As I was already visiting friends in eastern Pennsylvania, it felt like a good opportunity to take a day trip into Philadelphia. I’d been wanting to see this bustling historical city for some time, which actually made things a little challenging. My “must-see list” was way too long for a day trip. Isn’t that always the way?
Formerly the US capital, Philly is awash with U.S. history. It’s also known for its love of the arts. So, I wanted to fill my day trip with the historical and cultural things that make Philadelphia unique.
After some careful planning, I whittled down my list to an easy walking itinerary full of first-time visitor essentials. To my great surprise, everything was free. Now, that is never the way!
1) Independence Hall
My Philadelphia day trip started at Independence Hall.
Originally the Pennsylvania State House, Independence Hall is one of the most important buildings in American history. Both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and signed here in the Assembly Room.
However, it surprised me to learn that the building was almost demolished in 1816 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Looking for extra funds, they wanted to divide up the lots and sell the materials and plots to the highest bidder. Can you imagine?
Luckily, the City of Philadelphia stepped in and took on a lengthy 5-year campaign to buy the building. Today, it sits as part of the Independence National Historical Park.
Although touring the hall is free, entrance requires a timed ticket. You can get walk-up tickets at the Independence Visitor Center. They go fast and are only available for tours until 12:45. If you prefer an afternoon tour, or just don’t want to risk missing out, for $1 you can book a reservation online on the National Park Service’s website.
2) Congress Hall
Next door to Independence Hall is Congress Hall. Strangely, it wasn’t as busy, but I found it just as historically interesting.
This former courthouse accommodated the U.S. Congress from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia served as the nation’s temporary capital.
On the first floor sat the House of Representatives (Lower House). The more elaborate Senate chamber (Upper House) was on the second floor.
In addition to housing Congress, both the inaugurations of George Washington (on his second term) and John Adams took place here.
You don’t need tickets, but you will need to join a free tour. They run every 15 minutes and are first come, first serve.
3) Liberty Bell Center
Crossing the brick laid street from Congress Hall, I headed over to the Liberty Bell Center. It was just a quick wait in the security line before I was in the hall with the famous Liberty Bell.
Through the 1750’s, the bell rang in the tower above the State House (Independence Hall). It wasn’t until the 1830’s the bell became known as the Liberty Bell.
The inscription “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof” made the bell a powerful symbol for key activist movements throughout U.S. history.
You don’t need tickets and entrance is free, but the security checks cause massive lines. Get there early or visit an hour before closing to get through quickly.
4) Independence National Historical Park
Independence Hall, Congress Hall, and the Liberty Bell Center are all part of the Independence National Historical Park, but they are not all that is there.
Before heading out of the area it’s worth taking a wonder through the other features of the national park. Some of the notable spots I enjoyed include Washington Square, Library Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and the President’s House Site.
Also, close by is the National Constitution Center, a museum dedicated to the development of the Constitution and the Amendments. There is an admission fee.
It’s easy to spend your entire day trip wandering around this area and the Old City District of Philadelphia. In the Old City, you’ll find attractions like Christ Church and the Betsy Ross House. However, I moved on to the U.S. Mint.
5. U.S. Mint
I’m only aware of two places you can tour the U.S. Mint: Denver and Philadelphia. Since I’m a long way off from Denver, I took advantage of my day trip and did the free 45-minute self-guided tour.
For me, it was fascinating seeing all the old and rare coins, especially the gold ones. Can you imagine walking around with a pocket of gold coins?
I also learned so much about the minting process and even got a view of the production floor from above.
6. Mural Mile
After all that history, it was time to indulge myself in arts & culture. I found no better way to do this than to walk the Mural Mile.
Most visitors are familiar with Philly’s nickname “The City of Brotherly Love,” but in the art community it’s also known as the “City of Murals.”
There are actually two Mural Mile walks. Since I was on a day trip, I only had time for the north walk. It gave me the perfect route to weave my way through Philadelphia.
Each mural told a story and together they provided an insight to the culture of the city.
I did a self-guided tour with an online map. At each mural I called a phone number to get the story behind each piece. You can still download a map of the walks from Muralarts.org. Sadly, they have gotten rid of the phone tour. However, you can either join a formal paid tour, or jump on their website to read about each piece for free.
Around lunch time my Mural Walk had me wandering Chinatown. Perfect!
Though I didn’t want a full meal, I am a sucker for Asian street food and breads. I found St Honore Pastries for a few delicious bread rolls and the Heung Fa Chun Sweet House for a steamed bun. Recharged, I was ready to continue my walk.
I wouldn’t necessarily say Chinatown is a must see on your Philadelphia day trip. However, if you’ve never been to a Chinatown in a large city, it is worth a peek.
At the corner of Arch and N 10th St, is the elaborate Friendship Arch. For several square blocks you’ll find Asian groceries and restaurants to try.
8. Love Park & Art in the City
As I made my way to the end of my mural walking tour, I realized just how much art Philadelphia has. Every corner seemed to have an interesting piece. However, in my opinion, there was one that outdid the rest, “Love.”
The famous sculpture by Robert Indiana sits in John F. Kennedy Plaza, aka LOVE Park.
9. City Hall
As I approached the center of Philadelphia, the intricate tower of City Hall came into view. Unfortunately, I was already too late to do a tour, but even seeing the building from the outside was worth doing. One of the best views I found was from across the street at the Board Game Art Park.
City Hall offers two tours. A 1.5-hour interior tour of the building only takes place Mon – Fri at 12:30 pm. However, there are also timed ticket tours of the tower. Really, it’s an observation deck with a skyline view of the city. Both tours have a charge.
10. Reading Market
Huge with so many yummy things to try, Reading Market was my favorite spot in the city. Obviously, the market itself is free, but there’s nothing cheap about eating there.
Philly is known for their food, especially the Philly Cheesesteak. So, be sure you grab one while you’re in town.
I grabbed mine at Spataro’s in the market. Unfortunately, they have mixed reviews, but I enjoyed mine a lot.
Not only does everyone have their own favorite Philly spot, but I suspect the mixed reviews have to do busy times. Apparently, they get slammed during lunch hours. Luckily, by late afternoon the lunch crowds were gone, and I didn’t have any issues with my order.
Less controversial are Beiler’s donuts. Oh my gosh, I loved them! I was practically drooling on the counter as I waited in line watching them make the donuts. If it’s donuts or ice cream, I’m such a sucker.
Not wanting to get stuck on the trains during commuter hours, I concluded my day trip here with a leisurely walk to the train station. It was a really good first trip to Philadelphia. I managed to knock out a lot of the historical and first-time visitor stuff.
Next time, I’d like to hit more of the local spots. What places can you recommend?