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Best Things To Do in Philadelphia

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Philadelphia is steeped in history, with nearly every street corner bearing a plaque testifying to some tidbit of importance. With so much to learn, it’s easy to get bogged down with dates and fast facts about the nation’s firsts (the first hospital, the first permanent theater house, the first fire company, the first zoo ... you get the idea), but you shouldn’t. Sure, take in some history, but don’t forget to play. Visit a museum or two, head to the park, or simply stroll Center City’s streets to soak in the atmosphere. And when you get hungry, make your way to Reading Terminal Market or the Italian Market, where every dish comes with a side order of history, but only if you’re interested.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens

Neighborhood: South Street

You may not know his name, but if you’ve spent any time wandering around South Street, you’re familiar with his work. Since the 60s, mosaic mural artist Isaiah Zagar has been reimagining the city’s streets, tiling every wall he can with shards of glass and broken bits of reclaimed and handmade tiles. But his magnum opus, a mixed-media labyrinth built from a blend of dumpster-dive finds, handmade art and donated materials, proves that one man’s trash truly is another man’s treasure. Covering nearly half a city block of multilevel space, walking around the gardens feels like walking in a dream. Empty wine bottles glow emerald, miniature rainbows leap from mirrored shards and onto the pavement, and bicycle wheels remain forever encased in cement archways. Tin angels reside next to devil masks, and bits of poetry punctuate the structure, lending a window into the mind, and the madness, of the artist.

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City Hall

Neighborhood: Center City

One of the first things you’ll see when you visit Philadelphia is the soaring, statue-topped clock tower of City Hall. Situated at the city’s crux, the building bisects Broad and Market streets—the two main arteries that radiate roughly north, south, east and west—creating a nightmare for commuters. Monday through Friday from 9:30AM to 4:15PM, visitors can travel 500 feet up to the observation deck for panoramic views, as seen from directly underneath the crowning likeness of Philadelphia founder William Penn (just be sure to get there early to get tickets). Once you’re back on the ground, head across the street to snap a picture of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue in the aptly-named LOVE Park.

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Rittenhouse Square

Neighborhood: Rittenhouse

This verdant oasis in the heart of the city is the central meeting place for all of Philadelphia—from artists to attorneys and preppies to punk rockers—making it a prime place for people-watching. Guitar players strum, inviting impromptu jam sessions, focused chess players draw small crowds and tightrope walkers precariously practice, balancing on line strung between two trees. Animal-inspired statues punctuate the square, serving as gathering places for parents and artsy jungle gyms for children. The park’s allure is especially strong on sunny, lazy weekends when the grassy lawn turns into a checkerboard of colored picnic blankets and free, improvised concerts fill the air.

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Mutter Museum

Neighborhood: Rittenhouse

Not for the faint of heart, the Mutter feels half house of horrors, half mad scientist laboratory. Begun in 1858 as an educational tool for future doctors, the museum is a sort of show and tell of medical oddities, with over 20,000 unusual objects, ranging from a collection of things swallowed and retrieved, to thinly-sliced sections of a human head. Among the museum’s most famous “residents” are The Soap Lady, a woman whose burial in a Philadelphia cemetery strangely turned her fat to adipocere, a type of wax similar in composition to lye soap, and a plaster cast of the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, whose autopsy was performed in the museum. Other morbid curiosities include a cancerous growth removed from President Grover Cleveland and a human colon not much smaller than a life raft, removed from a man suffering of “mega colon.”

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Longwood Gardens

Neighborhood:

Kennett Square

Visitors aching for some greenery can head about 45 minutes west of the city to Longwood Gardens to explore more than 1,000 acres of manicured gardens punctuated by fountains, gazebos and historic houses. There are 20 outdoor gardens plus another 20 indoors, perfect for feeling like you’re outdoors even if the weather isn’t cooperating. Pack a picnic and make your way to Chimes Tower, where you can relax near a 50-foot waterfall and listen to free concerts in the summer and fall, when the tower's 62 bells play music as frequently as every 15 minutes. And don't leave without stopping by the garden's signature Main Fountain Garden, a 5-acre water feature where shows are performed several times a day. Come Memorial Day through Labor Day for the Festival of Fountains, which features spectacular illuminated nighttime shows.

