Philadelphia has racked up many notable historic sites since its founding in 1682.
Let’s face it: the City of Brotherly Love has even more outstanding historic places (let alone the Rocky steps and statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the LOVE statue, which, sorry, don’t count here) than Benjamin Franklin had aphorisms. It pays to be selective and make a plan—“Great haste makes great waste,” as Franklin wrote. Don’t-miss icons like Independence Hall recall the city’s critical role in the American Revolution and the country’s founding. Still, you’ll get a fuller sense of Philly if you also set your sights on notable places that tell other stories, whether it’s Eastern State Penitentiary or Mother Bethel AME Church. So let’s get started.
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The President’s House
History lingers just north of the Liberty Bell Center, where an unassuming, open-air site with partial brick walls and window frames marks the footprint of the vanished President’s House, home of Presidents George Washington and John Adams from 1790 to 1800. Videos and explanatory panels, focusing on slavery, present the stories of those who lived here when Philadelphia was the young nation’s capital. Washington and Adams were helping to shape the future of democracy, but during Washington’s terms, the site was also home to at least nine enslaved African Americans from Mount Vernon. Their lives and working conditions are remembered here, and their names are inscribed on a stone wall. The displays and some remains of the original house are outside, so it’s best to visit in good weather.
Elfreth’s Alley—the Country’s Oldest Residential Street
You can squint at narrow, cobblestone Elfreth’s Alley and imagine that you’re back in the 18th-century city. Today’s Philadelphia is full of creative makers and entrepreneurs, and back in the day, these brick houses were the residences and workplaces of the city’s original makers—artisans and merchants living near the piers on the Delaware River. Built from the early 1700s to 1830, the 32 modest Federal- and Georgian-style houses on the country’s oldest continuously occupied residential street were not the grand mansions of Society Hill. Craftspeople from silversmiths to cabinet makers lived here, and in season, you can stop by the Elfreth’s Alley Museum at Nos. 124–126 to explore the former homes of a Colonial dressmaker and chair maker.
INSIDER TIPCheck the Elfreth’s Alley website for information about June’s Fete Day and December’s Deck the Alley, when you can visit some private houses and see how today’s residents live.
Surrounded by the taller modern buildings, stately redbrick Independence Hall looks surprisingly low-key for a national icon and symbol of freedom. But if these walls could talk, they would tell tales of how the building that began life as the Pennsylvania State House became the site of monumental decisions and events for a new nation: the appointment of George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental army, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, to name just a few. You visit on a free timed tour; the ranger guides are generally excellent. Get same-day tickets from Independence Visitor Center, a good place to orient yourself to the historic area, or reserve online; plan ahead, as this is a popular site.
Liberty Bell Center
Famously cracked, the bronze Liberty Bell has long inspired lovers of freedom. Learn its history at the Liberty Bell Center, a complex with the bell, interpretive displays, and a film. Cast in England for the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in 1751, it cracked in Philadelphia and was recast in 1753. It then cracked gradually, with a significant crack in 1846. The bell was rung on July 8, 1776, for the reading of the Declaration of Independence. In the 1830s, it became a symbol for abolitionists (who renamed it the Liberty Bell) because of its biblical inscription: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.” Later, groups from activists for women’s suffrage to civil rights advocates embraced the bell as a powerful emblem.
Museum of the American Revolution
Opened in 2017, the Museum of the American Revolution isn’t historic in itself, but it’s well worth a visit to explore engaging interactive displays and intriguing artifacts that make the struggle for independence feel far fresher than the account in your high-school history textbook. The Becoming Revolutionaries section examines how colonists gradually became Americans, looking at the hard choices people made. How did stakeholders such as Native Americans, women, and enslaved people decide which side to support? Exhibits in the Darkest Hour dramatize the Continental army’s setbacks, helping you appreciate just how menacing the experienced British army was. Watch the films and, among the artifacts here, be sure to see Washington’s War Tent.
A sculpture-filled, leafy retreat beloved by locals, Rittenhouse Square was one of the five original squares in William Penn’s 17th-century plan for a “greene countrie towne.” The square began as a forested area and a grazing place for animals, and was renamed in 1825 for local astronomer and mathematician David Rittenhouse. In the mid-19th century, Rittenhouse Square became chic and expensive as the surrounding streets filled with townhouses. The square and neighborhood remain, well, chic and expensive, though apartments, restaurants, and fancy shops have replaced the houses right around the square. French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret gave the square its current elegant design in 1913. To channel the neighborhood vibe, relax on a bench or people-watch while dining alfresco at spots like Parc.
Eastern State Penitentiary
Today an offbeat tourist site, this massive, influential, semi-ruined prison in the Fairmount neighborhood takes you through the history of criminal justice reform while you peek into cells that held Al Capone, bank robber Willie Sutton, and others. Opened in 1829 and shut down in 1971, Eastern State Penitentiary was built with cellblocks radiating from a central hub. Rather than punishing prisoners, it encouraged them toward penitence—using discipline and solitary confinement in small cells. Although Eastern State served as the model for some 300 prisons, the system eventually failed. Take a guided tour or the excellent audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi to appreciate the crumbling spaces and study displays on current issues in criminal justice. Or visit around Halloween for a different experience, the popular Terror Behind the Walls, six haunted attractions. Much of the penitentiary isn’t heated, so bundle up in winter.
The stately fieldstone house is quiet now, but back in the revolutionary days of 1777, Cliveden played an important role in the bloody Battle of Germantown. The area was countryside when Benjamin Chew of the wealthy, privileged Chew family built it in 1763–67 as a summer escape from the city. British troops occupied the house during the battle and could not be dislodged by the Continental army, contributing to the British victory. You can take a guided tour of the house, owned by the Chews until 1970. Among the family’s commercial enterprises were nine plantations (in several states) that used enslaved workers. Exhibits in the Carriage House visitor center examine this historical legacy of slavery and how it can be used to understand what the house—and freedom—mean.
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
The story of former slave Richard Allen and his founding of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on this site in Society Hill reveals another layer of the city’s history. Born into slavery on a property of Philadelphia’s Chew family (they built Cliveden), Allen (1760–1831) eventually purchased his freedom in 1780, becoming a Methodist preacher at St. George’s in Philadelphia in 1786. When white congregants supported the segregation of Black worshippers, Allen and others left. The land they purchased in 1787, occupied by the current church (a splendid 19th-century building), is the country’s oldest real estate continuously owned by African Americans. In 1816, Allen and others formed the independent AME denomination; Allen was its first bishop. He and his wife, Sarah Allen, ran a station on the Underground Railroad. In the crypt, you can see the tombs of Allen and his wife, pews from the original church, and a small museum.
Where Benjamin Franklin Held Court
Inventor, scientist, philosopher, businessman, diplomat, and much more, Benjamin Franklin played many critical roles in Philadelphia and in the nation’s founding, and all get their due in lively exhibits at the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Franklin Court. Pithy quotes from Franklin, interactive displays that reflect on his key qualities (“Strategic and Persuasive” is one), and videos bring an icon to life, even for children. The gift shop has Franklin- and Colonial-related books and souvenirs.
Outside the museum in the courtyard, a steel skeleton marks the site of Franklin’s long-vanished home and his grandson’s printing office. Stop by the Colonial-style Franklin Court Printing Office for a demonstration of printing or typesetting, the business that earned Franklin his wealth.
INSIDER TIPAt the nearby B. Free Franklin Post Office, a Colonial-themed USPS facility, you can get a letter hand-canceled with “b. free franklin.” There’s a small museum, too.