Philadelphia is a dream destination for American history buffs. The City of Brotherly Love has borne witness to some of the most important founding events for the nation. In fact, Philadelphia has so many historic sites that it can be tough to choose where to start! From Founding Fathers favorites to sites documenting a range of American experiences, let this list kick off your trip plans.
The Most Historic Square Mile in America
Independence National Historic Park boasts the honor of the nation’s most historic square mile for good reason. It’s home to museums, the Liberty Bell, and the site where the Founding Fathers debated and signed the Declaration of Independence. Just walking down the 20 blocks in Philly’s Old City area will make you feel like you’re part of history.
What better place to start than the site where it all began? The Declaration of Independence was adopted here, and the Constitution was written here. Imagine Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams’ voices echoing through the building as they discussed the principles that influenced America from the beginning.
Especially if you’re traveling with kids, you can’t miss a visit to the Liberty Bell. Philadelphia’s most iconic landmark is one of the best-known images associated with the founding of the nation. Legend has it that the Liberty Bell’s famous crack formed when the bell rang to announce the independence of the United States of America. The bell takes its name from the Bible verse inscribed on it. (Challenge your kids to spot the misspelled word on the bell, too!)
African American Museum in Philadelphia
Not only does this museum present the trials and achievements of African Americans, from the African Diaspora and pre-colonial events to the present day, but it is also the first institution funded by a U.S. city to highlight specifically African American heritage. See art and historic exhibitions about Black culture and historic heroes, such as Philadelphia civil rights activist Octavius Catto.
The President’s House
Before the White House was built, this mansion was the seat of power in the new United States. See where Washington and Adams spent most of their presidencies, and learn about the often-overlooked story of the enslaved African Americans who lived in the house under Washington.
National Museum of American Jewish History
The only museum in the country dedicated exclusively to preserving and presenting the history of the Jewish experience in America. The NMAJH offers exhibitions tracing the stories of Jewish immigrants as far back at 1654. This unique perspective on American immigration and religious expression is worth a visit.
Part of the fun of being a history buff is connecting the way people used to live with our experiences today. What better place to do that than the longest continually-inhabited street in the country? Elfreth’s Alley dates back to 1706, when it was a cart path named after Jeremiah Elfreth, a silversmith. It’s one of only three preserved 18th-century streetscapes in the country. The Elfreth’s Alley Museum House offers tour options year-round, and the current residents of the street’s 32 homes open their doors to tourists twice a year, in June and the first Saturday in December.
Eastern State Penitentiary
This prison was among the most famous and expensive prisons in the world once, housing notorious criminals such as Al “Scarface” Capone. The crumbling ruin is a spooky must-see attraction today. The severe punishments used while the penitentiary operated, including freezing water baths, the iron gag, and “The Hole,” lead some people to speculate that the penitentiary is haunted by restless spirits of tormented prisoners. If you’re in Philadelphia in the fall, you can even test your bravery by taking the “Terror Behind the Walls” tour.
The Franklin Institute
Benjamin Franklin’s love of science is well documented. He would have gotten a thrill out of visiting his namesake museum in Philadelphia! Escape rooms, a planetarium, exhibits on electricity, and an IMAX theater are science, rather than history, but a visit here is a great way to join your imagination with one of our Founding Fathers. Immerse yourself in historic moments in science, like the Apollo 11 flight simulator, or check out future-forward exhibits to imagine how the world might look many years from now.
Reading Terminal Market
All that touring is bound to leave you hungry. Satisfy your appetite for both food and history with a stop at Reading Terminal Market. This is one of the oldest public markets in the country, running since 1893. The market building is a national historic landmark, but let’s be real: You’re here for some delicious food. Try a Pennsylvania Dutch market stand for cozy staples like chicken and waffles, pork and sauerkraut, or shoo-fly pie. Elsewhere in the market, you can find Middle Eastern and Thai cuisine, vegan fare, and of course Philly cheesesteaks.
A visit to Philadelphia is bound to leave you with new favorite spots and enliven your imagination. What’s at the top of your must-see list?