Best Attractions in Philadelphia
In a city with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time on your vacation. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
Situated between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, Philadelphia was the “Cradle of the Revolution.” The American Revolution, of course. You can explore the nascence of modern democracy in the Old City at the AAA GEM Independence National Historical Park —it's America's most historic square mile and features more than a dozen separate sites, including Independence Hall and Liberty Bell Pavilion.
Wikimedia Commons / CC BY SA/Ziko van Dijk
Begin your sightseeing travel itinerary with the Independence Visitor Center. At the center, you'll find orientation exhibits, daily listings of area events, informative touch screen computer kiosks and tickets.
Continue your excursion at the adjacent Liberty Bell Center, where the 2,000-pound Liberty Bell is housed. In 1776, its peals rang in the birth of a new nation, and you can stand close enough to read its inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof….” You can also eyeball the bell's famous crack—the one that silenced it, but did not dim its historical relevance.
Only by going through security and walking through Liberty Bell Center can you enter into the area surrounding Independence Hall. Awash in Colonial charm, the building retains its simple architectural beauty despite throngs of visitors—and there's no denying that the founding fathers' revolutionary spirit lingers here. This is the hall where the delegates of the Thirteen British Colonies met to debate and approve the Declaration of Independence, and where the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were drafted and adopted.
Historical Lessons Made Fun for Your Trip
Courtesy of National Constitution Center
Speaking of the United States' Constitution—“We the People….”—it's a mere four pages long, but the document is the world's most famous blueprint for democracy. You'll see an original version in the park's 160,000-square-foot National Constitution Center. This interactive museum chronicles more than two centuries of constitutional history with hundreds of exhibits. One of the fun things to do here is to don a black robe and sit on the U.S. Supreme Court bench, raise your right hand and take the presidential oath, step into a speakeasy during Prohibition or listen to one of FDR's fireside chats in a 1940s living room.
Formerly a county court house, Congress Hall served as the first home to Congress, with the House of Representatives meeting on the first floor, appropriately called the “Lower House,” and the Senate meeting upstairs, the “Upper House.” On the second floor of this AAA GEM attraction, you'll view the elegant meeting chamber and various committee rooms. The building is frozen in time, looking as it did when John Adams was inaugurated there in 1797.
Wikimedia Commons/Beyond My Ken
With its thick Doric columns, the Second Bank was once the paradigm for designs of American finance buildings. Today, the bank features a different kind of currency: Art. The Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery features the “People of Independence” exhibit, a veritable 18th-century celebrity roster. The gallery includes some 150 rotating paintings of Colonial and Federal leaders, including many incredible works by Charles Willson Peale.
At Christ Church, sit in one of the pews where Betsy Ross, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington prayed. The church, adjacent to the park and also in Old City, is a must-see for architecture buffs; the 1727 structure typifies early Georgian style.
AAA GEM Fairmount Park is the next stop on the itinerary. The park's bucolic acreage extends along both sides of the Schuylkill and is woven with miles of scenic drives, walks, bicycle routes and horse trails. It's one of the world's largest municipal parks—several million trees grow along its paths. Within Fairmount's bounds, you can also visit numerous historic sites and museums and enjoy numerous fun things to do this weekend.
AAA/Photo submitted by Denise Campbell
One of the park's museums, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, houses the third largest public art collection in the United States. You'll recognize the Parthenon-like exterior and steps from the famous scene in “Rocky.” The AAA GEM museum boasts collections of Renaissance, Impressionist, Asian, contemporary and decorative art, including the large “Bathers” by Paul Cézanne, the infamous “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Large Glass)” by Marcel Duchamp and an entire gallery devoted to native son Thomas Eakins. Upstairs are more than 80 rooms devoted to other cultures, décors and times, from temple to cloister to boudoir. If you're wondering what to do while in the park vicinity, visit the Rodin Museum , administered by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The works of sculptor Auguste Rodin can be appreciated amid stately Beaux-Arts architecture and a formal French garden.
Another of Fairmount Park's sites features one of the world's most celebrated and notorious art collections, The Barnes Foundation. Albert Barnes collected works 1912-51 and stipulated that the collection should remain unchanged in its Philadelphia suburb after his death. However, restrictions imposed on the site led the foundation's board to decide that relocating to Philadelphia was the best option, and the new facility opened there in May 2012. This AAA GEM museum largely accommodates Barnes' creative, unconventional displays, where masterpieces are hung symmetrically by size and paired with such quirky objects as Amish chests, antique tools, tribal masks and Navajo rugs. The paintings are wondrous—more than 180 Renoirs, dozens of Cézannes and Matisses, works by Degas, Manet, Seurat and Van Gogh.
