PHILADELPHIA — The City of Brotherly Love is perhaps best known for its Colonial roots but locals will tell you there’s much more to explore in this city of 1.5 million people. Options abound for travelers looking for free things to do in and around the historic district and beyond — and they don’t all involve tri-corner hats and Betsy Ross’ flag.
It’s a short walk from the city’s most popular tourist attractions to several Philadelphia neighborhoods and shopping districts, which abound with shops and galleries that provide plenty of eye candy for browsers and window shoppers even without opening your wallet. Farther afield is the city’s prestigious art museum, which boasts glorious views from its famous steps. Free options for the outdoorsy include a lush wildlife refuge south of the city as well as Fairmount Park, a 4,100-acre jewel of trails, streams, historic buildings and public art.
Two of the city’s busiest tourist stops, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, are free to visit and located directly across the street from each other. Both are part of Independence National Historical Park, which is managed by the National Park Service. Getting into Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, requires a timed ticket because of crowds. Walk-up tickets are available at the adjacent visitors’ center starting at 8:30 a.m. Visitors should arrive early for the best choice of times, as tickets for the day are often gone by 1 p.m. during the busy summer tourist season. No tickets are required for the Liberty Bell, but expect to wait in line to get inside the building where it resides.
RIGHT UP YOUR ALLEY
In the middle of the Old City neighborhood’s cool art galleries, vintage furniture stores and trendy clothing boutiques is a charming cobblestone lane that has barely changed in 200 years: Elfreth’s Alley, often called the oldest continuously inhabited street in America. It was built for carts traveling to the nearby Delaware River waterfront and named for Jeremiah Elfreth, an 18th-century blacksmith who built and rented out several homes there. The alley’s 32 surviving row houses were built between roughly 1724 and 1836. Unlike the nearby Society Hill mansions built for the city’s upper crust, the humble homes of Elfreth’s Alley were inhabited by laborers, shipwrights and craftsmen. Many of the homes remain privately owned but the narrow street is a good place for a peaceful stroll and some snapshots in front of the charming red-brick homes with colorful flowerboxes and brightly painted shutters.
GARDEN OF GLASS
“Dream Garden,” a jaw-dropping glass mosaic, is close to the historic district but easy to miss unless you know it’s there. The magical scene was created with more than 100,000 pieces of iridescent glass by the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany and was based on a painting by Philadelphia native Maxfield Parrish. The 15-by-49-foot (4.5-by-15-meter) mosaic was commissioned by “Saturday Evening Post” publishing magnate Cyrus Curtis and installed in 1916 inside the lobby of his majestic headquarters fronting Washington Square Park. A public uproar ensued when casino magnate Steve Wynn in 1998 announced his plan to buy the mosaic and move it to Las Vegas, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts purchased the work to guarantee it will forever remain in its intended home. The cool, quiet marble lobby serves as a respite from the Independence Mall crowds and has benches for visitors to relax and feast their eyes on “Dream Garden.”
Make like Philly’s fictional prizefighter Rocky Balboa and bound up the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s 72 stone steps, then spend a few minutes taking in the picture-postcard skyline view down the tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway. A sculpture of the Italian Stallion, arms raised in victory, at the base of the stairs is a popular spot for photo ops. Lots of “Rocky” runners never go inside the renowned art museum after their sprint up the steps — if you do, it’ll cost you $20 for an adult general admission ticket. There is some art to be seen free of charge, however, in a large outdoor sculpture garden featuring works by artists including Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenburg and Ellsworth Kelly.
John Heinz Wildlife Refuge is a thousand-acre oasis located just one mile from the bustle and noise of Philadelphia International Airport. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge is free and open from sunrise to sunset year-round. Birdwatchers have documented more than 300 species of birds at the verdant refuge, a stopover for migratory species due to its location along the Atlantic Flyway, and it’s one of the only places where locally endangered species of turtles and frogs still live. There are trails for hiking and biking, and self-directed and guided tours are available. The largest remaining freshwater tidal wetland in Pennsylvania, Tinicum Marsh was renamed in 1991 to honor the late senator who helped preserve the site from plans that would have put a landfill and part of Interstate 95 through the refuge.