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Philadelphia is the 5th largest city in America and has created a lasting impact on history, culture, sports and even cuisine. Wherever you turn in this great city, there’s something special. So, what is Philadelphia known for?
Join us on a little trip around one of the oldest and most import cities in America.
Birthplace of America
While there are many old cities in the United States, Philadelphia lays claim to being the birthplace of America. Every important event in the country’s founding happened here: declaring our independence from England, the establishment of our governing principles, the first capital of the young country, and the peaceful transition of power.
Also, many of the country’s important firsts were also here: first hospital, first zoo, first post office, first fire department, creation of the Navy, and many, many others.
City of Brotherly Love
Philadelphia is known as the “City of Brotherly Love.” The name Philadelphia comes from the Greek words phileo (love) and adelphos (brother). So the city’s nickname comes from it Greek roots.
The name also has another purpose. When William Penn founded the city, he sought to create an environment free from religious prosecution where all could find happiness and prosperity.
One of the most important symbols associated with Philadelphia is the Liberty Bell. This massive copper and tin bell from 1755 with its famous crack is synonymous with the city. It is an important symbol of liberty, freedom, and human rights.
The building called Independence Hall is known far and wide as the birthplace of modern democracy. Here, the founding fathers of America met, declared our independence from the British crown, and later established a constitution for the fledgling republic.
The building is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the few in the United States.
Betsy Ross House
One of the most famous Philadelphians is Betsy Ross. And one of the most visited sites in the city is the Betsy Ross House, where the upholsterer is reported to have sewn the first American Flag. (Note: the actual flag is at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, not here.)
Visitors can explore the house on a self-guided tour, meet a Betsy Ross re-enactor and learn more about the flag. It’s a charming little house and a great way to explore the Revolutionary-era Old City.
Started in 1703, Elfreth’s Alley was an initial solution to overcrowding near the densely populated waterfront along the Delaware River. It is now the oldest street in America. And people still live here!
This old street is also one of the photogenic spots in the city. At any hour of the day, you’ll see lots of people taking pictures for their social media accounts. There’s also a tiny museum that gives visitors a chance to see inside one of the homes.
Philadelphia Art Museum
One of America’s greatest art museums, the Philadelphia Museum of Art houses a masterful collection of nearly 250,000 works. The collection has priceless works by Van Gogh, the French Impressionists, and even Andy Warhol.
The iconic building serves as the backdrop for some of the city’s most impressive events, including the 4th of July fireworks, a massive labor day concert series, running events and carnivals.
The steps of the art museum are perhaps more famous than the building itself. It was these steps that featured prominently in the Rocky movies, one of the most famous movies set in the city. Near the base of the steps is the bronze sculpture of Rocky that was also shown in the film.
Eastern State Penitentiary
In 1829, a new prison was opened in the Fairmount neighborhood, a prison that would literally change the world. Born out of the idea that prisoners must be “broken” to achieve repentance for their crimes, Eastern State Penitentiary was the world’s first penitentiary. For 140 years, the prisoners would be kept in isolation.
Today, the site is a major tourist attraction, particularly around Halloween. Even beyond “dark tourism,” the site is intriguing. Visitors can even see the lavish cell where Al Capone was held prisoner.
The Magic Gardens
If there’s one man who provides the daily backdrop to life in the city, it is Isaiah Zagar. By using broken found objects like mirrors, plates and even bicycle wheels, Zagar creates massive, intricate mosaics that beautify the city. Starting in the early 1990s, Zagar has created over 200 large-scale works throughout the city, but most are located in South Philly.
The Magic Gardens are Zagar’s crowning achievement. Originally two vacant lots located next to Zagar’s house, this interactive museum is a feast for the eyes and is one of the top activities with kids.
Located across the Schuylkill River from the art museum in Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Zoo has been delighting children of all ages since 1874. That makes it the oldest zoo in America and was originally envisioned by Benjamin Franklin.
It was also the first zoo in the world to develop a system where the animals can explore outside the confines of their paddocks. The animals can roam through mesh-covered walkways above visitors. It’s certainly unique.
And at Christmas time, visitors pack into the park for the LumiNature light display.
Arguably the prettiest city hall in America, this is the also the largest municipal building in the U.S. It still serves as the seat for the city’s government, with both the mayor and city council doing business here.
The building is best known for the 548-foot tall tower, which was the tallest structure in the city for generations. The tower is topped with a massive statue of William Penn. The statue is the largest statue in the world atop a building.
