Philadelphia is one of America’s best cities and it’s also the birthplace of the country. It goes without saying that Philly is a perfect destination for anyone curious about American history. Even if you aren’t a self-identified history nerd like us, there are some Philadelphia historical sites that you just can’t miss when visiting the city.
Some of our favorite memories in the city are of taking tours of these historic sites and walking in the footsteps of the Founders of the United States. We still make time to visit the historic district of Philadelphia whenever we are back in the city. To help other travelers, we decided to put down our list of the 25 Philadelphia historical sites that belong in your itinerary.
We split our list into a few categories, so we will tell you about:
- The BIG FIVE that belong in every Philadelphia itinerary
- Historical sites in Old City Philadelphia
- Important History Museums of Philadelphia
- Restored Historical homes to visit
- Philadelphia historical sites outside of Old City
Some of these sites are in every history book and others are harder to find. Whether world famous or part of offbeat Philadelphia, each one holds a special place in history and the city. Enjoy our list and let us know what you think of the city and these awe-inspiring landmarks in Philadelphia.
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The Big Five Philadelphia Historical Sites
There’s no getting around it, you just have to make a trip to this collections of historical sites in Philadelphia. These are among the most-visited Philadelphia attractions and they’re packed with historical importance. These are the mandatory five places to visit in Philadelphia even if you see nothing else.
Each of these sites are part of the Independence National Historical Park, a collection of structures that includes a majority of the historic landmarks in Philadelphia. A tip for visiting all of these is to start your day early and at the Independence Visitor Center. There you can arrange your free tours of the attractions in Independence National Historical Park. Some attractions are self-guided and others require you to reserve a guided tour with a park ranger. They are extremely friendly and knowledgeable and you’ll thoroughly enjoy the experience.
1. Independence Hall
The jewel in the crown of Independence National Historical Park is Independence Hall. It’s the structure that hosted the Continental Congress and signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s also the building in which the American Constitution was debated and adopted in the summer of 1787.
Independence Hall is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was constructed between 1732-1753 as the Pennsylvania State House. In fact, it was the meeting place for all three branches of Pennsylvania’s colonial government. The state loaned out its Assembly Room for the meetings of the Second Continental Congress.
The building’s bell tower is the original home of the Liberty Bell and it’s open for tours daily. Independence Hall requires a guided tour from a park ranger which can be scheduled online or in person at the visitor center. The guided tour includes a walk-through of the Assembly Room and Tours are first come, first served and last about 30 minutes.
2. Congress Hall
From 1790 – 1800 Philadelphia served as the nations capital while Washington DC was being constructed. Congress Hall is a legacy of the capital period and where the United States Congress met during that decade. It’s also where both George Washington and John Adams, the countries first two presidents, were inaugurated. The building is marks the first peaceful exchange of executive power in modern democracy.
The building is adjacent to Independence Hall and located at 6th and Chestnut Streets. It’s been restored to its 1796 condition and is open to public tours as part of the Independence National Park.
3. Carpenters' Hall
Carpenter’s Hall opened in 1775 and is one of the most historic sites in Pennsylvania. It was built for for the Carpenter’s Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest craft guild. The structure is the birthplace of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the meeting place for the First Continental Congress in 1774.
The building went on to serve as a war hospital for both the Americans and the British during the Revolutionary War. It was later the Federal Customs House in Philadelphia from 1802 – 1819. It’s been visited by Heads of State but is most important for Patrick Henry, John Adams and John Hancock. It’s at Carpenters Hall where the delegates of the First Continental Congress began to sew the seeds of the American Revolution which was declared just a few blocks away at Independence Hall.
4. The Liberty Bell
Perhaps one of America’s greatest and most well-known symbols of freedom is the Liberty Bells. It was commissioned by the colonial government of Pennsylvania in 1752. The bell was cast in England at the Whitechapel Foundry within the walls of the Tower of London.