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Reading Terminal Market

Neighborhood: Center City

Plan to visit the terminal hungry. Nearly 80 vendors serve up eats, ranging from fine chocolates to falafel, in this former railroad terminal turned gastronomic bazaar. While Philadelphians visit the market to shop for fresh-from-the-farm produce and meats to cook at home, there are plenty of places to enjoy a full-blown meal. Treat yourself to some Philly favorites, like Delilah’s mac and cheese (deemed the best in the country by Oprah) or a succulent pork sandwich from DiNic’s, but don’t forget to leave room for dessert. Stop by Beiler’s Bakery, one of the several Amish vendors that make the trip from nearby Lancaster several times a week, for the Pennsylvania Dutch specialty shoofly pie and big-as-your-head éclairs.

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Reading Terminal Market  

Italian Market

Neighborhood: South Philly

Spanning roughly 10 blocks along Ninth Street in South Philly, the Italian Market is one of the oldest and largest open-air markets in the country. Vendors line the streets, hawking everything from produce to spices, while specialty shops and restaurants have actual storefronts. Standouts include the specialty cheese shop Di Bruno Bros., Italian bakery Sarcone’s and, of course, Pat’s and Geno’s, the original cheesesteak rivals. While the area’s offerings are steeped in Italian tradition, the last 10 years have brought an influx of international flavors to the north end of the market, including a fair sampling of Mexican and Asian eateries. The market is open daily all year round, though some stores are closed on Mondays. 

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Independence National Historical Park Visitors Center

Neighborhood: Old City

Though it hasn’t sounded in over 160 years, the Liberty Bell rings as an international icon of freedom. The more than 2,000-pound bell received new digs in 2003, when it was moved into a small glass enclosure located just in front of Independence Hall. The exhibit highlights the cracked bell’s significance in the movement to abolish slavery and dispels its myths. Once you’ve finished seeing the exhibit’s main attraction, head over to Independence Hall, only steps away, and set foot in the room where some of the most important decisions in our country’s history were made. Just don't forget to get your free timed ticket at the Independence Visitors Center, across the street, first.

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Eastern State Penitentiary

Neighborhood:

Fairmount

Peculiarly situated in the artsy Fairmount neighborhood, Eastern State is an anachronism, a dark, brooding castle looming over several city blocks. Opened in 1829, Eastern State revolutionized the prison system by promoting penitence through a Quaker-inspired system of isolation.  Constructed in the shape of a wagon wheel, prisoners were housed in seven cellblocks which radiated from a central rotunda, a design that allowed for each inmate to have their own outdoor area, insuring that all prisoners would be kept in solitary confinement. The model was criticized by some as inhumane, and was undeniably costly, leading to its closure in 1970. After sitting dormant for nearly 25 years, the prison was opened to the public for regular tours in 1994. Now, visitors can stroll the cellblocks, step inside the weathered cages and listen to the voices, and stories, of former inmates. Don’t miss Al Capone’s well-appointed cell, where he spent eight months in 1929. Other notable inmates include bank robber “Slick” Willie Sutton and Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog,” who was supposedly sentenced to life at Eastern State after allegedly murdering the governor’s wife’s cat.

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Franklin Institute

Neighborhood:

Franklin Institute

Where else can you walk through a giant replica of the human heart? At 15,000 times actual size, children and flexible adults can climb through the essential organ like a human corpuscle, all while learning what makes us tick. Other highlights—like The Sports Challenge, where the physics of athletics is explained via virtual reality, and Space Command, a simulated earth-orbit research station—make this hands-on museum one of Pennsylvania’s most visited. 

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Philadelphia Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Art Museum

If this building looks familiar, that’s because it probably is. Ascending the 72 steps to the museum’s upper terrace, many patrons are inspired to (try to) run the distance a la “Rocky,” with the “Eye of the Tiger” running through their minds. But while a scrappy Philadelphia movie icon may have made the building famous, what’s inside draws a slightly different kind of crowd. One of the largest museums in the United States, work by the heavy-hitters of the art world, including Van Gogh and Monet, line the walls, and a hall of armor gives visitors the chance to learn about another kind of contender. If you’re looking to dodge a blow to your wallet, head to the museum on the first Sunday of the month, when the admission is pay what you wish.

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