Philadelphia: The Best Historic Attractions

Historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia offers insights into the rise for criminal justice and reform. A fascinating and cool tour that freaks some people out.
Historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia offers insights into the rise for criminal justice and reform. A fascinating and cool tour that freaks some people out.
A unique city view of downtown Philly from inside Loews Hotel City Center, once said to be the tallest skyscraper in the world.
A unique city view of downtown Philly from inside Loews Hotel City Center, once said to be the tallest skyscraper in the world.

Free to Be in Philly, One of the Oldest Cities in the USA

By Christopher Ludgate

Heading into the Philadelphia Observatory is a glimpse of all that can be seen from the top
With multiple Americana characters ready to interact with the public throughout the year, the theatrics are even more fervent around July 4th.
With multiple Americana characters ready to interact with the public throughout the year, the theatrics are even more fervent around July 4th.

In today’s political landscape of muddled messages and media spectacles it’s feeling increasingly important to get some perspective and reconnect beyond all the noise.

In the thick of this election year’s political conventions a frenzy of mud-slinging and vitriolic muckraking looms, but there is a beacon of hope that stands as a reminder of the history and meaning of what is at stake beyond the bickering and snickering.

Historic Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution – all endorsing a civil free society – amongst emblematic sites like the Liberty Bell and Congress Hall where our famed forefathers walked to work in this the first capitol of the U.S.; the epitome of historic places all things U.S. politics.

DNC Visited

As the Democratic National Convention descends poignantly in the country’s only World Heritage City in late July this year history beckons us all the more to revisit that foundation and walk in the footsteps of those who made it happen, and to celebrate what matters.

In planning an itinerary during the Fourth of July in the City of Brotherly Love, there were a lot of options besides the weeklong Independence Day events for fun exploring just as there are throughout the year.

Sticking to the inspiration of my visit in the vein of celebrating the role this city played in our history, my friend and I opted first for all things free in Philly. And there are lots of choices.

Many unique ways to see the sites include an amphibious bus tour that ends up driving into the Delaware River, many free walking tours and attraction that can be found at visitphilly.org, and the city’s new Indego public bike system.

One of William Penn’s five original squares, historic Washington Square is an urban oasis just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell Center. Many visitors pay tribute at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorial.

Out and About

Elfreth’s Alley, A glimpse into 18th-century homes on the nation’s oldest residential street.
Elfreth’s Alley, A glimpse into 18th-century homes on the nation’s oldest residential street.

In a small city like Philly, a hop atop the Big Bus for a view through the old tiny streets is a useful way to first acclimate yourself to the street grid before wandering freely without a guide.

As the bus made its 27 pit-stops through a loop of hot spots I found it a great opportunity to be spontaneous with the worthwhile Philadelphia Pass and the City Pass which give the freedom to visit things that caught my eye at will, like the multitude of murals and beautiful fountains along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or lounging in the breezes on the hammocks by the bustling Delaware River Waterfront at Penn’s Landing where there are festivals galore, outdoor movie screenings, and other spots free or close to it along the way.

With that said, Philadelphia is a great walking city, too. Anywhere in the radius of City Center or Rittenhouse Square, one of the many popular beautiful parks in the city, there is an accessible attraction.  A free app-guided walking tour is a useful tool at pointing out the sites, especially down by the Historic District.

At Benjamin Franklin's grave, a bust made out of keys signifying one of his most important discoveries and innovations in electric conductivity.
At Benjamin Franklin’s grave, a bust made out of keys signifying one of his most important discoveries and innovations in electric conductivity.

The Historic District

Set back in Independence National Historic Park on Chestnut Street, is the landmark where the First Congressional Congress met in 1774 in Carpenter’s Hall where the first sparks began in debate and contemplation toward declaring Independence from England. The delegate’s chairs are still in place here, and the site sparked in my mind a genuine admiration for these great political figures in a highly fateful time.

Carpenter’s Hall is also home to the American Philosophical Society, a company Benjamin Franklin instituted in 1731 as the first book lending system we know simply today as a library.

One of those famous delegates lived around the corner from the now historic park by what we know today as Market and 7th Street. It was in his rented rooms – just steps from the would-be Democratic National Convention of 2016 – that Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence.

240 years later as the Fourth of July party and the heat raged outside Independence Hall where in 1776 the unifying threads of our country’s foundation began to take shape, we meandered through history by the Betsy Ross House and Washington Square, encountering the gravesite of one of our foremost founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.

