History comes to life in Philly
You're probably coming to Philadelphia to see the Bell, eat the world-famous cheesesteaks, and run up the Art Museum steps, and by all means, do all of that while you're here. But be sure to also take time to experience the activities that locals enjoy on a daily basis. Relax in Rittenhouse Square. Grab lunch in Reading Terminal Market. See a play on the Avenue of the Arts. Shop at the Italian Market. Take a hike in Wissahickon Park. And visit the colorful neighborhoods beyond Center City to find family-run greasy spoons where you'll be called "Hon".
Unforgettable Moments (Highlights)
Philadelphia is considered the birthplace of the nation, and its most famous historical landmarks are located in Independence National Historical Park, "the nation's most historic square mile." In addition to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and a multitude of other attractions, the area comes complete with horse-drawn carriages and tour guides dressed in colonial garb. As you're exploring the streets (some paved and some still cobblestone), history is always present. While Philadelphia has a modern, world-class downtown, the shiny new skyscrapers, restaurants, theaters, shops, and hotels still mingle with the well-preserved homes and churches of the founding fathers.
Home to more than 1.5 million people, Philadelphia is the sixth largest city in the country, yet it has been described as "the biggest small town in America." Perhaps that is because it's a city of close-knit neighborhoods, where everyone seems to know everyone and many families have been entrenched for generations. But whatever the cause, the result is a bustling city that offers every cultural amenity while somehow remaining cozy, friendly, and more accessible than most major metropolises.
Most visitors will arrive via Philadelphia International Airport, located 10 miles southwest of Center City. Ground transportation to Center City is by SEPTA Airport Line Regional Rail train, bus, airport shuttle, private car, or taxi. After arriving in Philadelphia, you'll want to check into your hotel and freshen up.
TAKE A STROLL
Begin with a stroll from The Independence Visitor Center located in Independence National Historical Park. It maintains spotless restrooms, a cafe for that jump-start-your-day coffee, and a plethora of information about the Park, the city, and the region. This is where you pick up tickets to get inside Independence Hall. Just north of the Visitor Center is the National Constitution Center. This is a generous half-block-long space that is dramatically modern, made of limestone, steel, and glass.
Backtrack on the Visitor Center block with its new landscaping to The Liberty Bell. Decades ago, the famously cracked giant bell was located in Independence Hall, but now it's in the Liberty Bell Center. For dinner, head to Marmont, a swanky narrow restaurant and bar, serving excellent tapas, followed by live music and DJs.
MORNING & AFTERNOON
Start your day with the quintessential luxury tea at the Four Seasons, overlooking Alexander Calder's Swann Fountain, one of the city's most beautiful works of art, and the wide, stately Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Visit Barnes Foundation Gallery in Merion, which houses the most important private collection of Impressionist and early French modern paintings in the world, displaying more Cézannes than all the museums of France put together.
Take a break from the city buzz in the Fairmount Park. It would take dozens of outings to fully explore the 100 miles of trails in this 8,900-acre giant of an urban park—some of them are virtually unchanged since Revolutionary times. We'll settle for gazing at the hundreds of flame azaleas that bloom behind the Art Museum in spring, and the dozen Georgian country mansions kept in immaculate condition, that pepper the park.
On the first Friday of every month, the galleries, stores, and studios of Old City—just north of Independence National Historical Park - remain open with refreshments and artists on hand until 9 pm. Wander along the cobblestone streets, stopping into one of the many coffee bars or Bistros. The walk is a delight even on other days of the month.
The Independence National Historical Park has so much to offer that it will keep you occupied for another day. The Bourse is a superb example of late Victorian architecture. It has been renovated as a mall and offices, in the form of two arcades surrounding an expansive atrium with a skylight. The House handsomely combines a brick-und-sandstone exterior with a colorful interior You will probably not be allowed to explore upstairs (security concerns) but you can see a lot from the ground floor.
Right ahead of you between 5th and 6th streets is Independence Hall. Independence Hall is grand, graceful, and one of democracy's true shrines. Ranger-led 35-minute tours depart every 15 minutes or so, starting at 9 am. The two flanking buildings, Old City Hall (built to house the Supreme Court) and Congress Hall, were intended to balance each other, and their fanlight-adorned doors, keystone-decorated windows, and simple lines are appealing from any angle.
Dedicate this evening to enjoy the lights at night while strolling around Rittenhouse Square. The William Penn statue atop City Hall, the Ben Franklin Bridge, and seven Schuylkill River bridges are permanently lighted, joining the beautiful white pin lights that outline the boathouses along the Schuylkill River.
