Philadelphia was named using the Greek words phileo, meaning love, and adelphos, meaning brother, which is why it’s known as the City of Brotherly Love. But it is affectionately referred to as Philly by residents, who are proud that the city possesses grit and tolerance in equal measures. As you’ll see from this list of incredible things to do, Philadelphia’s rough-around-the-edges, Rocky Balboa, and drippy cheesesteak reputation only scratch the surface of this beautiful, historical east coast city.
If you are lucky enough to visit Philadelphia with a local, like I was, then you’re in for a treat. I love navigating the side streets that you would otherwise never know existed. I was visiting a family member in the middle of summer, which would not be my top recommendation, as attractions can get crowded. If you have a choice, I recommend visiting in the spring or autumn instead.
One of the reasons Philly became one of my favorite US cities is because of its abundance of history, which can hard to come by in the United States. Philadelphia gives you a unique look into the country’s Founding Fathers and the fight for freedom. When you add a bit of culture, art, and sports to the mix, you have a truly vibrant big-city experience. Here are some of the best things to do in Philadelphia that are just as amusing and diverse as the city itself.
Pose With the Rocky Statue and Run Up the Rocky Steps
If you don’t know about the Rocky film franchise, I’d be inclined to ask where you’ve been hiding for the past few decades. Rocky’s on screen debut was in 1976 and gained popularity in the 80s, with five more films eventually being made.
Sylvester Stallone’s fictional character, Rocky Balboa, was created in bronze in 1980 for a scene in Rocky III, and the statue was later donated to the city. Even if you’re not a boxing fan, having your photo taken with the Rocky statue is a Philadelphia rite of passage.
Just as popular as the statue, the Rocky Steps are visited every year by thousands of people wishing to recreate the legendary scene of Rocky’s jog up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I’m pretty sure it’s obligatory to do this while pumping your fits and humming the movie theme tune. Be sure to pause at the top for a spectacular view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the city skyline.
Visit the Liberty Bell
Possibly the most recognizable symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell originally rang in 1753 in what Independence Hall (once known as Pennsylvania State House) is now. Since 2003, the bell has been on display in the Liberty Bell Canter, across from where it once rang.
If you’re wondering about its history, you’ll find plaques within the center that tell the story. Many stories about the bell are shrouded in mystery, including why there is a large crack in it. What we know is the Liberty Bell was made before the revolutionary war, in 1751, to mark the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, which served as Pennsylvania’s original Constitution.
The bell’s inscription reads, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof”(Leviticus 25:10). But it wasn’t until the 1830s that the Liberty Bell became a symbol of freedom and equal rights by those fighting to end slavery.
Admission to this small and historic light-filled space is free for all, and even if you aren’t a history buff, it’s a must-see on any Philadelphia itinerary.
Eat an Authentic Philly Cheesesteak
Okay, maybe not for vegetarians, but the Philly cheesesteak is one to check off your list if you find yourself in Philadelphia. Thinly sliced, sautéed rib eye beef packed into a hoagie roll and swimming in cheese (with or without onions) may not sound gourmet, but it’s uniquely Philadelphian. Traditionally made with cheese whiz – if you don’t know what that is, you’re not missing anything, in my opinion – but can also be made with American cheese or, my favorite, provolone.
Locals love to debate about which sandwich shop sells the best cheesesteak, so if you’re up for it, you might need to conduct a taste test. But you can’t go wrong with Jim’s on South Street. Just look for the line outside, which is validation enough. Otherwise, you can pick up a cheesesteak at most food markets, steak shops, food trucks, delis, and even some pizzerias.
South Philly Art Walking Tour and Magic Gardens
I believe that art doesn’t have to be framed or sitting on a pedestal, viewed in a stuffy gallery, which is why I love the street art in Philadelphia. With Get Your Guide, you can book a ticket for a street art tour that includes the Magic Gardens, which is my favorite Philadelphia attraction.
On this tour, you’ll walk through Queen Village and Bella Vista to uncover mosaics and murals and learn the fascinating history behind the pieces and the artists. It’s the perfect introduction to Philadelphia’s art scene before heading to the Magic Gardens.
