The Ultimate Guide to Philadelphia’s Best Museums
From world-renowned art and historical exhibits to car collections.
The City of Brotherly Love is the birthplace of our nation (hooray, freedom!), but its eclectic history runs farther and wider than you may know—and where better to learn about that history than at Philly’s myriad museums? Of course, there’s more than just local history on display: from ancient art to Al Capone’s incarceration, or folklore parades to a collection of human skulls, there is a museum dedicated to everything enlightening, fun, and downright bizarre right here in Philadelphia. Below, you’ll find the best ones worth your admission dollar whether you visit for a limited time exhibit or to check out the permanent collection.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art was founded during America’s first centennial in 1876, and the celebration is still going: it remains one of the nation’s largest and most impressive galleries. The riverfront building is itself a masterpiece, reminiscent of ancient Greek temples—and not to mention its interior, recently renovated by Frank Gehry. But more impressive is its collection of more than 200,000 comprehensive treasures ranging from the Renaissance to the modern era, not to mention a number of period rooms and an outdoor sculpture garden. Not to be missed: Grace Kelly’s royal wedding dress, Medieval treasures, and van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers.” If you’re a local, it’s worth coming back multiple times and dedicating each visit to a different section for a full experience. Just visiting? Take advantage of the consecutive two-day ticket, then end your visit with an iconic run and subsequent photo on the Rocky steps—everyone does it.
What to know before you go: The Philadelphia Museum of Art is open from 10 am to 5 pm Thursday to Monday, but the main building remains open until 8:45 pm on Fridays. Adult tickets cost $25; if you’re looking to save, tickets are “pay what you wish” on the first Sunday of every month and every Friday 5 pm to close. A number of SEPTA bus routes have stops near the museum or you can park in the museum’s garage.
If French impressionist art is your language, skip Paris; The Barnes is home to an impressive gallery of masterpieces, including 69 works from Cézanne, 179 Renoirs, as well as Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, plus early-modern African art. Namesake Albert Barnes taught people to view art in relation to visual experiences, so the museum is uniquely organized by aesthetic concepts (like light, lines, and color) instead of region or genre. Come on a warm day, and the outdoor landscape is just as gorgeous as the two-story building itself, which boasts a glass canopy and green roof that’s set up for water reuse.
What to know before you go: The Barnes Foundation is open from 11 am to 5 pm Thursday to Monday. Admission is $30, and free the first Sunday of every month (but you should get there early to avoid long lines). Every first Friday of the month, you can enjoy after-hours live music, cocktails, plus special talks and exhibits. The Barnes is walking distance from the SEPTA bus stops, or you can park in the museum’s lot.
One of the newer additions to the city’s museum roster, the Museum of the American Revolution opened its doors in 2017. The institution takes you on a comprehensive, immersive journey through the pivotal era in American history. And what better place to view the first newspaper that printed the Declaration of Independence than just a few blocks from Independence Hall? As 13 colonies become a united nation, you’ll watch (and get involved) as your textbooks come to life—we’re talking realistic (and eerily well-casted) military reenactments, opening shots heard ’round the world, huge recreations of the Liberty Tree, and an 18th-century privateer ship, exhibits that put you in front-line battle, plus dramatic installations of art, books, and weapons. The highlight? A short film followed by an unveiling of George Washington’s actual war tent.
What to know before you go: The Museum of the American Revolution is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets are $21 online or $24 at the door and cover two consecutive days.
Looking for a fun-yet-scholastic outing that’s both parent- and kid-friendly? Spend a full day stargazing in the planetarium, hopping aboard a 350-ton Baldwin steam train, flying a 1948 T-33 Jet Trainer, walking around inside a giant heart, watching a light show in the Franklin Memorial, or observing the dissection of a cow’s eye. Plus, the special events calendar is always rotating; the Disney 100 exhibit will immerse visitors in the world of classic films.
What to know before you go: The Franklin Institute is open from 9:30 am to 5 pm Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $23 for adults, and $19 for children (members get in free). Note that tickets for special exhibits are limited and not included in general admission, so consider purchasing in advance. On-site parking exists, but is limited.
