The Wanamaker Christmas Light Show
Housed in the old Wanamaker building turned Macy's, this Christmas light show attracts thousands of visitors every year. Timed to organ music (they still use the original organ from the first show!), the light show lasts around 10 minutes and happens every hour. They clear the sales floor so that visitors can sit down and look up at the gigantic show that soars 5 stories up in the atrium. I love coming here because it’s just so magical. It might be just some lights to others, but after establishing the tradition as a teen, I’ve tried to continue it yearly. This is probably one of the best events to take your kids to, low risk, stunning visuals, and maybe they might even sit down for longer than 2 seconds. You could potentially even get some shopping time in while you’re there.
The Dickens Village
No Christmas story is told more often than the cautionary tale of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, the penny pinching, mean-spirited octogenarian and his plight one fateful Christmas Eve. Scrooge’s story is memorialized on the third floor of the Wanamaker building, just steps from a balcony that has uninhibited views of the light show (arguably one of the best spots to watch!). The village is a walk-through exhibit with animatronic and stationary characters that bring the story to life. You’ll meet the ghosts of past, present, and future as they take you on his journey. Notice the Tiny Tim in the corner, or Scrooge in the window proclaiming “Merry Christmas!” As it is free, it sometimes gets a little crowded, but for the most part its a fun, quick experience for all ages.
Love Park’s Christmas Village
For me, this is a new section of the city, as Love Park was previously under construction. The village features a 2 story gift box of lights that serves as a donation point for your favorite charities (or a cool photoshoot location), Santa, a beer garden and several other local delights. The Christmas Village houses dozens of vendors of all sorts, from clothing to tchotchkes, and rarely disappoints. Visit the mulled wine vendor and grab a cup of wine or cider and take a walk throughout the village. What they have in great options for everyone is limited by time, of these 5 events, the village typically closes up right after Christmas, while the others go until the new year.
The City of Philadelphia has a yearly tradition of its own for the holidays. Each year, City Hall has a Christmas tree lighting ceremony, botanical gardens, a carousel, skating rink, and it’s famous light show. Put on by 6ABC and Independence Blue Cross, the light show shines on the Dilworth Park side of City Hall. Starting at 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm (weekdays: hourly, weekends: every half hour) the light show has dazzled visitors for several years now, even during the reconstruction of Love Park across the street which put a halt on the Christmas Village there.
We all know the significance of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, but did you know that the man who discovered electricity has an electric spectacular dedicated to him now in Philadelphia? Situated between 6th and 7th streets near Race and Vine, the spectacular show has been running for a few years. It’s an ode to Franklin and his experiments, using over 75,000 twinkling lights to do so. No, you won’t be able to fly a kite in a lightning storm, but you may be able to find “his” kite floating above the revelers. This completely free event has food and drink vendors and is fantastic for all ages. While I haven’t visited there yet this year, I have definitely started considering when I’ll go, maybe if it snows!
Travel can get expensive fast, and when activities cost a lot we try to cut things out. However, I believe there are ways to get all of those activities in without breaking the bank or sacrificing on the experience.
Up Front Costs
As with anything, there will be up front costs. This guide is designed to minimize the amount of time you use public transportation in order to maximize the money in your own pocket. Many visitors to Philadelphia get the Independence Passes by SEPTA, these passes are $13 and allow for free interchange and transportation anywhere in the city on buses, regional rail lines, and the subway. If you expect to spend more than $13 on transportation this is a great purchase for you (Best for those who are traveling into the city from nearby locations on the regional rail lines). Other costs such as hotels, Ubers, and other expenses (airport transit fees) are unavoidable.
So great! You’ve decided to do a trip to this fair city, you have your hotel, your transportation, and your love for Philadelphia to your advantage. The City of Brotherly Love welcomes you.
Note: This trip requires a lot of walking or you will have to Uber to where you want to go.
Day 1: The Oldies
Anyone who knows anything about Philadelphia knows about the history, it is a big part of the city identity. Plus, who doesn’t love cheap attractions? Old City is the place for anyone who needs a little history love. For visitors arriving by subway, get off at the MFL 5th St Station, this will put you right next to attractions such as Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin’s House and Museum, Betsy Ross House, and the Constitution Center. Unfortunately, the Declaration House, a small unassuming house where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence is currently closed until June 2019. Most of these free or cheap attractions do have more lines so be prepared.
Start your day by getting ticket for early entry for Independence Hall from the Independence Visitors Center, people will line up early to get tickets so getting here early is key. These tickets are free so many people will try to go there first before other exhibits. Try to get a pass for the morning, as that is usually when there is less traffic as many try to sleep in or have work.
Once you’ve gotten your ticket there are a few things that may happen.
If your ticket is for the first entry of the day go to Independence Hall. If it’s not, make a stop at the Liberty Bell, but please remember to open your bag and allow the National Park Service to check them, this is to keep you and others safe as these are buildings of national importance.
Note: These two things should be done in tandem and will make up the first part of your day.
Following your liberty and independence intro, the Benjamin Franklin Court is nearby and accessible from both Market St and a Chestnut St. The Court, Printing Press, and Post Office are all free exhibits that can be done simultaneously. If you’re a big fan of Mr. Franklin, there is a small, interactive museum (great for kids) that costs $5 for adults and $2 for children up to 16.
