“The City of Brotherly Love.”
Philly is my second favorite city in all the world. Maybe it’s the cheesesteaks and donuts, or maybe its the whole liberty and justice for all thing, but it gives me all the feels. They also have a pretty massive children’s hospital, so we’ve spent a lot of time there.
Whether you’re stuck in the city because of a hospital visit, or you’re looking for a fun getaway, Philadelphia is a family-friendly and wheelchair-friendly place to visit. The following are the best ways for all families to enjoy the city. As always, all mentions are family-friendly and wheelchair accessible.
1. Independence National Historical Park
Philadelphia was the nation’s first capital and holds a lot of foundational history. It would be crazy to visit the city and not at least visit the Liberty Bell. The park includes both the Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall (where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed). While you’re soaking in the history, I suggest Once Upon A Nation Storytelling Benches. Throughout the Historic District you can grab a seat for a 3-5 minute real story on an event that took place in that very spot. On that same token, you should swing through Elfreth’s Alley – the oldest residential street in the country. The sidewalks are too narrow for a wheelchair here, but we managed ok on the cobblestone. Free.
2. Eastern State Penitentiary
This seems like a weird thing to include on a family visit (I haven’t seen this on any other kid list), but all three of my kids (ages 7, 3 and 3) will tell you that Eastern State Penitentiary is one of their favorite Philly spots. The fortress of crumbling cells and empty towers offers an experience like no other. The cells themselves are not wheelchair accessible, but there are only a couple you’re allowed in, anyway. They offer a scavenger hunt for kids to keep them engaged in the stories of history along the way. Typically, visitors use headsets for audio tours to fully immerse in the experience, but base on my young crowd she gave us a book of the stories with pictures to work through, instead. It’s a fun day and makes for great stories when your three-year-old decides to tell someone about their day on prison! ($2 admission with your disability ACCESS card)
3. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Eek! Not somewhere we can’t touch things or be loud, please! How about if it’s full of kids creating art, enjoying demonstrations, watching performances, and interacting with exhibits? All summer long, and on Sundays throughout the year, Philadelphia Museum of Art offers Family Festivals and kid-centered days. If you’re reading this, you’re past the days of all-day silent reflection on art and its impact on your soul, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the galleries and expose your kids to the beauty and diversity of art! (Free admission with your disability ACCESS card for up to four adults – kids under 18 are free. You can also enjoy Pay What You Wish admission on the first Sunday of the month and every Wednesday night. )
4. Barnes Foundation
Ditto to everything I said under the art museum, but a different collection of art. Go on the first Sunday of the month for free admission to the Barnes Foundation, including hands-on activities, music, dance performances, and story telling… oh, and also, art. (Admission is always free with your disability ACCESS card)
5. Spruce Street Harbor Park
Philly has done a lot to improve its piers and downtown spaces. The summer is especially alive with music, events, lawn games, food, lights, etc. This is a great way to end a busy day – a laid back evening in the park.
6. Please Touch Museum
If it’s a kid museum you want, this place delivers. With 157,000 square feet of play space, split into six uniquely themed zones, there’s something for everyone at Please Touch. From the typical tiny-town to the giant water table and the indoor carousel, it’s a child’s dream world… with attention to inclusion. This museum is best for kids 8 and under. ($2 admission with your disability ACCESS card – Free admission for a caregiver with a paid visitor)
7. Franklin Institute
While two of their claims to fame, the brain playground and the giant walk-through heart, are inaccessible to wheelchair users, the rest of the Franklin Institute is brilliant. My kids love the trains, machines, air show, and electricity exhibits. There are live science shows throughout the day that will entertain and blow your mind. While all of my kids can enjoy a full day here, ages 5 and up probably get the most out of it. ($2 admission with your disability ACCESS card – special exhibits are an additional cost) *Note – use the 20th St business entrance for wheelchair accessibility.