Reading Terminal Market
The idea of a farmers market was born in 1730 a few hours west of Philly. But the Reading Terminal Market is the oldest operating farmers market in America (dating back to 1893). It’s also a beloved institution for locals and tourists.
The market has numerous stalls for selling meats and vegetables (mostly staffed by Amish and Mennonites from Lancaster County). But the market also has a large number of restaurants and food stands selling everything from donuts to roast pork sandwiches (named the best sandwich in America by the Travel Channel). If you are feeling ambitious, try to visit all 100 food stands in a single day.
Every school child in America knows the story of Valley Forge. In December 1777, a badly bruised and struggling Continental Army showed up in the hills above the Schuylkill River. Under the command of General George Washington, the militiamen became a cohesive fighting unit and turned the tide of the American Revolution.
These days, the suffering of the 12,000 troops is long forgotten. The 3,500 acres has become a very popular National Park and used year round for walking, running, cycling, cross-country skiing and sledding.
Located in Kennett Square, historic Longwood Gardens looks like it would be in Europe, not the U.S. The historic home at the center belonged to George Peirce and was built in 1730. The home was enlarged over time and is now known as the Peirce-du Pont House (Peirce the builder, and the du Pont family, the most famous residents). The home and land were acquired by Pierre S. du Pont, who preserved them for us to enjoy.
And enjoy we do. The pristine grounds, fountains and the vast conservatory entertain and delight guests all year round, but particularly during the Christmas spectacular. It is one of our favorite things to do during the holidays and is not to be missed!
Many visitors and even some locals don’t know that the modern street art movement was born right here in Philly. It started in 1967 when Darryl McCray took to the streets and started creating the works that defined the cultural phenomenon.
What started as an individual efforts has exploded into a full-fledged artistic revolution. The Mural Arts Project in the city started as an anti-graffiti project and has produced over 4,000 murals. It has become the densest collection of murals anywhere in the world.
Unique to Philadelphia, the Mummers are a unique cultural group in the city. It’s part cultural affinity group, part costume party, and part musical experience. In short, the Mummers almost defy explanation.
These folks dress up in intricate costumes and perform musical numbers as they parade through the city on New Years Day. The event is one of the city’s most notable traditions and is America’s oldest folk parade, first held in 1901.
Love Park/LOVE Sculpture
Just in time for the American bicentennial in 1976, the city redesigned John F. Kennedy Plaza and Love Park was born. Love Park takes its name from the giant LOVE sculpture by artist Robert Indiana.
The sculpture (and the park) is much beloved by locals and is a ‘must visit’ for visitors. At any time of day, you’ll see people out taking pictures with the sculpture. The park also hosts special events throughout the year.
Philadelphia is America’s Garden Capital. The city and the surrounding area has over 36 public gardens and arboreta. There is the Magnolia Garden and the Azalea Garden and the sculpture garden and historical gardens and…the list goes on and on.
The gardens in Philadelphia provide greenery and outdoor activities, but they are also important historical and cultural institutions. And the gardens are deeply loved by locals.
Philly has one of the best restaurant scenes in the country. And that just isn’t an opinion, the city has been recognized over and over again by the prestigious James Beard Foundation.
As of this writing, the best restaurant in America for 3 of the last 5 years has been in Philadelphia (first Zahav and now Friday Saturday Sunday). The best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region, Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, operates the incredible Kalaya thai restaurant. The best restaurateur in America, Ellen Yin, runs numerous restaurants here. And Vedge has been frequently cited as one of the best vegan restaurants in the world.
Whether you love fine dining or street food, Philly is a foodie city and has tons of incredible, iconic foods to try.
The food most commonly associated with the city is the world-famous cheesesteak. This delicious sandwich has ribeye steak, cheese and fried onions in an Italian long roll. And it is delicious!
The Philly cheesesteak was invited by local food cart vendor Pat Olivieri in 1930. The cheesesteak spurred imitation, including other cheesesteak spots like Geno’s across the street. The result is a healthy competition between Pat’s and Geno’s as well as other cheesesteak shops.
Roast Pork Sandwich
While tourists may believe the cheesesteak is the classic Philly sandwich, many locals will argue strongly that the roast pork sandwich is the more iconic food. It was also named the best sandwich in America according to the Travel Channel.
