There are so many free things to see and do in Philadelphia that visiting the City of Brotherly Love doesn’t have to be expensive. From art to history to enjoying the great outdoors, there’s something for everyone! Experience all the great free things to do in Philly and save your money for something else. Might I suggest for experiencing Philly’s foodie scene? But one thing at a time. Here are 18 of the best free things to do in Philadelphia!
Enjoy the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Sculpture Garden
Back along the eastern side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art overlooking the Schuylkill River is the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden. Baring the name of one of the museum’s late former directors, the collection is small but enjoyable. Among the works on display is Claes Oldenburg’s “Giant Three-Way Plug.” You may see some temporary pieces, too. Through 2019, two works by Ursula von Rydingsrand are on display. If you’re looking for more details on the sculptures you can use your mobile phone for an audio tour.
Walk the Benjamin Franklin Parkway
The Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a central boulevard in Philly. With the Art Museum anchoring its west end, you can easily walk towards Center City and enjoy quite a few things along the way. The Parkway, as you’ll hear locals call it, is the main stage for holiday parades and special events, such as the Pope’s 2015 visit or Jay-Z’s Made In America festival. When the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018, the crowd overflowed the Parkway and onto the adjacent areas. Flags from around the world flutter in the wind from light posts along the route which passes by some of the city’s best museums and grandest monuments and architecture.
Run the Rocky Steps
Truth be told, as a local I cringe at the phrase “Rocky Steps.” but for so many around the world, that’s exactly what they are. Sylvester Stallone famously ran up the steps of the eastern side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the film Rocky. Any day of the week, regardless of the weather, you can find fans of all ages reliving his glory. At the foot of the stairs is a statue of Rocky with his arms raised in celebration. It’s a popular spot for a selfie but don’t be surprised if you have to wait in line. And at the top of the steps, with an expansive view over the Parkway and the Center City skyline, you’ll find Rocky’s footprints preserved in bronze. Do yourself a favor and be sure to visit the inside of the Art Museum, too. It isn’t free but it’s well worth it.
People Watch in Rittenhouse Square Park
It’s hard to think of a spot more green in central Philly than Rittenhouse Square Park. The park is a favorite with locals whether they’re human, canine, squirrel, or bird. Paths cut across the green lawn of the square between mature trees and benches. The park dates all the way back to William Penn when he and his surveyor planned it in the 17th century. Anyone will tell you that Rittenhouse Square is a prime people-watching location. Grab a bench on a nice day and enjoy.
Tour Philadelphia’s Murals
Since the mid-1980s, what’s now known as Mural Arts Philadelphia has been helping fight graffiti and keep the city beautiful. They do this by transforming ordinary spaces on the sides of buildings into large scale canvases. In seemingly every corner of the city, there is a mural nearby. Some depict famous faces, others are more abstract or inventive. The goal is always to inspire. With the Mural Arts’ website, you can easily find a few murals that interest you. Make a note and go on a self-guided tour. The murals are such an integral part of Philly’s culture and are always so beautifully done.
Enjoy the Rodin Museum Grounds
Philadelphia’s home to the only museum outside of France dedicated to sculptor Auguste Rodin. But that doesn’t mean you have to go inside the Rodin Museum to enjoy his works! The museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway includes the Dorrance H. Hamilton Garden. In the springtime, the garden is simply breathtaking with flowering trees and a reflecting pool as just a couple of the highlights. And surrounding the museum in the garden are eight relatively large works by the master himself. Without paying a dime, visitors can enjoy up close these famous works like The Thinker and The Gates of Hell. It’s enough to tempt you into the museum for a look.
Explore Reading Terminal Market
In the heart of Center City, Reading Terminal Market has been operating since 1893. It’s one of the oldest, as well as largest, public markets in the nation. Visitors flock to Reading Terminal for local favorites, like cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches, as well as everyday groceries. You can go explore all the aisles of the busy market for a better look! Vendors in Reading Terminal sell everything from farm fresh produce and meats from local farmers to household items like soap. There are also a number of restaurants and a few bakeries. It’s the heartbeat of Philly and one of the great free things to do in Philadelphia.
“Meet Me On South Street”
According to an old song, South Street is the “hippest street in town.” I’m not sure that’s still the case but it remains an iconic location. For decades, the bustling blocks on the eastern portion of South Street have been a hot spot with edgy and unique shops, like punk mecca Zipperhead, plus bars and restaurants, like Jim’s Steaks. Today, Jim’s is still there as is the popular music venue the Theater of Living Arts (aka the TLA), but many of the shops and bars have changed. Take a stroll on South Street and get a feel for Philly.