The bell rang from the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. Its famous crack is a thing of mystery with several stories as to how it was earned. Some say it was formed while tolling to signal a fire and others say it was damaged when ringing of Chief Justice John Marshall’s funeral in 1835. It was for certain damaged by 1846 because city records show that the mayor requested it be repaired and rung for George Washington’s birthday. According to the records it rang loudly and then cracked beyond repair.
Today the Liberty Bell is arguably the most famous of Philadelphia landmarks and can be viewed in a pavilion across from its original home, Independence Hall. The building that protects it is free to enter and includes an exhibit on the history of the iconic symbol of American freedom.
5. The Presidential House
As mentioned, the city of Philadelphia served as the nations capital from 1790 – 1800. During this time both George Washington and John Adams served as President of the United States of America. The new country required a Presidential Mansion and the structure was places on Market Street (High Street at the time) just steps from Independence Hall.
Today only the historic foundation of the building remains and an exhibit has been erected above it. That exhibit conveys what the building once looked like along with information about the period. It details the residents of the house as well as the enslaved people who resided in the President’s House. The site also highlights the Abolitionist Movement at the time and how slavery was viewed in the new state of Pennsylvania.
You can tour this open air exhibit daily and it’s located just outside of the Liberty Bell Annex.
Other Philadelphia Historical Sites in Old City
After checking the “big five” off of your bucket list of Philadelphia historical sites you won’t be at a loss of things to do and see. There are many historical landmarks in Philadelphia within a block or two of Independence Mall. Old City is crawling with Philadelphia historic buildings that you should tour and learn more about the city’s role in American history.
6. Philosophical Hall
Philosophical Hall is not just historic because the building is more than 230 years old. The building is home to the American Philosophical Society, one of the oldest scholarly organizations in the United States. Early membership was a who’s-who of Colonial America, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
The society reorganized in 1767 under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin under the delightful name of “American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge”. Franklin also loaned the money needed to complete construction of the building. Today it houses a small museum (open in the April-December) and stands gracefully alongside Independence Hall.
7. Old City Hall
Next to Philosophical Hall stands Old City Hall. Although opened in 1791 to serve as Philadelphia’s second City Hall, the local government had to wait a decade before they could occupy the building. From 1791 to 1800 this building served as the home of the United States Supreme Court while the federal capital was in Philadelphia (today the building has been restored to show this era).
Although this building pales in comparison to the current Philadelphia City Hall, it did have some history of its own. At that time, the City of Philadelphia only sat between Vine and South Streets and the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers – what today is known as Center City Philadelphia. In 1854, the surrounding towns were absorbed into the city, greatly expanding its size to the boundaries we know today. This major expansion laid the seeds for a new and epic City Hall, which began construction in 1871.
8. The Free Quaker Meeting House
Ho hum, another Colonial Era building sitting along the north end of Independence Mall. And the Quakers haven’t even met here since 1836! But these weren’t just any Quakers.
The American Revolution tore many families and organizations apart, and even the Quakers were not immune.
Quakers famously adhere to the Peace Testimony, acting to promote peace and actively oppose war. But the Revolution challenged this testimony, and some Quakers who actively supported it were expelled from the denomination. These Quakers included Betsy Ross and Timothy Matlack (whose incredible penmanship earned him the responsibility of writing the Declaration of Independence).
Over time the Free Quaker membership dwindled as the war faded from memory. Today the church has been restored to its colonial form, open for visitors to freely enter and contemplate, perhaps considering how difficult it must have been to reconcile belief in a patriotic cause and a belief in a pacifist faith.
9. Christ Church Burial Ground
Across from the Free Quaker Meeting House rests Philadelphia’s colonial elite. Wandering around the grounds you will see famous names like Charles Mason (of Mason-Dixon fame), Benjamin Rush (the “father of American psychology”, and of course Benjamin Franklin and his family.
It is traditional to toss pennies on Franklin’s grave, a nod to his famous phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned.” For a man thought of as the First American, this marker seems almost too simple. You can even see it from the street through an opening in the wall surrounding the ground should you not want to pay the entrance fee.