If by this time you’re feeling a hint of hunger or thirst stop by 3rd and Market’s Happily Ever Cafe or. This cafe is a movie lover’s dream, outfitted with kitschy pop culture references. Their coffee and drinks are tasty and are a reasonable price for the area, they do serve loaded waffles and ramen so if you’re in the mood for those this is the best place to get them. If Happily Ever After’s menu isn’t what your after, get some lunch at Luna Cafe.
After lunch it’s time to visit some other attractions. Take a stroll past Christ’s Church, who still bear the names of the departed on it’s walkway, and towards the Betsy Ross house, the original house where the first United States flag was created. Located on a surprisingly busy and modern street, you’ll recognize it right away by its flags and courtyard. The cost for this museum is $5 and worth it if you’re into history and seeing the original flag making tools and historically accurate furnishings.
To work off some of the bloating after eating lunch, visit Elfreth’s Alley near Arch and 2nd Street. This is the oldest, continuously inhabited street in Philadelphia. They do have a museum here that you can visit if you so desire for a pittance of $2.
Since so much of Old City is free or cheap, this is a great destination to spend most of your time on the first day. If you have extra time, check out the free first floor gallery of the National Museum of American Jewish History to see items from the original Polio vaccine to Albert Einstein’s personal effects. The museum itself costs $15, but their free gallery is somewhere you can see some history.
It’s almost dinner time and that means CHEESESTEAKS (If you’re a vegetarian I’ll let you know where to go too!). Some of the most iconic cheesesteaks in the city aren’t from Pats or Genos, rather stop by Jim’s on South Street, a staple in Philadelphia. Jim’s is accessible from the Lombard-South St subway station, by Uber, or by walking (1.0 miles). If traveling by subway, take the 5th st MFL line to 15th St and use the free interchange to get on the BSL to Lombard-South. Following this, you will walk 10 blocks (yes, Philadelphia is not too great if you can’t walk a lot) to Jim’s Steaks. If you catch it at the right time there shouldn’t be too much of a crowd. They are cash only and a steak is approximately $10. After getting your steak at Jim’s take a walk to Penns Landing harbor and eat your steaks there, it’s a beautiful view with some impressive boats, including the restaurant boat Moshulu.
If you’re a vegetarian we have options for you as well, although they are at a different location. You’ll do the steps from the previous paragraph but get off at Walnut-Locust stop instead (you can walk from 15th St station as well). You should be prepared to walk less but there will be more lines. You should be looking for Wiz Kid, a vegan restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. They serve a seitan cheesesteak with rutabaga cheese. While this may seem a bit weird, their cheesesteaks are very good and vegetarian approved. After dinner, definitely take a walk through Rittenhouse Square Park, which is a beautiful park with lots of greenery, maybe indulge in an after steak drink at one of the many classy bars nearby.
From here, the time is yours, do whatever you’d like and enjoy it!
Today you will have spent under $30 (including subway fare and any other transportation fees, food, and attractions)
Day 2: The Contemporaries
Today is not as busy as previous day and is a lot more flexible. This will hit the most important museums and stop without having to take the train or subway.
Start your day with a run up the famous Rocky steps at The Philadelphia Art Museum then get your picture taken with the accompanying statue. The Rocky steps are a must for any visitor to Philadelphia, it’s become a tradition to do the famous run and there are yearly 5k races in memory of this epic run. The Italian Stallion lives on in the fans who come to complete the race. The Philadelphia Art Museum is an option for you if you’re a big fan of classic works and large scale vignettes of the past. Tickets are around 14$ but if you plan on staying for a while it’s well worth it. They are closed on Mondays, but any other day it is a treat to visit the vast collection.
After the Museum of Art, take a stroll down the street to Eastern State Penitentiary, the admission is $14 for a self guided tour, but you get an audio tour and the chance to see Al Capone’s cell. Bring a coat, because Fall through Spring is notoriously chilly. Maybe with the memories of those who have passed. Take your time, there is a lot to see and a huge compound in which to visit. If you prefer a more spooky endeavor, visit the Penitentiary during October for their terror nights.
Once you’ve finished you’ll be decently hungry, after all, you did do that major run. Around the Penitentiary are several average priced eateries. Make a stop and find something that appeals to you, there is a lot of variety.
After this, it’s time for a more fascinating museum. While the Franklin Institute is on many a list, their cost is a little off putting at $25 per person for entry. Instead, head two blocks over to the Mutter Museum, this museum features a vast herb garden, gorgeous architecture, a museum of medical oddities that have been curated throughout the years for this collection. You’ll see skulls, livers, foetuses and other creepy medical oddities. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is indeed a fantastic stop on any visit to Philadelphia, I myself have gone 4 times in the past year.
It’s nearing the end of our journey, you’ve visited three great museums and hopefully seen the sights. It’s time for one last stop, City Hall. I’ve left this for last as it’s the very center of the city and boasts more than just a William Penn statue. Steps away from city hall is Love Park, aptly named for the LOVE statue that sits in the middle with direct views down the parkway to the Art Museum. This is your photo op, try it out, you won’t regret it!
I leave you with this note, whatever you do in this fair city I hope that you find value in it and enjoy your time here. Good luck and Bon Voyage!
Day 1: Independence Hall, Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin's House and Museum, Betsy Ross House, Elfreths Alley, Jim's Steaks OR Wiz Kid.
Day 2: Rocky Steps, Eastern State, Mutter, Love Park, and City Hall