As a huge history nerd I had always wanted to visit America’s first nation’s capital city. So much of our history began in Philadelphia, including the signing of the Declaration of Independence, so I was eager to visit. Finally one autumn, I booked us flights and we spent a long weekend in the “City of Brotherly Love.” As always, one of my first steps in the planning process is to check out the city passes available. I decided to go with the Go Pass Philadelphia as it included admission to all of the attractions we wanted to visit (and more), including a Hop On / Hop Off Bus tour and multiple walking tours. Below I outline how we spent our five days in Philly.
- First and foremost we had to visit Independence Hall. Admission to the hall is free, as is the visit to see the Liberty Bell, but you must get tickets on the same day you wish to visit. These are provided on a first-serve basis daily at Independence Visitor Center, at the National Park Service Ranger Desk, beginning at 8:30am. We got there right at 8:30 and were able to secure tickets for first thing that morning. We waited in line for a few minutes before we circled the Liberty Bell to see the famous crack and explored the rooms of Independence Hall across the street.
- We then went on a walking Independence Tour at noon. This tour started at the welcome center and was about 75 minutes. During the tour we heard about the history of the city and passed by the Christ Church Burial Ground where we spotted Ben Franklin’s grave.
- National Constitution Center (open 9:30-5:00pm) people typically spend 1-hour here. You can also pass by the US mint around the corner.
- The National Liberty Museum is a great little museum and definitely worth a visit. It is full of heartfelt and beautiful stories.
- Later that night we went on a Ghost Tour of Philadelphia at 7:30pm that is included in the pass. This one was very informative and interesting compared the “grim” ghost tour we took later on the trip. This one shared the history of the city and walked around historically significant areas.
- To start our second day in Philly we used our pass for the Hop On Hop / Off Bus, we like to get the most out of each day, so we caught the first available bus at Independence Visitor Center 9:30am. The Ben Franklin Parkway is along the route taken on the way to the Museum of Art.
- The Museum of Art is open from 10:00-5:00pm and the pass is good for two consecutive days. You may remember that the steps leading up to the museum was made famous by Sylvester Stallone running up them while training in the Rocky movie. There are even footsteps engraved at the top of the steps that commemorate the movie, and friendly individuals that offer to take your photo…for a price of course!
- Academy of Natural Science is open daily 10:00-5:00pm, we spent a short amount of time at this museum as it seemed a bit more for children, so we saw some highlights and made our way to the next museum.
- The Franklin Institute Science Museum is a super fun and interactive museum. Anyone interested in science would love this museum. There are many interactive exhibitions where you can hold animals, walk through the valves of a giant heart, weigh the blood in your body by stepping on scale, and so much more. They also had a really cool neuroscience section!
- In between the museums, we passed by the Masonic Temple, but did not enter.
After a few museums, we made or way to the Eastern State Penitentiary. It is about a 15 minute walk from art museum and people typically spend 2+ hours there. It is a very fascinating place to visit, and full of history, including the cell where Al Capone spent his sentence. We spent over two hours strolling the grounds, listening to the audio tour, and squeezing into crevices where criminals tried to escape.
Fun Fact: As the first true Penitentiary in the US, Eastern State was renowned for its strict punishment, and for having running water and heat before the White House!
We ended the day at One Liberty Observation Deck which is open 10:00-7:30pm, and people typically spend 1-hour, 7:30 is the lastest you can enter. We roamed around the top floor checking out the views, and played some games after a long day of museum visits.
- A two-hour Italian Market Immersion Tour was included on the city pass and was one of my favorite parts of this trip. We ate so much and learned stuff that we use all the time… when we are playing Jeopardy. This is actually one the country’s oldest open air markets, and was also seen on Rocky, as he is running through the streets. The guide, a native of Philadelphia, showed us really intricate street art by a local artist, visited places that served great mozzarella cheese, tortillas, and much more! He also informed us to skip a visit to Geno’s and Pat’s as they do not serve good steak sandwiches (they both have awful Yelp reviews), and they are now just a tourist trap. Their popularity grew years ago over disputes between the two owners which caused a divide over who had the best cheese steaks…in reality they were friends and it was all a ploy to gain customers.
- The Mütter Museum at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is also open from 10:00-5:00pm and is fairly small in comparison to the Franklin Institute and the Museum of Art – but it is super unique and “disturbingly informative!” This museum is not for the squeamish as it is full of medical anomalies, probably hundreds of skulls, fetuses in jars (some being conjoined twins), the largest intestine, and even a slide of Einstein’s brain. As science nerds, we really liked this museum and were really fascinated. No pictures are allowed, but there were a couple artists in the museum sketching- and they were really good!
- As Philadelphia is known as the “City of Brotherly Love” there is a fun LOVE sign, north of City Hall and is a great place to snap a picture! There is another one in town that says AMOR.
- Grim Philly Twilight Tours was honestly a very disappointing tour. It claimed to be grim, scary, and provocative. Basically is was a guide cussing for hours in a group of like 60 people in freezing weather. We left after two hours because it was way too cold to endure a cheesy and uninformative tour which seemed to never end.
- We started the day off at the Philadelphia Zoo which is open 9:30-4:00pm. The highlight of this Zoo was the tiger track above the walkway where you can see the tigers walking above you as you visit the exhibits nearby.