For us, Franklin is the most incredible American ever to live. The man invented the lightning rod and bifocals, discovered the Gulf Stream and developed the “pros and cons” list. Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania and the US Post Office, and negotiated the American alliance with France to win the American Revolution and the Treaty of Paris to end the war. In short, take a walk here and toss a penny onto the grave of an incredible man!
10. Christ Church
Leaving the resting place of the dead, walk a few decades further back in time to see where they lived and worshiped at Christ’s Church. This Georgian church dates back to the mid-18th century, and its steeple was the tallest structure in what is now the United States from 1754 to 1810.
As the primary home of the Church of England in colonial Philadelphia, Christ Church’s congregants included 15 signers of the Declaration of Independence. The baptismal font arrived in 1697, but was even older as it baptized Philadelphia founder William Penn in the mid-17th century. Today it is still an active Episcopal church with weekly services.
11. Elfreth's Alley
One of the wonderful things about Philadelphia is how colonial and modern day are woven together to make a city that is both historic and vibrant. So much of the historic buildings listed here speak of Philadelphia’s elite – the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and were wealthy enough to be buried within the city gates. But we often don’t get to see how the “common man” lived. Not everyone got to worship at Christ Church and mingle at the Philosophical Society – and Elfreth’s Alley shows how they lived.
This street has 32 homes primarily built in the 1700’s, and was home to working class families for hundreds of years. This is where dressmakers, blacksmiths and small merchants lived in the colonial era, and even into the early 1900’s this was an immigrant street close to the riverfront factories. Today it is known as the oldest continuously occupied residential street in America and is a great stroll to transport back in time.
Historical Museums in Philadelphia
Once you’ve gotten a taste for Philadelphia historical sites, build on your knowledge by visiting a museum. Philadelphia is home to some of the country’s best museums and education centers and many are located in Old City.
Depending how long you have to in the city, you may have to pick just one or two of these world class, interactive museums to tour.
Choose a couple that spark your interests and then read our Tips on Getting the Most out of a Trip to the Museum. It’s a guide full of our best travel advice on touring museums without burning out and walking away with a fantastic experience.
12. The National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center is a non-partisan, non-profit institution with a mission to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.
The exhibits within the Constitution Center opened in 2003, but they do not include the original copy of the historic document. You’ll have to make a trip two hours south to Washington DC and find the original in the National Archives.
What you will find at the National Constitution Center is a series of interactive exhibits highlighting American Civics. It’s also designed to be a national town hall for civic discourse and constitutional dialogue. The building has been the site of numerous high profile political debates and election town halls.
13. The African American Museum in Philadelphia
The African American Museum in Philadelphia has the incredible distinction of being the first museum funded and built by a city for the purpose of exhibiting and preserving African American heritage. This is an important mission for a city that is over 42% African American with a vibrant Black community.
The three themes in the museum are the Africa Diaspora, the Philadelphia Story and the Contemporary Narrative. These themes exhibit African American heritage across four halls and an auditorium.
Over 750,000 artifacts are on display in the museum. The AAMP opened in 1976 during the Bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence.
14. The Museum of the American Revolution
The Museum of the American Revolution is one of the best historical museums in Philadelphia and a must-see if you’re curious about the American Revolution. Philadelphia was the epicenter of the revolution and the museum does a tremendous job walking visitors through the build up to conflict, armed resistance, Declaration of Independence and the years of war.
The museum does a great job of exhibiting the American Revolution through the eyes of more than just the Founding Fathers and white male citizens. It displays the history of the Oneida Indian Council House and the works of Phillis Wheatley, America’s first published black female poet.
15. The National Museum of American Jewish History
The National Museum of American Jewish History is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum located on Independence Mall at 5th and Market Streets. The museum also opened in 1976 for the Bicentennial and has since moved to a new building in 2010.
Exhibits at the NMAJH focus on Jews in America and the American dedication to freedom of religion since colonial times.
Over 20,000 objects are on display at the museum including early copies of both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Historical Houses in Philadelphia
Some of the great historical places in Philadelphia are former homes and residences of great Americans. The Old City section of Philadelphia is incredibly well-preserved so these colonial-era homes offer an intriguing look into life in the period.
