Visit Philadelphia for these famous historical firsts

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As the birthplace of America, Philadelphia is naturally a city of firsts. If you prefer an engaging step back in time over modern highlights, you’ll find plenty to explore here. Don’t miss these attractions that give you an inside look at some of the country’s most important ideas and events.

philadelphia firsts

Image via Shutterstock by Natalia Bratslavsky

The first planned city in North America

Philadelphia is touted as the first planned city in North America and was founded in 1862 by William Penn. The city is designed around a grid system anchored by five public squares, which were created as refreshing green spaces for residents. Though their faces have changed a bit, you can still visit the squares that William Penn laid out throughout the city. Center Square is now home to City Hall, while Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square, and Logan Square are preserved as well-maintained urban green spaces.

The real highlight in this story is Franklin Square, where you can enjoy a vibrant taste of Philadelphia’s culture. Here you can play a round on an 18-hole mini golf course, ride the carousel, or cozy up to one of 10 storytelling benches where members of the professional storytelling group Once Upon a Nation share free, five-minute tales of the city’s history. Historic District Philadelphia hotels like the Holiday Inn Express Philadelphia – Penn’s Landing place you just minutes from this charming spot.

The first public library

In 1731 Benjamin Franklin opened the first public library, known as the Library Company of Philadelphia. As the oldest cultural institution in America, the library is worth a visit for any history buff. It’s free and open to the public with an extensive non-circulating collection that you can peruse. The Library Company also offers engaging programs and exhibitions that may further enhance your visit. Offerings change regularly and highlight unique aspects of the library’s collection.

The first American flag

Betsy Ross is famous for sewing the first American flag in her Philadelphia home in 1777. Today you can visit the cozy home that Betsy Ross rented. Self-guided tours take you through her upholstery shop, parlor, bedroom and basement. Even treasures like the Ross family bible are still on view. This historic home gives new depth and intrigue to the tale of a widowed seamstress who made musket cartridges in her basement, and boldly took on the potentially treasonous task of sewing the flag while closeted away in her bedroom.

The Betsy Ross House brings Betsy herself back to life, giving you a chance to ask reenactors intriguing questions, explore a working 18th-century upholstery shop, and learn how to cut a five-point star with one quick snip. Admission is just $5 for adults and $4 for children.

The first full-scale penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary is widely considered the first of its kind in the world. Abandoned in the 1970s, the penitentiary has since become a museum that offers an eerie look at the history of penal reform in America. The prison was architecturally advanced with running water, flush toilets, and central heat even before the White House had such features. Accommodations were anything but comfortable, with a philosophy of solitary confinement for inmates.

The historic site is open for tours year-round. Around Halloween, it also transforms into a haunted house known as Terror Behind the Walls. If the penitentiary tops your list of must-sees, you can stay nearby at a hotel like the Crowne Plaza Philadelphia West. Admission to the penitentiary is $14 for adults and $10 for children seven to 12. It’s not recommended for children under seven.

Philadelphia is filled with historic buildings, but these highlights truly stand out as important firsts for the city, the nation, and in some instances even the world. Find and book your room at one of IHG’s 28 Philadelphia-area hotels today.

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