To truly embrace Philadelphia’s historic importance, travelers must visit the Old City neighborhood. A part of Philadelphia’s historical district, Old City and Society Hill preserve the charm of the 18th century with cobblestone streets and original storefronts. Spending time in Old City is a must for anyone traveling to Philadelphia. Here are the can’t miss sights and sounds of Old City and Society Hill.
Visitors will be enveloped in history the moment you set foot in Old City, with much of the neighborhood considered part of America’s most historic square mile. Start your American history journey at the Independence Visitor Center in Independence National Historical Park, with guides to the city, watch an introductory Philadelphia film, shop from the large gift shop, and reserve free, timed tickets for nearby Independence Hall – the site of where the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were debated, adopted, and signed.
Next to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center houses the everlasting symbol of American liberty and freedom, the Liberty Bell, with self-guided exhibits on view throughout the Center. Not far away on Chestnut Street is Carpenters’ Hall, the site of the First Continental Congress in 1774.
TIP: Access to the Liberty Bell Center is free and lines form quickly. To avoid crowds, try visiting early in the day, shortly after the Center opens.
The President’s House Commemorative Site stands where Presidents George Washington and John Adams once lived and explores slavery and freedom in the early days of America. On the northern end of Independence Mall, stands the National Constitution Center, the only museum in the nation dedicated to exploring the story of the United States Constitution. Take a free, self-guided tour of the nearby United States Mint for a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of coins. Just across the street is the final resting place of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, the Christ Church Burial Ground.
On Arch Street, tour the Betsy Ross House – the former home of upholsterer Betsy Ross, who is believed to have sewn the very first American flag at the request of George Washington. Just around the corner, enjoy a stroll down the nation’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street and learn more of its history (dating back to 1702) at the Elfreth’s Alley Museum. Afterwards, take a short walk to the Fireman’s Hall Museum, standing on the site where Benjamin Franklin founded the first fire company in 1736.
The only museum in the country dedicated to the early Americans’ struggle for independence, the Museum of the American Revolution showcases original artwork and artifacts from the period plus interactive exhibits tracing the seeds of the war to its impact today. Explore the Benjamin Franklin Museum and Franklin Court, home of the Philadelphia statesman, author, printer, inventor and postmaster. The building also is the nation’s first post office.
The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History is the only major National Museum dedicated to telling the story of the Jews in America from 1654 to present day. The museum regularly hosts special exhibits profiling the journey of notable Jewish Americans, such as Rube Goldberg, Leonard Bernstein, and the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Across Market Street, the new Faith and Liberty Discovery Center examines the role faith played in the founding of the nation, using state-of-the-art technology to create an immersive, personalized experience for each visitor.
TIP: Download the Faith and Liberty Trail mobile app for a collection of curated walking trails to guide your way through Philadelphia’s historic district, complete with augmented reality experiences that reveal historic structures that are no longer standing.
Opposite Carpenters’ Hall, the National Liberty Museum explores the themes of diversity and inclusion, civic engagement and leadership through exhibitions of intricate glass art. Highlights include a replica of Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, an exhibit honoring the heroes of 9/11, and a 21-foot-tall glass Flame of Liberty. Explore the history of chemistry at the Science History Institute, just next door.
Hidden Gem: Dale Chihuly’s “Flame of Liberty” at the National Liberty Museum.
The National Liberty Museum opened in 2000 with the mission to reinforce the basic principles for safeguarding liberty, including heroism, empathy, and the appreciation of diversity and to remind visitors that liberty is the factor that makes everything else possible. Renowned glass sculptor, Dale Chihuly created a stunning glass flame – the 21-ft Flame of Liberty – representing the power of liberty that can spread from a spark. The signature centerpiece sits in the center of the two-story Flame Gallery and bursts into vibrant colors, accompanied by a 360° immersive display.
Explore the Area
Get an in-depth look at historic treasures with a professional tour group. See the sights from a horse-drawn carriage with the 76 Carriage Company or embark on a neighborhood or themed tour with WeVenture, who can guide you through Philadelphia in the eyes of a historian, artist, or food lover. Take a walk on Philadelphia’s dark side with Grim Philly Tours and learn about vampires and ghost hunting. Join Ghost Tour of Philadelphia for a candlelit walk through the neighborhood to learn about rumors of hauntings and the macabre past of some of the area’s historic sites and landmarks.
Visitors don’t have to be religious to enjoy these historic landmarks that are still active houses of worship. Christ Church, stablished in 1695, is sometimes called “the nation’s church,” hosting Sunday services every weekend for more than 300 years, when the likes of George Washington sat in a pew. Other historic houses of worship include St. Augustine Church – founded in 1796 as the first permanent establishment of the Augustinian order in the U.S. and a setting for scenes in The Sixth Sense. Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church has been in continuous service since 1769 and is called “The Cradle of American Methodism.” Sephardic synagogue Mikveh Israel is the oldest synagogue in Philadelphia, established in 1740.
Embrace Philadelphia’s tax-free shopping on clothes and shoes by perusing the many storefronts that line 2nd and 3rd Streets in Old City. In addition to clothing boutiques, visitors will also stumble upon bar supply shop that also sells locally distilled spirits (Art in the Age), a storefront selling Philadelphia-themed gifts and home décor (Philadelphia Independents) and one of the oldest and largest flag manufacturers in the U.S. (Humphrys Flag Company).
On the first Friday of every month, area businesses open their doors for “First Friday” which draws thousands of people year-round. The neighborhood comes alive as community members host special gallery exhibits and businesses stay open late with special programs.
If the timing’s right, enjoy an evening of gallery hopping and people watching. You can also browse artwork at The Center for Art in Wood which features rotating exhibitions and a permanent collection of artworks made primarily out of wood. Other Old City art galleries include the Bluestone Fine Art Gallery and Pentimenti Gallery.
In Society Hill, the open-air loggia-style building in Headhouse Square, The Shambles, is the country’s oldest surviving Colonial era marketplace, built in 1745 in a style meant to remind residents of England’s rural markets. It is still in use today, hosting farmers’ markets, craft fairs and community events like movie nights and cook-outs. The still standing headhouse, which gives the cobble stoned streets its name, was a fire engine house, built in 1805 and still topped with a bell to waken firefighters when trouble blazed. Explore the surrounding area to uncover more historic streets and structures, including the Hill–Physick House — the only remaining free-standing Federal townhouse in Society Hill and the former home of Dr. Philip Syng Physick, renowned 18th century American surgeon. Tours of the home are available Thursday through Saturday, April through November.