Some on our list are restored homes of individuals that played a role in Philadelphia and American history. Most are fully restored and others are archeological sites and museums. Here are some of the coolest historical homes in Philadelphia that you should weave into your Philly itinerary.
16. Franklin Court
Franklin Court is one of the most fascinating historical places in Philadelphia. It’s located at the site of a home that Benjamin Franklin built in 1763 and lived in until his death in 1790.
Franklin Court is among the Philadelphia monuments that were restored or created for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. It includes the archeological remnants of Franklin’s home and “ghost structures” to give visitors an impression of the original look of the site.
An underground museum at Franklin Court gives visitors information on the life of Benjamin Franklin. On Market Street you’ll find the passage leading to the large courtyard and reconstructed buildings. The passage is between a working post office and printing shop, both a part of Benjamin Franklin’s legacy.
17. The Betsy Ross House
Betsy Ross is a figure of American folklore and is credited as the designer of the American flag. While her exact role in that process is sometimes disputed, one thing for certain is that her home is one of the popular historic buildings in Philadelphia.
Without wading into the historical debate, records show that she lived in the house or in the building adjacent to it. The front of the home was built in the Pennsylvania colonial style in 1740.
You can visit the Betsy Ross House daily and pay for entry with an optional audio guide. The tour is interesting and it’s a nice peek into the life of how 18th century Pennsylvania colonists lived in Philadelphia.
18. The Deshler-Morris House: Germantown White House
The Germantown White House, also known as the Deshler-Morris House (and several variations of the names) is a colonial mansion in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. German colonists lived north of the city of Philadelphia and played an important part of colonial society and the Revolutionary War.
The home was built in 1752 by a merchant named David Deshler. On his passing, the property was bought by Col. Isaac Franks who fought in the Continental Army. It was Franks who rented the home to George Washington.
In 1793, when Philadelphia was the capital of the nation, a Yellow Fever Outbreak kept Washington from returning to do Philadelphia after his autumn trip to Mount Vernon. Instead, he and his family were rerouted to Germantown because the city of Philadelphia was under quarantine.
in September and October of 1794 the Washingtons returned to the Frank House for vacation, but George Washington left early because of the Whiskey Rebellions.
The house was a regular meeting place for Washingtons cabinet including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
After changing hands a few more times, the house was occupied by the Morris family for over 100 years. In 1948 it was donated to the National Park service by Elliston P. Morris, hence the name Deshler-Morris House.
19. The Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site
The Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site in Philadelphia preserves the only remaining home that Poe lived in while residing in the city. This historic home is void of most furniture, so don’t expect a home full of period objects. He likely sold his things to finance his move to New York City.
What you will find in the museum is a series of exhibits designed to bring the writer to life. You can tour the home he lived in with his wife and mother during the height of his career.
One of the most famous works he published while living in the red-brick home is The Black Cat. It describes a dark and eerie basement, much like the cellar of the property (which you get to explore).
20. The Powel House
The Powel House is named for its second owner, Samuel Powel. Powel was the last mayor of Philadelpha under British rule.
His former home is a beautifully restored mansion in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia. It’s a few blocks from Independence Mall and has been called “the finest Georgian style home in the city”. The brick row home is indeed Georgian style with a plain facade and extravagantly decorated interior. Powel and his wife, Elizabeth, lavishly decorated the home and it was known around the colonies as one of the most exquisite interiors.
The Powel House shares a party wall with the home next to it which was occupied by Governor John Penn. The governor’s home was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War. After the war ended it was one of the homes in which George Washington resided.
The Powels entertained some of the most known founding fathers including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Benjamin Rush and Marquis de Lafayette.
Tours are available to the public Thursdays through Sundays on the house from 11:00 – 3:00 with an $8 admission fee.
21. The Thaddeus Kosciuszko House
Thaddeus Kosciuszko was a Polish-Lithuania military engineer and statesman who supported the American colonists during the Revolutionary War. He fought in the war as a Colonel in the Continental Army and rose to the rank of Brigadier Colonel.