- The Ben Franklin Museum was a very interesting little museum with a lot of information, and interactive displays. This museum is not included on the city pass, but they have several days throughout the year with free admission, alternatively it is only $5 on other days. People tend to spend about an hour here.
- The Betsy Ross House is open 10:00-5:00pm near Elfreth’s Alley, and is the historic home of the creator of the American Flag. This was included on the city pass which was good because it was not too memorable nor did it have a lot of information or artifacts. If you are crunched on time, you can definitely skip admission, and just check out the front of the home and gift shop, which has really cute feminist items.
- There are so many places to walk to in Philadelphia, here are several places you can pass by and explore:
- Penn’s Landing Historic Walk is along the waterfront, where you can see some statues, grab some snacks and watch boats and ferries come in.
- Elfreth’s Alley is a historic cobblestone road and is thought to be America’s oldest residential road. Each of the homes are so beautiful and well manicured.
- Signer’s Garden
- Declaration House
- Franklin’s Square
On our last day in the city we walked past the William Penn’s Slate Roof house, and spent some time wandering around the Reading Terminal Market (open daily 8:00-6:00pm) where we got lots of snacks here and there, and ice cream from Bassett’s. After a little rest, we roamed around Chinatown to eat some more!
Things to Eat and Drink:
- Philly Pretzel Factory serves soft pretzels from little storefronts throughout the city. Something I learned prior to our visit was that these are not shaped in your typical pretzel shape, they are shaped as “8s”.
- Big Gay Ice Cream serves delicious ice cream cones covered in yummy toppings. Even though it was like 30 degrees I had to try some! I got the American Globs Cone. This is vanilla ice cream dipped in crushed up pretzels and slopped in chocolate. So worth the brain (and body) freeze!
- Bassett’s Ice Cream is in the Reading Terminal Market and was established in 1861.
- Federal Donuts has amazing donuts- and fried chicken! I had a strawberry lavender donut that was so light and fresh, and Andrew got fried chicken with a donut on the side. Definitely worth a stop.
- Cheese Steaks:
- Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks are both in the Italian Market, right across from each other. We did not go because they have awful Yelp reviews and enormous lines, our guide on the Italian Market Tour sad they were not worth waiting in line for. If anything, it is worth a visit in the evening to see the two store fronts lit up and to people watch.
- Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies has the most, and best, Yelp reviews so we knew we wanted to try their cheese steaks. This is located a bit out of town, about a 25 minute drive from where we were staying and north of the penitentiary. The little shop has a counter that seats maybe 10-12 people so it seems most of the business is take-out. When we arrived via Uber, the line was out the door, but the wait was totally worth it. We waited in line for quite some time, but it actually worked out, because by the time we entered into the restaurant two people had finished up. We quickly snagged their bar stools and were able to eat at the counter, which was perfect, because the weather was not the best for this Floridian to eat outside! This was definitely my favorite of all the sandwiches we had, they were traditional, messy, and delicious.
- Sonny’s Cheese Steaks was the first steak sandwich we got, it was very good but I preferred Dalessandro’s.
- Lunch and Dinner
- McGillin’s Olde Ale House is the oldest continuously operated tavern. We did not get a chance to eat here, but it looks tasty and has great history!
- Lorenzo’s Pizza in the Italian Market.
- El Rey Restaurant is a chic Mexican restaurant that looks amazing! The night we went we were unable to get a table, but we did get some drinks at the bar which were delish. See more about El Rey below.
- The Ranstead Room (Speakeasy) was where we had some of the best drinks we have ever had. There are two ways to get into the speakeasy. The first is to have dinner at El Rey and at the end of your meal you can ask for an escort to the bar, where they will take you through the kitchen to the speakeasy. The second way is by entering into the small dark door in the alley behind El Rey. From what I read the lines are typically very long every night, lucky for us were able to go right in! This was probably because it was a rather dreadful night weather-wise: cold and rainy! Be on the lookout for the door that has two “Rs” (back to back) on it, as you enter into a small dark lobby they check your ID before letting you enter. The bar is small and dark, with velvet walls adorned with boudoir paintings, the bartenders wear hip outfits that look like they are straight from the prohibition era. The night we went we were unable to get a table at El Rey, but we were able to find the door in the alley. It was so fun looking for the bar, and even more fun drinking some of the best drinks I have ever had.
- The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company (Speakeasy) is another really neat bar with great drinks.
Things still on the list
- Magic Gardens is near the Italian Market, and is the museum dedicated to the work of the local artist whose work is on the streets all over the city. He used glass, porcelain, cups, bowls, bicycles, and lots of very interesting materials to create unique and interesting art at every turn. We decided to skip the admission, but did visit the outside of the museum to check out the additional artwork…instead we got ice cream a short walk away at Big Gay Ice Cream.
- The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia is the only museum dedicated to Rodin outside of France.
- National Museum of American Jewish History is open from 9:00-5:00pm and people typically spend 2+ hours here.
- Museum of the American Revolution is open from 10:00-5:00pm.
- City Hall Tower & Observation Deck is open from 9:30-4:00pm on weekdays and you must call the day you would like to visit to get a reservation.
After waiting my whole life to visit Philadelphia, I was not disappointed. The entire city is full of history, amazing food, and seriously the friendliest people. Have you been to our first nation’s capital? What is your favorite memory of Philly?