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Philadelphia is the birthplace of the United States, and it’s without a doubt one of the country’s most historic cities. And what some people don’t realize is that it used to be the capital! So if you’re a first-time visitor, a history tour is a must to learn about the landmarks and events that shaped the USA.
As tourists, we were excited to discover the city’s history and see as many notable sites as possible. We spent 3 days in Philadelphia and did multiple history tours to learn as much as we could about the American Revolution and the birth of the USA. Plus, they also doubled as sightseeing tours since we saw so much of the city. However, another reason we took several was to compare these Philadelphia tours against one another and see which ones were the best!
So now that the results are in, we’ve rounded up our top picks for Philadelphia history tours for first-time visitors. Keep reading to find your favorite and explore this historic city!
Don’t have time to read the full article? Our absolute favorite history tours in Philadelphia include:
- To see many of the top historic spots like the Betsy Ross House and the Liberty Bell, this 90-minute walking tour is a good choice.
- If you’re especially interested in the American Revolution, this sightseeing tour takes you to important spots linked to the Founding Fathers.
- This Philadelphia history tour is great for learning your way around the city, and we love that the guides have history degrees so they really know their stuff!
The Importance of Philadelphia’s History
Philadelphia isn’t just historic because of a bunch of old buildings and cute cobblestone streets. The city has played a major role in US history. So basically, if you want to get to know Philly, you’ve got to understand its history.
As a first-timer in Philadelphia, taking a history tour will help you get an idea of the city’s layout and character. But for now, we’ll give you a brief intro here.
Philadelphia was officially founded in 1682, almost 100 years before the United States! It was founded by William Penn, the man whom the state of Pennsylvania is actually named after. Penn was a Quaker who strongly believed in religious freedom, and this ethos allowed the city to flourish as a cultural and intellectual hub. As a result, it was the biggest city in America by the 1750s, and one of the largest in the whole of the British empire, second only to London.
It was in Philly where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 – in the city’s very own Independence Hall. This is the moment when the United States of America was born, and the American Revolutionary War kicked off. The US Constitution was also written and signed by the Founding Fathers in the very same place two years later.
Philadelphia also served as the first capital city of the United States, so it played an instrumental role in the Revolutionary War. In 1777 and 1778, the British tried to capture Philadelphia and succeeded temporarily before the campaign fell apart.
Once the war had been won, plans to build a new capital city were approved in 1790. Philadelphia continued to be the US capital city until the White House and the Capitol Building were finished in 1800. Then, the city surrendered the title to Washington, DC.
Although it’s no longer the capital, Philadelphia is one of the most historic cities in the US – if not THE most. You really can’t tell the story of the United States without talking about Philly! And what’s cool is that the city is extremely well-preserved, so there are lots of historic streets and landmarks to explore. As a result, people travel from far and wide to learn about US history here.
For example, you can visit the oldest residential street in the USA, the post office that Benjamin Franklin owned, the Betsy Ross House where the first US flag is said to have been sewn … and those are just off the top of my head!
Best Philadelphia History Tours
1. Philadelphia Old City Historic Walking Tour with 10+ Top Sites
Philadelphia’s historic center is so much better when you explore it with a knowledgeable guide! This 90-minute tour is very well-paced, and the guides do a great job of keeping things snappy and fun while teaching you all about the history of Philadelphia (and, therefore, America!).
You’ll visit famous sites like the Betsy Ross House where the first USA flag is said to have been sewn. Whether or not this is entirely true is up for debate, but your guide will explain more! Your guide will also take you to Elfreth’s Alley which is the oldest residential street in the USA.
Other stops include the Benjamin Franklin post office and the Second Bank of the United States. The building ceased to be a bank long ago, but today it’s home to a gallery of presidential portraits. Your guide will take you inside for a quick look and share some fun facts about the men whose portraits adorn the walls.
This tour wraps up with a visit to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Two must-sees, even if you’re only spending one day in Philadephia! Luckily, this tour ends at Independence Hall, which is nicely done because you need to book a separate free tour of Independence Hall if you want to go inside.
This tour costs $44 USD for adults. That price is decent considering how many sights you see, which is why we think it’s one of the best cheap activities in Philadelphia! There are 8 different time slots to choose from each day, but do be aware that this tour books up really fast – even during the winter! If you only book a few days in advance, you may not get the time slot that you want.
2. Philadelphia Hop-On, Hop-Off City Tour
I love a good hop-on hop-off bus tour like this Philadelphia one! It gives you the freedom to explore independently, at your own pace, without needing to worry about how to get from A to B. It’s also a great option if you don’t have a lot of time in the city because the route is super comprehensive, with 27 different stops.
