Philadelphia provides visitors with an immense array of cultural opportunities and venues in which to explore the Arts, sciences, history and more. The problem for a visitor is not necessarily what to do, it is more how one can see everything they would like within their limited time in the city.Obviously, Philadelphia holds an important place in American history. Historic sites certainly must be visited and can even change or renew one’s perspective about this country and our freedoms.
Beyond Old City and when history has been revisited, Philadelphia’s role in modern civilization must be explored from other perspectives. The greatest thing about doing so is that Philly is never boring. There is something intriguing around every corner.
Roulez Magazine has selected our ten favorite cultural outings in Philadelphia. Around each of these sites are other cultural attractions, museums and exhibits, so explore and find the other gems of culture as you go. This list takes you through various neighborhoods of the city, each offering unique architecture, dining, shopping and sightseeing you will likely want to enjoy as part of a full Philadelphia experience.
Philadelphia’s Revolutionary Role
National Constitution Center
Learn more about “We the People” and our American freedoms than you were ever taught in grammar school. This 16,000 square foot facility houses a multitude of exhibits and interactive displays devoted to the explanation and preservation of our inalienable rights. Also hosted are temporary exhibits, such as the recently past “Creating Camelot,” a photographic display of Kennedy administration and family images by Jacques Lowe.
Liberty Bell Center
The most renowned symbol of freedom, The Liberty Bell, is elegantly poised in the new Liberty Bell Center, with views of Independence Hall as a dramatic backdrop. Once upon a time, the Bell rang to call colonists to convene for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. The Center’s experience goes beyond merely looking at a bell. A visit encompasses interesting points you may not have learned in school, including some unique cultural uses of the Liberty Bell’s image in product marketing throughout our history, as well as its motivation of abolitionists and suffragists toward succeeding in their once-lofty efforts.
In an act of defiance under the King of England, our forefathers gathered at Independence Hall in 1776 to start the process of our nation’s birth. For free admission with timed ticket reservations, you can walk where Franklin, Washington and others walked and hear explanations of each room while guided by a National Park Ranger. Beyond its apparent history the building is an excellent example of Georgian architecture in the early days of our country.
Founded in 1685, Christ Church was the first Anglican parish in Pennsylvania. The existing building of 1727 has long been considered one of the finest Georgian structures in the United States. Its steeple was financed by a lottery organized by Benjamin Franklin. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Rush and many other historic figures worshipped here.
You may tour the facility during designated hours or even attend a standard Episcopal service on days of worship. Ensure you also tour the Christ Church Burial Ground where you can pitch a penny onto Franklin’s grave in tribute to his adage, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Christ Church is located at 2nd Street above Market. The Burial Ground is separate, on Arch Street between 4th and 5th.
Home of the First Continental Congress of 1774, this wonderful Georgian building of Flemish bond brick pattern is worth a visit. When the beginning of our United States was a dream and as the first acts of brave defiance against England were enacted, Carpenter’s Hall was the setting. Admission is free.
Miles of Art and the Rocky Steps
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Beyond the steps of Rocky Balboa fame lies a spectacular building reminiscent of Greek temples. This is the third largest art museum in the country, as well as one of the most captivating collections to explore. Whether El Greco or Miro, Cezanne or Eakins are your preference, you will find yourself with hours of galleries, reproduction rooms and special exhibits to ponder.
Of special note are the permanent Arms & Armor gallery featuring weaponry and protective shields of princes, kings and nobility; Costumes & Textiles, sometimes including the wedding gown of Princess Grace of Monaco (formerly Grace Kelly of Philadelphia); and Modern & Contemporary Art, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Miro and O’Keefe. The café offers an enjoyable mid-tour break for lunch, as you can spend an entire day in the Museum, and the gift shops have fabulously tasteful souvenirs to outlive the typical kitsch.
Brains, Hearts and Myth Busting
The Franklin Institute Science Museum
Located in very close proximity to both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum on the edge of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, The Franklin Institute originally opened in Independence Hall in 1824 to pay tribute to the ingenuity of Benjamin Franklin. Now located in an impressive Greek-revival building dating to 1934, the Franklin Institute includes an IMAX Theater, the adjacent Fels Planetarium and Mandell Center.
One of the most loved permanent displays is the Giant Heart, a 5000 square foot exhibition which includes a scale model of a human heart which can be walked through. At two stories high and big enough to provide blood flow to the Statue of Liberty, this heart is unlike any other.
Judge’s Wrath and Doctor’s Orders
Eastern State Penitentiary
In the heart of a revived neighborhood now referred to as Fairmount or Art Museum lies a massive, dark, gothic structure that was once home to Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton. It is Eastern State Penitentiary, the isolationist model upon which about 300 prisons on four continents are based. The prison was active from 1829 to 1971 and had running water, central heat and flush toilets even before the White House.
The prison offers guided tours, but highly recommended is the go-at-your-own-pace audio tour, for which you are provided with a headset that guides you through every major part of the prison, including to Al Capone’s lushly decorated cell. An excellent example of architecture and prison reform ideals of the time, Eastern State Pen is a must-do. Intriguing points abound everywhere in the facility and eleven acres of grounds, throughout which visitors are given unprecedented access without so many ropes and barricades that you might expect within a National Historic Landmark. After experiencing this unique facility, dash across the street to one of the restaurants or pubs for which this neighborhood is known.
Pennsylvania Hospital, America’s First Hospital
Founded by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond in 1751, the Pennsylvania Hospital offers tours of its architectural grandeur, gardens, medical library and surgical amphitheatre, all dating back to the time of surgery without anesthesia. Each area of the hospital offers a magnificent portrait of the period, the practice of medicine and the patient experience of our country’s earliest days, including for the most deranged of psychiatric invalids. In the Library some works date back as far as the 1500s. Displays included preserved surgical instruments and other unique items. It is an intriguing tour that provides a glimpse into the past and an appreciation for all that has changed in the practice of medicine since.
Mutter Museum of the Philadelphia College of Physicians
Not for the weak stomached yet quite fascinating, the Mutter Museum is a collection of over 20,000 items of medical and anatomical history. Launched from the collection of Philadelphia physician Thomas Mutter in 1863, this body of work provides the average Joe with a glimpse into the studies conducted by physicians in order to better understand how to prevent and treat diseases. If you can stomach it and have a general interest in medicine, science, oddities or anatomy, this museum is not to be missed.
Permanent exhibits include the Soap Lady, a woman exhumed from her grave in 1875 and a collection of 139 human skulls from the Victorian era. A cast of conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, deceased 1874, joins their actual conjoined liver in an exhibit at the museum. Also on display are over 1300 wet specimens of body parts, abnormalities and fetuses in jars; portions of Albert Einstein’s brain on specimen slides; a collection of stones from kidneys, bladders and gall bladders; and over 1200 photographs of everything from Civil War amputations to birth defects.