In a city of recognizable buildings, the Masonic Temple is one of the most impressive structures. Across from City Hall, the temple scales the clouds with its twin Norman-style spires. The interior is equally fabulous, both in variety and scope. Each of the temple's seven lodge halls exemplifies a different architectural period: Corinthian, Ionic, Italian Renaissance, Norman, Gothic, Oriental and Egyptian. Artifacts in the library/museum include George Washington's Masonic apron, embroidered by the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette.
A List of Many Things to Do This Weekend
A blast for kids of all ages, and one of many fun things for couples to do, is to explore four floors of interactive exhibits at The Franklin Institute . There's a walk-through heart, an exhibit on the life of Ben Franklin, an IMAX theater and a planetarium. Try SportsZone, which offers a climbing wall, a pitching cage and virtual reality displays. Other activities include SkyBike, a bicycle that balances riders on a 28-foot-high cable; the Train Factory's 350-ton locomotive; and Space Command's orbital research station. This museum gets high marks for participation.
Students of social change and fans of spooky places will be drawn to the Eastern State Penitentiary. Inside the Gothic, castlelike building, the humane concept of solitary confinement was instituted under the Quakers in the 1830s. This 11-acre prison was developed as a state-of-the-art incarceration facility: it had flushing toilets before the White House. Now it's ghostly, with everything frozen in time—even bed sheets and shoes were left behind when the penitentiary was abandoned in the 1960s.
If you've always wanted to go on an architectural dig, stop at the Penn Museum. A 13-ton granite sphinx sits at the entrance to the Egyptian Galleries, where artifacts range from cat mummies and deity sculptures to tomb walls carved with ancient hieroglyphics. The museum's multi-gallery collection includes nearly a million objects from around the world, including a Navajo house, an Inuit fishing boat, Roman glass, Greek vases and funerary artifacts.
Housed in a converted 19th-century gristmill, the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford features a large collection of paintings by the celebrated family Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth, especially, captured the extremes of the Brandywine Valley—pastoral rolling hills, deep fallen snow, churning rivers and hardy residents. Works by Andrew's father, the illustrator, N.C., and by Andrew's son, Jamie (a Realist, like his father), are also on display. The collection includes more than 3,000 American landscapes, still life paintings and illustrations.
flickr / CC BY SA/PVSBond
The exquisitely maintained grounds of Longwood Gardens were once the pride of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont and are a stop in many vacation packages. Covering 1,000 acres, the gardens are landscaped with fountains and more than 11,000 types of flowers, trees and plants. Wander through formal knot gardens, an Italian water garden, the eight outdoor “rooms” of Peirce's Woods and vast heated greenhouses, lush with exotic blooms.
The proper way to conclude a trip to Philadelphia is with stops at the AAA GEMS Valley Forge National Historical Park and Washington Crossing Historic Park, where the United States battled for independence.
In beautiful Valley Forge, it's hard to imagine the Continental Army suffering through a terrible winter, but during the lean, cruel months of 1777-1778, some 12,000 troops were camped here. The welcome center's exhibit, “Determined to Persevere,” uses Revolutionary War artifacts to tell the story of General Washington's army and its struggles.
At Washington Crossing Historic Park, you'll see the spot where boats spirited the “man-who-could-not-tell-a-lie” and his troops to battle across the Delaware. Skirmishes at Trenton and Princeton were resounding victories for the Continental Army—turning the tide in the War for Independence.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.
Pennsylvania's statewide sales tax is 6 percent. An additional 2 percent is collected by Philadelphia County, as is an 8.5 percent hotel tax.
Aria Health (Torresdale Campus), (215) 612-4000; Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, (215) 662-4000; Methodist Hospital, (215) 952-9000; Pennsylvania Hospital, (215) 829-3000; Roxborough Memorial Hospital, (215) 483-9900; Temple University Hospital, (215) 707-2000.
Philadelphia International Airport
Hertz, at the Philadelphia International Airport, (215) 492-7205 or (800) 654-3080, offers discounts to AAA members.
Amtrak trains pull into both the main 30th Street Station terminal at 30th and Market streets and the North Philadelphia Station at N. Broad Street and W. Glenwood Avenue. If your destination is mid-city, disembark at 30th Street Station. Phone (800) 872-7245, or TTY (800) 523-6590.
The major bus terminal is Greyhound Lines Inc., (215) 931-4075, at 10th and Filbert streets. Peter Pan Bus Lines, (800) 343-9999, also serves the city. New Jersey Transit buses, (973) 275-5555, depart for southern New Jersey and shore points.
Yellow Cab Co., (215) 333-8294, charges a $2.70 base rate plus $2.30 per mile. A fuel surcharge also may be added. One-way fares between the airport and central Philadelphia locations are a flat $49 fee.
A system of buses, trolleys, subways and regional rails serves Philadelphia. Operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), buses, trolleys and subways charge $2.50, plus $1 for a transfer; exact change is required. Senior citizens ride free. Regional rail fares vary by zone; phone (215) 580-7800 for fare information. RiverLink Ferry offers ferry service from Penn's Landing to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J.