate from each other as possible. Prisoners spent most of their time alone in their cells, which were the height of high-tech at the time (in fact, the prison had running water even before the White House!) Each inmate had a private outdoor yard where they could spend several hours a day-- they were allowed to grow plants or even keep pets, but they were strictly forbidden from interacting with other inmates. High walls and a tightly regulated schedule that prevented prisoners in neighboring cells from being outside at the same time ensured solitary confinement.
The halls of the prison were built to feel like a church, and each cell had a small glass window in the ceiling, meant to represent the Eye of God-- a not-so-subtle reminder that God is always watching. Of course, the system of solitary confinement meant that space in the jail filled up quickly-- the prison reached capacity almost right away, and more cells were hastily designed and added by the prisoners themselves. These roughly-built extra rooms were reserved for the worst prisoners.
Notorious residents included bank robber Willie Sutton (who led a successful escape with several other inmates by digging a tunnel), and Scarface himself-- Al Capone. Capone's cell has been redone to look as though it did when he spent about nine months there at the end of the 1920's; he had quite the fancy setup inside! Another famed inmate was a pooch named Pep the Cat-Murdering Dog. As the story goes, Pep killed Governor Gifford Pinchot wife's beloved kitty, and found himself booked in jail, complete with an inmate number and mugshot. Others claim that Pep belonged to Pinchot, who donated him to the penitentiary to boost morale-- a less exciting, but more heartwarming version of events.
By 1913, the solitary confinement system proved to be unworkable, as prisons became overcrowded, but Eastern State remained in business until the 1970's, when it was abandoned. For several years, it was kept in a state of protected ruin, until it was re-opened as a museum and historic site. Exhibits, art installations, and both guided and self-guided tours are all features of a visit to the notorious prison. The best part? Once your tour is over, you're free to leave... unlike many of the unfortunate inmates who spent their lives locked alone inside the cells!
You'll definitely feel the brotherly love at the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Philly. This hotel is within walking distance to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a variety of shops, and over 40 restaurants within two blocks. The hot breakfast bar, super-fast WiFi, and new on-site fitness center (which now features Precor equipment) are just some of the free amenities you'll get to enjoy.
After touring the prison, you've probably worked up an appetite. The city is known for its Italian-American population, and you can't visit without at least trying a few meatballs! Ralph's has been serving up pasta and other classic staples to dignitaries and old-timers since 1900. Chicken livers, calamari, red gravy, veal, osso bucco, eggplant parm, and other traditional Italian favorites are on the menu, and have been prepared with the same love and attention that Nona would have used!
Keep the old-school classics coming and end your adventure with a trip to Shane Confectionary. Originally opened in 1911, and recently reborn, they make some of the most intriguing and delicious candies around. From caramels in flavors like bananas foster and cinnamon chile to rich drinking chocolate to buttercreams to assorted sweets like jelly beans and gummies to chocolate-covered bacon... there is so much deliciousness crammed into the little store. It was reopened by the people who run the also-excellent Franklin Fountain, an old-school ice cream parlour/ soda fountain that's not too far away, and is also worth a visit.
The best time to visit Philly really depends on what you're looking to do. Naturally, spring and summer bring loads of families and tourists, and the historic sites can get really crowded, but careful planning can help you avoid anything too stressful. It's also warm, and pretty humid. Winter brings cold weather and snow, but if you're looking to beat the crowds (or maybe catch an Eagles game) it's not a bad time to visit. Fall is an awesome time to visit as well.
Click here to check out more trips in the Northeast.