Philadelphia's Top 14 Historic Sites
Philadelphia probably has the largest collection of extant colonial-era buildings in the United States. The centerpiece of this vast historical treasure is undoubtedly Independence National Historical Park, in the city’s historical center (located to the east of Center City, Philadelphia’s business district).
Most visitors will be drawn to this display of beautiful colonial- and Federal-era buildings, which features Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center, and the Liberty Bell Pavilion, among others. However, many fail to realize that the city offers far more historical buildings both near and far from the core area surrounding Independence Hall.
This list below includes a number of the highlights, some often overlooked, and others well known. While the focus here is on the colonial- and early-federal-era of the city’s historic collection, fine architectural specimens from that period can be found in Germantown as well.
14 Must-See Historic Sites in Philadelphia
- Betsy Ross House
- Elfreth's Alley
- Independence Hall
- National Constitution Center
- Christ Church
- Deshler-Morris House
- Graff House (a.k.a. The Declaration House)
- The Liberty Bell and Pavilion
- First and Second Banks of the United States
- Franklin Court
- Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site
- President's House Site
- Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church
- Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial
Continue scrolling to learn about each of these incredible sites (as well as a few bonus ones) and discover parking tips and practical information to help make your trip to Philadephia go smoothly. Enjoy!
1. Betsy Ross House
Now owned by the City of Philadelphia, this Georgian-style home in Old City dates back to 1740 and has undergone numerous changes over the years. It is said that Betsy Ross possibly made the American flag in this dwelling. She lived here with John Ross, her first husband, from 1774 until 1785. Her remains are buried in a plot adjacent to the house. The house is open to the public for a fee.
2. Elfreth's Alley
Located on the north edge of Old City, you'll find Elfreth's Alley. Visitors to this narrow, cobbled street are always surprised to find that people still live in the dwellings lining the alley, some of which date back to the early 1700s.
It is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited street in the United States, and a walk down the alley past the colonial-style homes is truly a time-warped experience. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending upon how you interpret it) most tourists who walk through Old Town don't make it past the Betsy Ross House, which is only a block and a half from Elfreth's Alley.
3. Independence Hall
You can't visit Old City without making a stop at Independence Hall. One of the best surviving examples of colonial, Georgian architecture in the United States, Independence Hall—constructed in 1753—served many functions. Its pivotal role in historical events and its unique architecture have earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list as well as its better-known designation as the centerpiece of Independence National Historical Park.
Independence Hall is only a nickname that stuck, as it was formerly the Pennsylvania State House when Pennsylvania was still a colony. It also served as an early national capitol of sorts during the Second Continental Congress (1775–1783); it also hosted the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was in this building that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were adopted. This is where it all began!
4. National Constitution Center
Located a block north of the Independence Visitor Center with an open view towards Independence Hall, this history museum is dedicated to the U.S. Constitution (framed in Philadelphia in 1787). Construction began in 2000 and was completed in 2003. In addition to the other monuments and memorials listed on this page, this museum has helped earn the area its unofficial designation as the nation's most historic square mile.
Note: Unfortunately, if you want to see the original copy of the U.S. Constitution, you won't find it here—it is housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
What's the Difference Between Federal- and Colonial-Style Architecture?
Federal-era buildings were constructed beginning in the 1780s, and as the name suggests, the style closely identified with the newly independent United States. While colonial buildings were often inspired by Georgian themes, Federal-era buildings looked to ancient Rome and Greece as their inspiring models. These fine, columned buildings with impressive porticos and pediments can still be seen in Old City. It’s no surprise that Philadelphia was once known as the “Athens of the United States!”
5. Christ Church
The towering steeple of Old City’s tallest church has overlooked the skyline since 1744, although the original church dates to 1695 and remains one of the nation’s best examples of Georgian architecture.
Today, the church is Episcopal and still contains the baptismal font of William Penn, which was sent from London in 1697. The steeple, an impressive 60 meters (197 feet) high, was once the tallest structure in North America. The church’s burial ground is another superlative in colonial big names and contains the remains of Robert Morris, among other signers of the Declaration. Benjamin Franklin is buried in the nearby Christ Church Burial Ground, which is associated with the church.