Day 4 - Day Trip
Today is a great day to hire a car to Washington Crossing State Park where Washington crossed a big river in a small boat on Christmas Eve of 1776. A trip along Delaware via Route 32 through Morrisville and Yardley will bring you to Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey 500 acres that are open year-round.
ARRIVING AT THE PARK
Washington Crossing State Park is located at the intersection of Pa. 532 and Pa. 32 (River Rd.), 3 miles north of 1-95 from Exit 31. After reaching the park, purchase the combination ticket, including a walking tour, Thompson-Neely House, Bowman's Hill and Tower.
EXPLORING THE HISTORICAL PARK
The Pennsylvania side of the park is divided into upper and lower sections separated by 3 miles; Washington left from the site that is now the lower park. You can tour the low-ceilinged Old (McKonkey's) Ferry Inn (1752), where Washington ate before he crossed the river, and tour the bird sanctuary and the Memorial Building at the point of embarkation. The 30-minute film in the Visitors Center is dated and not worth sitting through—just start exploring on your own.
The Wild Flower Preserve in the upper park is a 100-acre arboretum, flower garden, and botanical preserve rolled into one. It contains 15 different paths, each emphasizing different botanical wonders. The Thompson-Neely House was intact when General Washington, Brigadier General Stirling, and Lt. James Monroe decided on the year-end push into New Jersey. Next to the Wild Flower Preserve is the stone Bowman's Hill Tower; it will reward you with a stunning view of this part of the Delaware Valley, which would probably still belong to the British Commonwealth if Washington's troops hadn't conquered the Hessians.
For many people, a visit to Philadelphia isn't complete without hearing a concert given by the smooth, powerful Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of the dynamic Christoph Eschenbach. Verizon Hall, their modern home designed by Rafael Vinoly, has a soaring glass-roofed lobby, and the concert hall is built of warm, dark woods, with curved spaces, and plush seats ringing the stage.
TOUR AN OPEN HOUSE
If you're in the city at the right time, don't miss the tours of restored mansions in Society Hill, Rittenhouse Square, or Fairmount Park for a delightful lesson in Colonialcra interior design and Americana. The open houses are scattered throughout the year, but during the pre-Christmas season, with their period decorations, they are especially lovely.
Philadelphia Museum of Art has a stupendous collection of masterpieces, period rooms, and crafts, and is becoming one of the hottest museums in the country for special exhibitions. Look for more blockbusters like the van Gogh and the mid-1990s Cézanne exhibitions. Wednesday and Friday evening hours have become convivial social scenes, with cocktails, and live music.
SNACK ON PRETZELS & CHEESESTEAK
Philadelphia has a rich tradition of cuisine from haute (as in the shad roe from fish caught in the Delaware River each Apr) to hot (the warm, soft, salty pretzels served slathered with mustard at stands all over town). The hoagie is something else cold cuts, lettuce, and onions layered with oil and vinegar - along with its cousin cheesesteak, also served on an enormous elongated bun.
From Bassett's ice cream to the food of the 12th Street Cantina, Reading Terminal Market is a century-old mother lode of unpackaged, fresh, honest-to-goodness provisions. Amish farmers come every Thursday through Saturday to sell their custards and scrapple (a breakfast meat of herbed pork blended with cornmeal and fried before serving). And what could be more convenient than the market's location right underneath the Convention Center?
The Gallery at Market East, next to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, features four levels accommodating more than 170 lower-priced stores and restaurants around sunken arcades and a glass atrium and includes a JCPenney department store, and a two-story Kmart. Starting at City Hall, walk up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Logan Circle and spend the afternoon at the Franklin Institute Science Museum or the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Try to circle back to Rittenhouse Square and the Liberty Place complex before it closes.
In the evening, if you've still got the history bug, stay for the multimedia "Lights of Liberty show that uses the Independence National Historic Park as a backdrop. If not, see what's on at the Academy of Music, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, or the CoreStates Spectrum for sports.
One last photo-op
Getting an evening flight out of Philadelphia is ideal so you can soak up every bit of the city on your last day.
Spend the morning in Old City viewing its Christ Church and Elfreth's Alley, then explore the expanding Delaware River waterfront attractions and the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn's Landing. Finally, either take the ferry to Camden for the Adventure Aquarium and the newly docked Battleship New Jersey or stay on land and stroll along the eclectic South Street.
While touring South Street, be sure to visit the Italian Market for fresh produce, pasta, seafood, and other culinary delights. It is very gritty and very fragrant (smelly?), but it's most interesting to see fast-talking vendors, opera-singing butchers, and try-it-before-you-buy-it cheese merchants hawk their wares here. The Market is also a great place to pick up ultracheap clothing if you're willing to wade through racks of items. Fante's Cookware is famous nationally, and DiBruno Bros. House of Cheese combines a great selection with upscale savvy.