Philadelphia has been a tourist destination since leisure travel emerged as a common pastime for the middle and upper classes in the nineteenth century. By the twenty-first century, the region’s economy depended heavily on tourism to Philadelphia and nearby destinations such as the Brandywine Valley, Valley Forge, and the Jersey and Delaware shores. Historic sites of the colonial era and American Revolution attracted many travelers, but these assets also created a challenge for promoters seeking to portray Philadelphia as not just a place of historical interest but as a lively, exciting place to spend a vacation.

a color lithograph of people viewing the Fairmount Waterworks and Collosus Bridge from Harding's Hotel
The Fairmount Water Works was an early tourist draw whose scenic appearance and scientific innovation appealed to early nineteenth century tastes. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

“Tourism” in the sense of travel for no reason other than seeing the sights did not become a phenomenon in the United States until the 1820s, when improvements in transportation and accommodations made touring possible for people with wealth and leisure time. Precedents existed, however. From the time of Philadelphia’s founding in the 1680s, the growing city attracted individual travelers and migrants from other colonies and abroad. Visitors also sought out nearby resorts such as the healthful mineral waters at Yellow Springs in Chester County and Bristol Springs in Bucks County, both popular destinations in the eighteenth century. By the 1810s, Cape May at the southern tip of New Jersey began to develop into a resort for affluent families who traveled on ships from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Trenton, and Baltimore to relax in hotels by the sea.

In the early nineteenth century, tourists favored sites of pastoral scenic beauty more than city destinations, so it is likely that Philadelphia sent out more tourists than it received. Nevertheless, the city began to develop an infrastructure for tourism, including the city’s first full-fledged hotel, the United States Hotel, opened in 1828 on Chestnut Street opposite the Second Bank of the United States. Philadelphia publishers also began to produce guides to the city’s sights. Tourists who came to Philadelphia sought out new institutions and immersive experiences, as they did in other major cities. They toured innovations such as the Fairmount Water Works and Eastern State Penitentiary and visited the monumental Laurel Hill Cemetery. They took in exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts or Charles Willson Peale’s museum, attended theatrical performances, and explored nature in public gardens and along the Wissahickon Valley. Often they attended worship services at a variety of churches or observed court proceedings. Some also sought out places with historic associations, but the old Pennsylvania State House, where Americans declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, remained in use for courts and other purposes. Only gradually over the nineteenth century did this building become known as Independence Hall and fully presented to the public as a historic site.

In the 1830s, railroads began to open tourism to the emerging middle class. Although far from comfortable for long-distance travel, by 1840 rail lines connected the Mid-Atlantic region to most of the Atlantic Coast from New Hampshire to the Carolinas. Railroads helped to open the tourism potential of the Jersey Shore, as entrepreneurs in the 1850s extended rails from Philadelphia and New York to new resorts such as Atlantic City and expanded links to established destinations such as Cape May. Railroads also enabled countryside excursions from Philadelphia to the Brandywine Valley and Valley Forge.

Vacations of One or Two Weeks

The “vacation” of one or two weeks a year became more common among middle-class Americans from the 1850s through the 1870s, with the time away from work often spent at resort hotels. This increased tourism to seaside areas such as the Jersey Shore but did not significantly benefit Philadelphia and other cities, where travel continued to be dominated by people doing business or visiting family and friends. Vacationers who opted for touring, rather than resort stays, often sought to see as many sights as possible within their limited time. This created a challenge for Philadelphia that persisted for decades: leisure travelers seldom stayed very long in any one place, limiting their economic impact.

a black and white illustration of visitors examining a wall paper printing press at the Centennial Exhibition
The Centennial Exhibition brought crowds of tourists from around the world into Philadelphia to marvel at new technologies. (Library of Congress)

Philadelphia helped to usher in a new era for urban tourism when it staged the first full-scale world’s fair in the United States, the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. World’s fairs, enormously popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gave tourists an incentive to visit the host cities and fulfilled desires to pack many experiences into a short vacation. The Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park attracted more than 10 million visitors. Although that number included local residents and repeat visits, the extent of out-of-town tourists is suggested by the construction of eight temporary hotels adjacent to the fairgrounds, the largest offering 1,325 rooms, to supplement fifty-one downtown hotels each with fifty rooms or more. Railroads also encouraged tourism by offering special fares. World’s fair tourists included not only adults but also entire families.