Enjoy Philly’s Public Art
From the golden statue of Joan of Arc on horseback that sits just off the Parkway, you can find art of all kinds and styles across Philadelphia. Hell, there’s even a Rocky statue. The city’s Association for Public Art preserves and protects the art the city has in addition to commissioning new works. In particular, they’ve been bringing in great temporary works that engage the community, such as 2017’s Fireflies pedicabs by Cai Guo-Qiang. From the organization’s website, you can find some works that interest you and take a self-guided tour. They even have an audio guide, Museum Without Walls, for select works. You can access the audio guide on the go with a phone call, via the mobile app, or by downloading it in advance.
Take a Walk at Penn’s Landing
Although it isn’t actually the very spot where William Penn arrived (that’s a bit farther south in what’s today the suburbs), it isn’t any less special. The area bordering the Delaware River offers a popular spot for events throughout the year. There are also nice spots for a walk to enjoy the riverfront view. You can see the city of Camden, New Jersey, just across the way. Or, take some time in Spruce Street Harbor Park.
Explore the Italian Market
South Philly’s Italian Market is America’s oldest outdoor market and another spot you may already know from Rocky or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The market dates to the 19th century when businesses along 9th Street between Wharton and Fitzwater Streets began opening to serve the Italian immigrant community. Today, the Italian Market is a diverse mixture of some of those original businesses as well as new ones offering a different taste.
Take a Trip in Time with Historic Colonial Philadelphia
From the Liberty Bell to the Declaration of Independence, Philly is rich in history. And there’s a lot you can do for free in Philadelphia. The National Park Service oversees sites like Independence Hall which visitors can tour for free. From March through December, you need a free timed-ticket but during the rest of the year, no ticket is necessary. Other Colonial Philadelphia sites like the President’s House and the Liberty Bell are free year round and no ticket is needed. Exploring Old City and experiencing history in Philly is a must for every visitor. This is probably one of the best free things to do in Philadelphia.
Visit Fairmount Park
Fairmount Park is the city’s first and largest park that is actually comprised of two parks: East Fairmount Park and West Fairmount Park. At over 2,000 acres, the park spans both sides of the Schuylkill River, which is also how they’re delineated as east and west. Fairmount Park is full of so many wonderful things to explore from public art and monuments to historic homes and museums (such as the Japanese house Shofuso). Take a picnic and enjoy the parks.
Walk (or Jog) the Schuylkill River Trail
When it is completed, the Schuylkill River Trail will be nearly 130 miles and will run from Philadelphia to Pottsville, Pennsylvania (the hometown of Yuengling, the country’s oldest brewery that’s still operating). The trail is a recent project but many of the sections are ready for visitors to enjoy. The Philadelphia segment of the trail is approximately 10 miles and runs past spectacular sites like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Fairmount Water Works, and Boathouse Row. Whether you’re looking to sightsee or exercise, Schuylkill River Trail is the place to be.
Stroll Elfreth’s Alley
If you’re looking for more historic charm, it doesn’t get any more charming than Elfreth’s Alley. It’s tucked away between 2nd and Front Streets just above Arch Street. Blink and you’ll miss it. But the street is well worth a quick visit. Elfreth’s Alley is considered to be the oldest residential street in the United States and the current occupants have maintained the neighborhood’s historic feel. That’s right: this isn’t an open-air museum, this is someone’s actual street! Take a stroll back in time along the narrow historic homes of Elfreth’s Alley.
Visit the Navy Yard
Right along the Delaware River, the Philadelphia Navy Yard has been revitalized in recent years. Today, the area serves as an urban campus for companies like Urban Outfitters and Tasty Baking Company, the folks responsible for the extremely popular (and regionally known) Tastykake baked goods. The Navy Yard have a recommended two mile long walking tour for visitors that goes past several parks and historic buildings.
Explore the Piers
Philadelphia’s piers — Cherry Street Pier, Race Street Pier, Washington Avenue Pier, and Pier 68 — are recent development projects that are bringing new and diverse life to the area along the Delaware River. Each pier offers something a little bit different for visitors to enjoy. For example, at Pier 68 there are spots for fishing while the Cherry Street Pier hosts artists-in-residence that you can visit and see their creative process as well as a market, garden, performing space, and more. The piers offer another great space for locals and visitors to meet and collaborate. It’s another of the great free things to do in Philadelphia.
Enjoy Seasonal Festivals, Concerts, & Events
From the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day to the Christmas Village and, of course, 4th of July fireworks, there are plenty of free festivals, concerts, and events to enjoy throughout the year in Philadelphia. Some events in Philly do have a cost, but there are plenty you can simply enjoy without spending a dime.
All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.