And while we’d be here forever if we listed every single stop, the tour covers lots of our Philadelphia must-dos. For example, the bus stops near the Reading Terminal Market, which is a must for foodies visiting the city. It’s one of the most popular stops on Philadelphia food tours as well! We loved the sweet treats here, especially Beiler’s Doughnuts and the Famous 4th Street Cookie Company.
You can also stop at Love Park to snap a photo with the famous sign, see the iconic “Rocky Steps,” or pay your respects to Benjamin Franklin at his grave at Christ Church Burial Ground.
This bus also stops at a ton of Philly’s best museums, including the Rodin Museum, the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, and the Please Touch Museum (an awesome, hands-on kid’s museum!). So basically, the route allows you to discover lots of American history, as well as food and drink! It’s absolutely one of the best tours in Philadelphia.
There are a few different ticket durations for this hop-on, hop-off bus. A single-day ticket costs $36 USD. If you’re spending a couple of days in Philadelphia, you can opt for a 2-day pass for $55 USD. Finally, a 3-day pass will set you back $74 USD. You’ll need to redeem your ticket outside the Independence Visitor Center before you can use it, and then buses leave from there every 45-60 minutes between 9:30 am and 5 pm.
To see a lot of Philly without any transportation hassle, book this hop-on, hop-off bus here.
3. Philadelphia History, Highlights, and Revolution Walking Tour
A walking tour in Philadelphia is not only a great way to delve into its history, but it’s also a really good way to get your bearings in the city. This Philadelphia sightseeing tour is largely focused on the American Revolution and the birth of the USA, so you’ll visit lots of sites that have helped to shape the nation’s history!
It’s fitting that this tour kicks off at the statue of The Signer, which is considered to be a symbol of American freedom – although obviously, it’s not quite as famous as the Statue of Liberty. You’ll then pass by famous sites like Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and Congress Hall. Your knowledgeable guide will not only share lots of information about these pivotal sites, but they’ll also dispel a lot of the myths that you might have heard about them.
One thing that we like about this tour is that you get a quick look inside the Museum of the American Revolution and watch a presentation of George Washington’s War Tent. There’s not enough time for a full visit, but you will get a discounted ticket if you want to return to the museum after the tour.
And since this tour is all about history, it’s only right that you visit the President’s House, which is where the country’s leaders lived when Philadelphia was the US capital. Iconic leaders like George Washington and John Adams lived here while they were president. However, the tour also reveals another side to Philadelphia’s history by teaching you about the slaves and servants who lived here.
This tour lasts for 2.5 hours, so it’s a real deep dive into US history. It costs $59 USD per person, and you can go at either 10:30 am or 2 pm. It’s a small group tour with a maximum of 12 people, so you’ll have plenty of chances to ask questions and get to know your guide. If you’re looking for an in-depth tour with fellow history enthusiasts, then we think that this will prove to be one of the best Philadelphia sightseeing tours!
History buffs, you can book your spot on this Philadelphia sightseeing tour right here.
Why We Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
4. Revolution and the Founders: History Tour of Philadelphia
This is the ideal Philadelphia history tour for first-timers in the city because you get such a comprehensive and accurate overview of the city’s history. What we like about this tour is that all of the guides have history degrees, and some are even teachers or American history professors. So basically, they really know their stuff! The stories you’ll hear are facts, not the urban legends that you sometimes get on history tours.
This is a walking tour and the itinerary includes a ton of historic Philly sites, starting with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. This tour just passes by these sites. But since they have free entry, you can always come back for a more in-depth visit later – and you’ll already know how to get there on foot!
You’ll also visit the President’s House, which was the precursor to the White House in Washington, DC. You’ll also pass by the original Congress Hall, where the US military plotted and strategized during the American Revolution.
Basically, this tour is US History 101. It’s a fantastic way to get your bearings in Philadelphia and learn about the city’s crucial role in shaping the USA as we know it today.
The tour costs $29 USD per person. It departs rain or shine and is available daily during the summer. It doesn’t run on Tuesdays during the winter months, but you’ve still got six days a week to fit it into your Philadelphia itinerary. You can go at 11 am or 2 pm, and it starts outside of the Independence Visitor Center.
You’ll end the 2-hour walking tour near the Merchant Exchange Building. This is just 2 blocks from Sonny’s Famous Steaks, one of the best places to grab a Philly cheesesteak in the city! And after all that sightseeing, you might be hungry enough for one!
The tour is very popular, so make sure to check availability and book your spot in advance here.
5. Half-Day American Revolution Tour in Valley Forge
If you want to explore the historic Valley Forge, this tour is for you! If you’re unfamiliar, Valley Forge was a significant site in the American Revolutionary War. It was where General George Washington (yes, the very same one who became the first-ever US president) led his troops through the winter months.
