13 Cool Things to See & Do in Fairmount Park
An authentic Japanese house and garden, skyline views, outdoor concerts and more...
Philadelphia is a city of parks and green spaces, from William Penn’s five public parks (Franklin Square, Washington Square, Rittenhouse Square, Logan Square and Dilworth Park, formerly Centre Square) erected more than 300 years ago to the sprawling Fairmount Park . Encompassing 2,050 acres on both banks of the Schuylkill River, Fairmount Park runs as far south as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Vine Street and as north as East Falls.
In the mid-19th century, when industrialization began polluting the Schuylkill River, the source of Philadelphia’s drinking water, the city started purchasing land around the river to protect the water supply and to give residents green places to hang out.
Since then, Fairmount Park has been the host of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition (drawing over 10 million visitors!), countless rowing races along the Schuylkill and live music events galore. In short, there’s a lot to do throughout the park, and the offerings go well beyond green spaces and trails (not that we don’t love green spaces and trails).
In fact, the park is so massive that even Philly locals need help navigating this gem of a space. So rather than let you wander around a few hundred acres without a plan, we’ve compiled a guide to the most essential sites and activities in Fairmount Park.
In the location where previous Japanese structures and gardens were built for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition sits the Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center . Built in Japan in 1953 and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the house was moved in 1957 to West Fairmount Park where it still sits today. These days, visitors can stroll the 17th century-style Japanese garden, complete with a koi pond and waterfall, tour the house, and in the springtime, marvel at the blooming cherry blossoms on the grounds. Open late-March through October.
Hit the trails
Fairmount Park features miles and miles of trails, both wooded and not. For those hot summer days when the sun is unrelenting, take solace in the shade on two stellar trails.
- For a slightly longer adventure, Trolley Trail is a 4.5-mile soft-surface loop trail, open to walkers, runners, bikers and boxers alike. You can access the Trolley Trail at the Chamounix Mansion in West Fairmount Park, where there’s also parking. This route began as a user-created path thanks to mountain bikers in the 1990s and 2000s, and since 2007, the Fairmount Park Conservancy and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation have been working to establish it permanently.
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A grassy expanse four miles northwest of Center City, Belmont Plateau provides unparalleled views of the skyline. The West Fairmount Park knoll is perfect for barbecues, picnics, sporting events, Instagramming and kite flying (and for overall summertime hanging, as immortalized in the classic Summertime song by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince).
Opened in 1874, the Philadelphia Zoo is located in West Fairmount Park and is home to some 1,300 animals. More than a million visitors pass through the gates each year, marveling at magnificent creatures like the African lion, Caribbean flamingo and giraffes. Plus, their year-round programming like Boo at the Zoo and Luminature make trick-or-treating and holiday light gazing a downright wild time.
Built by wealthy families between the 18th and 19th centuries, six historic mansions — known collectively as the Park Charms — offer tours, giving visitors a look into the opulence of early American families. Each of the six houses — Cedar Grove, Laurel Hill, Lemon Hill, Historic Strawberry Mansion, Mount Pleasant and Woodford — are located within Fairmount Park on both sides of the river and showcase early Pennsylvania furniture and architecture.
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Located in the exact spot where the 1876 Centennial Exhibition’s horticulture hall once stood, the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center in West Fairmount Park features manicured grounds and a greenhouse (occasionally the site of greenhouse yoga). Outside, visitors can take in fountains, sculptures, gardens and a treehouse-meets-public-art-space, Pavilion in the Trees . In the arboretum, tropical and succulent plants thrive in warm climates year round.
Sure, parks are perfect for open-air performances — but this isn’t your average park. A-list musicians on summer tours come through West Fairmount Park’s Mann Center — offering don’t-miss views of the Philly skyline — and the Dell Music Center , located in the eastern part of the park. Once the weather warms up, their concert calendars fill with the likes of Patti LaBelle, Tedeschi Trucks Band and the legendary hometown show The Roots Picnic .
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In 1835, Quaker John Jay Smith was so upset with the burial situation in Philadelphia that he conspired with friends to conceive of a new cemetery, set in a picturesque location and without any religious affiliation. Laurel Hill Cemetery was founded in 1836 and is the final resting place of notable Philadelphians like David Rittenhouse, Civil War-era generals, Titanic passengers and even beloved Phillies announcer Harry Kalas. Marked by ornate tombstones and mausoleums, the cemetery is ideal for architecture lovers too. Among the extensive programmatic offerings are fun (not a word typically associated with cemeteries) themed tours , concerts and movie nights.
Note: As of March 20, 2023, Boathouse Row’s iconic lights are undergoing maintenance, and will remain dark through the end of 2023. Read more here .
One of the city’s most iconic sites, Boathouse Row’ s picturesque collection of 19th-century boathouses remains a Fairmount Park staple. Located along the eastern side of the Schuylkill River, each building is home to a local rowing club, whose members you’ll frequently see out on the river. Pro tip: Take a drive at night to see the facades illuminated in lights, which often change in color depending on what holiday it is or what sports team is making a playoff fun.
Way back during the American Playground Movement of the 1800s, when advocates championed for play for kids’ wellbeing, Smith Memorial Playground opened in East Fairmount Park thanks to a bequest from local philanthropists Richard and Sarah Smith. The space encompasses six-and-a-half acres complete with kid-friendly jungle gyms, a stately 1,600-square-foot playhouse with indoor playgrounds and an old-fashioned giant wooden slide that even modern-day kids can’t get enough of.
Have fun up in the canopy of West Fairmount Park at Treetop Quest Philly , Philly’s aerial adventure park, open from late March through mid-November. With over 60 obstacle courses and ziplines, guests can choose from five difficulty levels, ranging from kid-friendly to adventure extremists only. Wear closed-toe shoes (sneakers are best) and expect to climb trees, traverse narrow walkways high above the ground and glide on ziplines.
Located between Boathouse Row and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in East Fairmount Park is Fairmount Water Works , which opened in 1815 as the city’s sole water-pumping station. Since 2003, the National Historic Landmark has operated as an education center, teaching visitors about innovations in urban water projects and sustainability. Oh, and it’s also a luxe event venue.
Another relic of the Centennial Exhibition, Memorial Hall in West Fairmount Park is now home to the Please Touch Museum , a play-centric educational space where kids are invited to do something they’re usually told not to do: Touch everything. Pint-sized museum guests can stock shelves in a functional mini grocery store, get whimsical in a fairytale garden and float boats along a mini Schuylkill River.