Kosciuszko remained a close friend and confidant of Thomas Jefferson with both men deeply committed to the ideals of human rights. He wrote a will will living in North America leaving all of his possessions to be liquidated and used for the advancement, freedom and education of enslaved Africans in the southern states.
The room that Kosciuszko rented at this home on Pine and 3rd Streets is open for tours on weekends from April to October. The free self-guided tour includes his bed chambers with period artifacts, a film and memorial to this statesman of the world.
Historical Philadelphia Landmarks Outside of Old City
Not all of the historic building in Philadelphia are located in Old City and Independence National Historical Park. Several incredible Philadelphia landmarks are located in Fairmount Park, midtown and beyond. In fact, it won’t take you long to realize that there are historical places around every corner in Philadelphia.
Here are a few of the places that should make your list, but are located in other sections of the city. There’s no reason to focus all of your attention in Old City, but that’s of course where you’ll get the most history for your time.
So, pick a few of these sites and take the time to visit them as well. There’s certainly no shortage of historical places in Philadelphia.
22. Eastern State Penitentiary
Eastern State Penitentiary is located in the Fairmount neighborhood, one of the hip and trendy sections that’s less touristic and should be on your list to check out. Some of our favorite brunch spots and cocktails bars are on Fairmount Avenue across the street from the intriguing and historic penitentiary in Philadelphia.
The prison was built in this location because it was once far from the city. It was constructed in a unique wheel and spoke design to help with securing the prison from a central vantage point. The prison was also the first of its kind because it focused on rehabilitation through repentance.
Many prisons around the world were created in the image of Eastern State Penitentiary, but that’t not the only lingering legacy. The building is one of the most haunted places in the country and has been featured on many television shows about haunted places.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Philadelphia in the fall, check out the elaborate haunted house that takes place on the site every year. Regardless of when you visit, you can tour the facilities with an audio guide every day.
23. Boathouse Row
Boathouse Row is a scenic spot long the Schuylkill River that is beloved by locals and seen on almost every Philadelphia postcard.
This historic site in Philadelphia is comprised of 15 boathouses that house social and rowing clubs along with their racing gear and equipment.
The Philadelphia landmark is beautiful during the day, but literally shines in the evening. The frames of each boathouse are illuminated with lights that outline the structures. The evening and nighttime views of Boathouse Row are incredible and one of the best things to see in Philadelphia.
24. Fairmount Water Works
Fairmount Water Works is Philadelphia’s historic water pumping station that opened in 1815. At the time it was a cutting edge system of water supply and the envy of the country.
Today it’s a beautiful structure that makes an idyllic photo spot in the city of Philadelphia. From the street level platforms atop the pumping station you have sweeping views of Boathouse Row as the skyline of Philadelphia.
Fairmount Water Works is found just off of the Art Museum promenade and also hosts a restaurant.
25. Gloria Dei, Old Swedes Church
Most people are familiar with Philadelphia’s history as a British colony. This makes sense because the relationship climaxed with the Revolutionary War and Philadelphia’s large role in the lead up and outcome of the conflict. The origin of European settlement in the Philadelphia region belongs not to the British but to the Swedish.
A short lived colony called New Sweden lasted just under twenty years from 1638 – 1655 and stretched from present day New Castle, Delaware to Philadelphia along the western banks of the Delaware River. The colony never truly flourished beyond about 400 citizens despite several waves of new citizens and Lutheran priests over the years.
The colony was eventually taken over by Dutch forces and the Swedes and Finns living in the region were brought into Dutch and then British rule. The Swedes managed to maintain a distinct and cohesive community which remains in the region today.
Gloria Dei, or Old Swedes Church is a lasting reminder of the Swedish colony and its impact on the area. Over 300 years later, the congregation that was founded in the late 17th century still worships in South Philadelphia today. It’s the oldest continuously existing congregation in the United States and the building itself is the oldest brick building in Philadelphia.