As a celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the Centennial highlighted the dual character of Philadelphia that persisted into the twentieth century as an opportunity but also a challenge for promoters. The region had historic sites of the American Revolution in abundance, and their appeal could not be denied. However, Philadelphia also was a booming industrial city seeking to highlight modern progress more than the past. In 1876, Independence Hall attracted visitors with new exhibits styled as the “National Museum” and took center stage for the Fourth of July, but the world’s fair of modern marvels drew visitors’ greatest attention. By the turn of the century, Philadelphia’s new City Hall (completed in 1901) allowed government functions to finally move out of Independence Hall, leaving it to serve solely historic purposes for the first time. The Betsy Ross House in the 400 block of Arch Street also became an attraction after a fund-raising campaign in the 1890s saved it from demolition. However, City Hall helped to pull civic activity westward to Broad Street’s emerging corridor of skyscrapers and the city’s grandest new hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (opened in 1904). When the nation celebrated the Declaration of Independence again in 1926, organizers of the Sesquicentennial International Exhibition erected a faux-Colonial “High Street” amid the attractions in South Philadelphia and a giant electrified Liberty Bell across Broad Street. Visiting authentic eighteenth-century landmarks required a side trip away from the fair to the oldest sections of the city.

A color lithograph of the interior of Independence Hall in the mid-nineteenth century showing visitors in the newly-renovated building
Independence Hall transformed from a government building into a museum into the centerpiece of a national historical park. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

The forces of past and present combined to reshape the tourism landscape of Philadelphia and the nearby region in the first half of the twentieth century. City planners and architects, seeking alternatives to deteriorating urban conditions, carried out projects such as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (built 1917-26) and joined with patriotic citizens to support creation of Independence National Historical Park (authorized by Congress in 1948). These projects, requiring demolition of many blocks of eighteenth and nineteenth-century structures, created new, attractive cultural districts and settings for the large-scale events that became a hallmark of Philadelphia later in the century. On a smaller scale, meanwhile, the historic preservation movement sought to sustain material connections to the past in an era of rapid change. Preservation efforts assured that Philadelphia would retain Elfreth’s Alley, the 1765 home of Mayor Samuel Powel (1738-93), and other colonial-era sites in the city and region. Preservationists intervened to prevent the former home of the Franklin Institute, a Greek Revival building designed by John Haviland (1792-1852), from being demolished for a parking lot; instead, radio manufacturer Atwater Kent (1873-1949) bought the structure at 15 S. Seventh Street and gave it to the city for a local history museum (opened in 1941 as the Atwater Kent Museum, later renamed the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent). The inheritors of a number of private estates in the region also created public museums and gardens, notably the DuPont family’s Longwood Gardens and Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library in the Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Government Looks to Leisure Travel

a black and white photograph of tourists sightseeing in open-cab vehicles on Chestnut Street
Tourists at the turn of the twentieth century could enjoy sightseeing in a new invention, the automobile. These tourists paid one dollar for a round trip sightseeing tour of the city and Fairmount Park. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

With an increasing stock of attractions and with tourism growing, first from improvements in comfort on the railroads and then with the advent of automobiles, business and government leaders moved to capitalize on the economic potential of leisure travel. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American cities competed vigorously for industrial and business opportunities. Groups such as the Philadelphia Board of Trade had long promoted the city as a meeting place for national conventions. Yet Philadelphia lagged behind Boston, another rival similarly stocked with historic sites, in attracting leisure travelers. In the 1920s, with urging from the hotel industry, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce devoted increasing effort to promoting tourism and school field trips to historic sites. In 1929, the Chamber’s Convention and Exhibition Bureau became the Convention and Tourist Bureau; renamed the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1945, the organization became an independent entity in 1951.

