History comes alive in Philadelphia, where you can stroll down cobbled alleys and into buildings depicted in famous paintings. But the city is much more than an open-air museum. Its indoor museums are world-class too, and there’s a distinct local culture (those Mummers, for one thing; cheesesteaks for another) and a great arts and music scene.
Morning in the Old City
Get oriented with the past with a stroll around Independence National Historic Park, a swath of the oldest part of Philadelphia. The main must-see is Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, but a close second is the Museum of the American Revolution, which provides a curated tour of one of American history’s pivotal eras. Other interesting museums include the excellent Benjamin Franklin Museum and the super-lively National Constitution Center. Otherwise, just poke your head in any building on the map that catches your fancy – entrance is free to most of them.
Restore your energy with an elegant cheese plate – or a big, gooey pressed sandwich – at Wedge + Fig on N 2nd St – conveniently close to Elfreth’s Alley, another neat Old City spot that’s worth a peek. Save plenty of room for dessert at Franklin Fountain, an exceptionally fabulous old-time ice-cream shop. No sweet tooth? Grownups can get their history fix with a cocktail at Olde Bar, a revamped old tavern that serves drinks by day and oysters and other Philly seafood standards by night.
Afternoon at institutions
Head northwest to Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which leads to the storied steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art – you may recognize them from those scenes in Rocky and Creed. The museum’s interior is so full of treasures that an admission ticket is good for two days – so don’t feel compelled to see everything in one go.
Nearby is Eastern State Penitentiary, which is not only fascinating in its spooky, derelict state but also informative about the history of incarceration, and often featuring great art installations.
Dinner and a glass of wine
Thanks to Pennsylvania’s arcane liquor laws, it’s often easier for restaurants to go BYOB, and Philadelphia has an excellent selection. Pick up your bottle(s) first at Fine Wine & Good Spirits, the state-run liquor store, then head to Little Nonna’s for a meal of refined Italian-American food. Or if you prefer not to self-cater, head for Tria, an excellent local wine bar. Both are in a beautiful, tree-lined stretch of Philadelphia; leave time to stroll around and look down old alleys.
Evening in the Center City
Taste Philadelphia’s casual bar scene at places like Monk’s Café, dedicated to Belgian brews and local craft beers, or, if you prefer your beer cheap and chuggable, Dirty Franks, a reclaimed Center City dive that serves boatloads of Yuengling and PBR. Oyster House has a popular happy hour menu to go along with its tasty seafood. Also pop your head in McGillin’s Olde Ale House, where 'olde' is an understatement – it’s been open since 1860. If your night goes late, swing south to Pat’s King of Steaks, where the iconic Philly cheesesteak was born: handily, it’s open 24 hours.
Morning in museums
Fuel up for a day of sightseeing with stuffed French toast at Sabrina’s, then head back to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a second pass. Or break new ground at the amazing Barnes Foundation, where the European and African artworks are arranged precisely according to the eccentric collector’s specifications – it’s a sort of game to discern the connections.
Work up an appetite for lunch at a free noontime concert of the Wanamaker Organ, a massive pipe organ installed in Macy’s. Then head for Reading Terminal Market, where stands sell all kinds of cuisine, from Thai to Pennsylvania Dutch; don’t miss the butter-dipped pretzels.
The market can get astonishingly crowded on weekends, though – if that’s the case, head for Sansom and S 17th Sts, a convenient nexus of good snack foods: Federal Donuts has delectably light donuts and Korean-style ultra-crispy fried chicken. Across the street is the antidote: super-fresh hummus at Dizengoff, which mimics shops in Tel Aviv. Around the corner are the wonderfully buttery lobster rolls at Luke’s Lobster.
Afternoon in the South
Tour South Philly, starting at the beautiful ongoing art project that is Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, on South St. Then head for the bounty of the Italian Market, stopping for cappuccino as you browse the food stores and stalls. From here, pick your favorite Philly oddity: visit the Mummers Museum to learn about the proud working-class culture behind the colorful New Year’s Day parade, or opt for the Mütter Museum if you’re a fan of morbid anatomy.
East Passyunk Avenue, which cuts diagonally through South Philly, is a booming restaurant row. Book ahead for a table at Le Virtu, renowned for its meticulous recreation of the cuisine of central Italy, or Brigantessa, a more casual place by the same chef, serving excellent crisp pizza with a long beer list.
Edgy arts at night
Head back north to what locals have dubbed the ‘Eraserhood,’ a gritty area that inspired onetime resident David Lynch’s filmmaking. The excellent Trestle Inn is here, serving up cocktails and go-go dancers straight from the 1960s. Also in the area is PhilaMOCA – that stands for Mausoleum of Contemporary Art – for eclectic arts programming. Farther north, check the schedules at Union Transfer and Johnny Brenda’s, two great venues for live shows; Johnny Brenda’s also has a good bar for hanging out.
Central Philadelphia is small enough that you can walk most places. But the SEPTA transit system (buses, a metro, even an underground trolley) is fast and effective.
This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2018.