Created by Philly’s resident mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, the Magic Gardens is a small and compact museum that could be described as eclectic and perhaps a little chaotic. As someone who loves mosaics, I found the Magic Gardens full of joy and inspiration. I also found it fascinating to learn about the artist’s story and how he started creating this unique art that became so loved by the community. This dazzling non-profit is where creativity and community come together to form of eye-catching art, projects, and events. Using mirror fragments, clay, tiles, bike wheels, glass, and so much more, Isaiah has created a space that has become one of the most-visited places in the city.
Relax in Rittenhouse Square
Rittenhouse Square is both a neighborhood and a park and is a beautiful gathering place among trees, a fountain, and lots of great boutiques and eateries. Rittenhouse Square is one of five open-space squares planned by William Penn (the man for which Pennsylvania is named) and is known to be the nicest of the five.
Surrounded by some of the city’s best restaurants and shops, there is plenty to do in the area and many options for picking up coffee or picnic supplies if you want to relax in the park for a while. I probably wouldn’t have thought to stop there if I had not been with locals who knew not to pass up the opportunity to grab a cold drink and rest on a city bench. Rittenhouse Square is a peaceful spot that allows you to break up a long day of exploring.
So, whether you’re looking for a bit of green space or if you’re looking for some hip shops to browse, this little neighborhood is a great place to discover.
Eat Your Way Through Reading Terminal Market
Reading Terminal Market is one of those places you should save your appetite for. Whether you’re picking up picnic supplies or spending the day there, you’ll want to browse, graze, nibble and sip your way through the many stalls. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, gaze up at the neon signs to help navigate through the multitude of options.
I would start with coffee or tea and a pastry at one of the bakery options and then make your way towards the cheesesteaks or roast pork sandwiches. Almost as popular as the aforementioned-cheesesteak, pork sandwiches are an Italian-Philly phenomenon. It is usually smothered in broccoli rabe or other veggies and full of flavors, which I found even more satisfying than a cheesesteak.
Since the market hosts foods from all over the world, you will also find plenty of vegetarian options. For example, get great falafel, baba ganouj, and hummus at the Middle Eastern stands. If you’re still hungry, grab a Dutch apple dumpling from the Dutch/Amish shop, and then top it with ice cream from Bassetts.
Play in Franklin Square
One of the five public squares planned by William Penn is the eight-acre Franklin Square, which is popular with families for obvious reasons. Children, and the kids-at-heart, will love the large playground, classic carousel, and Mini Golf course. You can putt-putt your way around displays of Philadelphian landmarks such as the Liberty Bell, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Boathouse Row in Fairmount Park.
Some of Philly’s historic Old City attractions, including Independence Hall, are not far away, so there are usually a few tourists in Franklin Square, but it’s a local hub for families, too.
One of the park’s main attractions, and the main reason I recommend visiting, is for the large marble fountain in the middle of the square. It’s been there since 1838 and has recently undergone renovations that make it a star attraction. During specific times throughout the day, the fountain runs a colorful music and light show every 30 minutes. It’s especially lovely at night when you can fully appreciate the vibrant colors.
There’s a yummy burger and shake shack in the square, so you don’t need to worry about the little ones (or yourself) going hungry. And yes, they sell Philly’s famous cheesesteaks.
Hit Up Independence National Historic Park
Philadelphia is a UNESCO World Heritage City because it is known as the birthplace of the United States. There are many points of history throughout the city, so it can be a little overwhelming to know where to begin your tour. I’d recommend starting at the Independence National Historic Park Visitor’s Center, and from there, you can decide on exactly which historic landmarks you want to see.
We’ve already established that you should see the Liberty Bell, and next on the list should be Independence Hall. This is where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It’s also where you’ll see George Washington’s “rising sun” chair in the Assembly Room, which was the former president’s seat during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. You can also find copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States in the West Wing of the hall. You’ll also see the inkstand used during the signing of the Declaration.
