Philly's Hidden Gems: 21 Places You (Probably) Didn't Know About
As a city steeped in so much history, Philadelphia is the steward of some of the nation’s most iconic locales (think the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Valley Forge National Historical Park). Add to that an impressive list of world-famous pop culture spots from the Rocky Steps to LOVE Park to that glowing South Philly intersection that’s home to cheesesteak bliss.
But those celebrated Philly attractions are only half of the story. Once you’ve toured, tried or tasted the Philly basics, there’s a whole lot more for you to see and do.
Down a narrow Center City alleyway, off the beaten path in South Philly or tucked away in the nearby countryside, Greater Philadelphia is home to scores of lesser-known attractions that even the hardiest of locals may not be familiar with.
Picture birdwatching on the shore of a quiet marsh at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge . Imagine stumbling upon Dr. J’s size-15 high-tops at the Temple University Podiatry School’s Shoe Museum . Fancy taking a selfie with a stunning butterfly that just landed on your shoulder at the Philadelphia Insectarium .
Philly has scores of hidden gems for those in the know — and you, friend, are about to be one of them. Below are 21 of Greater Philadelphia’s best-kept secret places to visit and explore that will make you a legit Philly insider.
Hungry for more? Seek out Greater Philadelphia’s Hidden Bars & Restaurants for in-the-know dining and drinking.
Cultural, Historical and Science Attractions
Originally established by the Baldwin family in Delaware in 1934, Baldwin’s Book Barn has been offering used, rare and fine books; manuscripts; maps; paintings; prints; and more in West Chester since 1946. Named by Architectural Digest as one of the “ World’s Most Beloved Independent Bookstores ,” the bookshop, located inside a two-century-old five-story stone barn, houses a collection of more 300,000 items crowded in every square inch of the space.
Dating back to 1771, Fort Mifflin is the oldest active military facility in the nation and America’s only operating base predating the Declaration of Independence. The fort saw its heaviest action in 1777 during the Revolutionary War, both in the Battle of Red Bank, beating back a Hessian invasion and destroying two British warships, and the Battle of Mud Island, with 400 American soldiers holding off 2,000 Redcoats until Washington’s army could withdraw to White Marsh and Valley Forge . Today, visitors can tour the historic grounds and Revolution-era buildings, watch reenactments, picnic or investigate paranormal activity. The fortress, lying at the eastern edge of Philadelphia International Airport , is also a hotspot for airplane aficionados.
Housing more than 100,000 books and manuscripts — some over 5,000 years old — the Free Library of Philadelphia Rare Book Collection is one of the largest public library special collections in the nation. Located at the Parkway Central Library flagship branch on Logan Square , the collection includes ancient cuneiform tablets, medieval manuscripts, original Beatrix Potter artwork, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s first printed poems and even Grip, Charles Dickens’ taxidermied pet bird and the inspiration for Poe’s The Raven . Visitors can explore the collection on their own during library hours or take the daily 11 a.m. guided tour .
When walking by the Masonic Temple , you might think that the ornate Norman cathedral-style building on North Broad across from City Hall is another of the city’s stunning churches. But the massive temple is, in fact, not a church, but the 150-year-old Grand Lodge headquarters of the Freemasons of Pennsylvania. The National Historic Landmark still serves that purpose, but it’s also open to the public for hour-long guided tours. The showstopper here: the attraction’s ornate architecture, from Renaissance neoclassical corridors and staircases to Moorish, Egyptian and Knights Templar-inspired grand halls. Artwork and Masonic artifacts, many dating back to the American Revolution, round out the offerings.
A short ride up I-95 in Northeast Philly, bug lovers (yep, such people exist) can view thousands of Philly’s smallest residents up close. Opened in 1992, the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion is one of the largest insect museums in the nation. The two-floor Insectarium side features mounted displays, live specimens, insect sculptures and an exhibit about extermination poisons. For the less squeamish, the Butterfly Pavilion side is a 7,000-square-foot greenhouse where you can interact with 60 species of free-flying butterflies, which love to perch on those wearing bright colors.
The stars at Chinatown ’s Shoe Museum at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine came off the feet of celebrities, like a boot worn by Neil Armstrong on the moon, game-used Mike Schmidt (Philadelphia Phillies) cleats, platforms from Sally Struthers’ “All in the Family” wardrobe and Ronald Reagan’s dress shoes. Engaging exhibits throughout the 1,000-piece collection spotlight shoes from various times and cultures. While admission is free, visits must be scheduled in advance through the museum’s website .
Predating the Civil War, North Philly’s Wagner Free Institute of Science is a library, lecture hall and natural history museum, as well as one of the few remaining Victorian-era scientific societies. The Renaissance-style three-story building’s bright second floor invites guests to meander among the 100,000-item collection, featuring rocks, minerals, fossils, preserved insects, taxidermy displays and mounted skeletons of a buffalo, an English draft horse and the first saber-tooth tiger bone discovered in America.
The largest ceramic arts organization in the nation, The Clay Studio offers striking clay and ceramic gallery exhibitions showcasing the work of both international artisans and local masters, as well as ceramics workshops and art courses. Founded nearly 50 years ago as a workspace for recent art school grads, the organization moved into its shiny and super-sized space in Kensington in 2022 to further its mission to “bring clay as an accessible, tactile medium to a broad range of people.”
The Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) in Market East exhibits modern art created from, on and with fabric and other related media. Founded in 1977, the FWM is the only museum of its kind in the world and displays garments, textiles, sculptures, drawings, paintings and more. The gallery doesn’t hit the auction circuit or borrow from private collectors to bolster its display, instead offering makers the opportunity to create on-site.
