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Things to Do in University City and West Philadelphia

July 23, 2021

In West Philadelphia and University City, visitors can explore museums and historic structures on university campuses, be immersed in acres of green space in West Fairmount Park, and enjoy all-ages experiences such as the nation’s first zoo and a hands-on museum filled with plenty of playful exhibits.

The grand, Art Deco interior of 30th Street Station. Photo courtesy of Amtrak.

If traveling by train, you’ll arrive in Philadelphia at Amtrak’s 30th Street Station. This grand building was constructed in 1933 and features a massive Art Deco main concourse. Just to the west of the station, walk through the recently added Drexel Square – a 1.3-acre elliptical park that is part of the larger Schuylkill Yards project, which, when complete, will bring new residential, retail, and green spaces – as well as 4.8 million square feet of life science lab and office space – to the neighborhood.

Admire stunning views of the Philadelphia skyline from atop Cira Green. Photo by K. Huff for PHLCVB.

Take a short walk south and take the elevator up in an otherwise unsuspecting parking garage to reach Cira Green – Philadelphia’s 1.25-acre, picnic-perfect park in the sky. This green roof, equipped with infrastructure to aid in storm water management, presents one of the best views of Philadelphia and features ample lawns perfect for enjoying a meal al fresco, perhaps a burger and fries from the park’s seasonal restaurant, Sunset Social. Enjoy movie screenings, pop-up fitness activities and other events at Cira Green year-round.

Descend from your lofty perch in the sky and continue south to reach the sprawling campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Pass through the athletic fields to watch the Penn Quakers practice, or BYO-soccer ball for a quick match on one of the large lawns. Stand in awe of Franklin Field. Once home to the Philadelphia Eagles – also the site of the team’s first NFL Championship victory – this grand structure is the oldest stadium still operating for American football (as recognized by the NCAA) and was the site of the first radio and television broadcasts of a football game. The stadium hosts the annual Penn Relays, providing competition for more collegiate athletes than any other track meet in the world. TIP: Don’t miss another one of the city’s top photos ops at Penn’s athletic fields, the futuristic Weave Bridge.

Another version of Robert Indiana's iconic sculpture awaits on the University of Pennsylvania campus. Photo by Photo by E. Sucar, Office of University Communications, University of Pennsylvania.

Stroll through the verdant University of Pennsylvania campus, admiring historic university buildings and public art along the way – including another, just-as-selfie-friendly LOVE sculpture by Robert Indiana. The Fisher Fine Arts Library will likely stop you in your tracks, thanks to the building’s striking blend of architecture and iconic red brick and terra cotta exterior. This National Historic Landmark was constructed by legendary architect Frank Furness in 1890 and features a grand, four-story Main Reading Room and windows inscribed with Shakespeare quotes, as selected by Frank’s brother, 19th century Shakespearean scholar Horace Howard Furness.

Penn Museum Philadelphia
The sphinx of Ramses II on view at Penn Museum is the largest sphinx in the Western Hemisphere. Photo courtesy of J. Whalen for the Penn Museum.

Visit one of the museums found within the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, including the Penn Museum. Inside, visitors will discover a collection of nearly one million extraordinary artifacts and other findings from ancient civilizations from around the globe, including Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Mediterranean, including a 13-ton granite sphinx of Ramses II – the largest sphinx in the Western Hemisphere. Nearby, the free-to-visit Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania is features innovative installations and prides itself on bringing attention to new artists, as it did in 1965 by hosting the first solo museum show of Andy Warhol. For art in motion, enjoy a contemporary performance presented by Penn Live Arts at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, also on Penn’s campus.

Drexel University is just a short walk north from the University of Pennsylvania, with boutique storefronts and restaurants tucked amidst student living quarters and lecture halls. Don’t miss the recently completed Arlen Specter U.S. Squash Center inside the historic 23rd Street Armory. The home base for U.S. Squash is also open to the public and features 18 singles courts, including two all-glass show courts, a Mezzanine viewing area, community spaces, and the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame. Enjoy a moment of relaxation at Drexel Park, where you’ll find even more unobstructed views of the Center City skyline.

In need of retail therapy? Explore University City to find local and national retailers like Urban Outfitters – the chain’s original flagship location – and cool independent shops like Piper Boutique, Hello World and House of Our Own Books. Shop for outdoor apparel at Philadelphia-based United By Blue, who removes one pound of trash from the earth’s waterways for each product sold. At Philadelphia Runner, stock up on running gear, shoes and other fitness accessories before taking on one of the city’s many running trails.

