When visitors think of Philadelphia, a few words probably come to mind: history, Liberty Bell and, perhaps, cheesesteaks. But what many people don’t know is that Philadelphia is in the middle of a renaissance for green development. The city is home to dozens of parks and gardens including Fairmount Park, one of the largest urban park systems in the U.S. spanning 9,200 acres and covering almost 10% of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love also boasts a robust and growing network of trails called the Circuit Trails that connect people and communities to each other, to green space, and to the rivers and waterways.
Below, are just a few of the city’s most beautiful (and historic) green treasures that shouldn’t be missed during a visit to Philadelphia. [Note: Admission is FREE to all of the parks and gardens mentioned below, however some offer paid guided tours and other recreational activities].
[Photo of the Pennypack Trail courtesy of the Circuit Trails].
Navigate a Green Giant: Fairmount Park
With thousands of acres to explore in Fairmount Park, from the historic houses to the unique Laurel Hill Cemetery to The Philadelphia Zoo, it’s hard to have time to see it all. While here, visitors have the unique opportunity to experience the unparalleled views of the city from Belmont Plateau and visit a faraway land at the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden.
Location: West Fairmount Park; Army Road
One of Philly’s best kept local secrets, the Belmont Plateau showcases unmatched views of the city skyline. The Plateau, as it is affectionately known, is also home to a large grassy knoll that is perfect for a late afternoon picnic. Located just four miles northwest of Center City, the urban oasis is very accessible to visitors. Bring a picnic basket and blanket to the picture-perfect Plateau for a delightful afternoon surrounded by nature.
Fun Fact: Will Smith put the Plateau on the map for the rest of America in 1991 with the Grammy-award winning hit, “Summertime.” The lyrics go as follows, “Back in Philly we be out in the park/A place called the plateau is where everybody goes…”
Location: West Fairmount Park; Lansdowne & Horticultural Drive
Another stop in Fairmount Park serves as a cultural treasure for an infusion of Japanese history and a place to absorb the serenity of a nationally-ranked garden. Guests are invited to stroll along the 1.2 acres of landscaped Shofuso Gardens alongside a ceremonial tea house and feed fish at the koi pond. Just a short trip from downtown, Shofuso hosts over 30,000 visitors annually from more than 20 countries around the world to showcase the history of Japanese culture in Philadelphia. Visitors will leave feeling relaxed and rejuvenated!
Discover Bartram’s Living Collections: Bartram’s Garden
Location: Southwest Philadelphia; 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard
A true Philadelphia historical gem, this property was purchased in 1728 by John Bartram and is the oldest surviving botanical garden in North America. Located on a 45-acre National Historic Landmark, the garden advances the late John Bartram’s legacy of discovery, gardening and art. Visitors are invited to pick up a map and take a walk around the grounds to discover unusual plant and tree species, or for a more enriching historical experience, visitors can sign up for a guided tour. During warmer months, garden guests can also take a cruise down the Schuylkill River to Bartram’s aboard Patriot Harbor Lines.
[Sunset view of a dock at Bartram’s Garden. Photo courtesy of the Circuit Trails].
Tour the Circuit Trails: Schuylkill River Trail to Forbidden Drive
Location: From Center City, enter via the South Street Bridge
Voted the #1 Urban Trail in the U.S. by USA Today’s 10Best, the Schuylkill River Trail runs along the majestic Schuylkill River in Center City and extends far beyond the city limits connecting the city and the suburbs with a “green highway.” Starting at the South Street Bridge, trail enthusiasts can descend onto the new Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk which stretches out over the river. Continuing down the trail leads past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its sculpture garden, the beauty of the Fairmount Water Works and Boathouse Row, and continues in to the heart of Fairmount Park for miles and miles of green space. From here, active cyclists and runners may use the Ridge Avenue connection to Forbidden Drive to reach the densely wooded, Wissahickon Valley Park, which contains more trails for running, biking, horseback riding, fishing and bird watching. This 1,800-acre park has it all! For a quick break, the Valley Green Inn offers soft serve ice-cream. The park is considered one of the most “wild” places in the City of Philadelphia and is visited by over 1 million people every year.
Fun Fact: The completed Schuylkill River Trail, part of the Circuit Trails, will be 130 miles long and connect Philadelphia to Reading. Currently the trail boasts over 60 miles completed and connects all the way through Valley Forge Historic Park.
Grab a Drink at a Pop-Up Park: Viaduct Rail Park
Location: Callowhill District, 10th Street & Hamilton Streets
One of several pop-up gardens making the summer months extra exciting in Philadelphia, this pop-up garden has a story to tell. Philadelphia Horticultural Society recently transformed a vacant parking lot into a colorful, pop-up beer garden to give visitors a sneak peek of what the future Reading Viaduct Rail Park will look like. Although the rail park itself is not complete, the future three-mile linear park will consist of walkways, cycling paths and gathering spaces on an old elevated rail line. Visitors should check out the beer garden this July and use the future rail park as an excuse to come back to Philadelphia!
Fun Fact: The Bacon Brothers played a fundraising concert to raise money for the Viaduct Rail Park.
Travel Northeast from City to Forest: Philadelphia Parks
It’s easy to go from the Center City hustle and bustle to the serenity of the woods by traveling northeast to the Pennypack and Tacony Creek Parks.
Location: Foxchase; 8500 Pine Road (several access points)
Visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic and explore the 1,600 acres of woodlands, meadows and wetlands that make up Pennypack Park. Fitness enthusiasts can take a ride or run along the 14.4-mile Pennypack Trail, another Circuit Trail, which winds throughout the park and will soon connect to Montgomery County. Another fan favorite of the park is the Kings Highway Bridge, the oldest stone bridge still in continuous use in the U.S. (built in 1697).
Location: Juniata Park; Ramona Avenue & I Street
Small but mighty, the 302-acre Tacony Creek Park offers ample opportunities for birdwatching and learning about the local watershed. Visitors often wander along the Tacony Creek Trail for scenic views of the creek. Kids of all ages are welcome to Ferko Playground for a large outdoor play space.
Fun fact: This past spring, actor and activist Mark Ruffalo teamed up with the Delaware River Watershed Initiative and waded into the waters of the Tacony Creek to assess the cleanliness and health of the water.
[Mark Ruffalo examining Tacony Creek. Photo courtesy of the William Penn Foundation].
Along the Delaware River: Waterfront Places & Spaces
The Delaware River Waterfront is home to parks, museums, piers, restaurants and much more. Some of the waterfronts hidden gems include Penn Treaty Park up north and Washington Avenue Green down south.
Location: Pennsport; South Christopher Columbus Boulevard & Washington Avenue
Formally known as Pier 53, the Washington Avenue Green reopened in 2010 as a dedicated waterfront public space. Visitors can walk along the elevated boardwalk to enjoy remarkable views of the Delaware waterfront and climb the 55-foot-tall “Land Buoy,” a public art piece by Jody Pinto honoring the site’s history as an immigration station.
Location: Fishtown; 1341 North Delaware Avenue
Positioned on the shores of Fishtown, Penn Treaty Park is a seven-acre oasis of open green space. The park has several lawn areas available for picnicking and new playground equipment. The park also provides some of the best views in the Philadelphia including Penn’s Landing, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the city skyline.
For more information on these and other green treasures in the city, visit the websites of each attraction. Several have ongoing tours during the summer months that will give visitors a real feel of the area. Whether on foot, bike or via public transportation, there are many must-see green spots around Philadelphia to enjoy!
Patrick Starr is the executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and Pennsylvania vice chair of the Circuit Trails Coalition. He is a resident of Center City and a strong advocate for green space.