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For Curious Minds: Unique Museums Around Philadelphia

Dig a little deeper into the city's cultural offerings at these delightfully different museums

It looks like people are standing on the ceiling at the Museum of Illusions, a unique museum.

The Philadelphia area offers a plethora of world-class museums that everybody knows, such as Independence Hall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Franklin Institute — just to name a few.   

However, the city is also home to many unique museums that are lesser-known, but definitely worth a visit! Offering a glimpse into local history, an unusual collection, or the life’s work of an artist, these cool little spots offer cultural enrichment of a different sort.

If you’d like to take your family on a little voyage out of the ordinary, then check out these attractions. From the medical specimens of the Mütter Museum to the vampires and paranormal activity of Vampa, these unique museums belong on your quirky, things-to-see list.

Mütter Museum

19 S. 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA

In a list of unique museums, the Mütter is the perfect place to begin. Housed in the 1909 College of Physicians of Philadelphia building, the Mütter Museum is essentially a collection of 19th century medical specimens, instruments, and photographs. Inside this gorgeous old building, the vibe is Victorian-era academia and hearkens back to a time when science was practiced a little differently. What captivates most people however, are the preserved human (and non-human specimens) and the medical oddities within the collection. From organs and other specimens, to stories and physical remains of bizarre medical conditions, the Mütter collection is startling and intriguing. It offers a rare glimpse into the history of anatomy and physiology studies, while also sure to spark some interesting family conversation.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens

1020 South Street, Philadelphia, PA

Experience the life’s work of artist, Isaiah Zagar in the immersive, mosaic walk-through wonderland known as Philadelphia Magic Gardens. Although he created 200+ other large-scale mosaic artworks around Philly, PMG is his most comprehensive and extraordinary expression. Over the course of 20+ years, Zagar mosaicked walls and floors with handmade tiles, mirror, bottles, bicycle wheels, folk art pieces, and more. The mosaic “gardens” encompass an outdoor courtyard, as well as two indoor galleries that chronicle the influences and exuberant energy of its creator. First open to the public in 2004 as a non-profit organization and museum, PMG celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2024.

Eastern State Penitentiary

2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA

Completed in 1836, Eastern State was the world’s first penitentiary, an “architectural marvel,” of its day with plumbing, sewage, and 450 centrally-heated cells. However, it’s solitary-style confinement was controversial and considered by many to be cruel and misguided. By the early 20th century, the solitary system broke down and the prison population swelled to 1700 inmates, far exceeding its original capacity. Even the famous Chicago gangster, Al Capone did time at ESP. Incredibly, the infamous prison remained in operation until 1970, after which it slowly fell into ruin. But thanks to a dedicated group of preservationists and private funding, Eastern State is now a historical site that’s regularly open for tours. Go behind its massive castle-like walls and roam the eerie, empty cellblocks of this antiquated prison complex. Peer into the tiny cells that inmates once called home. And peruse the found artifacts of inmates whose names are lost to time. Tours are available during the day and also at night, for an extra-eerie experience.

Museum of Illusions

401 Market Street Philadelphia, PA

What is real? And what is a illusion? A trip to the Museum of Illusions will play tricks on your visual senses and that’s what makes it so much fun for people of all ages! Inside you’ll find an array of perspective-changing rooms and captivating images, as well as hands-on installations. Both educational and entertaining, the exhibits comprise more than 60 holograms, stereograms, optical illusions, and immersive rooms. In some exhibits, you are invited to become part of the illusion and see yourself grow, shrink, defy gravity, and walk on walls! You’ll definitely want to snap a pic so you can delight your friends and family with eye-popping images. Get ready to be mesmerized at this unique museum, where nothing is quite as it seems.

The Rosenbach

2008-2010 Delancey Place, Philadelphia, PA

If you have a bibliophile in your family, then a trip to The Rosenbach Museum just might be your jam. Now a museum, this 1865 townhouse was once the home of the Rosenbach brothers who were dealers in books, manuscripts, and fine art. Inside this upscale 19th century home, you can view their impressive, personal collection. You’ll find works on display by Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens,Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and many more. The townhouse also provides an intimate setting for their curated collection of furniture, silver, art and antiquities. What’s more, the Rosenbach’s garden re-opened after 20 years of closure, and now offers a little green oasis to explore. The only way to visit this one-of-kind historic house and museum is with a guided tour, so be sure to book ahead online.