By mid-century, tourism was not only a local concern but also the dedicated purpose of agencies in federal and state governments. Thus Philadelphia became embedded in a regional network of tourist sites managed by government agencies as well as private operators, connected by the movement of tourists among sites they wished to see. State agencies invested in advertising to potential tourists, erecting historical markers along highways, and managing sites such as Washington’s Crossing on both sides of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; Pennsbury Manor in Bucks County; Valley Forge in Chester County (which became a national historical park in 1976); and Batsto Village in South Jersey.

a color illustration of a horse-drawn carriage and Independence Hall in front of a silhouette of the Philadelphia skyline
In the mid-twentieth century, Philadelphia was advertised as a destination for both historical destinations and modern attractions, as seen in the cover of this Philadelphia Transportation Company guidebook. (Private collection)

The years following World War II propelled a surge of tourism made possible by automobiles and driven by the popularity of family vacations. At a time when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union placed a high value on the “American way of life,” families sought to instill civic values in their children with trips to historic sites and symbols, including Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The construction of Independence National Historical Park underway during the 1950s did not deter vacationing families, and the reform administrations of Mayors Joseph S. Clark (1901-88) and Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) viewed tourism as integral to revitalizing the city in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. In 1951, a new city charter established the Office of City Representative, whose responsibilities included promoting Philadelphia as well as representing the mayor at ceremonial events.

During the 1950s Pennsylvania helped promote Philadelphia with depictions of families visiting Independence Hall on the state’s official tourism map, but Philadelphia boosters sought to modernize the city’s appeal. In 1960 the Convention and Visitors Bureau opened a new headquarters and visitor center resembling a space-age flying saucer near the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a mile west of the “historic district.” In addition to the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the City Representative, tourism development efforts included a Philadelphia Area Council on Tourism (PACT) created in 1961 by Dilworth but not fully funded by City Council. The agencies sometimes worked together, but at other times operated without coordination. Despite their efforts, a 1967 study found that visitors considered Philadelphia an above-average place to visit historic sites, but not an especially exciting place for a vacation. Philadelphians themselves seemed to need to be convinced of the city’s charms, as evidenced by a billboard and slogan for a Chamber of Commerce event in 1972: “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.”

The Bicentennial Quandary

Although the approaching 1976 Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence offered a new opportunity to capitalize on the region’s history, local ambitions competed with decentralized, nationwide celebrations. Fears of urban unrest stoked by Mayor Frank Rizzo (1920-91) and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease undercut Philadelphia’s appeal. Nevertheless, Bicentennial projects expanded the region’s array of tourism attractions and services, including the opening of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum (later renamed the African American Museum in Philadelphia), the National Museum of Jewish American History, the Mummers Museum, a new Visitor Center for Independence National Historical Park, and a modern pavilion to show off the Liberty Bell.

A color photograph of Independence Mall as viewed from above and behind Independence Hall
A wave of post-war patriotism sparked the construction of Independence Mall, which made Independence Hall and other nearby landmarks more accessible to tourists by demolishing other residential and commercial properties in the vicinity. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

The sense that Philadelphia was not doing enough to benefit from tourist dollars persisted into the 1980s and 1990s, an era when globalization made place-marketing a key strategy for localities seeking to differentiate themselves and attract investment. Philadelphia’s painful transition from industrial powerhouse to post-industrial city raised the stakes. To meet the challenge, Mayor Edward G. Rendell (b. 1944) created the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC, later rebranded Visit Philadelphia) in 1996 to target leisure travelers. Operating separately from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the new agency took a regional approach to “Philadelphia and Its Countryside” and formed partnerships with similar organizations in the region: the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Board, Visit Bucks County, and the Brandywine Conference and Visitors Bureau, among others. Beyond this five-county Pennsylvania-based collaboration, similar place-marketing organizations operated in South Jersey, including the South Jersey Tourism Corporation and the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, and in Delaware. The tourism marketers diversified their appeals beyond the traditional Caucasian family vacationer by reaching out to African Americans (through the Multicultural Affairs Congress of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, formed in 1987), gays and lesbians (“Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay” campaign, GPTMC, 2003), and international travelers. Seeking to advance Philadelphia as an international brand, a Global Philadelphia Association formed in 2010 and five years later succeeded in making Philadelphia the first United States member of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, composed of cities with sites on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (in Philadelphia’s case, Independence Hall).

From the 1990s into the early decades of the twenty-first century, the Philadelphia region’s tourism industry created an increasingly elaborate and interdependent infrastructure to attract leisure travelers and convince them to make more than a brief stop to see the Liberty Bell on their way between Washington, D.C., and New York City. With millions of dollars in investment from government, private foundations, and individual donors, underused plazas at Independence National Historical Park evolved into a civic campus with a new exhibit hall for the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, and an Independence Visitor Center to promote the region. Waterfront development in Camden featured the New Jersey State Aquarium, a concert amphitheater, a minor league ball park, and the Battleship New Jersey. Hotels proliferated, especially within walking distance of the Pennsylvania Convention Center (opened in 1993 and expanded in 2011). Temple University established a School of Tourism and Hospitality Management in 1998, and the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides (formed in 2008) launched a training and certification program in 2011. In the Germantown section of Northwest Philadelphia, historic house museums banded together as Historic Germantown and promoted “Freedom’s Backyard.”

