Listen: It’s spring. We’ve been on our couches all winter. We want to go outside and sit for awhile.
Philadelphia has a lot of parks and a lot of park benches. When I started soliciting friends and colleagues for favorite city sitting spots, I found that no two named the same ones. Some valued a serene vista while others were in it for the people-watching, the convenience, the comfort, or the opportunity to impress potential mates by holding a book at eye level.
The search for Philly’s finest public benches must take all these factors into account, plus the intangibles, like, “What’s the squirrel scene like?” Or, “How many people are buried nearby?” In the end, one must rely on personal preference and butt instinct.
A marvel of 1890s technology, these two stone benches in the shadow of the blusterous Smith Memorial Arch in West Fairmount Park — now exploding with cherry blossoms — allow people seated at opposite ends to hear each other as if they were cheek to cheek. The secret is the rounded design, which seems to propel the sound to its destination some 30 or so feet away with minimal diminishment of volume.
Last weekend a friend and I spent a half hour playing music and testing the benches for sweet spots. The higher up the better, that’s our guess, and if somebody sits between you, they’ll mostly dampen your fun (until you haunt them from both sides with ghostly mutterings).
Just off Avenue of the Republic and 41st Street Drive
Bigger, greener, and less overtly infested with rats than Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square is perhaps the ideal Philadelphia park. It’s busy, but not annoyingly so, and has an impressive bench-to-butt ratio. I prefer the soft, weathered wooden ones (talking about benches, not butts) along the wide slate path in the northwest corner, because you might catch some morning sunlight and a sweet breeze going the wrong way up Seventh. But anywhere is good, really.
All around you are tourists, families, kids who can’t catch Frisbees, grown adults on Razor scooters, 9-to-5ers eating rolled ice cream from Sweet Charlie’s on their lunch breaks, trees, grass, a fountain, tulips surrounded by caution tape, trash cans with ill-fitting lids, and squirrels that want desperately to make eye contact. If you’re (un)lucky you might see that lady from the YouTube video catching sparrows for mysterious purposes.
That’s the other thing about Washington Square: It’s got a darker side. Journey inward and you’ll find an eternal flame and a memorial with several inscriptions, one of which informs you in all caps that “in unmarked graves within this square lie thousands of unknown soldiers of Washington’s Army who died of wounds and sickness during the Revolutionary War.” The most poignant inscription is at the top: “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.” America, like your rolled ice cream, came at a hefty price.
Between Sixth and Seventh Streets, and Walnut and Locust Streets
Unlike Washington Square, all of the corpses in this little graveyard at Third and Pine come with a headstone (far as I know), although many of the inscriptions have been smoothed away by a few centuries of rainfall. Maintained by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (founded in 1761), the cemetery doesn’t have set hours but the gates are usually open from 8 or 9 a.m. until the early evening.
Sit on a sun-warmed bench and think about how each of these obelisks, crosses, and ledger stones represented a loved one gone too soon. Or think about how this place seems to be an unofficial dog park for the people who live in the trinities across the street.
Mostly though, this is a quiet spot to read a book, send a text, or gaze in awe when the evening sun makes the towering sycamores shine like silver against the blue sky.
Between Third and Fourth Streets, just off Pine Street
Center City’s ground-level green spaces offer a respite from the exhaust and angularity of urban existence, but only the elevated Rail Park, still in its stubby first phase, lets you dream of a Philadelphia without Philadelphians. From the deep, wide, cool iron and wood swinging benches at the eastern end, you see buses and cars and the midriffs of tall buildings, but the only people nearby are the ones who’ve also made the effort to climb to the peak of this odd, wonderful little park to nowhere.
On a recent visit, I spent five uninterrupted minutes watching a sprightly cloud of dandelion wishes float across the park on a breeze and proceed up Callowhill before dissolving in the western haze. My reverie was broken only by the Shepard Fairey mural dead ahead — a Heinz-and-Gulden’s-colored behemoth with an obfuscated anti-incarceration message — and the shouts and honks of the angry populace down below. Oh right. Humans.
Rail Park entrance near 13th and Noble Streets
Surrounded by oil companies, construction sites, and housing complexes, John Bartram’s nearly 300-year-old arboretum sticks out like a green thumb in Southwest Philly, and that’s part of the reason it’s so popular.
Bartram’s Garden is a genuine pastoral oasis, full of grass, trees, birds, and bees. And, as of last year, it’s got these sizable boat-shaped benches called River Rooms, designed by artist Stacy Levy. Whimsical but understated, these wooden installations (there are six, I’m told) give hikers and birders a place to chill and chat by the water.
Last week I watched a groundhog as big as a loaf of bread loll around in the sun on the floor of the northernmost River Room. I had to Google like 10 different rodents before confirming its identity. Someday soon, the Schuylkill Banks project will complete the swing bridge connecting the east and west sides of the river, and the birders and the groundhogs will have to learn to share their oasis.
Bartram’s Garden entrance at 5400 Lindbergh Blvd.
The Schuylkill can put on airs of naturalness here and there, but the Philly stretch of the Delaware needn’t bother. This is a working river, traversed by ships as big as skyscrapers on their sides and loomed over by gantry cranes and shipping container ziggurats.
Opened in 2014, Washington Avenue Pier embraces its industrial backdrop with a spiraling steel staircase to nowhere in the middle and, on the southern side, a looping metal walkway to nowhere. The most attractive view, however, comes from the curvy, backless, crescent-shaped bench facing north.
In the distance, watch Camden remodel itself in slow-motion. In the foreground, listen to tiny waves gently lap against the crocodile-toothed pylons of whatever pier was here before this one.
Pier entrance near Washington Avenue and South Christopher Columbus Boulevard
Jutting up from a cliff top in the Art Museum’s backyard, this skeletal steel gazebo and its two sideways benches provide long, lush perspectives of the city without a skyscraper in sight (unless you turn your head a little bit).
From here you can watch the river in reverse, starting at Fairmount Water Works, then up the falls to Boathouse Row, and around the bend into the trees and hills of the north. This is surely one of the windiest places in Philadelphia, and the pavilion’s false roof won’t protect you from rain and sun, but that’s just nature reminding you who’s boss.
Off Anne d’Harnoncourt Drive behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art