The city of Philadelphia, founded in 1682, is a celebrated part of American history! It served as the site of the First Continental Congress during the War Independence. It’s also the subject of a great Bruce Springsteen song, amongst other things.
Philly is home to just under two million people today, a fascinating stop for travelers looking for a taste of American culture and history both old and relatively new.
A wonderful starting point for those exploring Philadelphia is an area known as the Center City. “What is Center City Philadelphia,” you ask? Here’s your starter guide.
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Unknowing tourists may ask: “Where is the Philadelphia downtown area?” Here’s a tip: Philadelphians don’t really refer to a “downtown”. For reasons known only to history, they call it Center City.
The Philadelphia Center City District – essentially “downtown Philadelphia” – can be thought of as the oldest part of the original city area. The boundaries are South and Vine Streets, and the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, placing this geographical rectangle roughly in the middle of a map of Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Within the borders of “Downtown Philly” lie the Old City, the Central Business District, several cultural and social locations of interest and of course a fine array of eateries, parks, and activities for all tastes.
History is thick in Central Philly. Here you can visit Independence Hall, where the American Declaration of Independence was created and signed.
The Museum of the American Revolution, the world-famous Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Centre and Betsy Ross House – where the first American flag was sewn – are all to be found within walking distance. You may want to take the Constitutional Walking Tour for a comprehensive experience.
There are also guided horse-drawn carriage tours of Old Town, which lend an additional sense of old-worldly-ness to the experience.
As you walk towards the CBD, the Reading Terminal Market is a great option for a food stop. Wander along the aisles and browse the fresh produce, or sit down and eat from one of the many ready-made food options.
First-time visitors will want to try Pennsylvania’s Amish community offerings at the market. And yes, the Philly Cheese Steak can be found here as well!
Further along, the historic City Hall is right in the middle of the district, and as you venture into a more modern CBD area, you may want to consider One Liberty Observation deck for a breathtaking 360-degree bird’s eye view of the city.
You’ll also never be far from a pub or restaurant, whether is be the world-famous Jim’s Steaks on South Street, or McGillin’s, the oldest continuously operating pub in the city. It’s been there since 1860, and has every liquor license it’s had since 1874 on display. If you want a real taste of history, try a colonial-era meal at the City Tavern.
The rich social and cultural history of Philadelphia can be explored through some of the interesting and specifically themed centers to be found in the Center City. One of these is the Atheneum of Philadelphia, which is a historical library for special collections. The National Liberty Museum focuses on ‘Heroes’ and ‘Freedom’.
The AIDS library on Locust street is part of Philadelphia FIGHT, a remarkable organization that provides care, education, advocacy and research around AIDS.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts features exhibits, an art school and occasional performances. For a slightly more whimsical feel try the Magic Gardens on South Street – it has a sculpture garden maze and several mosaic galleries.
While there are many green spaces and parks to enjoy, the Korean War Memorial Park and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are deeply moving monuments to the city’s veterans.
Elsewhere, Washington Square also acknowledges soldiers of the Revolutionary War, and Schuylkill River Park, Logan Square and Franklin Square are among the many spaces dotted around the area for relaxing or walks.
The legendary Rittenhouse Square on Walnut Street has a reflecting pool, and hosts markets and events quite often.
The Spruce Street Harbour Park is another highlight, as it features all kinds of family-focused activities, games and food options. On weekends it ramps up into a real night spot with live music, rollerskating and more.
If you find yourself in the Philadephia city center proper, you’ll notice a few things about the CBD that might impress you.
Like any modern city, there are lots of tall buildings, none more so than the Comcast Technology Center, standing at over 1100 feet (342m). It’s not to be confused with the Comcast Center, which is the second tallest building in the city.
Of special interest in these buildings are the Comcast Digital Experience and the Universal Sphere, which was co-created by Steven Spielberg!
There are also dozens of sculptures and art installations dotted about the city’s public spaces. Many of them feature plaques that explain the historical significance of buildings or sites, all of which makes this Center City one of the most broadly educational and fascinating to visit.
In summary, there’s no shortage of things to do in Center City Philadelphia. It is a highly recommended first stop for anyone visiting the US for the first time, given its strong historical identity.
Philly also offers great family and social value for anyone looking for more than the basic food and drinks tourism experience.