World Facts Index > United States > Philadelphia

The first thing visitors discover about Philadelphia is that it's a "walking" town--most places are within a mile of City Hall, on pleasant, tree-lined streets with a rich mix of architecture, ranging from Colonial to Victorian to Bauhaus, sometimes within the same block. Recent years have seen a burst of building activity. There are days when it seems like every street in town is under construction, especially when you're trying to find a parking space. But it's a walking town, so a visitor can leave the car in one place for the day and find easy paths to wander. Each street leads to smaller and smaller streets and alleyways, hiding small glories of houses, clever gardens, footnotes to American history, and even a few good coffee spots.

Getting Around Philadelphia
This was the first major city to be designed on a grid system, which means that directions make sense: You can walk from the east end of Market Street to the west end, and it will be a straight line. The streets running North-South are numbered from 2 to 69. On-street parking is generally limited to two hours, and some streets have peculiar restrictions on when even that is permitted, so read the signs carefully. There is a lot of construction and street repair going on, but generally these are small projects that only disrupt the traffic flow for a few days at a time in any one spot. (The local joke is that rush hour traffic reports should tell which streets aren't closed today.) There are ample parking garages, with rates lower than New York and discounts for all-day parking. The local public transportation (SEPTA, or South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) has routes that cover all of the city and the suburban area, including a light rail from Philadelphia International Airport. Passes are available at day, weekly, or monthly rates. Cab drivers here are as peculiar as they are anywhere, but they are licensed, and generally very reliable. In Center City, the wait for a cab is no more than five minutes, unless, of course, you really need one, and then it might be 10 minutes.

Who's Who in Philadelphia
Benjamin Franklin came from Boston when he was 17 and became a famous and prosperous man here. His mark is everywhere, from Pennsylvania Hospital, which he helped found, to the University of Pennsylvania, which he also helped found, plus the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Franklin Institute, and the images of him everywhere you look. There's even a street performer who has played Ben every day for 25 years, to a point where he's invited to official ceremonies and introduced to visiting dignitaries as Dr. Franklin.

This city's contributions to industry and science are legendary, from the introduction of the "cowboy hat" (Stetson Company) to the invention of ENIAC, the first electronic computer (University of Pennsylvania). These days the city is becoming better known for breakthroughs in genetic research, thanks to the concentration of schools and independent research facilities in the area.

Philadelphia has made a steady contribution to the arts scene over the years. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his classics here. Comedians W.C. Fields and Bill Cosby, artists Mary Cassatt and Alexander Calder, and the Philadelphia Orchestra all kept a touch of the city in their work. Chef Jacques Perrier turned down offers in Paris and New York and opened his restaurants here. A young Bruce Springsteen played in coffee houses here on the weekends, and used to sleep on a local disk jockey's couch to save money. Singer/actor Will Smith is expected to build a new studio here, in his hometown. And it's common these days to see stars like Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington or Oprah Winfrey making another film here.

A City of Neighborhoods
Philadelphia occupies as much land as New York City, but with a smaller population -- about 1.5 million -- spread out over this area. Part of the charm of this city is its neighborhoods. For instance, downtown Philadelphia is referred to as Center City. This covers 30 blocks, from the Delaware River on the east end to the Schuykill River on the west side, and as far north as Spring Garden Street and south to -- well, to South Street. But within this area there are even more neighborhoods.

Start your visit with the first neighborhood, around Independence Hall. This is where the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were written and signed; this is where the Liberty Bell rang out; where the Founding Fathers sat. Walk the simple buildings in this district, sit under a tree in the gardens, and mail postcards home from Benjamin Franklin's Post Office (besides everything else, he was the first Postmaster General).

By the Delaware River is Society Hill, where some of the richest neighbors live in restored Colonial mansions. A few blocks north of there is Old City, which is Philadelphia's version of New York's Soho, with wonderful restaurants, small art galleries, and a growing number of design firms; this is the fashionable young hip scene in all its shades. Here you can have a cocktail at an intimate bar, then head up the block to a play, concert, or movie, then discuss the show over a late dinner and head out again to hear music up the street, or do some late night shopping for books or music, all within a few blocks.