The American troops faced a freezing cold winter with inadequate food and shelter, but under Washington’s leadership, they developed the resilience that eventually won them the war. As a result, Valley Forge is a symbol of courage, sacrifice, and unity, and is a must-visit for anyone even vaguely interested in American history.
Better still, this small group tour makes it super easy to explore Valley Forge. You’ll meet your guide and be driven to the National Historical Park, where you’ll spend several hours exploring sites like Washington’s headquarters, the National Memorial Arch, and the Gothic-style Washington Memorial Chapel. Your guide will regale you with fascinating stories about the struggles the troops endured while they lived here during the winter of 1777-1778.
The tour costs $115 USD per person and lasts for 4.5 hours. It runs every day except Monday and starts at 9 am. It includes your guide along with roundtrip transportation from a meeting point in Philadelphia.
To discover this part of American history for yourself, book this tour of Valley Forge online here.
6. Dark Philly Adult Night Tour
All of the tours we’ve mentioned so far focus more on Philadelphia’s political and military history, but this adult night tour reveals a lighter (or should that be darker?) side to the city. Some of the stories are grisly, but the experience itself had us laughing, thanks to our awesome guide.
During the day, Philadelphia history tours focus on the Founding Fathers and the city’s cultural heritage. But Philadelphia night tours take you to the city’s seedier sights. You’ll hear scary stories about vampires, ghosts, and pirates as you visit execution sites and haunted taverns and gardens. You’ll also pass through the city’s red light district, where you’ll hear some R-rated tales.
For a city that calls itself “the City of Brotherly Love”, there’s certainly a dark side to Philly’s history and we found this walking tour a super entertaining way to learn about it. Our guide had a wicked sense of humor and hearing stories about grave robbing and Alexander Hamilton’s various affairs added another intriguing layer to Philadelphia’s history for us. To learn even more, you can read our full review of this Dark Philly Adult Night Tour right here!
The tour costs $38 USD per person from Sunday to Thursday night, $44 USD on Friday night, and $48 USD on Saturday night. It leaves at 8 pm and lasts for around 2 hours. You’ll join your group on Market Street and end at the Merchant Exchange Building.
To see Philly’s “dark side” for yourself, book this adult night tour online here.
Related Read: While on the East Coast, we had a fantastic time taking a river cruise in Washington, DC. If you like mixing history with fun, we highly recommend it!
Where to Stay in Philadelphia, USA
Philadelphia is a big city, and deciding where to stay can be overwhelming. Luckily, we’ve narrowed it down to our top choices for each budget range. So keep reading to find the best accommodations for you!
The Rittenhouse Hotel – $$$
The Rittenhouse Hotel is a centrally located, award-winning accommodation. It has that old-school Philadelphia feel with modern amenities. They offer a gym, an indoor heated pool, a sun terrace, and a fabulous restaurant. You can also enjoy British tea and cocktails in their tea room, which is connected to a gorgeous garden.
Prices range from $350 – $1,000 USD depending on the type of room and your dates. You can check prices and availability online here.
Element Philadelphia Downtown – $$
The Element Philadelphia Downtown is just a block from City Hall. It has a fitness center, an on-site restaurant, a shared lounge, and free bikes. The place has modern, well-equipped rooms, friendly staff, and a decent continental breakfast. Request a room higher up for an awesome city view.
This place is a great value for money, with prices starting as low as $160 USD when you book in advance.
Apple Hostels of Philadelphia – $
Apple Hostels of Philadelphia is my favorite budget accommodation in Philadelphia. It’s located in the Old City. This hostel has it all, including a shared kitchen, laundry, pool table, foosball, Xbox, computers/iPads, guitars, and a TV area. You won’t have any trouble socializing, and they even offer free drinks and dinner sometimes. It’s clean, comfortable, and has a great vibe.
Don’t get Caught without Travel Insurance!
We never travel without travel insurance! We’ve had a few instances during our travels when one of us has ended up in the hospital, and travel insurance has saved us thousands of dollars over the years!
SafetyWing is our go-to insurance, we both have policies with them whenever we travel.
They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $45 USD per 4 weeks!)The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!) While most travel insurance companies left people stranded, SafetyWing fully reimbursed us for our last-minute, pricey flights!
Also, because it is so affordable, there really is no excuse not to take out a policy. Check prices and get a quote online here with SafetyWing (you can even take out a policy if you’re already traveling!)
Thanks for reading!
With so many historic sites in Philadelphia, taking a history tour should absolutely be on your itinerary. We’ve highlighted just the top ones in this list, so you can relax and know that the tour you choose has been vetted. We hope that you enjoy your time in Philly just as much as we did!
If your trip includes more US destinations, be sure to check out our blogs all about the USA. If you’re heading elsewhere, we’ve also written about many destinations across the world. You can get started with one of the blogs below. Thanks for reading!