Admission to Independence Hall is free by timed entry every 30 minutes. Tours are given by knowledgeable National Park Rangers and last about 30-40 minutes. Be aware that tickets can sell out in high season, so it’s advisable to book in advance. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes in preparation for a lot of walking and be ready to experience airport-style security checks.
From Independence Hall, you could continue to the President’s House (mentioned below),the Portrait Gallery, or one of the pretty nearby parks or rose gardens.
Visit the President’s House
Another location within Independence National Historic Park that is certainly worth seeing is The President’s House. The original house we demolished in 1832, leaving only the side walls and the foundations. This open-air site next to the Liberty Bell is an exhibition that examines the paradox between slavery and freedom. Although the building no longer stands, the foundations depict the place where Presidents Washington and Adams – and their household staff – once lived and worked. So, from 1790 to 1800, it essentially served as what is now the White House.
The memorial has only been around for a decade or so, and you can now also view archaeological pieces unearthed in a 2007 excavation. Videos, images, and writing tell an impactful story of the complex relationship between the presidents and the enslaved Africans who once worked there.
Although the exhibition is small, I found it quite moving to walk through and listen to the videos. I found that having only the foundations of the building allowed me to use my imagination to visualise those early days when this now-bustling city would have looked and felt very different. It’s definitely worth a stop, as it does not take long to walk through, and entry is free.
Visit an Amish Village
If you want to escape the big city and get a taste of the simple life, join a tour in Lancaster County to visit an Amish farm and village. Lancaster county is beautiful, with green rolling hills and open farmland in every direction. It would be hard to go there and not feel relaxed and rejuvenated afterward.
The Amish communities (once known as the Pennsylvania Dutch) are welcoming to visitors, and there are many tours you can join that will take you to visit homes, farms, and museums throughout the area. If you’d like to glimpse what life would be like without the modern conveniences and technological advances we come across each day, this is a good opportunity to do just that. Horse-drawn carriages still clatter down the streets, and wholesome farm-to-table dining is the order of the day.
Get your Guide offers a 3-hour tour to visit Amish farms, homes, one-room schoolhouses, and a 15-acre farm. All you have to do is sit back and relax, listen to the stories unfold, and experience local flavor as you sample delicious homemade baked goods, fresh ice cream, or cold homemade root beer.
Snap a Photo at the Famous Love Sculpture
The City of Brotherly Love has a photo op that you shouldn’t miss. Popular with just about everyone, Philadelphia’s Love Sculpture has been around since the US Bicentennial in 1976 and is a beloved (pun intended) Philly landmark. The sculpture is in John F. Kennedy Plaza with Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the background.
If you’re thinking you might have seen this sculpture in other cities, you would be correct. I was surprised to learn that the artist, Robert Indiana, created several variations that can be found everywhere from New York City to San Francisco and London to Singapore. The original sculpture is in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. So, although not unique to Philadelphia, I was very happy to take away a photo souvenir of what has become a symbol of the City of Brotherly Love.
John F. Kennedy Plaza is also known as Love Park, and after the Love Sculpture was refurbished in 2018, it gained even greater popularity. So much so that Love Park has become a hub for tourists and now has a Visitor Center kiosk.
Not too far away, in Sister Cities Park on 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, you’ll find a Spanish version of the sculpture. To mark the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia in September 2015, the famed artist, Robert Indiana, created the Amor Sculpture, which translates to “love” in both Spanish and Latin.
Take in a Sporting Event
During almost any time of the year, a sporting event will be on offer in Philadelphia. Philly fans are known for being very (ahem) passionate about their teams. In other words, they have a reputation for being a little rowdy. However, don’t let that put you off. No matter which sport you choose, you’re sure to have a great time and an all-American experience.
The city has four major league sports franchises, including the Philadelphia Phillies of Major League Baseball (MLB), the Philadelphia Eagles of the National (American) Football League (NFL), the Philadelphia 76ers of the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League (NHL).
Most of the pro teams play just a few miles south of the city center at either the Wells Fargo Center (76ers basketball and Flyers ice hockey), the Lincoln Financial Field (Eagles American football), or Citizens Bank Park (Phillies baseball). If soccer is what you’re after, you’ll need to head to Subaru Park in Chester, slightly outside of town.
