This is where Fairmount Park began – established in the mid-1800’s with the goal of protecting Philadelphia’s water supply. There is plenty to see for all ages, and you could easily spend a day exploring this (eastern) side of the park. See Fairmount Park pt. 1: the Centennial of 1876, Japanese Gardens, a Tree House, and a Whispering Bench for an overview of the western side of the park (the opposite side of the Delaware River).
The main attraction is the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its satellite, the gorgeous Art-deco Perlman building (admission to both is good for 2 days and also includes the Rodin Museum and historic Cedar Hill). Or, you can just wander around the free sculpture garden and check out the statues of the foreign-born heros of the American Revolution.
The other museum here is the wonderful (and free!) Waterworks Museum, with a little something for everyone. Make sure to check out the sculpture garden hidden away down at river level (Philadelphia’s Waterworks: A Free Museum And Secret Sculpture Garden). The adjacent gardens are also very pretty (and quite steep!). The waterworks building and gardens were the only part of Philadelphia that impressed Charles Dickens during his 1842 visit.
Continuing down the walkway, you can follow the riverside trail downstream past a skate park to South Street (maybe you’ll get lucky and come across a freight train, whose tracks are adjacent to the trail) (Enjoying the River Along The Schuylkill Banks Trail),
or you can head upstream. The upstream trail continues all the way to Valley Forge, but most visitors are content to walk along Boathouse Row, headquarters for many of the local crew teams.
Just before Boathouse Row, you can check out the new boardwalk that extends across the wetlands out to the river. If it’s sunny, be on the lookout for turtles sunbathing on the turtle dock. If you continue another 1/2 mile past the boathouses, you will come across another sculpture garden (part of Philly’s great collection of public art), commemorating the various people/groups that helped establish Philadelphia.
Across the street are beautiful steps appearing to lead nowhere, but actually going up to Lemon Hill, a beautiful c. 1800 neoclassical mansion open for tours, and one of the “charms” of Fairmount Park (Steps to Nowhere? Lemon Hill – A Hidden Neoclassical Gem).
Mount Pleasant c.1762: Built by privateer, Captain John Macpherson, John Adams called it ” the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania,” and it was briefly owned by Benedict Arnold and leased by Baron Von Steuben. Managed by the Philadelphia Museum of art, the house is filled with gorgeous woodwork, but is currently closed for renovation. It is scheduled to re-open in 2020.
Laurel Hill c. 1767
Strawberry Mansion c. 1789
Woodford c. 1756
There are other historic structures in the park, many dating from the time when this area was “the country,” and home to the Philly elite’s summer estates. There are also a few structures that were moved here to escape demolition.
If you have kids, make time to check out the Smith Playhouse. Established in the late 1800’s with private trust funds to establish a play space devoted to children’s play in an era of child labor, the interior of the c. 1899 house is primarily designed for kids under 5, but the playground is top notch and is home to The Slide. Sliding down the 39′ long wooden slide (built in 1905) on a burlap sack is nostalgic and great fun. However, you have to have (or borrow) a kid under 10 to gain admittance. Beware of the rather intense staff – they will yell at parents who are on phones and not interacting with their kids! Free. Open seasonally.
The other highlight on this side of the park is Laurel Hill Cemetery – opened in 1836 as one of the country’s first landscaped cemeteries, and filled with great Victorian monuments. Free.(Exploring Philly’s Victorian Cemetery: Laurel Hill)
Dining: Options are limited in the area. The best choice is to bring a picnic or get takeout from the Cosmic Cafe in Lloyd Hall (dingy on the outside, but surprisingly tasty, with fresh squeezed juices and sandwiches) and eat in their outdoor patio or the Azalea garden next to the parking area.
There are also some good restaurants on Fairmount Avenue (on the other side of the Perlman. We like OCF for their coffee and vegetarian sandwiches and Figs for its fun decor and yummy Mediterranean food) and a cafe and restaurant inside the art museum.
Parking- There are several options in the area by the museums. The Art Museum garage (only if you are visiting the museum and get stamped, otherwise it is crazy expensive), Waterworks Drive parking lot (2 hours maximum), free and timed street parking by the Perlman, or free street parking on Sedgley Drive (but DO NOT leave valuables in the car!). You can park for free along the roads in the park.
Note: The riverside trail can get very crowded. Watch out for bikes (if you want to join in there are seasonal rentals available at Lloyd hall), especially on weekends when MLK Drive (opposite side of the river) is closed to cars for recreational activity.