West of Old City, between 8th and 13th Streets, is Chinatown. These days Chinatown is about half Chinese and half a combination of Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Burmese, and Pan-Asian, and it rivals any Chinatown in the country. It's also home to the Convention Center and one of the oldest farmers' markets in the country, the Reading Terminal Market.

On the west end of Center City is fashionable Rittenhouse Square, where you can buy great clothing and then wear it to dinner at the place next door.

In between are the business and shopping districts, the Avenue of the Arts, and more small neighborhoods, each with own distinct identity.

The city scene is a strange mix of students from the numerous colleges, blue collar workers, and those in from the suburbs or New Jersey, across the bridge. Some of the other popular areas:

Avenue of the Arts--Broad Street, south of City Hall, is a boulevard of theatres and restaurants. The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Ballet, University of the Arts, and the Wilma, Merriam, Gershman, Prince, and Arts Bank theatres all reside here, interspersed with great restaurants and jazz clubs.

Ben Franklin Parkway--Modeled on Parisian boulevards, the Parkway presents a wonderful, tree-lined walk past Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, several expensive hotels, the main Library, and several museums. At the end of the Parkway, atop a hill, is the neo-classic structure of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This museum is approached by the famous "Rocky" steps, featured in a film years ago and now a famous tourist attraction in their own right. (But go into the museum, where there's a great collection.)

13th Street--There's no official name for this area, but it's the center of the gay community in town. Restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, bookstores, etc., serving the gay community, mixed with residences of professionals and students of three local medical schools.

Delaware Avenue--This is the place to be if you want to party all night (or the place to avoid if you hate staying out late). In the summer, open-air clubs take advantage of the river lights and the breathtaking view of the Ben Franklin Bridge. There are also arcades, pool and table tennis halls, driving ranges, movie theatres, and even shopping centers.

Penn's Landing--This walkway along the Delaware River is a backdrop for outdoor festivals and free summer concerts, as well as fireworks on holidays. Or take a ferry across the river to the New Jersey State Aquarium.

South Street--In the 1960s, South Street was the hippie frontier; while there are still some vestiges of this history, these days it's mostly a long stretch of chain stores appealing to teenagers and college students, though there are still some good places to hear music or buy good quality antiques at reasonable prices.

Northern Liberties--North of Old City, this is the "new frontier" of the hip scene; not much up there yet, but what's there is young, fashionable, and crowded with interesting conversation and cool music. The Silk City Diner at 5th and Spring Garden is the place to be for a grilled cheese sandwich at 4am Sunday morning, or the best place for huevos rancheros for breakfast.

Manayunk--If you take the Schuykill or Kelly Drive for ten minutes, you'll be along an old canal path in a quaint neighborhood. Main Street is two miles of terrific restaurants, exclusive stores and a nightclub or two.

Center City is surrounded by more neighborhoods: South Philly, where rich Italian history and new communities of Vietnamese and Thai make great dining unavoidable; North Philly, home of the funky Philly Sound, a lively Latin community, and the new mayor; and West Philly, across the Schuykill, where the University of Pennsylvania and six other major schools are the centerpiece of a deep blend of students, immigrants, and old neighborhoods. And there are plenty of other ways to go.

It's possible to get from one end of town to the other in about 20 minutes on one of the efficient subways, but the best way to see the town is just walk around, stop in somewhere that looks good, and start a conversation.

History of Philadelphia

When the American colonies were founded in the 1600s, there were generally two main guiding principles behind them: for the New England colonies, freedom to practice religions not popular in England; for the southern colonies, agricultural development extending the holdings of British landowners. There were two exceptions: New York was always a place for trade, originally established by Dutch companies. The other exception was Pennsylvania, and the town of Philadelphia.

Founded on Quaker principles of tolerance and harmonious living, Philadelphia had the religious foundations of its New England neighbors, but unlike the stricter sects to the north the Quakers welcomed other beliefs and races. Like its southern neighbors, Pennsylvania started with an agricultural economy, but it never relied on slavery as much as southern plantations did, and had a large community of free blacks. Philadelphia was the best place to be for the first hundred years of this country.