8. The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University
The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel is where I got to hold an actual dinosaur bone… so it may be one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve found this to be the best place for really experiencing dinosaurs. In addition to the skeletons and casts, you can enjoy a play dig-site, explore how skeletons are pieced together, picture yourself in history through green screen technology, and interact in the open lab where paleontologists are working on cleaning up brand new discoveries. These people get even more excited about dino bones than I do, so they were eager to share information and interact with the kids to teach them about their discoveries. They have the other typical natural science museum things like dioramas and butterflies, but the people and the bones really won me over on this one! ($2 admission with your disability ACCESS card)
Fireman’s Hall is a smaller museum, but my kids were completely enthralled with the old-time “fire trucks” and the play 911 call station. As the birthplace of volunteer fire companies, it’s an important piece of the nation’s history. It’s not a full-day activity, but it’s accessible, educational, and free to the public. (Free)
I’m including this as a bonus because I feel like most cities have wheelchair friendly zoos. The Philadelphia Zoo is no exception. It’s well-maintained and has a broad range of animal exhibits. There’s no disability discount here, which makes it significantly more expensive for families like ours. ($24 in peak season, $16 off season; children are $19 and $16; additional $16 to park)
If you know me at all, you know I get separation anxiety from my minivan. With the exception of NYC, driving is my preferred method of both arriving and getting around. It’s nice to know where all your supplies are and to be able to get to them if needed. While street parking can get crowded in peak season, Philly has a plethora of handicap spaces. We’ve never had to search for long for an open handicap space. Meter fees still apply. Pre-placard, parking took a little longer. I suggest Spot Angels to help you find an open, reasonably priced spot.
If you prefer to ditch the car, most of the center-city metro stations have elevator access (assuming they’re working). You can find maps of accessible stations here. This always makes me a tad nervous because of counting on operational elevators, but any outages should be listed here. All of Philly’s buses are wheelchair accessible. I know it’s not as speedy as the metro, but I’ve found it an easier way to navigate the city. UberWav and wheelchair taxis are also available. I haven’t used either, but I’ve read that they have at least a 30 minute wait from when you call.
Where to Eat
I can honestly say I’ve never had a cheesesteak in Philadelphia that I didn’t love, but I’m going to suggest you eat at Pat’s. If you try every joint in town, Pat’s will still be in your top three, and it’s one of the easiest to navigate with a wheelchair. The line is outside and so is the dining – so there’s little impact on your ability to actually get to the food.
Reading Terminal Market
Just follow your nose. Reading Terminal Market can get crowded, which makes it tough with wheels, but worth it. You can grab another cheesesteak, try out some Indian food at Nanee’s Kitchen, or go Greek, or Mexican, or Italian, or whatever! Grab a crepe or an Italian cookie for dessert. The Head Nut always has some fun spices to take home and create your own flavors.
Philadelphia’s is my favorite Chinatown on the East Coast. The streets are crowded with hole in the wall eateries and fancy buffets. I suggest Dim Sum Garden for an accessible and delicious experience.
Everything above is within downtown limits. While you can walk/roll between any of these places, you can’t get it all done in a day. If you’re coming from far, far away and want to expand beyond the city, there’s loads more in neighboring outskirts and suburbs. Sesame Place (if you’re headed north, Bucks County also has its own children’s museum), Longwood Gardens, and Adventure Aquarium are all worthy day trips from the city.
If you’re planning on seeing anything that’s not covered by your ACCESS pass, check out Go City. They offer pretty steep discounts for package deals!
What to Know Before You Go
I always hate to give a bad review. These places are all awesome spots to visit, but they’re not wheelchair accessible – to the point that you’re missing out on the experience if you can’t get around well on your own.
Independence Seaport Museum – The museum itself is great, but you can’t get inside the boat or submarine.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens – A beautiful mosaic, with a lot of stairs and narrow passageways. The indoor gallery is accessible, but most of the art is outside.
Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse – This enormous, and free, playground has a huge wooden slide in addition to the usual playground equipment. There is no ramp to get into the playhouse and no elevator to access the three floors of play.
Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion – A neat collection of all the creepies and crawlies, but the butterflies are the only thing on the first floor and there is no elevator.