Embrace Nature’s Playground: 4 Ways To Explore The Outdoors In Philadelphia

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From local parks to outdoor attractions, Philadelphia offers multiple options to connect with nature and unwind outdoors. A visitor has multiple choices from lush green parks to scenic trails, to enjoy the city’s abundant opportunities to reconnect with nature. The city offers a plethora of options to soak up some fresh air, bask in the sunshine, or find some respite amidst the bustling urban landscape.

Explore Fairmount Park

With 2,000-plus green acres making it one of the country’s largest urban park systems, Fairmount Park is a vast outdoor playground made up of 63 individual parks, more than 200 historic buildings, an impressive collection of public art, the country’s first zoo and more – all within its borders. Fairmount Park Conservancy’s Digital Guide is a helpful tool that will aid your exploration of the parks.

A great place to start your park tour is the Fairmount Water Works, a National Historic Landmark along the Schuylkill River. In 1820, the city decided to add gardens and walkways around the groundbreaking pumping station as a way of protecting the water system and preserving green space. Today, the iconic Greek-Revival buildings at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art provide excellent views of picturesque Boathouse Row and the Philadelphia skyline.

History and architecture buffs will enjoy the many 18th and 19th-century homes found throughout the park that once served as summer villas for wealthy Philadelphians, including Laurel Hill, Lemon Hill, Strawberry and Woodford mansions. Perfect for families is Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse, a mansion-turned-playhouse for kids. Smith’s massive outdoor playground draws kids aged 10 and under with its giant 40-foot slide and swing city.

Public art is scattered throughout Fairmount Park with works by Alexander Milne Calder, Frederick Remington, William Rush and more ready to be found by art explorers.

Transport yourself across the Pacific at Shofuso Japanese House, a replica of a traditional 17th-century Japanese home in West Fairmount Park. Highlights include a pond garden with tiered waterfall, island and koi fish, plus a tea garden with a traditional tea house.

Also located in West Fairmount Park is the Horticulture Center, an exhibition hall and greenhouse built in 1979 on the grounds of the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition. Open daily and free to the public, the greenhouse and grounds feature tropical and succulent plants, demonstration gardens, a reflecting pool, butterfly garden and more. Don’t miss artist Martin Puryear’s treehouse-inspired Pavilion in the Trees, a 60-foot-long wooden walkway that overlooks the centre.

Hit the trails

An extensive system of trails winds throughout the Philadelphia region, making it easy to get out and get around. Popular with bikers, runners, and walkers is the section of the Schuylkill River Trail that cuts through the city — named one of the top riverwalks in the nation by USA Today. The trail journeys through the Manayunk Towpath, Kelly Drive, Boathouse Row and the Schuylkill Banks. Ambitious cyclists can continue to the trail 25 miles west to Valley Forge National Historical Park, the site of a notable Revolutionary War encampment. 

Go off the beaten path to find hidden gems popular with locals. The Trolley Trail, just off MLK Drive, follows a former trolley route, winding through tunnels and other cool structures, like the Stone Arch Bridge. You can also run the route of a famous Philadelphia boxer — not Rocky — Joe Frazier. Boxers’ Trail, a 3.8- mile gravel and dirt path above Kelly Drive, owes its name to “Smokin’” Joe, who frequently trained on it. 

Head deeper into the woods along the 50 miles of trails in the Wissahickon Valley Park, located in the northwest section of the city. Trails range from easy to challenging, with hidden landmarks located throughout, including a covered bridge originally built in 1737, artist Jody Pinto’s Fingerspan pedestrian bridge and the 1883 Toleration statue of William Penn that sits high above the trail.

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Discover William Penn’s original city squares

When Pennsylvania founder William Penn laid out the plan for Philadelphia, he famously included five squares, one at each of the city’s cornerstones and one in the middle. These squares, each with their own identities, remain vital to the city to this day.

Rittenhouse Square, lined with alfresco restaurants, is named for David Rittenhouse, a famous astronomer and first director of the U.S. Mint. Home to fountains and public art, pop-up events and a seasonal farmers market, it’s also an ideal locale for people-watching.

Lower-key Washington Square was named after George Washington and is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, located catty-corner to Independence Hall. The square is part of Independence National Historical Park and is surrounded by charming restaurants and historic buildings.

Dilworth Park, named after former city Mayor Richardson Dilworth, is on what was Centre Square, the centre of the city. The square became the home of City Hall in 1871, with the construction of the famed Beaux-Arts building. Today, Dilworth is a social hub, with an ice-skating rink in the winter and seasonal pop-ups year-round.

Family-friendly Franklin Square, named after Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, attracts kids with its history-themed mini golf course, classic carousel, and extensive playground. At the centrepiece of the square is a large fountain, with water shows set to lights and music throughout the year.

At the centre of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is Logan Square, easily identified by the majestic Swann Memorial Fountain, designed by Alexander Stirling Calder to honor Philadelphia Fountain Society founder Dr. Wilson Cary Swann. Originally called Northwest Square, the city renamed the area after statesman James Logan in 1825.

Survey the Delaware River

The Delaware River Waterfront is a vibrant destination for outdoor fun. During the summer and winter months, Blue Cross RiverRink is a great attraction featuring fantastic food, craft beer and drinks, ice-skating in the winter, and roller-skating in the summer. In the spring and summer, experience the festive Spruce Street Harbor Park, with local food vendors surrounding a colourful, hammock-filled urban oasis.

Open year-round is Cherry Street Pier, a mixed-use public space converted from a historic pier. The space is always hosting something new — from pop-up markets and art installations to a garden complete with tasty food and drink. For picturesque views of the Ben Franklin Bridge, head further north to Race Street Pier, perfect for lazing on the spacious lawn while enjoying river views.

At the southern end, Washington Avenue Pier honours the waterfront’s shipbuilding heritage and historic port-of-entry for immigrants. A path brings visitors to the tip of the pier and Land Buoy, a climbable, 55-foot spire by artist Jody Pinto that offers additional city and river views.

Across the river in Camden, New Jersey, board the Battleship New Jersey Museum & Memorial, the most-decorated battleship in U.S. history. Take an interactive tour of the ship and climb up and down ladders, navigate narrow passageways, and signal your visit with a bang by firing the ship’s Saluting Gun.

While in Camden, explore the ocean and its inhabitants at Adventure Aquarium, home to more than 15,000 aquatic animals. See sharks swim through 550,000 gallons of water as you walk through a glass tunnel, journey to the Amazon through the interactive Piranha Falls exhibit, or spot hippos swimming around in the immersive Hippo Haven.

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