Other Ways to Experience Philadelphia Historical Sites
While you can plan your own trek through Philadelphia’s historical sites, you can also have someone take the work out of your hands and give you a tour of it all.
This is an especially great option if you’re limited on time and only have a few days in Philly. The three tours that we recommend provide an efficient way to see the highlights of Old City and the historical attractions in Philadelphia. Click the widget for more information and to reserve a spot through GetYourGuide. They offer immediate booking, online ticketing and cancellation for free up to 24 hours before your tour.
- The Grim Dark and Twisted History Tour: I love a good ghost tour, but Mike does not. I can usually drag him along and we actually took this tour as one of our early dates years ago and we BOTH enjoyed it. A ghost tour that appeals to the history nerd in us was really wonderful and it wasn’t super scary, but told some interesting and eerie tales about historical figures in Philadelphia without the theatrics.
- Horse Drawn Carriage of Historic Old City: A horse drawn carriage is a pretty authentic way to see historic Old City Philadelphia. Not only is it romantic, but an active guide who knows the history will make sure your family or group gets the most of out Old City.
- The Founding Fathers Walking Tour: This walking tour is perfect if you want to see and hear about the basic Philadelphia historical sites in about two hours. The tour hits all the major highlights of Old City and Independence Historical National Park and includes entry and ends with a craft beer.
Where to Stay and Visit Philadelphia Historical Sites
The obvious place to stay and see all of these wonderful sites is Old City – in the heart of the historic district of Philadelphia.
Since we moved to Copenhagen, our trips back to the States always include a few nights in Philadelphia hotels. Here are a few in Old City that we know well and have stayed in over the last few years.
Check out our suggestions and book with Agoda or use the Booking.com search tool if that’s your booking platform of preference.
Budget Lodging: Apple Hostels of Philadelphia
Budget travelers will be happy with the hostel options in Philadelphia. Among the best hostels in Philadelphia is Apple Hostel in Old City. They offer dorm-style lodging as well as individual rooms. The historic building is modernized with a fun recreation area that’s shared with other guests for a social atmosphere on a backpacker’s budget.
Mid-Range Lodging: Holiday Inn Express Penn's Landing
The Holiday Inn Express is a great 3-star option for couples, families or anyone who wants a nice hot shower in a comfortable room with great service. The location is superb for enjoying Old City with sweeping views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River. There are some amazing attractions on the waterfront to enjoy after a full day of Philadelphia sightseeing.
Luxury Lodging: Kimpton Hotel Monaco
If you want to stay in a beautiful 4-star hotel that’s less than a block from Independence Hall – Kimpton Hotel Monaco is a fabulous choice. This globally inspired boutique hotel is a perfect touch of luxury along with the history of Philadelphia.
Make sure to enjoy a drink or meal in the Red Owl Tavern, the in-house restaurant.
Now You're Ready to Tour Philadelphia Historical Sites
The city of Philadelphia is one of the world’s great cities and full of American history. There are so many things to discover in Philadelphia if you just know where to look. Seeing all of these sites in one trip could be difficult, but we hope this guide will help you plan your itinerary in the city.
Whether you only have time for the Big Five and a museum, this should give you an idea of how to plan. We also have a few other resources for planning your trip to Philadelphia.
Additional Philadelphia Trip Planning Resources From Robe Trotting
- Our Weekend Guide to Philadelphia: Perfect for a short 1 – 3 day trip to the city. Since we moved abroad, our trips to Philly are always just a few days and this is where we stay, eat and tour during those short trips.
- What, How and Where to Eat in Philadelphia: Food guide from locals who have already eaten our way across the city – also discover our FAVORITE cheesesteak place in the city.
- 17 Day Trips From Philadelphia: If you’ve got the time, make plans to travel outside of the city and see some of the amazing cities, historical sites, amusement parks, natural attractions and more.
- Christmas in Philadelphia: This is the ultimate guide in planning a holiday trip to Philadelphia whether you’re visiting family nearby or planning a winter getaway to Philly!