Some of Philadelphia’s largest and most noteworthy murals are found throughout West Philadelphia, including the 11,000-square-foot, 19-story The Silent Watcher by artist Faith XLVII, looking over University City at 39th and Market Streets. West Philadelphia is also where you will find Steve “ESPO” Powers’ famed series murals entitled A Love Letter For You. This series of nearly 50 murals is best viewed from SEPTA’s Market/Frankford Line, and each painting depicts a playful design and romantic message that is directed either towards a lover or to the city itself. To learn more, schedule a tour – either walking or by train – with Mural Arts Philadelphia. TIP: Don’t miss a 65-foot-tall mural of West Philadelphia-born and raised actor, musician, and pop culture icon, Will Smith, at the corner of 45th and Girard.

zoo in philly
Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Zoo.

West Philadelphia is also home to the nation’s first zoo. The Philadelphia Zoo boasts a collection of over 1,300 animals and regularly hosts rotating special, family-friendly exhibits and seasonal experiences. The zoo’s innovative Zoo360 experience allows the animals to traverse the park beside and above visitors in special pathways that offer truly one-of-a-kind encounters with tigers, gorillas, lions, and more.

Ride a carousel inside the Please Touch Museum. Photo courtesy of Please Touch Museum.

More family-friendly fun awaits at the multisensory Please Touch Museum, which empowers visitors of all-ages to learn through play and by interacting with exhibits, including a fairy tale garden, rocket room, and all-new Centennial Innovations space that asks visitors young and old how they would change the world. The museum is housed within the grand and historic Memorial Hall, one of only a few structures still standing that were built for the nation’s Centennial Exposition in 1876.

Connect with nature in West Fairmount Park. There, you’ll find Shofuso – a 19th-century Japanese house constructed in Japan in 1953 using traditional techniques and materials. The traditional-style house with a hinoki roof — the only one of its kind outside of Japan — can be toured, as can the gardens, koi pond and tea house. The neighboring Fairmount Park Horticulture Center consists of a greenhouse and expansive outdoor gardens that are lined with cherry trees, establishing the area an absolute must-visit in the springtime. The line, “a place called the Plateau is where everybody goes,” in Will Smith’s track “Summertime” refers to Belmont Plateau, an area of West Fairmount Park that is home to playing fields, wooded trails and a historic mansion. Make a trek to the top of the hill to be rewarded with a glimpse of the Philadelphia skyline rising above an expanse of trees.

The Trolley Trail in West Fairmount Park. Photo by A. Yee.

Visit the western shores of the Schuylkill River to walk, bike or jog along MLK Jr. Drive, closed to cars on weekends April-October. Explore one of the many trails of West Fairmount Park, including the Trolley Trail, which follows a former trolley route and winds through tunnels and under a Stone Arch Bridge. Tour Cedar Grove – one of Fairmount Park’s historic houses – for a glimpse at early, 18th- and 19th-century life in Pennsylvania.

Bring a blanket and relax on the spacious lawns of the Mann Center for the Performing Arts as you're serenaded by musical acts performing at TD Pavilion. Photo by J. Griffin.

In the evening, enjoy a live performance at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, which rests atop a hill in West Fairmount Park and offers yet another unbeatable view of the Philadelphia skyline off in the distance. This large, open-air venue regularly welcomes chart-topping touring acts as well as local performing arts companies including the Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia to the TD Pavilion. Bring a blanket and sit on the lawn as you enjoy music and Philadelphia’s natural grace, or upgrade your experience with one of several VIP packages available.

Clark Park. Photo by JPG Photo & Video.

Schedule a tour of the Paul Robeson House, which celebrates the life and legacy of the Civil Rights icon and musician in his former residence, with personal artifacts and memorabilia and a replica of his bedroom. Explore the tree-lined residential blocks of Spruce Hill, where many of the large Victorian homes date back to the 1800s. Visit Clark Park, a neighborhood park at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue which hosts a weekly farmer’s market each Saturday and hosts other community events such as movie nights, flea markets, and free, outdoor productions of popular Shakespeare plays in the summer.

Just a short walk away, the Woodlands is a former estate-turned-cemetery, whose 54-acre landscape is home to over 1,000 trees, a grand Georgian-style mansion, and is the final resting place of Drexel University Founder Anthony Joseph Drexel, architect Paul Philippe Cret, and acclaimed neurosurgeon William Williams Keen, among many other notable artists, politicians, physicians, and military leaders.

Carr Garden & House at Bartram's Garden. Photo courtesy of Bartram's Garden.

In southwest Philadelphia, explore the nation’s oldest botanical garden along the shores of the Schuylkill River. The 45-acre Bartram’s Garden is free to visit and is home to a welcome center, gardens, trails, and historical buildings, as well as a boat launch perfect for river tours by kayak.

Cover photo: The Fisher Fine Arts Library and the University of Pennsylvania campus. Photo credit University of Pennsylvania.

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