Since then, the desire to tolerate everyone has sometimes been interpreted as the need to keep things quiet so no one is bothered, but as the new century begins, the original vision of tolerance and harmony has been remembered, translated into a multicultural, active town with rich neighborhoods, close suburbs, green parks, and a lively downtown.

The colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn (1644-1718) in 1681. (Pennsylvania is Latin for 'Penn's woods.') Having come from a London that had recently burned and was just discovering the new idea of sanitary plumbing, Penn wanted Philadelphia to be 'a greene Country Towne, which will never be burnt, and allways be wholsome.'

From the beginning, Philadelphia was to be different from other colonial towns. Instead of sprawling, streets were laid out on a grid system, with five public squares (now called Washington, Rittenhouse, Franklin and Logan Circle--City Hall was built on the fifth square). To demonstrate his belief in living in peaceful harmony, the town was built with no fortifications. Indians were welcome. Penn signed a treaty with the Lenni Lenape in 1682, at what is now Penn Treaty Park. Even the name of the town demonstrated peace; while most other colonial towns were named for founders or expedition sponsors, Philadelphia is latin for 'City of Brotherly Love.'

Of course, when you invite everyone in, there's the likelihood some will disagree with you. By 1690, scarcely nine years after the first Quaker Meeting House went up, arguments over the direction of the city had turned into formal ideologies. Philadelphians have been arguing ever since.

Penn had originally envisioned his colony as a pure, 'wholsome' farming community, but the port quickly became one of the most important trading spots in America, rivaled only by New York. The rising merchant class wasn't terribly interested in the simple Quaker lifestyle. Pubs, theatres, circuses, dances and races entered the scene.

There were slaves on some of the farms, but slave auctions were banned early. A community of ex-slaves grew, centered around the Mother Bethel Church, the cornerstone of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) movement. By 1790, there were 300 slaves in Pennsylvania, and 7,579 free blacks. By 1860, there were 22,185 free blacks, making Philadelphia an important stop on the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped slaves escape from southern slave states.

The tolerant attitude attracted many immigrants. British Quakers were followed by German immigrants as early as the 1690s. In the 1800s Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants came in waves, drawn by employment on massive projects like the new turnpike system, the canals and the railroad. Coal mining upstate created more jobs, and the coal provided steam power for the factories of the Industrial Revolution that made Philadelphia a major manufacturing center.

In 1723, an immigrant from Boston made a name for himself and put Philadelphia on the map. Benjamin Franklin was a young printer's apprentice, fresh from his brother's shop, trying to set himself up in business. He started at the one regular newspaper and would occasionally contribute satirical pieces under a series of pseudonyms. These pieces quickly became the most popular part of the Gazette, and when Franklin revealed himself to be the author he was instantly famous. He started his own publishing house, eventually buying the Gazette, and put out two newspapers (with columns by him), several books (including his autobiography), and an annual farm guide, Poor Richard's Almanac (yes, him again). In his spare time, he invented the Franklin stove, the glass harmonium and bifocals. He helped Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. He was a founding member of the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Hospital, the first public library, a fire insurance company, the Post Office, and the Constitutional Congress. His book 'Experiments and Observations in Electricity,' 1751, was considered in its time the most important scientific work in the world.

Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States. In fact, this is where the Congress met before the nation officially began on July 4th, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed. The United States Constitution was written and ratified here in 1789, and, later the same year, George Washington was sworn in as the first president here.

Delegates to Congress were astounded at the wealth and beauty they saw here. Some of the finest examples of the Chippendale furniture style were seen in the homes, and splendid examples of colonial silver smithing and textiles. Because of the active seaport, food and fabrics from the Indies and China were readily available, even with the problem of getting past the British warships.

By the 19th Century, the excitement was over. In 1800, the nation's capital moved to Washington, DC. New York began to overshadow Philadelphia as a financial and cultural center, a situation that exists to this day. New immigrants and escaped slaves increased racial tensions here, mocking the name City of Brotherly Love. Yet the new canals and railroads made this an important center for manufacturing, shipbuilding and international trade, even if the living standards were moving away away from the original 'greene Country Towne.' For better and worse, this was the third largest American city of the 19th Century.