You don’t have to visit one of the major stadiums to take in the sports vibe. There are numerous sports bars throughout the city with big screens playing the games and a lively atmosphere.
Stroll the Delaware River Waterfront
There is so much happening at the Delaware River waterfront that you could break it up into multiple attractions. It’s historic, with a newly revamped 21st-century feel after being slowly and lovingly transformed for residents and visitors to enjoy. You can stroll along and experience art, entertainment, food, and parks with skating rinks and running trails. You’ll also get a great view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
If you’re into history, Philadelphia’s waterfront was one of the first major shipping ports in North America and was an early hub for commercial trade. There probably wasn’t much to see when William Penn landed here back in 1682, but Penn’s Landing is now where most of the action is. This is where you’ll find the city’s most popular parks, offering seasonal activities. Winter brings an Olympic-size ice skating rink, cozy fire pits, tasty treats, and hot drinks. While summertime offers outdoor roller skating, boardwalk games, rides, mini golf, and hammocks to relax in.
The waterfront area is quite large, so it might be hard to experience everything in one day. We started with lunch at The Garden (which is a restaurant) on Cherry Street Pier. I would highly recommend ordering a plate of delicious tacos or nachos and a beer or cocktail. Take some time to look around, as this artsy pier always has exhibits or events going on. Then, walk about 10 minutes south towards Penn’s Landing and decide whether you want to go skating at Blue Cross River Rink, or continue to Spruce Street Harbor Park. Once at Spruce Street, you can relax in one of the park’s colorful hammocks or grab a bite to eat from one of the area’s renowned restaurants and sit amongst the shady trees.
If you become tempted by the big ships looming out in the water, you can visit the nearby maritime museum or hop on a sunset cruise.
Take in the City Skyline View
If you love getting a bird’s eye view of a city as much as I do, you should consider heading to Bok Bar in South Philly. This large, open-air bar sits atop a former high school. This popular summer hangout serves great drinks, and the views don’t get much better.
This super-tall building offers sweeping panoramas of the Philadelphia skyline, including the Delaware River and many iconic buildings and bridges. You’re sure to get Instagram-worthy sunset shots while sipping on your favorite beverage. With a rotating roster of local chefs, there’s always something tasty and creative on the menu. There’s a fun atmosphere and you can look out for events such as art classes, yoga, and salsa nights.
You don’t need a reservation, although a small section is available for bookings. It’s a good idea to check their website before turning up, as they can close on short notice due to rain.
Because Bok Bar is so weather-dependent, as a backup, City Hall has an observation platform that offers a good city view too. Since it’s more central, the view isn’t quite as panoramic, but still great with big skyscrapers looming all around you.
Stroll the Expansive Longwood Gardens
Sometimes a city break requires a bit of respite. If you want to escape to wide open spaces and breathtaking gardens, woodlands, and meadows, Longwood Gardens is the place to go. The 1,000 acres of gardens and elaborate horticultural displays make the 50-minute drive to Chester County worth it. This world-renowned haven of indoor and outdoor gardens includes thousands of plant and flower species and attracts visitors from all over the globe.
Paths twist and turn through acres of magnificently manicured grounds to displays such as the Italian Water Garden, Flower Garden Walk, an elevated boardwalk meadow, seasonal installations, and the year-round woodland garden. You might even encounter wildlife such as deer, beavers, birds, and butterflies. It’s so well-planned that there is plenty to see and do during all seasons.
Even if you’re not crazy about horticulture, it’s still a lovely and peaceful place to visit, and you’re sure to find events such as concerts or theater shows, and educational programs to keep you entertained.
Try One of Philly’s Soft Pretzels
Philadelphia might not be the first place you think of for indulging in soft pretzels, with Germany and New York taking the top spots, but let me assure you, Philly pretzels give them a run for their money. Not only are they a satisfying snack all year round, but it’s also just something you must experience while on the east coast of the US.
You can stop at a stand or find them in bakeries or shops dedicated to pretzels. You can go for the traditional, soft, and salty variety or try specialty ones with unexpected flavors such as pizza, Cajun, or cheesesteak. You can even get a soft pretzel sandwich for breakfast or lunch at Rowhome Coffee.
