The history of a place is often dictated by the fortune or misfortune of its location. A country like Poland, wedged between Russia and Germany is an example of unfortunate geography, while the city of Philadelphia is an example of the great virtues of being in the midst of it all. With poor transportation and roads in the original colonies, Philadelphia was the logical choice for the seating of the First and Second Continental Congresses. Later, it played the role of capital of the United States in the 1790s when both Washington and Adams were president.
The base for any history-based visit of Philadelphia is the Old City, a well-preserved historic area wedged between the modern downtown and the Delaware River. Full of quaint houses and leafy streets, the area is home to Independence National Park and numerous other historically significant attractions. The best known of the historic sights is, of course, Independence Hall.
The building today known as Independence Hall saw not only lengthy debates on whether or not to confront England, but the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Completed in 1753, Independence Hall was, at that time, the Pennsylvania State House when it was borrowed for these historic occasions. A large structure for its day with a tall bell tower housing the original Liberty Bell, the hall has two main light-filled rooms that are open to the public.
To see Independence Hall and the meeting room where the Continental Congress met, visitors have to take a short tour, about 30 minutes. The room itself is surprisingly small and laid out as it was when our forefathers were arguing over independence and the Constitution. Unfortunately the room’s furnishings are not the originals from the room but period antiques, with the exception of the chair that George Washington sat in during the proceedings. Your guide will be a National Parks employee and the spiel will be well rehearsed but mercifully short.
The entrance to the tour is at Chestnut and Fifth Street, outside the Old City Hall. The line for security can be long as they check every bag going into the site. If you don’t have a bag, you can go to the front of the line and get in quickly. Generally allow at least 15 minutes for security. Keep in mind that there are no bathrooms past the security checkpoint.
Next door to Independence Hall at the corner of Chestnut and Sixth Street is Congress Hall, where Congress met in the 1790s. Admission is free, tickets are not necessary and tours happen every 20 minutes. Across the street is the Liberty Bell Center, which houses the famous cracked bell. There are no tickets required to enter but the line can be long as a security check is required. To the north, past the Visitors Center, is the National Constitution Center with its interactive exhibits showcasing our system of government. The museum certainly warrants a visit, if only to get your photo taken in Signers’ Hall among the life-size sculptures of the signers of the constitution.
Of course, Philadelphia would not be what it is today without the influence of favorite son Benjamin Franklin. A brilliant inventor, businessman and statesman, Franklin’s influence on the nascent United States was immense. Justly revered in Philadelphia, Franklin actually spent most of his later life as ambassador in France. You can see his grave in the two-acre Christ Church Burial Ground on Arch Street, across from the Free Quaker Meeting House.
Nearby at 314-322 Market Street is Franklin Court where Franklin once lived. The house is gone but its location is signified by a 54-foot high frame sculpture created for the bicentennial in 1976. Beneath the court is an interesting underground museum dedicated to Franklin’s life. There is also an 18th century printing shop plus a postal museum and working post office.
Other notable historic sights are within easy walking distance. Southwest of Independence Square is the picturesque Washington Square. This lovely park is the resting place for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution. Elfreth’s Alley (website), the longest continually occupied residential street in the U.S., is located off Second Street between Arch and Race. Also nearby is the Betsy Ross House, at 239 Arch Street, dedicated to its most famous resident and sewer of the first U.S. flag.
Independence Hall Tours are free but tickets are required and need to be reserved in advance. You can either stop by the Independence Visitors Center (6th & Market Streets, website) or reserve online for a $1.50 fee per ticket. Tickets generally sell out during the busy season (spring – fall) so make sure you go early enough in the morning if you want to tour the same day. In summer, tickets are often spoken for before noon. Pick-up your tickets one hour before if you reserve online.
Operating hours are 9am – 5pm, longer in the summer
For more info, visit their website.
The Liberty Bell Center is located on Market Street between 5th and 6th Streets.
