From serving as the capital of the Pennsylvania Colony under the British regime to serving as an early capital of the United States of America, Philadelphia is one of the most historically significant cities in the United States. Home to reputed universities such as the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Drexel University and Thomas Jefferson University, it is also the leading centre for education and academic research.
Rich in history, culture, architecture, public art, academics and LGBTQIA+ rights, there is so much to explore in Philly! The list of things to do in Philadelphia is almost endless.
I travelled to Philadelphia in March 2023, to attend a course convening at the University of Pennsylvania. Having had a good taste of the different parts of the city, here’s what I’d recommend for your trip to Philly.
How to reach Philadelphia?
If you’re travelling from outside the US, you can take a direct flight to Philadelphia. Based on your flight arrival time, you can find processes like immigration and baggage collection to be pretty quick and convenient.
Alternatively, you could travel to Philadelphia from New York, New Jersey or Washington by bus and car. The drive would range anywhere between 90-120 mins.
If you’re travelling to Philly from other parts of the US, you can compare the cheapest and most convenient alternatives between cars, buses, flights and trains.
Philadelphia International Airport to City
Getting to Philadelphia City from the Philadelphia International Airport can be fairly simple. After you’ve arrived and collected your luggage, you can follow the exit directions based on the route you wish to follow. Philadelphia International Airport has free WiFi that you can connect to on arrival.
Based on where you’re staying, you can take the subway or buses from the airport.
I’d recommend buying a SEPTA Key Card or having change handy for your transfers.
There are many direct buses to the city centre. However, taking the Subway is the faster and more convenient option to reach your hotel.
You can always get a cab at the airport or download the Lyft app to get around the city.
Where to get public transport tickets? | SEPTA Key Card
SEPTA Key Card is a prepaid card which you can tap into on entering public transport. You can pay your bus driver in cash, in case you don’t have a SEPTA Key Card. But for Subway, you need a card to tap in and enter the platform. You can buy a new SEPTA Card from a kiosk at any Subway station. The card alone costs $4.95
You can opt for a weekly unlimited pass that costs $22.5 or add cash to your Travel Wallet to use it for each ride.
Paying in cash to the bus driver costs $2.5 per journey.
You can recharge your travel wallet through a kiosk or by registering your SEPTA card on the website.
PS. Registering your card online lets you utilise the full value (+$4.95 card cost) for the first time for your travels.
Where to stay in Philadelphia?
Your choice of accommodation would depend typically on the purpose of your trip. Originally, I wanted to stay closer to the UPenn campus as I was going to spend most of my time on campus. I stayed at the Maj Hotel near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for the first two days and then stayed at the Apple Hostel of Philadelphia in the Old City District for the rest of my trip.
Location-wise, staying in the Old City is a great choice given its proximity to Penn’s Landing and key attractions in the city such as the Independence Hall. A stay in Rittenhouse Square or the Washington Square neighbourhoods is also an ideal location to cover the key attractions of the city.
Things to do in Philadelphia
Exploring the key attractions of Philadelphia would require at least 2 days. Philadelphia’s role in the independence of the United States of America is represented by the range of historical attractions in the city. There’s also a vibrant art scene, lots of public art, outdoor sculptures, and musicians at every corner to keep you entertained.
Did You Know? The film Rocky was shot in Philadelphia. In fact, the steps to the main entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts’ got famous after the iconic Sylvester Stallone film was shot there.
Independence Visitor Centre
The Independence Visitor Centre should be your very first stop in Philadelphia before you start exploring the city. The staff here will guide you to the top tours and attractions in the city. You can also learn more about the events happening in the city during your visit that you could attend. You can buy tickets at discounted rates from here.
The Independence Visitor Centre is located opposite the Liberty Bell and is open on all days from 10 am to 5 pm.
The President’s House
This open-air exhibit, right outside the Liberty Bell Centre (opposite the Independence Visitor Centre) commemorates United States’ first executive mansion and delves deep into the lives of African slaves who toiled at the house during Washington’s presidency. The entry is free of cost.
Liberty Bell Centre
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
With these words engraved, the Liberty Bell is one of the most historically significant monuments in the city of Philadelphia adopted by freedom-seekers. The cracked bell was first in the Pennsylvania State House and is now housed in the Liberty Bell Centre.
Entry to this site is free of cost, however, you need to go through a security check to enter the premise.
You can find a range of multimedia exhibits that throw light on the importance of this historically significant monument and all that it inspired in the years that followed.
Previously known as the Pennsylvania State House, it was here in the summer of 1776 that the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America was signed, declaring their separation from the British. 56 delegates pledged their “lives, their fortune and their sacred honour” in pursuit of independence, at this UNESCO World Heritage site that is now called the Independence Hall.
To visit this site, you must book tickets for a guided tour in advance.
Philadelphia City Hall
The Philadelphia City Hall is an architectural marvel, serving as the home to the governance of the city of Philadelphia for over 100 years. It is situated in the exact geographical centre of William Penn’s plan for the city. There are over 700 rooms, more than 250 architectural reliefs and freestanding sculptures, including its most famous 37’ bronze William Penn statue topping the clock tower.
