Philadelphia is a city in the United States that completely flew under my travel radar. After traveling there this summer for a conference, I followed up with a weekend with friends.
Philadelphia exceeded all our expectations! The City of Brotherly Love is a great city to explore with many historical sights and fun activities. Not only that, Philadelphia was convenient place for all of us to meet up and relatively cheap to spend the weekend (compared to New York City and Boston).
Whether you are traveling for work, visiting solo or with family, or meeting up with friends for the weekend, Philadelphia is a great place to visit and offers a lot of fun things to do. There’s:
- So much U.S.A. history
- Mouthwatering food, from food trucks to international markets to fancy restaurants
- Impressive historical buildings and tons of statues
- Unique parks, streets, and neighborhoods to hit up
Philadelphia does have a reputation for poverty, crime, and racial disparities. It can certainly feel a little rough around the edges at time (and could use better street cleaning). Just make sure to stay around the common areas and don’t stay out too late at night.
Here are my top recommendations for things to do in Philadelphia, cheap activities to do in the summer, and a sample weekend itinerary!
Top 5 Things to Do in Philadelphia
1. Go on a Historical Walking Tour
So much of United States history happened in Philadelphia, and there’s no better way to learn about it than going on a guided walking tour of Old City. Most of the historical sights are conveniently located in a 1-2 block radius, so it’s easy to tackle them all in one day.
A guided tour with a local gives you inside information on the founding of Pennsylvania, the sights where monumental events took place, and key figures during the American Revolution such as Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross. The sights on our tour included:
- Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest inhabited street in the U.S.
- Quaker meeting house (built above a burial ground)
- Benjamin Franklin’s bust, grave, and site of his home
- Betsy Ross’ house
- Independence Square, where the Declaration of Independence was first read to the public in 1776
- Christ Church
2. Visit the Eastern State Penitentiary
Considering that I have a weird fascination with old prisons (see my San Francisco post), the Eastern State Penitentiary or “America’s Most Historic Prison” was at the top of my list to visit. The expansive building comes to life through the fascinating audio tour tour (narrated by actor Steve Buscemi).
With haunting stories, artist installations, and a social justice element, the Eastern State Penitentiary is a must-see if you are into dark historical attractions like Alcatraz. It can get downright creepy (which is why it’s a favorite activity in the fall during its Halloween Nights). I got the chills when walking through the Death Row area even though it was broad daylight!
Make sure you check out “The Big Graph” outside and the “Prisons Today” exhibit. They showcase the grim statistics around mass incarceration in the United States and how racism plays a big factor in the American criminal justice and prison systems. I love that this historic prison ties into the situation of today and highlights some of the injustices in the country’s systems in general.
Cost: $19 admission which includes the audio tour
3. Try many different foods at Reading Terminal Market
The largest public market in the United States and located in an old train station, Reading Terminal Market is a must-see-and-eat for any foodie. Vendor stands offering every type of food are lined up aisle-by-aisle with a seating area in the middle of the station. This place is worth multiple trips to try a variety of foods. From the iconic Philly cheesesteak to Amish pretzels to international cuisine to baked goods, you will find so many delicious and cheap things to eat!
Hours are 8am – 6pm. If you are staying near the downtown area, I suggest going multiple times since there is so much food to try. It’s also worth checking out the mini markets offering seafood, meats, produce, flowers, and gifts from all over the world.
4. Tour Independence Hall and see the Liberty Bell
These sights are part of the Independence National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service) and symbolize independence from Britain in the 1700s and freedom by the 19th century abolitionists who sought to end slavery. Key events in the formation of the United States took place here and can’t be missed when visiting Philadelphia.
Separate from the walking tour which is done outside, the Liberty Bell Pavilion and Independence Hall takes you inside the buildings where you can visit the Assembly Room of the old Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) and the Liberty Bell Pavilion where the Liberty Bell is displayed (and no longer rings since it cracked in 1846) .
There is free admission for the Liberty Bell and Independence National Historic Park as they are part of the U.S. National Park Service. During high season, get to the Visitor Center early for tickets to a guided tour of Independence Hall (the only way you can get in). Also, a line forms early to go into the Liberty Bell Pavilion to see the Liberty Bell.
TIP: Reserve tickets early on Recreation.gov for $1 to guarantee a tour of Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence was signed) during high season.
5. Eat a Philly Cheesesteak in Philadelphia
If you are not vegetarian or vegan, then being in Philadelphia gives you an excuse to try the city’s namesake ultimate meaty, cheesy, and greasy sandwich. The Philly cheesesteak is offered all over the city, including at Reading Terminal Market, food trucks, Italian Market (where the famous Geno’s and Pat’s go head-to-head across the street from one another), or South Philadelphia.