Open daily except Christmas Day from 9am – 5pm with longer hours in the summer. Free admission
Franklin Court, 314 – 322 Market Street. This museum dedicated to Ben Franklin is open daily 9am – 5pm. Free admission.
Christ Church Burial Ground, Arch Street at 5th Street
Hours are Mon – Sat 10am – 4pm and Sun 12pm to 4pm, weather permitting
Betsy Ross House, 239 Arch Street
Open 10am – 5pm daily (closed Mondays October – March).
Suggested admission, $3 adults and $2 children under 12/students
Eat & Drink
Philadelphia’s dining scene is diverse and offers many well-priced options. In the immediate area of the Old City, you can find many restaurants at reasonable price points. Keep in mind that most restaurants do not serve lunch on Saturdays.
Area choices include Jones, an upscale modern diner with solid American food at 700 Chestnut Street (at 7th Street) (215-223-5663, website). Dinner for two about $75. The restaurant is open throughout the day from 11:30am Monday – Thursday, from 11am Friday and from 10am for Saturday and Sunday brunch.
Amada (217 Chestnut Street, 215-625-2450, website) has good tapas including fantastic patatas bravas and an extensive winelist. Reservations are a must (and can be made online) or arrive early for a seat at the long bar. Dinner for two – $80. Open for lunch Monday – Friday 11:30am – 2:30pm; dinner Sunday 4pm – 11pm, Monday – Thursday 5pm – 11pm, Friday and Saturday 5pm – Midnight.
Xochitl (408 South Second Street, 215-238-7280, website) is an acclaimed modern Mexican restaurant with good ceviches and modest prices (entrees from $16 – $27). The bar is known for its large tequila selection, including tequila flights composed by producer, style, premium or chosen by you, the diner. Open for dinner Tuesday – Sunday from 5pm to 10pm.
Zahav (237 St. James Place, 215-625-8800, website) is a newly opened Society Hill spot serving Israeli cuisine, including four types of humus and hot and cold mezze. The more substantial skewers are grilled over hot coals. Open for lunch Monday – Friday from 11:30am – 2pm and dinner, Sunday – Wednesday from 5pm – 10pm, Thursday – Saturday 5pm – 11pm with a late night menu 11pm – 1am. Dinner for two – $60.
Also nearby is the original outpost of Iron Chef America star Masaharu Morimoto. While you may not see him about, you can still enjoy sushi and modern Japanese dishes. Morimoto Restaurant is at 732 Chestnut Street (215-413-9070, website). Dinner for two – $125+. Lunch, Monday – Friday 11:30am-2pm. Dinner, Sunday – Wednesday 5pm-10pm, Thursday 5pm-11pm, Friday – Saturday 5pm-Midnight.
Afterwards, you can head over to get delectable gelato from Capogiro (119 S. 13th Street at Sansome Street).
Where to Stay
Hotels in Philadelphia tend to be pricey. One option is to book a downtown hotel since they tend to be busy on weekdays and have better rates on the weekends. Here are some options in the Old City.
A good bet, not too far from the Old City, is the Alexander Inn, with rooms starting at $149, including breakfast.
12th and Spruce Streets
The Thomas Bond House is a historic B&B built in 1769 that features Chippendale era furnishings. There are only 12 guest rooms and rates can be as low as $135 including breakfast and evening wine & cheese. Book well in advance.
129 South Second Street
The Sheraton Society Hill is another convenient option and comes complete with a swimming pool. Weekend rates can be as low as $159 with internet special rates, with $189 being a typical high-season weekend price.
1 Dock Street (2nd and Walnut Streets)
The Old City has a number of good restaurants, bars and hotels. It is very walkable and easily reached by Amtrak and numerous airlines. If you arrive by train, take the subway from 30th street station to Fifth Street for Independence Hall. Taxis are plentiful and driving in the area is straightforward with plenty of parking garages.