Tours of the City Hall are available from Monday to Friday. You can also get a panoramic city view from the 548 feet long City Hall Tower.
Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is a short walk from Independence Hall. This park is a bustling space for locals, tourists, birds and squirrels alike. You can stop by the park to hear the buskers or finish that doughnut takeaway, that you’re carrying.
Reading Terminal Market
If there’s one place you’d absolutely love to stop by in Philadelphia, it has to be the Reading Terminal Market. The Reading Terminal Market is a historical food market in Philly. From fresh foods, and poultry to delicious cheesesteaks and doughnuts, you can find hundreds of food joints under one roof at the RTM. Stop by for a quick brunch or lunch or even a little later, take a good walk around the market before you decide what (all) you really want to eat. Think of it as Philly’s La Boqueria or Mercado San Miguel.
Tip: Falafel wrap at Kamal’s Middle Eastern Cuisine and fresh doughnuts from Beiler’s are absolute must-haves!
Philly’s China Town is located in the Convention Centre District, behind the Fashion District and next to the Reading Terminal Market. If you’re fond of authentic Chinese food and snacks, make sure to drop by for a quick Chinese meal. There are plenty of Chinese food joints in the vicinity, and you can barely go wrong with any.
I stopped by Spice C, at the entrance of China Town and tried their Pineapple Fried Rice. Highly recommend trying their elaborate Chinese dishes! The taste & quantity are both generous, and the price is quite the fit for your pocket!
If shopping is your thing, you need to head straight to Philadelphia’s Fashion District, home to some of the world’s most renowned fashion brands offering amazing discounts. H&M, Reebok, Zaara, Forever 21 and more, you can find your favourite fashion and beauty brands in this area.
Philadelphia’s artsy open space, Rittenhouse Square is at walking distance from the Fashion District. The Rittenhouse Square is the place to be on a nice summer day to discover the city’s art and buskers scene.
Old City District
Home to some of the cutest bookstores and the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the United States, Old City District is a charming area in the city of Philadelphia with plenty of restaurants, cafes, book shops and some landmark attractions such as the US Mint, Elfreth Alley and Edgar Allan Poe House. The eastern end of the Old City District houses the Delaware Riverfront, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Cherry Street Pier and Penn’s Landing, making it the most sought-after area in summer for tourists and locals alike.
US Mint: The US Mint in Philadelphia has been responsible for minting coins and medals for over 200 years now. Visitors are allowed to watch the minting process from 40 feet above the factory floor and watch interactive programs about the designs created at this mint to get a better insight. The entrance is free of cost and the tours are self-guided.
Elfreth Alley: This cobblestoned alley has 300 years of history of continuous inhabitants. It is the oldest residential street in the United States. Over the years, the modern city has sprung around Elfreth Alley. But the charm remains untethered with its old-fashioned architectural details, Flemish bond brickwork, rusty doors, and flower boxes.
Edgar Allan Poe Historical Site: If you’re a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, you must visit his (only surviving) rented house in Philadelphia. Open for visitors only on weekends (Friday-Sunday). This historic house gives you a sneak peek into his life and inspiration for his work through exhibits, interactive games and guided tours. Entry to this house is free of charge, look into the timings before planning your visit.
Penn’s Landing is named after the city’s founder, William Penn’s arrival in Philadelphia in 1682. It is undoubtedly the most happening area in Philly. It is the city’s round-the-year venue for entertainment. Hosting events, summer and winter fests, concerts, farmer’s markets, seasonal parks, art exhibitions and more along the Delaware River Waterfront.
It is also home to numerous cafes and restaurants and is an absolute must-visit any time of the year!
Thrift Shopping in the Waterfront District
To the south of the Old City District is the Waterfront District. Your best pick for a long walk in the neighbourhood to discover cute cafes, cheap eateries, street art, sports, thrift stores, music stores and the cool hidden gems in the city. You’ll only know once you wander through the lanes of the Waterfront District.
Fairmont Park is the hustling spot in the city when spring arrives! Visitors gather to see the cherry blossom; locals stop by to enjoy the sunshine. If you love visiting gorgeous parks, Fairmont Park should be there on your list while in Philly.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
One of the biggest art museums in the world, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the place to be for every art lover. You can visit the museum every Friday after 5 pm for a ‘Pay as you wish’ entry. For regular visits, check this website for their exhibition program and entry tickets.
Remember, Philadelphia is one of those walkable cities that springs you with surprises. When in doubt, start walking! You’re bound to discover wonderful surprises. (Even free invites to events, exhibits and parties.)
Serving as a reminder that Philly is the place to be.
Philadelphia was the first American city that I visited. Apart from the diverse beauty of this city, it was the lovely people that helped me through the city that made my time here so memorable! Having read so much about destinations in the United States, Philadelphia is highly underrated for the experience it offers. The cute bookstores, the random discovery of art and the amazing coffee that I had to have been my favourite part about Philly!
Philly may not be as glamorous as New York City. But there’s never a dull moment and so much to explore and experience for everyone.
To find other fun things to do in Philadelphia, check out the official website of Visit Philadelphia. You can also check for deals on accommodation and events in the city.
If you’ve visited Philly and have recommendations to add to this list, feel free to drop a comment below and help fellow travellers.