Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania and to say it's full of history might be an understatement. The famous Delaware River separates Philadelphia from New Jersey and Philly has stunning Victorian homes and tons of centuries-old neighborhoods to navigate. Tourists flock year-round to Philly for historic sites like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Aside from historical significance, Philadelphia has a thriving food scene, trendy boutiques, and the iconic steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art featured in Rocky. Of course, you should also visit the museum to view masterpieces from all over the US and Europe.
Consistently ranked as one of the most walkable cities in the US, getting around Philadelphia is a piece of cake. Along with your own two feet, Philadelphia offers plenty of other ways to navigate this world-class city. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, manages the regional rail system, trolley lines, and bus network that cover the city and beyond. Whether you opt for trains, buses, rental cars, or walking, rest assured that this city will keep you busy. Depending on how much time you have, it may be challenging to fit it all in.
Although it's hard not to hit the ground running, before you embark on your Philadelphia exploration, make things easy on yourself. Head to a Bounce luggage storage in Philadelphia to drop off your bags. There's nothing worse than fussing with your luggage on and off buses and trains.
How to get around Philadelphia by train
It's common to arrive in Philly by air, and the Philadelphia International Airport has excellent train links. Managed by SEPTA, the airport train line runs seven days a week from 5 am to midnight. Unless your flight lands in the early morning hours, this line is the best and most affordable way into the city center. It's best to get off at 30th Street Station for the greatest selection of further travel connections.
Philadelphia's 30th street station is a hub for Amtrak, so it's possible to arrive directly from other parts of the country. It's a major stop on Amtrak's train lines through the Keystone and Northeast corridors. The regional rail system is another efficient way to get to Center City from neighboring New Jersey and Delaware. If you need to travel a greater distance, the Norristown High-Speed Line is a time-saving option. It goes all the way from Norristown's suburban station to 69th Street Station, which is the starting point of a major subway line.
Once in the city center, the choices for travel are exponential. One of the most popular ways to get around the city is the subway. The subway stations are a mix of above and below ground, so depending on the line, you can even get glimpses of the Philadelphia scenery. City Hall Station connects the two subway lines: the Market-Frankford Line and the Broad Street Line. A good place to start is to take the elevated Market-Frankford Line, also called the El, to 5th Street Station. This line runs east-west and 5th Street Station is your gateway to some of Philadelphia's must-see attractions in Center City. In a few short blocks, you can tour Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Washington Square, and the Museum of the American Revolution. The Broad Street Line runs north-south and it's a link to the regional rail at the north end.
Another feature of Philadelphia's public transportation system is the trolley system that complements the subway lines perfectly. Riders can travel the trolley routes to South Philadelphia and parallel to the Market-Frankford Line north of Center City.
Instead of fumbling for change and looking for a ticket machine at each of the subway stations you visit, consider getting a SEPTA key card. This reloadable card works throughout the city on the SEPTA system, including regional rail. Load the key card up at any ticketing machine, and you can also check your balance if needed.
How to get around Philadelphia by bus
SEPTA buses allow you to explore Philadelphia's center as well as the outskirts of the city. Using the same SEPTA key card, you can travel by bus on one of the 120 different routes available. Bus etiquette is the same as anywhere. Wait for others to exit the bus before boarding and tap your SEPTA card next to the driver as you make your way onto the bus. If you are paying by cash, the fare is slightly more and the bus operator doesn't give change. Along with the subways, SEPTA buses are wheelchair accessible.
For travelers who enjoy a dose of nightlife, SEPTA buses make sure you can get home safely. Referred to as Night Owl bus routes, there are 19 different options to accommodate you. These buses run 24 hours so you can stay up well past your bedtime. After all, you're on vacation. If you need help deciding what to do, visit Unmissable things to do at night in Philadelphia.
Another bus alternative is the big bus tours that are perfect for tourists. They operate a 90-minute tour from Old City to the Philadelphia Art Museum with 20 hop-on hop-off stops along the way. The starting point of the tour is at 5th and Market Streets, easily accessible by subway or shuttle from many hotels.
Can I get around Philadelphia on foot?