Broadening the City’s Appeal to Tourists

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway boasts a number of Philadelphia's most popular tourist attractions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Franklin Institute. It was built as part of a large-scale urban beautification effort. (Map by R. Estes for
The Benjamin Franklin Parkway boasts a number of Philadelphia’s most popular tourist attractions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Franklin Institute. It was built as part of a large-scale urban beautification effort. (Map by R. Estes for Visit Philadelphia)

Throughout the region, historic sites, museums, and other cultural organizations sought to attract local residents as well as visitors with varieties of programming. Places that appealed to nineteenth-century tourists because they were new and innovative, such as Eastern State Penitentiary and the Fairmount Water Works, gained new purposes as historic places and centers for education. Tourists could focus their attention on Philadelphia’s place in the nation’s history, to be sure, but the appeal of the city and the region also built upon the arts, on museums and sites focusing on science and medicine, on sports and recreation, on attractions and activities for children, and on a surge of innovative restaurants attracting national and international attention. Beyond the annual celebration of the Fourth of July–expanded and branded as Welcome America–tourism swelled during such mega-events as concerts (from Live Aid in 1985 to the Labor Day-weekend Made in America music festival introduced in 2012), the visits of two popes (John Paul II in 1979 and Francis in 2015), the annual Philadelphia Flower Show and similar extravaganzas, and recurring sports rivalries such as the Army-Navy game.

As a major sector of the region’s post-industrial economy, tourism could be vulnerable to setbacks during times of recession or national emergency, such as the attacks on the United States that occurred on September 11, 2001. Despite these challenges, tourism to the region appeared to have reached new heights by the second decade of the twenty-first century. For the period from 1997 to 2014, Visit Philadelphia reported a 90 percent increase in overnight leisure travelers to its five-county Pennsylvania region, from 7.3 million to 13.9 million (a total exceeding the 10 million visitor count of the Centennial in 1876). Economically, according to the agency’s calculations, this translated to support for 92,000 jobs and $655 million in local and state tax revenue. Once a casual pastime of the wealthy, tourism in the twenty-first century became a more widespread and diverse phenomenon but took place within the realms of sophisticated place-marketing and global competition.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She is the author of Independence Hall in American Memory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) and Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations (NYU Press, 2013). (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


View of Fairmount Waterworks

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Tourists of the early nineteenth century sought out innovations and scenic beauty, and found both at the Fairmount Waterworks. In this 1838 lithograph, visitors to Harding’s Hotel on the Schuylkill look out from their veranda toward the waterworks and the heights that later became the site for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The scene includes the Collosus Bridge, also known as the Upper Ferry Bridge, built in 1812 and destroyed by fire in 1838. Designed by a German immigrant carpenter, Lewis Wernwag, the 340-foot bridge was the longest single-trussed wooden arch in the United States at the time of its construction.

Interior View of Independence Hall

Library Company of Philadelphia

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the old Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) gradually evolved from a building serving government purposes into a historic shrine. In this 1855 lithograph, fashionably dressed visitors view a newly completed redecoration of the first-floor room where the Second Continental Congress declared independence in 1776. A statue of George Washington has a place of prominence, reflecting the nativist views of city officials of the time, who celebrated the founding fathers as they denounced foreigners as a danger to the United States. The Liberty Bell is displayed on a pedestal, although it is not attracting much attention. Embraced as a symbol by abolitionists, by the time of this lithograph the bell was gaining new popularity from its role in a short story about the Declaration of Independence written by Philadelphia author George Lippard. Although fiction, the bell’s association with the Declaration was reflected in the text on the pedestal and appeared in guidebooks for sightseers.

Buildings on Independence Square continued to serve government functions, including courts and City Council chambers, until completion of the new City Hall in 1901. Activism by Philadelphians during the first half of the twentieth century led to the creation of Independence National Historical Park, authorized by Congress in 1948.