Imbibe and Refresh

While the consensus as to whether Franklin actually said the popular quote, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” rebukes the quote, my friend and I still opted for a cold brew.

Nearby is City Tavern, which reopened in 1976 and is where the founding fathers went to unwind, but we were drawn to Paddy’s Old City Pub on 3rd and Race Streets around the corner.

Paddy's Pub in Old City packs a mellow crowd, good music, and a cold brew during a respite from exploring.
Paddy’s Pub in Old City packs a mellow crowd, good music, and a cold brew during a respite from exploring.

Incidentally, what Franklin is more accurately attributed to penning is, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” So potato, potahto.

We could have just as easily opted for a Franklin Mint Sundae made with turn of the century Philadelphia-style ice cream at Franklin Fountain, which offers a discount with the Philly Pass and stroll around the other side of Independence Visitor Center for some personal and free theatrical story-telling sitting on one of the Once Upon a Nation benches located in the area.  The ice-cream and beer are not free, but all of these sites are free and open to the public, as is the Liberty Bell.

After cooling off and making our way back through the festive party ensuing in the park during the Fourth celebrations, we headed up Market Street to browse Reading Market, an old-school market reminiscent of Barcelona’s Mercado de La Boqueria for a healthy selection of culturally diverse food counters to sidle up to for lunch before heading across the street to the Loews Hotel for a quick swim and nap and happy hour.

Having stayed in the Loews Philadelphia before, I knew to expect wonderful service and modern comfort. Housed in what was once Philadelphia’s first skyscraper, it is noticeable in the skyline near the Philadelphia Observatory with the PFSF signage that remains at Loews’ peak. It does boast some of the city’s best views, quality, and locales.

I was also lucky enough to receive an upgrade, so the stars (and stripes) aligned for that view next to the William Penn statue atop City Hall. My feeling paid off that with the spectacular views I remembered, the Fourth of July fireworks above the Philadelphia Museum of Art would be in all their glory from the hotel.

 

in the middle of Benjamin Franklin Boulevard is Logan Fountain with the statue of William Penn atop City Hall in the distance.
in the middle of Benjamin Franklin Boulevard is Logan Fountain with the statue of William Penn atop City Hall in the distance.

Curiosities

The landmark PSFS Building had many incarnations and is now home to Loews Philadelphia City Center boasting views that rival the Philadelphia Observtory.
The landmark PSFS Building had many incarnations and is now home to Loews Philadelphia City Center boasting views that rival the Philadelphia Observtory.

Just as many political campaigns have the occasional dark intrigue, there are some bizarre things for the offering in Philly, too. For hands-on interactive history at a moderate charge, Eastern State Penitentiary welcomes the public to tour what was once the most expensive and famous prisons in the world. Built and expanded upon since 1776 with the guidance of Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons and member Benjamin Franklin, to bring penitence to inmates via solitary confinement, it is a haunting examination into criminal justice and reform with new and permanent exhibits. After this fascinating visit it might ease the intensity to wander up to Crime &

Punishment Brewery for a relaxing brew.

It’s good to stay in the know, so if science and medicine is your intrigue, The Franklin Institute has some fun stuff for kids, but the famous Mütter Museum displays beautifully preserved medical history collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments. I’d say hold off on lunch til after.  And maybe even a while after that.

Another mystifying interest awaits at the National Parks Service Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site on N. 7th Street. This is where Poe wrote some of his most acclaimed work, like The Raven. Free of charge, the site invites the public to immerse themselves in Poe’s mind with audio and visual installations.

Pursuit of Happiness

The National Parks Service, which celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year, remembers Independence National Park in Philly as being the “focus of individuals and groups exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and speak freely.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at this spot, as did Susan B. Anthony, who interrupted the Fourth of July centennial celebration to deliver the Women’s Declaration of Rights.

In 1965, the first organized gay rights demonstration took place in front of Independence Hall,” they reminded us. And apropos it highlighted again the continued relevance of Philadelphia as an important symbol of the democracy and righteousness that were established here among civil thinkers who still remind us of a valuable and mighty legacy in our hands.

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Christopher Ludgate
Christopher Ludgate is a freelance travel and culture journalist and photographer, as well as an award winning producer, director, and writer living in New York City. Click on his name above to visit his website.