6. Deshler-Morris House
Now known as the Germantown White House, the Deshler-Morris House is in Germantown (far from Center City). It was one of two sites that Rockefeller planned to revive as a historic theme park (a little-known fact), but in the end, he chose Williamsburg, Virginia, which partially explains Germantown’s somewhat neglected appearance today.
The Deshler-Morris House was built in 1752 by David Deshler and was Washington’s official home in 1793 and 1794. It remains the oldest existing official presidential residence because Philadelphia was the federal capital at the time. The house is part of Independence National Historical Park. The British General Howe also briefly occupied the house after the Battle of Germantown in 1777.
7. Graff House, a.k.a. The Declaration House
Also known as the Declaration House, this reconstructed colonial-style house is where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. Located in Old City on the corner of 7th and Market, it was on the city’s outskirts at the time. The original house was torn down in 1883, but thanks to old photographs, the building on view today is a faithful reconstruction.
8. The Liberty Bell and Pavilion
The Liberty Bell is located in the namesake pavilion just north of Independence Hall on Independence Mall. Administered by the National Park Service, there is no fee to view the Bell from the inside, but there is a security checkpoint which typically has a wait (though the line goes fast), so time it wisely.
The best time to visit is arguably on a weekday in the afternoon. There is also a viewing glass from the outside of the pavilion which allows you to look in if you don't want to wait, although this window is crowded with people trying to photograph the iconic symbol of liberty.
9. First and Second Banks of the United States
One of two new buildings constructed while Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, the First Bank of the United States, built between 1791 and 1797, serves as an excellent example of early Federal-era architecture and remained in use by the government until 1811. It is part of Independence National Historical Park.
The Second Bank of the United States, housed in a beautiful Greek Revival building designed by William Strickland in 1816, is now the portrait gallery for Independence National Historical Park. Both banks are located in Old City.
10. Franklin Court
This reconstructed site of Benjamin Franklin’s home also boasts an underground museum, printing exhibit, U.S. Post Office, and archaeological exhibit. Only the foundations of Franklin’s original home still exist, visible under enclosed glass. The structure, long since torn down, is cleverly outlined by a steel skeletal frame that replicates what were thought to be the original dimensions of Franklin’s house. This was built for the Bicentennial celebrations and sits in the middle of Franklin Court in Old City.
11. Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site
Within walking distance of Old City, this small historic site in Spring Garden preserves the only surviving dwelling where Poe lived during his seven years in Philadelphia. The house dates back to 1842 and is open to tours on selected days of the week. It's best to call ahead or visit the official National Park Service website for hours of operation.
12. President's House Site
The President's House is located between the Liberty Bell Center and the Independence Visitor Center and showcases the underground foundations beneath a glass-encased floor and rebuilt entranceways. It's an interesting glimpse at where the street level was in Philadelphia more than 200 years ago, and yes, it's where George Washington often slept from 1790 to the end of his second term in 1797, when the nation's capital was in Philadelphia.
The original house was demolished in 1832, and the walls which remained were demolished in the 1950s when construction of the Independence Mall began. At the start of the construction of the new Liberty Bell Center in 2000, the foundations of the house were uncovered and hence preserved.
13. Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church
This church in South Philadelphia is unique in that it sits away from Old City, which was originally surveyed and laid out by William Penn. South Philadelphia predates Old City and reminds us of where the original colonists lived and built.
Not surprisingly, this church was founded by Swedish Lutherans, although today it serves Episcopalians. The church sits at its original location, founded in 1677, and has undergone various changes in appearance. It is part of the Independence National Historical Park, but it is also an active congregation. It is the oldest church in Pennsylvania.
14. Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial
Built in 1772 in an area now called Society Hill, this house is often considered the smallest national park in the country (in terms of area). It is where General Kosciuszko lived from 1797 to 1798 after he was exiled from his native Poland following a failed uprising.