This 19th-century American prison was once the most expensive and notorious prison in the world. Today, the historical site still stands as a beautifully haunting attraction and some paranormal teams claim it’s actually haunted. ESP opened its doors in 1829 and was the first to experiment with reforming convicts via strict isolation, housing infamous crooks like Slick Willie Sutton and Al Capone (you can actually see his cell on a tour). Daytime tours of the cell blocks include audio and are led by guides on the weekends, plus you can check out artist installations while you’re there. During the summer, you can even take a visit at night. But if you want a real scare, visit around Halloween for Halloween Nights, when the prison transforms into a massive and utterly terrifying haunted house, complete with hungry vampires, menacing machine shop workers, and haunted clowns running amok.
What to know before you go: Eastern State Penitentiary is open from 10 am to 5 pm, every day. Admission is $17 for adults, and while guided tours cost the same, they are date-specific and only held on weekends. Halloween Nights is extremely popular; all tickets are time-specific and cost $34-49 based on the date. Street parking is available in the surrounding neighborhood.
Ever wanted to learn about past pandemics? See the liver(s) of conjoined twins? A collection of 139 human skulls? The bodies of us homo sapiens are fascinating things, and this museum dedicated to medical peculiarities will “disturbingly inform” you. The Mutter Museum, which is part of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, is not your typical science exhibition: You’ll dive into a sphere of more than 25,000 objects, including anatomical human models, wet and skeletal specimens, bizarre medical apparati, and 2,374 inhaled or swallowed foreign objects. The exhibit Dracula and the Incorruptible Body explores how folklore and Victorian funerary practices would’ve allowed people to have been classified as vampires.
What to know before you go: The Mütter Museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm Wednesday through Sunday, with tickets priced at $20. Parking is available in nearby lots or walk over from the Market-Frankford line’s 30th Street Station stop.
Upon walking into the Academy of Natural Sciences, you’re greeted by a 42-foot long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. In addition to the giant predator’s bones, check out the fossils of 30 other dino species, lifelike dioramas of African animals, and nearly 100 specimens of clams, scallops, conches, cowries, land snails, chambered nautiluses, and other mollusks. Founded in 1812, the Academy of Natural Sciences is the oldest natural history museum in the Americas and is home to more than 19 million specimens.
What to know before you go: The Academy of Natural Sciences is open from 10 am to 5 pm Wednesday through Sunday (and an extra hour from 9 to 10 am for members). Admission is $27 in person or $25 online. If you are driving, there’s metered parking on the street or parking lots nearby. SEPTA bus routes also have stops within walking distance.
The annual Mummers parade on New Year’s Day is the oldest folk festival in the US and a long-standing Philly tradition of more than 100 years. So it’s safe to say, this museum is truly a one-of-a-kind Philadelphia experience. Tours immerse you in a world of vibrant color, ornate props and costumes, video archives, history, and authentic music.
What to know before you go: The Mummers Museum is open 9:30 am to 4 pm Wednesday to Saturday. Admission is free as is parking in the museum’s lot.
Located right in the center of Philly’s historic district, this Smithsonian affiliate illuminates US history through the eyes of the American-Jewish culture. The building itself is an architectural stunner with four floors. Start from the top in 1654, and begin a chronological, poignant journey that explores this group’s experience far beyond the Holocaust. You’ll learn in-depth about Jewish-American immigration, challenges, triumphs, and contemporary issues via interactive exhibits, powerful artwork, and religious artifacts. Regardless of your faith, the museum celebrates the importance of America’s multicultural DNA, and how it came to be.
What to know before you go: The Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History is open from 10 am to 5 pm Friday to Sunday. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. There are a number of parking lots and garages nearby, plus easy access via SEPTA’s Market Frankford line.
If your life motto is “I wanna go fast!” but the closest you’ve ever been to a 1958 Aston Martin was in your dreams, here’s the museum you’ve been waiting for. This epic collection of racing sports cars was assembled over 50 years and is one of the best in the world. From the American Underslung to the WWII-era BMW 328 and the 1956 Jaguar that Mick Jagger was outbid on, the showroom is brimming with classics and muscle that showcase the fascinating history and evolution of automobiles. Twice a month on Saturdays is Demo Day, when you can see and hear display and special guest cars purring outside in the parking lot.
What to know before you go: The Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum is open from 10 am to 6 pm Tuesday to Friday, and 10 am to 4 pm Saturday and Sunday. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door for $12 (demo days included). There’s free parking in the museum’s lot.
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