In Town for the Pope: What to do in Philadelphia

This week marks the first time since 2008 that the Holy See has visited the United States, and the first time ever for our newest pope, Francis. A historic event, the Pope has traveled from Rome to Cuba to Washington, D.C. and will then visit New York City before finishing up in Philadelphia this weekend. The City of Brotherly Love is expecting an influx of one million visitors wishing to participate in the celebrations and to perhaps gain a glimpse of the leader of the Catholic Church. If you're one of these devoted followers, or perhaps you just want a chance to see Philadelphia, here's what you can do and see during your trip.

Closures: Roads in and around University City and Center City will be closed for traffic while the Pope is in the area starting the night of Thursday the 24th. While he is in motion, security measures will close roads further so check up on road restrictions.

On Saturday, September 26, the Pope will arrive in Philadelphia and will head from the airport to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, the mother-church for the archdiocese of Philadelphia. While the Cathedral will not be open to the public, the papal mass (held at 10:30 am) will be broadcast live on TV screens along the Ben Franklin Parkway outside the church. After the mass has ended, a tour of the Cathedral is highly recommended. The massive structure was built between 1846-1864, an intense construction of Italian Renaissance design and topped with a turquoise Palladian dome. In 1979 Pope John Paul II was the first pope to celebrate mass in the cathedral, the largest in Philadelphia, and later it was declared a national landmark.

Untie the Knots: A Contemporary Grotto & Projection, a public art installation at the Cathedral, will show nightly projections through Sunday, September 27. During the special event, the grand dome will be lit up with a projection of Pope Francis' favorite painting, Mary, Undoer of Knots. While you're here, visitors can work at adding or removing knots on the ground of the Basilica. This is a special and wonderfully free attraction open to everyone that no one should miss.

The Pope's next stop will be Independence Mall (at 4:45 pm) where he will speak to crowds of devout followers and curious listeners. If you arrive at the Mall before the Pope speaks, it will be marked off by security and tourists will not be allowed inside the buildings. However, if you are able to attend the session that would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and the area will be, of course, open for visitors on Sunday to tour as usual. The Pope's talk will be broadcast on the 40 Jumbotrons situated throughout Center City so you can still hear what he has to say even if you don't have tickets to get up close.

Independence Mall is, generally speaking, one of the top tourist destinations in Philadelphia for its historical significance. A National Historical Park, the Mall is where the Liberty Bell is held and inside Independence Hall is where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed into being. Every American, Catholic or not, should experience the history and power of the place that passed the legislature that created our democratic government, deposing the tyranny of our colonizers. If the area is still too crowded while the Pope is in town, it may be prudent to wait until Monday before visiting Independence Mall.

Finally, the Pope's reason for visiting Philadelphia lies in the Festival of Families, a celebration of family values, connection, and faith, held on the Ben Franklin Parkway. The festival starts at 12:45 pm on Saturday and is open to everyone, un-ticketed, everywhere east of 20th Street. Throughout the day, performers such as Aretha Franklin, The Fray, the Philadelphia Orchestra, comedian Jim Gaffigan and Mark Whalberg among others will be performing on the nationally broadcast main stage while special exhibits and events will be ongoing on a second stage. At the end of the day, at 7:30 following the papal parade, the Holy Father will speak about the importance of family and community.  To see the Papal speech, tickets are required to approach the stage closer than 20th Street but it will be broadcast as well.

Sunday morning, Pope Francis is set to visit a correctional facility where he will speak with inmates. At 4 pm, the Papal Mass on the Ben Franklin Parkway is free and open to the public, whoever wants to join. It will get crowded very early and maybe impassable so the mass will be broadcast on the Jumbotrons. Traffic will be a nightmare and much of the city will be, by this point, closed down for security so walking is recommended. Sunday night, the Holy Father returns to Rome and the city returns to normal.

Not everything will be open during the papal visit. For security reasons, much of the city will be closed to traffic and therefore many of the popular attractions will be likewise closed. If you'd like to see all of the fabulous and popular Philadelphia staples like the Philadelphia Museum of Art (you can still run up the steps like Rocky), we recommend you arrive prior to the papal visit or stay till after Sunday when the city will quiet down a bit and things will reopen. There are, however, some attractions that will stubbornly remain open during the Pope's visit so you can fill your itinerary with fun and touring.

Here are some attractions that will be open during the papal visit:

  • Adventure Aquarium (Sat. 10-5 pm, closed Sunday)
  • Battleship New Jersey (9:30-3 pm)
  • Ben Franklin Museum (special hours, closing Sat. at 3:30 pm)
  • Betsy Ross House (10-5 pm)
  • Christ Church & Christ Church Cemetery (visiting hours, Mon.-Sat. 9-5 pm, Sun. 1 pm-5 pm)
  • Independence Seaport Museum (daily 10-5 pm)
  • Longwood Gardens (daily 9-6 pm)
  • Morris Arboretum (10-4 pm daily, open till 5 pm weekends)
  • National Constitution Center (Sat. 9:30-6 pm, Sun. 12-5 pm)
  • National Liberty Museum (Sat. 10-5 pm, closed Sunday)
  • National Museum of American Jewish History (special hours, Sat. 10-8 pm, Sun. 10-5:30 pm)
  • Reading Terminal Market (Sat. 8 am-7 pm, Sun. 8 am-3 pm)
  • World Meeting of Families Film Festival (September 22-25) - 13 films have been chosen including The Sound of Music and Rudy among others, free to participate.