Other Places of Interest
While the list above discusses what I consider to be the must-see historical sites in Philadephia, the following places are also worth visiting, if you have the time.
St. George’s Methodist Church (Old City)
One of the oldest Methodist churches in the United States, St. George’s is considered a Methodist shrine. Located just north of Old City, on 4th and New Streets, the church was built in 1769.
Free Quaker Meeting House (Old City)
This simple, two-story Federal-style building dates to 1783 and is part of the Independence National Historical Park. It is one of the oldest Quaker meeting houses in the city.
St. Joseph’s Church (Society Hill)
The oldest Catholic church in Philadelphia dates to 1733, although the current standing structure was built in 1838. At its founding, Old St. Joseph’s was the only place in the English-speaking world where Catholic mass could be celebrated.
Congress Hall (Old City)
Just west of Independence Hall sits Congress Hall, and as the name implies, it housed the U.S. Congress from 1790 until 1800. This Federal-style building was designed by Samuel Lewis and constructed between 1787 and 1789. It was also the former Philadelphia County Courthouse. It is now part of Independence National Historical Park.
Old City Hall (Old City)
Old City Hall sits on the east side of Independence Hall. It housed the U.S. Supreme Court between 1791 and 1800 and was formerly Philadelphia’s City Hall. It was built in 1774 by William Strickland.
Philadelphia Exchange (Old City)
Also known as the Merchant’s Exchange Building, this beautiful Greek Revival structure was designed by William Strickland between 1832 and 1834. It is now part of the Independence National Historical Park.
Old Navy Asylum (South Philadelphia)
Though it is not open to the public, you can at least view the front of this building from the street side and be reminded why Philadelphia was once referred to as the "Athens of the United States." The Greek Revival building was designed by William Strickland in 1827 and served as a navy hospital, naval school, and naval home until 1976.
Rittenhouse Town (Fairmount Park)
Fairmount Park is an oasis in the middle of an urban sea. Its huge expanse covers a total of 9,200 acres, and within its boundaries are a number of historic properties best underscored by the country mansions that overlooked the steep banks of the Schuylkill River. Established in 1690 by David Rittenhausen, the old site included a mill and other structures (since demolished and recreated). It is located off Lincoln Drive in Fairmount Park.
Strawberry Mansion and Lemon Hill (Fairmount Park)
There are dozens of old colonial and early republic mansions that dot the hills above the Schuylkill. Lemon Hill (c. 1800), a Federal-style mansion, and Strawberry Mansion (c. 1789) are probably the best known. They are mostly administered and owned by the Fairmount Park Commission or the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Period furnishings adorn the houses.
Carpenter’s Hall (Old City)
Eclipsed by nearby Independence Hall in size and stature, Carpenter’s Hall is a modest two-story Georgian building, built in 1770, which hosted the First Continental Congress, making it one of the country’s oldest capitols. The building is still owned by the Carpenter’s Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, an old trade guild.
Visitor's Information and Practical Tips
The best approach to seeing Philadelphia's historic sites is to start from Independence Mall. Once there, you can walk to all the major sites.
Parking at the Independence Mall
You can attempt to street park but it's not advisable. Better options include the underground parking garage on the east side of Independence Mall run by the city's Parking Authority, where $21 will pay for an entire day (August 2018). Once you park, elevators will take you directly up to the ground floor of the Independence Visitor Center.
When I visited there last, I thought that a weekday morning would be best. The parking lot described above was almost full at that time, but I couldn't help noticing that it was clearing out by early afternoon. Use your discretion. One-way streets may complicate your approach to this parking garage, so make sure you are going northbound on 5th Street (one-way). The garage comes up quickly on your left.
Getting Your Bearings
Orient yourself at the Independence Visitor Center. Food, drinks and coffee shops aren't hard to find as this is downtown (and all of this is available at the above mentioned Visitor Center). For those who are brand loyal, there is a Starbucks on Arch and 3rd and a Dunkin' Donuts on Market and 7th.
Philadelphia Historic Sites
Questions & Answers
© 2011 jvhirniak