Other Cheap Things to do in Philadelphia
Run up the Rocky Steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the top activities to do while you are in Philly (as was done by Sylvester Stallone in the 80’s film Rocky). Besides getting your heart pumping at no cost, it makes you feel like a champion.
Don’t forget to check out the Rocky statue to the right of the museum.
Check out the Art in the Museum Campus of Philadelphia
If you are an art lover, Philadelphia is a treasure trove of impressive art located in equally impressive buildings. A section of Philly known as the Museum Campus has a ton of unique art museums, including:
- Philadelphia Museum of Art. Biggest of the art museums in Philadelphia, has many famous works from all over the world, including van Gogh’s Sunflowers
- Barnes Foundation. Unique, modern building with rooms filled with impressionist paintings including pieces from Cezanne, Matisse, and Renoir. It also has a section with African-American artwork and Native American pottery.
- Rodin Museum. “The Thinker” and other sculptures are featured in the only other Rodin Museum outside of France.
You can get by without paying for anything by checking out the art museum’s campuses, which are practically art themselves with its beautiful architecture and landscaping. Art museums can be expensive and tiring, so pick one and check to see if they offer free admission or discounts.
Take a selfie at Love Park
The iconic “Love” statue is one of the premier selfie stations in the middle of the City of Brotherly Love. The statue itself is underwhelming (way smaller than compared to say, Chicago’s Bean in Millennium Park) but the park is nice with a splash pad for kids to play in on a hot summer day and gorgeous backdrop of City Hall.
The other side of the park has an “I Heart Philly” statue (more picturesque than the Love statue) and further up Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the sister cities’ rendition – the “Amor” statue.
Marvel at City Hall
Philadelphia has one of the most beautiful city halls that I’ve seen. With a statue of William Penn at the very top, the ornate and massive building covers one block with something unique to see at every angle. Plenty of history lessons can be found here in the form of statues and plaques. There’s a splashpad right in front and plenty of seating for people-watching and relaxing.
Relax at Spruce Street Harbor Park
The park along the Delaware River is a relaxing area that lights up beautifully at night. Food trucks line the boardwalk, and the grassy area has several hammocks and other seating. Hammocks are first-come, first-serve, unless you want to rent an area for a group of 10 or less for $75 for 1.5 hours. It’s a good place to hang out in the evening for a cocktail, a bite to eat, and catching up with friends.
Stroll down Italian Market
The 2 blocks lining 9th street are worth a stroll if you’re a foodie in search of your next meal or dessert. The Italian Market has restaurants, chocolate shops and bakeries, and outdoor markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables. They also have non-Italian food here, including Thai and Mexican restaurants.
Cheap Eats in Chinatown
The Chinese friendship gate near downtown and Center City welcomes you into Chinatown. Chinatown in Philly offers cheap and authentic Asian food as well as cute gift stores, produce markets, and boba tea shops.
I try to visit every Chinatown in the United States and like other Chinatowns, it can seem a bit rundown and dirty. However, it’s worth it to visit Chinatown if you love Asian food and want a cheap bite to eat. In Philly’s Chinatown, you’ll find hand-drawn noodle shops, hot pot and dim sum restaurants, as well as other Asian cuisine such as sushi, Korean bbq, and unique Asian food (at least to me) like western Chinese food.
Frolic in a Splash Pad or Fountain in a City Park
If it’s a hot and humid summer day in Philadelphia, there’s nothing more refreshing than splashing around in a fountain or splash pad in one of the many public parks. There are many fountains and splash pads offered in Center City, such as at City Hall, Logan Square, and Love Park.
Go on a Rooftop to view the Philadelphia skyline
Rooftops seem to be a thing in Philadelphia. During my short visit to Philadelphia, I was able to view the Philadelphia skyline via my hotel room in Center City, from the rooftop of our Airbnb in South Philly, and from the rooftop at .
Check out a Festival in the summer months
When I visit any place in the summer, I try to see if a festival is happening. There’s no better way to feel the spirit of the city and celebrate its diverse cultures. Philadelphia offers many festivals during the summer. The one that I got to visit while I was there…
Chinese lantern fest
Offered in June through August, the Chinese lantern fest lights up Franklin Park with its massive and colorful Chinese lanterns. There are dragons, pandas, fish, as well as is colorful lighted tunnels, water fountains, and a bubble machine. There are also performances (Chinese traditional music and dances), food trucks, and a beer garden. Tickets were $20 and it was worth it for a unique and beautiful display.
