Unlike the other major colonial cities, Philadelphia isn’t located on the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, it’s almost 100 miles up the Delaware River, but that didn’t stop it from becoming North America’s largest port and the largest city in North America in the mid to late 1700’s. It was also a major colonial shipbuilding site, an industry that continued through WW2.
One of the best places to start an overview is the Independence Seaport museum. Kid and adult friendly, it has exhibits ranging from the maritime history of Philadelphia to the ecology of the watershed to the physics of shipbuilding (plus, an actual boat building studio). An extensive exhibit details the threat of Barbary pirates in the 18th century and how this led to the birth of America’s Navy and Marine Corps here in Philadelphia (the colonial navy had been disbanded after the war).
Exhibits also show the evolution of Philadelphia’s port and shipbuilding into the 20th century.
If actual ships are your thing (besides the paddle boats you can rent outside at Spruce Street Harbor park: hammocks, food carts, etc.),
there are 3 options: The Olympia (1895-1922): (self-guided tour included with museum admission) The flagship of Commodore Dewey during the Spanish-American war, it is the oldest steel American warship still floating, and is filled with Victorian woodwork and hammocks.
the USS Becuna (1944/1969): (tours through the museum for an added fee) Primarily a WW2 navy submarine serving in the Pacific, it’s interesting to compare the onboard living conditions (tight!) with the Olympia.
and the USS New Jersey (1942-1991): (directly across the river in Camden) For more modern technology, cross the river (you can take the ferry during the summer) to Camden. Built at the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia, she served in WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf, and is the most decorated battleship in the US Navy.
The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the New Jersey was built, links back to the nation’s first naval shipyard (c. 1776, located along the Delaware south of Old City). 100 years later, it had outgrown this location and moved 3 miles south to League Island, where the Schuylkill and Delaware meet. During WW2, the yard employed over 40,000 workers building and repairing ships. The navy closed the yard in 1995, and today it is being redeveloped as a mixed use industrial, recreational and residential park. Yoga and fitness classes, food trucks, art installations all take place on site amongst the new and historic buildings. A 2 mile walking tour (available on their website) takes you past ships, historic buildings, and the new businesses (including the apiary!) that are part of the area’s redevelopment since the Navy left.
Several of the piers that supported the shipping industry have also found new life as recreation destinations. Washington Avenue Pier: Located on the site of Philadelphia’s first immigration station, it has been repurposed as a small public park. Grab a cheesesteak from next-door Shank’s, and enjoy a very Philly experience (A Pocket Eco-park Along the Delaware – Complete with Beavers, Birds and Lizards).
Cherry Street Pier: This pier has been re-purposed as an artist/maker space with a fun seasonal restaurant. Shipping crates are utilized as artist studios. There are always markets, art shows, and festivals, often coinciding with Old City’s First Fridays.
Race Street Pier: In the shadow of the Ben Franklin bridge, this pier has been repurposed as a public park. Lots of seating and great views, with occasional yoga and other classes.
One way to enjoy the waterfront is the recently completed Delaware River trail that links all these sites along the river from South Philly to Penn Treaty park (Penn Treaty Park – History Along the Delaware River).
Both Independence Seaport and the New Jersey battleship offer great field trips.