While it may be surprising that a city the size of Philadelphia is very walkable, when you consider the placement of the main attractions, it's clear why tourists often opt to experience Philadelphia on foot. One of the best areas to explore on foot is the aptly named Center City. It's in the center of the action and the site of some of the most-visited tourist attractions. This density is one of the main reasons that Philly is one of the best walking cities around.
Most travelers would agree that exploring a city on foot offers the most flexibility and freedom. You can change direction in a split second without waiting for the next station and check out an intriguing shop that you wander by. Most of the central Philadelphia neighborhoods are walkable with an excellent collection of independent boutiques. Combine shopping and a little history with a walk around the historic district of Old City. The cobblestone streets take you back in time and the Betsy Ross House is an essential place to visit for any patriotic American. Also in Old City, and perfectly walkable, is Elfreth's Alley. The street is the oldest continuously inhabited street in the country and welcomes interested parties to the Elfreth's Alley Museum. While in Old City, do some browsing at the unique specialty shops that line the streets. For more shopping tips, check out everything you need to know about shopping in Philadelphia.
For anyone unsure of where to start with their on-foot exploration, there is an abundance of free walking tours that highlight different aspects of the city. They can be self or expert-guided and as long or as short as you want. If food is your passion, a walking food tour of Philadelphia's Chinatown is for you. A walk around this area famed for Asian restaurants, vibrant bars, and unique shops will keep you entertained for a long while. Chinatown covers roughly seven city blocks from Franklin Square to the northeast and North Broad Street to the west.
Regardless of where you end up on foot as you navigate Philadelphia, there are sure to be lots of interesting sights. Although Philadelphia is generally safe for a major US city, take extra care if you wander around South Philly or West Philadelphia, especially at night.
Navigating Philadelphia by car
Another popular way to cover a lot of ground when visiting Philadelphia is by car. Aside from rush hour, a vehicle can really speed up travel time from neighborhood to neighborhood. A car is especially handy to explore off the beaten path, further away from downtown Philly.
For tourists arriving at the Philadelphia Airport, this is the best place to pick up a car rental. You'll usually get the best prices and the best selection. A rental car will also spare you the hassle of dragging your bags and tired bodies on and off the public transportation system navigating around the city from the airport to your hotel.
Whether you choose a car rental or drive your own car to Philly, you'll get to know the major roads in no time. Benjamin Franklin Parkway, also known as simply the Parkway, runs from City Hall to the Philadelphia Art Museum. The 76 follows the Schuylkill River and is unsurprisingly often called the Schuylkill Expressway. As you drive through the city, keep an eye out for the many dedicated bike lanes and make sure to offer cyclists plenty of space.
If you are traveling with kids, a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo might be in the cards. From Center City, the zoo is a ten-minute drive whereas, by Philadelphia transit, the trip can take up to an hour. But, while driving can seem like the perfect time-saving solution, there is a downside as well. Driving around the city can get stressful when there is construction, congestion, and aggressive drivers. Avoid touring Center City by car at all costs. This sightseeing is always better on foot due to excessive traffic, one-way streets, and many pedestrians. Especially in the downtown core, expect to pay a premium for parking. The Philadelphia Parking Authority is the government agency that manages all parking in the city. Make sure you read all posted signs and top up your meter to avoid getting a ticket.
Sometimes it's not worth the expense to rent a car, but there are times when public transit just won't cut it. When you're tired or visiting a far-flung location, Philadelphia taxis are the ideal stop-gap. The taxis are best used sparingly as it's the priciest way to get around. To save a little cash, consider a rideshare operating throughout the city, like Uber or Lyft.
No matter how you choose to explore Philadelphia you're bound to have a great time. From history to art to shopping and food, there's truly something for everyone here. Philadelphia's public transportation system is the country's sixth-largest so getting from point A to B is a breeze. Visit all the major attractions in Center City, sample food in Chinatown, and end your evening with a few drinks in a lively neighborhood like Midtown Village, Old Town, or Center City.
When the weather is favorable and you have good walking shoes, Philly is one of the best cities to explore on foot. Many city neighborhoods are walkable and you'll find something interesting around every corner. For further distances, Philadelphia offers trolleys, subways, buses, taxis, and car rentals. What more do you need?