Philadelphia has a long history of art and artists working in the medium of wood, which is on prominent display at Old City ’s Museum for Art in Wood . Formerly known as the Wood Turning Center, the four-decade-old center features temporary and permanent collections consisting of 1,200 wood art-related objects and a 25,000-item research library on the history of woodturning and woodworking.
Deep in the Chester County woods and atop a mountain near Valley Forge National Historical Park lived wood sculptor Wharton Esherick, the “Dean of American Craftsmen.” Upon his death in 1970, his hand-built, 12-acre rural modernist home, farmhouse and studio — a National Historic Landmark for Architecture — turned into the Wharton Esherick Museum , an immersive, interactive destination featuring more than 200 of his works on display. Note that tickets are timed and must be purchased in advance.
Parks and Playgrounds
High above the Schuylkill River in University City is Cira Green , located 12 stories up and 95 feet above the Cira Center South Garage. Opened in 2015, the elevated park is a year-round urban green space for visitors to stretch out and relax while enjoying some of the best views of Center City. Come the warmer months, the rooftop features seasonal offerings like coffee carts, a beer garden, lawn games and the Sunset Social restaurant , plus seven nights of programming that comes in the form of trivia nights, movie screenings and ice cream socials (yes, please). The space can be accessed via the garage’s pedestrian entrance on 30th Street just south of Chestnut Street.
The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum just north of Philadelphia International Airport protects the largest freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania. This urban enclave for outdoor recreation features 10 miles of low-lying trails for hiking and biking, as well as four-and-a-half miles of tidal creek (accessible via boat ramps) for canoeing, kayaking and fishing access. Wildlife enthusiasts can spot 300-plus varieties of resident and migratory birds and numerous land animals, including several endangered and threatened species such as eastern redbelly turtles and coastal leopard frogs. The refuge also hosts year-round plant and bird walks.
A land of enchantment for kids 5-12 awaits just south of Doylestown within the 108-acre Central Park. Rising through the trees is the eight-story (you read that right) Kids Castle , a massive wooden play structure with labyrinthine passages, twisty tube slides, drawbridges, overlooks and a kids’ elevator, all protected by a giant dragon. The castle is the centerpiece of the 30,000-square-foot Kids Castle Central Park playground, a year-round playscape spread out across four “kingdoms” with treehouses, swings, interactive games, plastic rock walls, a pirate ship and more. Added in 2022: two inclusive play areas for children with a variety of abilities.
This vast seven-acre field of hulking round stones in the middle of Bucks County’s Ringing Rocks County Park holds quite the secret. Bring along your hammer (we’re serious), climb out onto the field and start banging away on the primordial igneous diabase boulders to experience an unexpected and unforgettable sound: the bell-like tones that give the park its name. Once you’re done creating your stone song, explore the rest of the sprawling 123-acre park, a dense forest for hikers, walkers, bikers and picnickers. Oh, and don’t miss High Falls, the county’s largest waterfall.
Featuring nearly a dozen themed treehouses, three ziplines and a bevy of outdoor activities, West Chester’s Treehouse World offers both relaxing play in the sun, as well as some (light) thrills. Spread throughout the amusement park’s 14 acres: massive treehouses with various themes, from pirates and trains to an enchanted village and birthday cake. At ground level, non-arboreal activities include rock climbing, ax throwing, bungee jumping and zip lining (across three skill levels). There’s even a small animal farm on-site.
Public Gardens and Arboretums
Across 35 acres of Delaware County , this botanical “pleasure garden” features more than 5,000 plants on the grounds of the century-old former Rosengarten manor. Upon the death of the family patriarch in 1990, the estate opened to the public as a lush, contemporary arboretum featuring distinct gardens and displays with perennials and agricultural crops. And as not to distract from the striking visuals, no plants are labeled. Instead, visitors are encouraged to engage in conversation with the gardeners themselves.
Created in 2015 by mosaic artist Beth Clevenstine and muralist Paul Santoleri, Water Under the Bridge (better known as the Fountain Street Steps ) is an ornate urban staircase in Manayunk featuring 70 brightly colored glass steps creating the illusion of a mosaic waterfall. Surrounded by lavish murals and artistic plants like wild snapdragon, purple iris and lavender Polonia, the Mural Arts -funded installation rises at the intersection of Fountain and Umbria streets and continues across the Manayunk Canal Towpath and Schuylkill River Trail on to Venice Island.
The purple beauty and memorable fragrance of lavender are on full display at Peace Valley Lavender Farm , adjacent to Peace Valley Park just west of Doylestown. More than 3,000 lavender plants representing two species and multiple varieties grow on the facility’s sunny hillside. While blooming season peaks during June and July, the farm is open 12 months a year. Pick your own lavender for $7 a bunch, sit and enjoy views out over Lake Galena, or explore the shop stocked with unique lavender products. (The lavender lollipops come on a plantable seed-laced stick!)
What else would you expect from one of the “ prettiest college campuses in America,” according to Architectural Digest ? On Swarthmore College’s gorgeous campus lies Scott Arboretum , a sprawling century-old, 425-acre botanic garden made up of rolling hills, flowering trees, walking trails, 4,000 plant varieties, a biostream, a pinetum (arboretum for conifers), 200 rose varieties and more. With free admission, the arboretum offers both daily staff-led and self-guided tours, as well as lectures, excursions, classes and wellness events.
Gifted to the American people by Japan after World War II, the Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center is an oasis from the city in the heart of West Fairmount Park . The center consists of the main building, modeled after an early 17th-century temple guest house, and a separate teahouse and bathhouse, surrounded by exquisite gardens and a serene koi pond. Participate in an authentic chanoyu tea ceremony demonstration; tour the interior to learn about Japanese temple living, art and architecture in the 1600s; and feed the fish in the pond. Don’t miss spring’s Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival .