From ritzy Rittenhouse Square to hipster-heavy Fishtown, modern-day Philadelphia is packed with exciting neighborhoods. Rewind to our city’s early days, however, and one area thrived above all others: the Delaware River waterfront. This port was the largest in colonial British America, putting Philadelphia on the map as an essential hub for commerce and culture.
"Without the seaport there would be no Philadelphia," explains Craig Bruns, chief curator at the Independence Seaport Museum. "The city and the country grew up on the banks of the Delaware River."
With construction of Interstate 95 in the mid-20th century, the seaport's importance abruptly waned, leaving the piers along the Delaware a veritable no-man's-land. Today, thanks to an ongoing series of revitalization projects, the area is in the midst of a rebirth. The banks of the waterway that seperates Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., are now a year-round entertainment destination.
On either side of the river, world-class institutions merge amusement with education. The Independence Seaport Museum (211 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia, PA, 215.413.8655) chronicles Philadelphia’s aquatic heritage through a massive assortment of artifacts, photographs, artwork, rare maps and other nautical finds. Tour the “Tides of Freedom: African Presence on the Delaware River” permanent exhibition or climb aboard two historic ships located just south of the museum: cruiser “Olympia” and submarine “Becuna.” At the Workshop on the Water, the museum’s onsite boat shop, visitors can interact and watch boat builders work on various projects, like the current construction of a life-size waterline model of the 1797 American topsail schooner “Diligence.”
Adventure Aquarium (1 Riverside Dr., Camden, NJ, 856.365.3300) in Camden has the largest collection of sharks on the East Coast, and it is the only aquarium in the U.S. to exhibit the great hammerhead shark. This mecca of marine life includes almost 2 million gallons of tanks filled, a 40-foot suspended shark tunnel, a 4-D theater and more. Curious kids and kids-at-heart can engage in seven touch experiences that include jellyfish, sea stars, sharks and stingrays, or opt for a behind-the-scenes animal encounter, like swimming with sharks or visiting Penguin Island. A few blocks away, visitors can climb aboard America’s most decorated battleship, which now serves as the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial (100 Clinton St., Camden, NJ, 856.966.1652). In addition to its historical value, this unique attraction shows guests what life was like aboard such a ship, with immersive experiences ranging from learning how to load projectiles to tracking the launch of a Tomahawk missile.
To the delight of visitors and residents alike, the wildly popular Spruce Street Harbor Park (Spruce Street and S. Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA, 215.629.3200) presented by Univest/Valley Green Bank returns after its inaugural season. This riverside oasis drew large crowds in 2014 with a combination of retro and innovative elements like an urban beach, boardwalk games, fountains, misting areas, hammocks and a garden of floating barges, and features all of the same great amenities in 2015, including dining options ranging from deep-fried boardwalk snacks and craft beer to gourmet cuisine by popular Philadelphia restaurateurs.
At dusk on most Thursdays in July and August, friends gather on the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing (101 S. Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia, PA, 215.629,3200) with picnic blankets and snacks in tow for Screenings Under the Stars, an outdoor film series. Guests who prefer music to movies can take in live performances from nationally recognized jazz musicians every Friday evening in August as part of Smooth Jazz Summer Nights.
For more than 15 years, the PECO Multicultural Series has celebrated the melting pot that is Philadelphia. On select Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer, the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing plays host to a roster of lively, free cultural festivals, including the Irish Festival, Hispanic Fiesta, Caribbean Festival and the ACANA African Festival. Plus, the ever-popular Sounds of Inspiration returns in August with a roster of gospel music, traditional hymns and songs of praise.
Fall in Philly means the arts are in full swing, and the stages on the waterfront are no exception. FringeArts (140 N. Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia PA, 215.413.9006)—one of the world’s most cutting-edge performance arts groups—chose to open its headquarters on Columbus Boulevard at the waterfront. This complex includes La Peg, a stunning French brasserie from Chef Peter Woolsey, and a 230-seat theater. While popular year-round, the venue truly shines during the annual Fringe Festival (Sept. 3-19). The impressive selection of artists this year includes Lucinda Childs, Frank Gehry and John Adams, as well as several talented local up-and-comers. Audiences who prefer a more traditional approach to theater head to the new Penn’s Landing Playhouse (211 S. Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia, PA 855.448.7469), which stages Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
Thanks to Indego, Philly’s new bike share program, visitors and locals can easily rent a bike at Foglietta Plaza, located near the Independence Seaport Museum, and pedal to sites along the riverside. Formerly the epicenter of immigration, Pier 53 reopened as the Washington Avenue Pier (Washington Avenue and Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA) in 2014. The pedestrian-friendly expanse honors the pier’s history and hosts seasonal, family-friendly events like a Halloween scarecrow contest and fall festival. This year marks the debut of Pier 68, a green space in South Philadelphia. Fishing enthusiasts especially love the new refuge, as it is one of very few places along the central Delaware waterfront where the sport is legally permitted.
When the weather cools down, the action heats up at Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest (101 S. Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia, PA, 215.925.7465), a wonderland for families, friends, couples, coworkers and anyone interested in some low-key fun. All season, Winterfest patrons can take to the ice on the open-air rink, marvel at imaginative light shows and even roast marshmallows in outdoor fire pits. Whether the occasion calls for a hot chocolate or something a bit stronger, take refuge at The Lodge, an indoor hangout complete with food and drinks, couches, games and more.