Philadelphia’s family attractions are numerous, varied and – with a few exceptions – clustered together nicely for convenience. Many families head straight for the museum district on the Parkway, where kids love walking through the oversized human heart at the Franklin Institute, checking out the 42 foot T-Rex at the Academy of Natural Sciences and experiencing battle as a soldier at the Museum of the American Revolution, a $100 million facility that opened April 2017.
Assuming good weather, nothing beats a day in Fairmount Park, the city’s 9,200 acre recreational treasure which straddles both sides of the Schuylkill River from the Art Museum up almost to City Line Avenue at the Montgomery County border. As with Central Park in Manhattan or Hyde Park in London, the magic of Fairmount lies in its nooks and crannies. If you have the time, the best way to experience the space is simply to wander around. In addition to its bountiful supply of picnic areas, tennis courts, ballfields and bike trails, Fairmount is replete with unusual museums, concert venues, gardens, historic mansions, whimsical public art and the nation’s first zoo. Many of these attractions are among Philadelphia’s best family offerings.
Biking along the Schuylkill River Trail on the east bank of the river is a relaxing way to take in both the pastoral and human scenery, from the collegiate rowers training for the next regatta to Center City lawyers training for the next half-marathon. You can rent bikes from the Wheel Fun Rentals concession at Lloyd Hall near the Art Museum, including cruisers, surreys and even double surreys which can accommodate a family of four. From Lloyd Hall to the park’s northern edge in East Falls is about four and a half miles. While this is the end of the line as far as the park is concerned, serious bicyclists can continue north along Manayunk’s towpath and follow the trail all the way up to Valley Forge (27 miles total).
The best East Park attraction for young children (nine and under) is Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse, which features an unusual 40 foot wooden slide. On the opposite side of the river is West Park, the larger, hillier and more rustic side of the Fairmount. Here you’ll find the city’s best known family attraction – the Please Touch Museum, a sprawling, 157,000 square foot creative learning and exploration space housed in the historic, magnificently restored Memorial Hall building. Please Touch offers attractions for kids aged three to 12, but those between four and nine will get the most out of it. The popular faux supermarket is where many a young Philadelphian has learned to select and ring up (plastic) groceries, while the less practical but more imaginative world of Wonderland offers kids the opportunity to take tea with the Mad Hatter and navigate the Hall of Doors and Mirrors.
Not far from Please Touch, at the northern end of West Park’s Centennial District is the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, a unique, open air concert venue that hosts a wide array of performers every June through September. The recently expanded lawn area is great for families for the low ticket prices and convenience – bring a blanket and spread out where you like. If you’re visiting July and August, check for free Young People’s Concert Series performances.
South of the Centennial District in West Park is the famed Philadelphia Zoo. It has always been a terrific attraction, but recent renovation projects have transformed the facility into among the country’s most creative, thoughtfully constructed zoos. The latest effort is Zoo360, a system of mesh-enclosed passageways that allow tigers, apes and other animals to wend their way throughout the park, above the heads of visitors.
The Old City area on the east side of downtown has a great deal to offer families as well, particularly older kids, who will get a lot out of the historic attractions. The recently renovated and re-imagined Franklin Court underground museum and historic site does an engaging job with the founding father and his contributions to both the city and to science. The recently opened Museum of the American Revolution is also refreshingly kid-friendly, and children under six are admitted free. Nearby, Philadelphia’s best miniature golf is at Franklin Square at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge. On the other side of the bridge in Camden, New Jersey is the terrific Adventure Aquarium.
You know your kids better than anyone, so you’ll probably know whether or not they’ll enjoy northeast Philadelphia’s Insectarium, which is basically what it sounds like – a museum filled with bugs. Founded by a local exterminator in 1992, the Insectarium offers two floors of arthropod exhibits and is considerably more educational than a similarly insect-rich basement apartment. Still, not for the squeamish.