If it's sightseeing that you aim to do -- and if your body is able -- I recommend self-propulsion. From Center City, there are certain spots you'll want to hop into a vehicle to get to (the Barnes, if you're reading this before the collection moves to Center City early 2012; or the Philadelphia Zoo) but to explore the major areas of Old City, Rittenhouse, and Society Hill, all you'll need is natural-born mobility.
Still, you might want to get the lay of the land by taking a tour, which is why I say the best way to see Philadelphia's sights is:
Philadelphia Trolley Works (aka 76 Carriage Company; tel. 215/389-TOUR ; www.phillytour.com) operates tour buses that resemble Victorian open-air trolleys and London-style double-decker buses. Both types of vehicles circle the city daily, offering excellent, orienting tours that cost $27 for adults, $25 for seniors, and $10 for children ages 4 to 12, and include unlimited off-and-on privileges for 24 hours. (For 48-hr. access, the prices are $43 adults, $40 seniors, and $18 children.) Trolley tours originate at the Bourse Building at 5th Street between Market and Chestnut; Big Bus tours depart from 5th and Market streets (free shuttles are available from most hotels). Both rides are 90 minutes and include 20 stops in Old City, up to the art museum.
Purple trolley-style PHLASH Buses (tel. 215/636-1666; www.phillyphlash.com), are custom-made for touring, with wide windows and drivers accustomed to answering questions. Between 10am and 6pm from May 1 to October 31 the service links Independence Park sites, the Delaware waterfront, the convention center, Rittenhouse Square shopping, the cultural institutions around Logan Square, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The total city loop takes 50 minutes and makes about 20 stops. A one-time pass is available on board for $2, or get an all-day unlimited-ride pass for $5 per person or $10 per family. Children 4 and under and seniors 65 and over ride free.
SEPTA (tel. 215/580-7800; www.septa.org), the Southeastern Pennsylvania Public Transit Authority, operates most of the buses that run in, around, and out of Center City. (SEPTA also runs the city's subways and regional rail lines.) I find that the easiest bus routes to navigate run along one-way streets, east to west along Walnut Street, west to east along Chestnut and South streets. All SEPTA buses are wheelchair accessible. Fares are $2 cash -- exact change only -- or a $1.55 token, which also works on subways. Purchase tokens in subway stations, or regional rail stations: Market East at 12th and Filbert streets, Suburban Station at 15th to 16th Street at J.F.K. Boulevard, or 30th Street Station between 29th to 30th streets and Market Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
For our purposes, SEPTA operates two major subway/elevated train lines that crisscross the city. Running north-south, from Temple University (north) to the stadiums (south), is the orange Broad Street line, which runs below Broad Street (which, if it had a number, would be 14th Street). Stops in Center City include Spring Garden Street, City Hall, Walnut-Locust, and Lombard-South. Subways run every few minutes during rush hours and when there's an event or game at the stadiums; every 15 minutes off-peak, including weekends. Subway stations accept exact change ($2 per ride) or tokens ($1.55 each, available from machines or operators at most stations).
Running east-west, meeting the Broad Street line at City Hall, is the blue Market-Frankford El, which runs under Market Street in Center City from 30th Street Station to City Hall, 13th Street, 11th Street, 8th Street, 5th Street, 2nd Street, and Spring Garden Street (at Front St.). This line seems, to me, a little more efficient than Broad Street, and is a fast, inexpensive way to cover several blocks in a few minutes. The line becomes elevated after 2nd Street, and runs northeast to the Frankford section of the city and west to 69th Street, site of the Tower Theater.
Even though the sights of Philadelphia are easiest seen by tour bus or on foot, most visitors come by car -- and some even traverse the city that way. Drivers unaccustomed to enduring the often laborious pace of city traffic, and those unskilled at squeezing into parallel parking spots, might want to consider parking the car in a garage and leaving it there for the duration of your stay. Nonetheless, most visitors to Philadelphia do arrive by car, so if you're behind the wheel, you're certainly not alone.
Be forewarned that most Center City streets are one-way. Major exceptions include East Market Street, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Vine Street, and Broad Street. The Convention and Visitors Bureau at the foot of the parkway offers a Center City traffic map. Traffic around City Hall runs counterclockwise, a messy, but mostly meek, light-regulated traffic circle. Speed limits in town max out around 25 mph; expressways top out at 65 mph.
South Broad Street -- just south of South Street -- is home to a pair of fairly priced gas stations. There's also one at 10th Street and Washington Avenue, and another at 23rd and Walnut streets. Pumps are generally self-service -- except if you fuel up across the bridge in New Jersey, where state law mandates full-service only.
Rentals -- Philadelphia has no shortage of rental cars. Most major renters maintain offices at the airport. Center City and 30th Street Station also have rental offices, but not in such concentration. Avis (tel. 215/386-6426; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 215/222-4262; www.budget.com), Hertz (tel. 215/492-2958; www.hertz.com), and National (tel. 215/387-9077; www.nationalcar.com) also have offices at the Amtrak 30th Street Station and elsewhere in Center City. Enterprise is my favorite, because it has offices throughout Center City, another in South Philly, and one in University City (tel. 800/261-7331; enterprise.com). All in all, rates are competitive, averaging around $60 per day. Nearly any car you rent in Philadelphia will be automatic, as opposed to manual shift.
When buying gas, note that taxes are already included in the printed price. One U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons.
International visitors should note that insurance and taxes are almost never included in quoted rental car rates in the U.S. Be sure to ask your rental agency about additional fees for these. They can add a significant cost to your car rental.
If you're visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, keep in mind that foreign driver's licenses are usually recognized in the U.S., but you may want to consider obtaining an international driver's license.
By Regional Train
SEPTA also operates trains that run from Center City to city neighborhoods like Manayunk and Chestnut Hill, and to outlying suburbs such as the Main Line and Bucks County. These trains depart from and arrive at below-ground stations at Market East (12th and Filbert sts.) and Suburban Station (15th to 16th St. at John F. Kennedy Blvd.) and serve the non-Amtrak portion of 30th Street Station (btw. 29th and 30th sts. and John F. Kennedy Blvd. and Market St.). Weather permitting, these trains, as they say, typically run on time, more frequently during rush hours, from about dawn until about midnight. Fares are by zone and range from $4 to $8.75 on-peak to $3.50 to $8.75 off-peak and weekends, if purchased inside a station. There's a surcharge of up to $1.75 for purchasing tickets from the conductor on the train.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.