Free Library of Philadelphia Rare Book Collection

Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street, 3rd Floor, Philadelphia, PA

Another not-to-miss site for the book lovers out there! But don’t let the title fool you; this unique museum has more than just books! One of the largest, public library special collections in the U.S, it contains antiques, artifacts, artwork, letters, photographs — and even an ancient cuneiform tablet! Inside the Rare Book Department’s hallway gallery, you’ll find a rotating display of treasures. Peruse items from Beatrix Potter and Edgar Allan Poe, to quaint Pennsylvania German Fraktur images and medieval manuscripts. Wander the galleries on your own or join the daily guided tour at 11 a.m. Best of all it’s free and open to the public.

The Shoe Museum at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine

148 N. 8th Street, Philadelphia, PA

Now here’s a quirky museum concept: an attraction that’s devoted to shoes! And what better place to house this museum than a medical school devoted to feet? Apparently the Shoe Museum at TUSPM has been around for decades (who knew?) quieting accumulating 1000+ shoes of all kinds, from the very old to the recent past. You can browse the cleats and sneakers of Philadelphia sports legends like Dr. J. And the Philly Phanatic! Check out the dress shoes of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and an assortment of other shoes worn by first ladies. You can also view some fascinating footwear from long ago. Marvel at the ancient Egyptian burial sandals, the embroidered Indian slippers with long curled toes, and wooden Moroccan platform sandals with abalone inlay. Admission to the museum is free, but visits must be scheduled in advance.

Wharton Esherick Museum

1520 Horseshoe Trail, Malvern, PA

Once the property of modern American artist-sculptor, Wharton Esherick (1887–1970), this unique museum is described as “an inhabitable artwork”. Tucked into 12 wooded acres on Valley Forge Mountain in Chester County, the Wharton Esherick Museum features his studio, workshop, garage and some of the surrounding grounds. His studio, the centerpiece of the museum, remains as it was when he died, a fascinating display of his distinctive aesthetic. Working primarily in wood, Esherick expressed a modern, fluid take on the Craftsmen style, which he applied to furniture, furnishings, interiors, and buildings. A twisting staircase, curving, non-linear furniture and cabinetry, and sculptures of flowing organic forms, are just some of his amazing, hand built wooden art. Wandering the museum and property, you get to peek into the life of an artist who truly lived outside of convention. This trip is probably best for families with kids 8+ since visitors may not touch anything inside the spaces.

Mercer Museum & Fonthill Castle

Doylestown, PA

Castles may have originated in Europe, but America boasts a few impressive versions of its own! In fact, one notable castle is just a short drive from Philly. Located in Bucks County, Fonthill Castle was once the home of wealthy Doylestown native, Henry Mercer (1856-1930). Go inside this magnificent landmark with 44 rooms, 200+ windows, and 18 fireplaces, adorned throughout with Mercer’s renowned, hand-crafted ceramic tiles. You can even see the old footprints in the concrete of Mercer’s beloved dog, Rollo. Mercer also built the castle-like edifice now known as the Mercer Museum, displaying similar whimsical design elements as Fonthill. A well-traveled man of many interests and talents, Mercer amassed an enormous collection of historic artifacts, especially old American tools. View thousands of pre-Industrial tools, devices, and cool old stuff displayed on walls, ceilings, and floors of this unique museum. Both the museum and castle are situated about a mile apart in Doylestown and make for a memorable day trip for kids and families. Before your visit, you can download age-specific scavenger hunt pages to make your visit even more fun! 

VAMPA Vampire & Paranormal Museum

3686 US-202, Doylestown, PA

Who would’ve thought that such a unique museum would find a home in the greater Philadelphia area? Opening in October (of course!) of 2023, Vampa houses a downright weird collection of supernatural, magical, mythical, and folkloric art. Some of its antiquities even date back to the 1700’s. As a new museum, it’s collection is growing, but the museum’s primary core value is to “celebrate the diverse beliefs of various cultures, religions, and viewpoints”. At the time of this writing, the current exhibition, entitled “The Art of the Kill” displays vampire killing sets and weapons. Yikes! Yes, it’s a bit dark and not appropriate for little kids, but I know my 14-year-old will be fascinated.

Lead photo courtesy of the Museum of Illusions.

Main Line Parent Writer & Calendar Editor. Email beth@familyfocus.org.