Museums in Old City Philadelphia

An antique fireman hat shaped like a top hat with a illustration of a wagon painted on it.
Fireman hats dating to the 1820s at the Fireman Museum in Old City, Philaldelphia. Photo © Céline, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike.

Explore the museums of Philadelphia’s Old City including the Philadelphia History Museum, the African American Museum, and the world’s largest museum showcasing American Jewish history.

African American Museum in Philadelphia

Founded in 1976 in honor of the bicentennial celebration, the African American Museum in Philadelphia (701 Arch St., 215/574-0380; Wed.-Sat. 10am-5pm, Sun. noon-5pm; $14 adults, $10 seniors, students, and children 4-12) was the first museum in a major U.S. city dedicated to celebrating African American culture and history. The museum holds over 750,000 objects, including arts, artifacts, clothing, furniture, weapons, documents, photographs, records, and diaries highlighting the African diaspora, African American history in Philadelphia, and the contemporary achievements of African Americans. With frequent additions of permanent and rotating exhibits, the museum also hosts a variety of lectures and educational programming.

Fireman’s Hall Museum

Benjamin Franklin had the unprecedented idea of starting a fire insurance company in Philadelphia in the 1730s; he is just one of many people and advancements honored at the Fireman’s Hall Museum (147 N. 2nd St., 215/923-1438; Tues.-Sat. 10am-4:30pm, 10am-9pm first Fri. of month; free, donations accepted), which is operated by the Philadelphia Fire Department. Housed in a restored 1902 firehouse, the museum pays tribute to the brave men and women who fight fire and risk their lives for public safety. The collection of firefighting history and memorabilia includes an array of axes, hoses, tools, fire trucks, and parade badges dating as far back as the 1800s.

Independence Seaport Museum

Independence Seaport Museum (Penn’s Landing, 211 South Columbus Blvd., 215/413-8655; daily 10am-5pm; $13.50 adults, $10 seniors, children 3-12, students, and military) explores the city’s rich maritime history in a fitting location on Penn’s Landing, overlooking the Delaware River. The exhibits “Bound for Philadelphia” and “Coming to America” highlight the city’s immigration history and its importance in the growth of the nation’s population, while exploring the hardships and hazards often faced by immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life. Enjoy the excellent views of the Delaware River throughout many of the exhibit spaces, making it easy to imagine the people landing on that very shore in centuries past. Exhibits about small crafts, industrial shipping, and deep-diving technology add a modern aspect to the museum. While you’re here, you can explore the USS Olympia, which served as a flagship in the Spanish-American War, and the USS Becuna, a World War II submarine. Both National Historic Landmarks are open during museum hours, and on the first Saturday of each month (noon-4pm) get a behind-the-scenes guided tour of the ship, including areas normally closed to the public.

National Liberty Museum

Just two blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the National Liberty Museum (321 Chestnut St., 215/925-2800; Mon.-Sat. 10am-5pm, Sun. noon-6pm, closed Mon. except in summer; $7 adults, $6 seniors, $5 students, $2 children 5-17, $15 family) celebrates the profound accomplishment of creating a free society. The museum’s varied galleries explore topics of heroism, freedom, diversity, faith, and more, and pay homage to people who have contributed to the creation of a free country. The fine art gallery features an array of sculptures, paintings, and an impressive collection of delicate glass works that explore the idea of the beauty and fragility of freedom. Galleries include “Coming to America, Heroes from Around the World,” and “Heroes of 9/11 Memorial.”

National Museum of American Jewish History

The world’s largest museum showcasing American Jewish history opened in the heart of Philadelphia’s Independence Mall in 2010. The National Museum of American Jewish History (101 S. Independence Mall East, 215/923-3811; Tues.-Fri. 10am-5pm, Sat.-Sun. 10am-5:30pm, closed for major U.S. and Jewish holidays; $12 adults, $11 seniors and youth (13-21), free 12 and under and active military) is an outgrowth of a modest museum just around the corner. Showcasing a small collection of artifacts, the former museum has shared space with the historic Congregation Mikveh Israel, one of the nation’s first organized Jewish congregations, since 1976. The new museum is a strikingly modern, five-story, 100,000-square-foot building with an all-glass facade symbolizing accessibility, the open nature of America, and the fragility of democracy. An eight-foot-tall continuously burning flame visible from the street represents the permanence and endurance of Jews in America and American freedom in general. The museum celebrates 350 years of Jewish history in America through more than 10,000 artifacts, permanent and rotating exhibits, and interactive displays. While the focus of several other museums, most notably the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is on the Jewish experience before coming to America and the oppression and genocide of Jews, this museum is about the accomplishments, struggles, and experiences of Jews here in America. Beginning with the first permanent Jewish settlement in 1654 and continuing through to the present day, the museum tells diverse stories of Jews in America.

Philadelphia History Museum

This Greek Revival building on the edge of Old City originally housed the Franklin Institute until it was relocated to its current large space on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Formerly the Atwater Kent, he long neglected Philadelphia History Museum (15 S. 7th St., 215/685-4830; Tues.-Sat. 10:30am-4:30pm; $10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students, free 12 and under) reopened in 2012 after a three-year, multimillion dollar renovation. Dedicated to all things Philly history related, the museum has an extensive if disparate collection of Philadelphia artifacts. Anything from George Washington’s presidential desk to Joe Frazier’s boxing gloves can be found at the museum. Since their hi-tech renovation, visitors can further explore any topic that piques their interest on electronic tablets.

Polish American Cultural Center and Museum

This small museum in the heart of Old City honors Polish culture and heritage and celebrates the contributions of its citizens to the United States and the world. The center was founded in February 1981 and offers a small display of memorabilia and biographical materials about famous Poles, including religious leader John Cardinal Krol, Revolutionary War heroes Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski, composers Fryderyk Chopin and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, and scientists Marie Curie and Nicholas Copernicus. There is a prominent display on Pope John Paul II. Exhibits at the Polish American Cultural Center and Museum (308 Walnut St., 215/922-1700; Jan.-Apr. Mon.-Fri. 10am-4pm, May-Dec. Mon.-Sat. 10am-4pm; free) highlight Polish traditions that immigrants brought to the United States, including pisanki (painted Easter eggs) and decorative wooden plates.

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