Philadelphia may not have Central Park, Millennium Park, Golden Gate Park, or the National Mall. But, quietly, it is home to the largest landscaped park in the United States. Fairmount Park, and its associated 60-some parks, fill 9,200 acres of green space in the City of Brotherly Love. That’s over 10 times the size of Central Park (843 acres). It took form in the 1840s but is linked to a 17th-century pastoral vision William Penn had for “Liberty Lands” in the present-day northwest of the city.
Philadelphia was thinking green before anybody. Why don’t more of us outsiders know about that?
At least that’s what I’m wondering, just out of downtown, as I coast on my rental bike along the Schuylkill River, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its “Rocky” statue, and into the heart of Fairmount Park, bisected by the river. On a loop across both sides to sample the park highlights, I pass joggers and bikers, kickball teams, and barbecue parties dotting meadows so numerous you can claim one for yourself.
I begin on the west side of the park, where the four-mile Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive (aka West River Drive) is closed to vehicles on weekends from April through October, and detour for, admittedly, a bit more of a climb than my single-gear bike was bargaining for. Ahead, however, are several enticing remnants of when Philadelphia hosted the world for the American centennial expo in 1876. Root beer, the Dewey Decimal System, the first telephone public demo? Yeah, they all debuted here.
Past the quite colossal Smith Memorial Arch—with a handful of bearded Civil War officers perilously topping towering pillars—I spot a cricket match framed by the rising smoke from barbecue grills. Across the road, I peek into the marble and brightly plastered interiors of Memorial Hall, a dramatic Beaux Arts survivor from 1876. Since 2008 (and after an $80 million scrub-up), it’s now the Please Touch Museum, a kid’s museum.
It’s one of a handful of historic destinations the park houses. The country’s first zoo is here too, and Ohio House from 1876 has a popular breakfast café. The Shofusu Japanese Home is a shoes-off house evoking 17th-century Japan. Originally built for New York’s MoMA in 1949, the Shofusu’s shoin-zukuri construction fits together like a puzzle and was relocated to Fairmount Park in 1954. Only a few other visitors are here, feeding koi in the pond or resting meditatively on the open engawa veranda that surround tatami mat rooms. It feels half a world from Independence Hall.
I press on, having the paths for myself (other than a fox that trots by) and reach the Catholic Total Abstinence Union Fountain, a waterless monument of Moses and four figures set in a rather worn-out traffic circle. Built in 1876, this served as a symbol of a stiff anti-drinks platform, led by one of the figures, Irish priest Father Theobald Mathew.
Against alcohol (but mum on slavery), Mathew won many big friends in the U.S. in the mid 1800s, including the country’s last slave-holding president, Zachary Taylor. In 1910, lightning struck and grossly decapitated Mathew’s statue. So I walk slowly around the repaired statue, looking for cracks, but finding none, as two guys in Harleys pull up for a break, watching me watching Theobald.
I return to the river and ride in the shade north on MLK Jr. and cross on High Falls Bridge to a trendy pocket neighborhood, East Falls. Several bikes are locked up outside Falls Taproom, where I go for a breather in its woodsy décor.
“This used to be some crap bar with shows until there was a bust of 60-some kids,” says the bartender, Michael. It’s been a taproom serving brunch, sandwiches, and microbrews for five years now. “We still find fake IDs crammed all over the place.”
More people are out and about in the east side of the park. Some of the highlights loom above in the hills, historic homes from the 1700s and 1800s, filled with period piece Americana from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and open for visits. Outside Mount Pleasant, a Georgian-style plantation built in the 1760s by a Scottish sea captain, lines of kids wait. So I ride back to the river and head south toward downtown.
It’s a lovely ride. I pass a couple of rock climbers tempting a huge boulder the path weaves around, then stop to admire 1930s haircuts on 19th-century farmers at the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial, a riverside terrace featuring a string of sculptures built to retell American life.
But mostly I’m finding, as with everyone, the park is at its best linked with the Schuylkill. I see locals drop a fishing line in, kayaks silently gliding by as bikers watch from riverside benches in broad patches of green. I find one for myself and take it.
Downtown can wait.
To Do This Trip
Rent a bike. The best way to see the park is by pedaling around it, particularly on weekends when the MLK Jr. Drive on the west side is closed to vehicles. Wheel Fun Rentals is just north of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the waterside Boathouse Row of rowboat clubs.
Follow the river. The best bike path is Schuylkill River Trail, which goes ten miles up the east side of the river. (It’s just under five miles from the art museum to Falls Taproom.)
See a museum. It’s easy to combine a bike ride with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Pack a lunch, or plan your meals. The only remaining state-themed pavilion from 1876, the Ohio House’s Centennial Café (west of the river) is a unique spot, particularly for its breakfasts. On the east side, East Falls has a couple of eating places, including Falls Taproom or nearby In Riva for pizzas.