The Centennial Exhibition of 1876 focused attention on Philadelphia once again, bringing 100,000 people to see the wonders of industrialism. Many mass-produced goods were manufactured in the Philadelphia area. Campbell soup, Stetson hats, Baldwin locomotives, if it was made in a factory, there was a good chance it was made here. In medicine, Philadelphia has always been one of the most famed cities for its hospitals, medical schools and research facilities. This reputation began in the 18th century and continues into the 21st.

But like most industrial cities, growth in population and new factories strained the old institutions of government. Corruption at city hall was common everywhere at the time, but Philadelphia managed to be corrupt even in the building of its city hall. Construction began in 1874. When it was finished in 1894, it cost $25 million US, which was $15 million over budget, most of it going into a small number of pockets. In typical government fashion, the committee could not choose from three designs. So, the story goes, they built all three. It's one of the largest city halls in the world. It was around this time that Philadelphia gained its long-lived reputation for complacency.

But the need for reform led to the rise in reform. Beginning in 1900, public-spirited citizens came forward. There was renewed interest in improving living conditions. It happened slowly at first, but there were signs of progress: new projects, like the Ben Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Art Museum; a new charter for the city; and better health and transportation.

There were also new vaudeville and burlesque houses. The Philadelphia Athletics, the local baseball team, won the American League pennant six times between 1902 and 1914, and the World Series in 1910, 1911, and 1914. The Philadelphia Orchestra, under conductor Leopold Stokowski, began its reign as one of the most recognized symphony orchestras in the country. The naval shipyard built the most important American military vessels in two world wars.

By the end of World War II, Philadelphia had shed its reputation for corruption and complacence. Returning war veterans were in no mood to protect democracy overseas and then give it up to a party boss back home. Still the third largest city in the country, new building projects began to clean away the blight years of neglect had created in what was once the greene Towne. By the time of the Bicentennial, in 1976, Philadelphia had achieved what older citizens had thought impossible. New Yorkers were coming for a visit and deciding to look for a house.

Now at the beginning of a new century, the city has shed its reputation as a convenient stop between New York and Washington and become once again a destination in its own right. Though the heavy industries have moved out, the economy is robust, with a mix of agriculture, small business, banking, and service industries. The medical research facilities here are becoming known as the 'Silicon Valley' of genetic research. One frequently overlooked aspect of the city is the entertainment contribution, touching everything from Dick Clark's original American Bandstand to production of some of the top grossing films in theaters.

The city is filled with reminders of the colonial period. Fairmount Park, home of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, is dotted with colonial homes that were moved there as museums. Elfreth's Alley, off Second and Arch Streets, is the oldest continually occupied neighborhood in the country, preserved by residents who must pledge to preserve the original design. Old Swede's Church is a perfect example of the 'public' architecture typical at the country's founding.

The early Quaker influence is still felt in the generally un-ostentatious design of the town. Even the most astounding mansions--and there are quite a few--look, from the outside, like modest brownstone townhouses. The fashion was to make them long and narrow, with a thin, modest face to the street. In some cases, what appears to be a series of townhouses (or rowhouses, as they're called)is in fact one large house, compiled of what had been several smaller homes. Philadelphians can enjoy some of the best restaurants in the country, but few dress up for the occasion; comfort is the style. Yet Philadelphians are not complacent: At sporting events, it's not uncommon to hear loud boos if something isn't going well. It even happens at the orchestra, though rarely. It's also not uncommon for complete strangers to say hello to you on the street, or go out of their way to help you find one of those great restaurants.

This is possibly the best time to be visiting since 1776, when Congressional delegates were impressed with the quality and comfort of this city.

The Weather

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High 37 41 51 62 74 81 86 84 77 66 55 44
Avg. Low 22 24 34 42 52 61 67 66 58 46 37 28
Mean 30 34 42 52 64 72 77 76 68 56 46 36
Avg. Precip. 3.2 in 2.8 in 3.5 in 3.6 in 3.8 in 3.7 in 4.3 in 3.8 in 3.4 in 2.6 in 3.3 in 3.4 in


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