Miller’s Twist inside Reading Terminal Market was my favorite, and although it’s a chain, you can’t go wrong with the Philly Pretzel Factory, where you can easily stop in and get one to-go. Cheese sauce or mustard are popular condiments for traditional salty pretzels.
Take Some Time for the Philadelphia Museum of Art
You can’t miss seeing the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as it looms at the top of Ben Franklin Parkway. It is probably Philadelphia’s most important and well-known landmark. Its new entrance, atrium, and huge galleries were designed to perfectly fit the Beaux-Arts building that has been there for centuries.
After you’ve run up the Rocky steps (see earlier mention) to the entrance, be sure to take in the view down the boulevard, as it’s one of the best vantage points to see the city.
Once inside, you’ll find famous Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings from van Gough, Pissarro, Monet, and others. You’ll also find works by Duchamp in a permanent collection as well as sculptures by Brancusi.
Hour-long tours are available most days and are free with admission. Otherwise, it’s worth the bit of extra cash to get an audio guide. You should plan to be there for a couple of hours, as there are 200 galleries to choose from. The beautiful Great Stair Hall, with its mighty columns and gilded statue of Diana, the goddess of hunting, is the spot to snap a memorable photo.
Explore the Please Touch Museum
Yes, that’s the name of the museum. The Please Touch Museum is a children’s museum and as the name implies you can expect lots of interactive exhibits and hands-on activities for kids. Everything about the museum is focused on learning and play. Many of the activities are so innovative and fun that adults end up having a great time too.
Please Touch has been around for over three decades and is one of the nation’s premier and most-loved museums. Located in the historic Memorial Hall, it opened in 1976 for the country’s Bicentennial celebration. There are six zones covering over 150 thousand square feet. Some of the zones are designed for very young kids (ages three and younger) while others cater to older kids.
One great example of a popular hands-on activity is the Supermarket, where kids can stock the shelves with grocery items, load their carts, or play cashier. Other favorite activities with the young kids in our group was the River Adventure (because who can resist playing with water?) and the Fairytale Garden, where you can travel into the pages of classic children’s stories. A more recently opened Creative Arts Studio allows visitors to create murals, paintings, cardboard structures or sculpt with clay. I love museums with areas like this because it allows kids and adults the opportunity to get creative, which is something that doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should these days.
As you can imagine, it’s a great place for a rainy day with kids, but it can get crowded. If you need a break, you can always stop by the museum cafe, where lots of family friendly meals and snacks are on offer.
Experience the Nightlife and Shopping of the Old City
The Old City is a neighborhood we’ve touched upon several times. It’s where most of the historical sites are, as well as Penn’s Landing waterfront. However, there is so much more to the Old City than all the checklist items. It is home to some of the oldest streets in the United States, and residents of this trendy location tend to live in restored 18th-century rowhouses, sometimes called brownstones.
While the Colonial attractions certainly add to its charm, it’s also full of fashionable cafes, bars, galleries, and boutiques, especially around South 2nd, and 3rd Street.
I thought that the best part about shopping in the Old City is that it’s full of independently owned boutiques offering clothing, home decor, gifts, jewelry, and artwork.
You can walk the charming cobblestone streets and see crowds spilling out of restaurants, enjoying alfresco dining. If it happens to be the first Friday of the month, you can join an art walk, stopping into eclectic galleries to view art, all while keeping an eye out for the perfect dining establishment.
If you’re thirsty, you can find everything from casual taverns and beer gardens to swanky, low-lit cocktails bars. Food menus in the area include a worldly range from sushi to Peruvian or French pastries to classic burgers.
As you can see, whether you plan to visit Philadelphia for the history, the eclectic melting pot of food, or just an iconic east coast vibe, it has so much to offer. There are plenty of great museums and tours to take part in, but it’s also just a great place to walk, with lovely urban spots to enjoy.
You might choose to venture outside the city center to get a break from the concrete walls and fast-moving streets, but you could also spend many days in Philadelphia proper and still not cover all the great things to do.