Neighborhoods and Streets in Philadelphia to check out
South Street contains several blocks of eclectic shops, restaurants, bars, and the Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens mosaics art museum. The aftermath of the COVID pandemic and some recent violence is evident here with some closed up storefronts. However, you’ll still find plenty of restaurants, bars, smoke shops, erotic stores. This area feels a little rough around the edges and you might get harassed by passerbys trying to sell you something.
For a delicious brunch, check out Brittany Foy’s restaurant for the most delectable Bloody Mary and Eggs Benedict. The Magic Gardens provides a quirky twist for lovers of the creative arts.
Fishtown is a cute, upscale neighborhood located directly north of Old City. The Main Street is lined with fishhead garbage cans and bright murals. Fishtown is a good place for a nightly stroll, dinner, or nightlife. It’s definitely worth it to spend a couple of hours for shopping, a memorable meal, cocktails, or dessert.
Highlights – Suraya, a Lebanese restaurant with amazing food and a beautiful patio. Pricy, but one of the best meals I’ve had!
Passyunk in South Philadelphia
Passyunk Ave. is a vibrant city street aligned with coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. Several of the establishments have outdoor seating and are great for people-watching.
Highlights: Barcelona Wine Bar and Cafe for tapas
Sights and areas I missed on this visit but will put on my list for next time I come to PHILADELPHIA:
African American Museum
American Revolution Museum
Where to Stay in Philadelphia
Center City – Also known as Downtown, Center City is centrally located to most of the sights and offers many hotels (this is where I stayed for my conference). As with many downtown areas where it’s mostly populated during the weekdays/workdays, the activity in the area quiets down at night (except for the expected sirens and random people yelling). If you’re lucky, you can get a nice view of City Hall or the skyline.
Old City – This is the historic area of the city and although it is very centrally located to the historical sights, the accommodations here are limited. I saw a couple of Airbnbs here but they tend to be smaller and more expensive.
Fishtown – safe and fun place to stay, but gets loud at night.
South Philadelphia – Several Airbnbs are available in South Philadelphia, and you’ll get a real feel for how people live when you stay here. My friends and I booked a 3-bedroom house with a rooftop patio (the definite highlight of the place). It’s walking distance to Passyunk Avenue, where we had a couple of meals during our weekend stay. You may hear cars racing down the street and people chatting late at night, but it was a great location and place to stay.
Areas to Avoid:
Sample 2-day Itinerary for a Summer Weekend in Philadelphia
If you are spending a weekend in Philadelphia, here is a sample itinerary:
Day 1: Walk, hit the sights, and EAT
- Have a cheap and filling breakfast of Amish blueberry pancakes at the Reading Terminal Station or dim sum in Chinatown.
- Take a Lyft or Uber to the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (there will be plenty of walking the rest of the day). Run up the steps and take pictures of the Philadelphia skyline, museum buildings and the Rocky statue.
- If you’re up for it, head to one of the many museums or the Eastern State Penitentiary in the museum district.
- After the museum, walk down Benjamin Franklin Parkway lined with flags from all over the world.
- Frolic in the Logan Square fountain if it’s hot outside.
- Snap a picture in front of the “Amor” sign.
- Walk down to Love Park. Take a picture of the I Love Philly sign which has an amazing view behind it of another fountain and City Hall. Take a selfie in front of the Love sculpture.
- Walk to City Hall and take a look from different angles.
- Walk to Reading Terminal Station for a bite to eat. Rest and rejuvenate!
- If you’re up for it, go shopping at Primark (a British cheap fashion company similar to H&M or Forever 21 and 1 of only 13 in the U.S.A.), otherwise take a rest back at your place.
- In the early evening, head to Fishtown. Grab a cocktail, dinner, or dessert.
- After dinner, head to Spruce Street Harbor Park for another drink and relaxing in hammocks by the water.
Day 2: History Day.
- Grab a coffee and quick breakfast and head to Old City for some history lessons.
- Take a tour of Independence Hall, visit the Liberty Bell, and visit other historical buildings in Independence Park.
- Go on a historical walking tour and learn about more history beyond Independence Park. There’s the old Quaker meeting house, Betsy Ross’ house, Benjamin Franklin’s grave, Elfreth Alley, Christ Church, and many other sights.
- If you’re up for a museum, check out the African American museum or American Revolution Museum nearby.
- Go for lunch on South Street or Italian Market.
- Check out the Magic Gardens on South Street.
- Rest, and go out for dinner and drinks on a rooftop.
Philadelphia is a walkable city but those steps really add up after a few hours. Make sure you wear the right shoes that will support your feet after several hours. I made the mistake of wearing tevas on the first day of serious walking. I regretted it after a couple of hours!
Have you traveled to Philadelphia or do you live there? What is your favorite part of the City of Brotherly Love?