This cousin-of-the-cheesesteak is more beloved by locals. The sandwich has thinly-sliced oven-roasted pork and then topped with broccoli rabe in a long roll. To the uninitiated, it may look like just another cheesesteak. Trust us when we say, it’s an entirely different animal.
The ubiquitous snack throughout the city is the beloved soft pretzel. The Philly soft pretzel is a bit different than what you mind find at Auntie Anne’s or events in other cities.
Soft pretzels in Philadelphia are more elongated, figure-eight shaped and made from a thicker dough that is softer. You will find these pretzels at every sporting event, convenience store and anywhere people may gather (parks, festivals, etc.).
While water ice and slushies and the like can be found in almost every city around the world. The water ice was brought to the city from Sicilian immigrants generations ago and has evolved into something adored here in the city.
The best water ices in Philly are made with ice, fruit and sugar. There are no additives. And the real key is to have actual pieces of fruit, whereas in other cities, they just drizzle a fruity syrup on the ice.
On March 1st every year, the largest water ice company opens and it is an unofficial holiday throughout the city. In the past, some schools have even closed for “water ice day.”
It was invited in 1949 by Italian immigrant Nazzareno Romano. He originally operated a food cart in South Philly selling homemade tomato pies. He began experimenting with a new type of sandwich, rolling a thin dough and putting Italian meats, bell peppers and cheese inside. The whole thing is then rolled into a log-shape and then baked.
The City of Brotherly Love has a rich musical tradition. The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the premier musical organizations in the world. They are one of the “Big Five” in the U.S. (top orchestras that include the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra). They have also been recognized as one of the top 10 orchestras in the world.
Based out of the Kimmel Center on Broad Street, tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra are prized by visitors and locals alike. If you can snag tickets, it’s a chance to hear the orchestra that is full of firsts for any orchestra: first recording, first television appearance, first Internet broadcast, and a whole lot of others.
World’s Largest Organ
The Wanamaker Organ was built by George Ashdown Audsley for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. After the fair, the organ was purchased by John Wanamaker for his department store (now the Macy’s on Market Street) and moved to Philly.
The organ is a monster. The console has six keyboards, 729 color-coded stop tablets, and weighs 2.5 tons. That’s nothing when you consider there are 28,750 pipes in total, which weighs an impressive 287 tons (more than some buildings).
Inaugurated on June 22, 1911, the organ has been delighting audiences ever since. It is played at noon and 5:30pm on Monday-Saturday (no organ performances on Sundays). All organ concerts are free.
In the U.S. era of slavery, the city of Philadelphia was the largest and closest city above the Mason-Dixon Line. For many of the enslaved people escaping that terrible institution, Philly was an important destination and a major stop on the underground railroad. The city has dozens of important underground railroad and African-American historical sites.
Visitors can see the Johnson House, where Harriet Tubman was a frequent visitor. And the Mother Bethel AME church, the mother church for the nation’s first black denomination, is also an important underground railroad site.
Philly is a sports town. The city’s teams play hard and it is a very inhospitable place for competitors. But the city also demands the best from players. One of the famous quotes about the city came from Shawn Bradley who once said, “The problem with Philadelphia fans is that they want you to play every game like it’s your last one.”
In other cities, people may be fan of a single sport or a couple of sports. In Philly, people are fans of EVERY Philly team. Of course, the city’s pride and joy are the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2017 Super Bowl Champions. But equally beloved the Phillies MLB team, the 76ers in the NBA, the Philadelphia Union in MLS, and the Flyers in hockey (and their adored mascot Gritty).
It seems the Philly teams are always the underdogs, and that’s how we like it.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The popular TV show about unemployed actors was originally to be set in LA (unemployed actors in Los Angeles? total cliché). FX insisted the show’s location be changed. Actor Rob McElhenney (one of the city’s most famous sons) suggested Philly would make a good setting. And the rest is history.
The Always Sunny show is largely filmed on a soundstage in LA, but many local sites are used as locations in the show. This includes the Liberty Bell and the sports venues (Lincoln Financial Field, Wells Fargo Center, etc.). The iconic Paddy’s Pub is a set, although based on the Paddy’s Old City Pub, an actual watering hole in the city.
The iconic television show American Bandstand was conceived and debuted in Philly in 1952. From 1952-1964, the show was based here and Philadelphia helped shaped the American music scene. It also launched Dick Clark’s career nationally as well as the careers of hundreds of musicians.