William Penn designed Philadelphia as a rectangular grid of streets, anchored by five parklike squares on a narrow stretch of land between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Two of the squares, Washington and Rittenhouse, have developed into posh residential neighborhoods. Since the city developed east to west (pushing inland from the harbor), you'll find picturesque Old City and Society Hill near the old docks (Elfreth's Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited street in the nation, is located here), and later developments, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fairmount Park, to the west. South Philadelphia and Northern Liberties, originally home to workers in nearby smokestack factories, are undergoing a transformation as affordable housing attracts younger residents and first-time home buyers. Across the Schuylkill River to the west, University City was developed around the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.
Be aware that in Philadelphia (unlike in, say, New York City), dodgy neighborhoods sometimes butt up against tonier districts, and the gentrification of Center City and its surrounding areas is occuring in a patchwork pattern. Always carry a map and be cognizant of your surroundings.
WHEN TO GO
This is a four-season town, but late spring shows off the beautiful citywide plantings of the renowned Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Winter makes magic of the illuminated boathouse row, and leafless trees reveal the cunning architecture of Old City and Society Hill.
HOW TO GET THERE
Philadelphia International Airport, eight miles from Center City, hosts 29 airlines that provide nonstop flights to more than 120 cities. The SEPTA Airport Rail Line is an easy, cheap way to get from the airport into the center of town (215-580-7800; www.septa.com), and many local taxi companies make the trip for a flat fee of $27. (Inquire with the dispatcher to see if your destination qualifies.) Amtrak's 30th Street Station is a major hub, particularly on the heavily trafficked Boston-to-Washington, D.C. route (800-872-7245; www.amtrak.com). Major highways (the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-76, I-95, and the New Jersey Turnpike) also crisscross the Philadelphia area.
SEPTA runs bus, subway, trolley, and regional rail systems; an unlimited-ride day pass for $5.50 is available at the Independence Visitor Center at the corner of Sixth and Market streets. But most of Center City and the historic districts are compact and easy to cover on foot.
PHLASH is a seasonal service (late May through early September) that targets 20 strategic tourist attractions from Penn's Landing (east) to the Art Museum (west). The purple trolley runs about every 12 minutes and offers individual day passes for $4, and family passes (two adults and two children ages 6–17) for $10 (215-923-5008; www.phillyphlash.com).
Diverse tour-transportation options, from trolleys to double-decker buses and horse-drawn carriages, can be found (and booked) on www.phillytour.com, or by calling 215-389-8687.
Independence Visitor Center
6th and Market streets
Tel: 800 537 7676
Tel: 215 965 7676
An attraction in its own right, with a cafe, gift shop, and three theaters (rev up for the city's historical offerings with the 30-minute Independence film primer), this is the place to launch a day of sightseeing. You're already in the heart of the historic district, and you can get tickets for more than 50 historic sites and tours, and a commuter day pass for SEPTA's buses, subways, and trolleys.
Check the events calendar for what's going on about town at www.gophila.com. The site excels at breaking out events and attractions by interest level, such as family-friendly, gay and lesbian, outdoors, and, oh yeah, all the tax-free clothes shopping you can carry.
The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance's up-to-the-minute events guide can be found at www.phillyfunguide.com. Click on the calendar by a specific date to access the local arts and cultural scene.