Wall Paper Printing Press, Centennial Exhibition

Library of Congress

With guidebooks in hand, visitors to the Centennial Exhibition are examining a wallpaper printing press in this illustration published in Harper’s Weekly in December 1876. World’s fairs in Philadelphia and other cities bolstered urban tourism by creating spectacles of products and people from around the world that could be visited within the time of a one- or two-week vacation. They attracted not only adults, but also entire families, as the children in this scene make evident. Also visible in the illustration is one of the creature comforts of the Centennial, a rolling chair. Available with or without attendants, the chairs could be rented by visitors who preferred not to walk the long distances of the grounds in Fairmount Park.

Sightseeing by Automobile c. 1910

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Changes in transportation technologies shaped tourism, from the earliest roads to canals, railroads, automobiles, and airplanes. In the lower left corner of this postcard of Philadelphia, c. 1910, is a sightseeing automobile filled with passengers who have paid one dollar each for a round-trip tour of the city and Fairmount Park. In this location on Chestnut Street west of Eleventh Street, they share the road with streetcars and other automobiles and seem to attract little attention from local pedestrians going about their everyday business.

"Greene Countrie Towne" and Modern Metropolis

Private collection

Desires to present Philadelphia as both historic and modern are evident in the cover of this guidebook published in the mid-twentieth century by the Philadelphia Transportation Company. The subtitle calls attention to the city’s historic foundation with William Penn’s phrase “Greene Countrie Towne” but gives equal billing to the “Modern Metropolis.” In the foreground, the racing carriage adds excitement to the setting of Independence Hall, which is depicted as a countryside landmark rather than a building in the densely developed Center City of the twentieth century. The modern metropolis looms in the background as a squadron of skyscrapers, the tallest being the tower of City Hall with William Penn overlooking the city of the past and present. In its text, the guidebook advised tourists that “by no means all of Philadelphia’s noteworthy landmarks are confined to relics of olden days. In numerous sections, especially along the tree-lined Franklin Parkway, modern masterpieces of architecture and culture typify the present-day community, third-largest city and greatest manufacturing center in the country.”

Often in the second half of the twentieth century, tourism markers sought to emphasize the region’s modern appeal. Despite their efforts, a 1967 study found that visitors considered Philadelphia an above-average place to visit historic sites, but not an especially exciting place for a vacation. In response, in 1968 boosters dispatched “Miss Welcome to Philadelphia Girls” to visit governors throughout the United States to promote “Surprising Philadelphia.” A slogan in 1969 invited visitors to have a “Philadelphia Fling.”

Map of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway

In Philadelphia and other American cities, projects to improve urban conditions in the early to middle twentieth century created new venues for tourism. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (built 1917-26) gave Philadelphia a beautified cultural corridor dominated by institutions such as the Academy of Natural Sciences, Franklin Institute, Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Parkway also created a venue for parades and large-scale events such as the visits of Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Francis in 2015. (Map by R. Estes)

Independence Mall

National Park Service via Visit Philadelphia

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, the goal of eliminating slums, a priority for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (established in 1929), coincided with desires among historically-minded citizens to create a dignified setting for Independence Hall. Propelled by the patriotism awakened by two world wars, these initiatives culminated in the highly visible and more tourist-friendly environment of Independence National Historical Park (authorized in 1948) and Independence Mall (later incorporated into the national park). Demolition of older housing stock and commercial buildings in the vicinity of Independence Hall during the 1950s created a new venue for tourism. This photograph, taken in 2011, shows the next evolution of the area as a civic campus with a new exhibit hall for the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, and an Independence Visitor Center to promote the region.

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Related Reading

Aron, Cindy S. Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Cieri, Marie. “Between Being and Looking: Queer Tourism Promotion and Lesbian Social Space in Greater Philadelphia.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, No. 2, Vol. 2 (2003): 147-66.

Cocks, Catherine. Doing the Town: The Rise of Urban Tourism in the United States, 1850-1915. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2001.

Grant, Elizabeth. “Race and Tourism in America’s First City.” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 31, No. 6 (September 2005): 850-71.

Mires, Charlene. Independence Hall in American Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Rugh, Susan Sessions. Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Sandoval-Strausz, A.K. Hotel: An American History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Sears, John F. Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Stevick, Philip. Imagining Philadelphia: Travelers’ Views of the City from 1800 to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Wilson, Martin W. “From the Sesquicentennial to the Bicentennial: Changing Attitudes Toward Tourism in Philadelphia, 1926-1976.” Ph.D. Diss., Temple University, 2000.

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