College Visit Guide: Philadelphia

Enjoy Philly’s myriad college campuses while taking in some historican sights, terrific art and a requisite cheesesteak.

If your college-bound student is looking for a vibrant urban environment for the next four years, add Philadelphia to your must-visit list.

Rivaling Boston in the number of colleges in the region—but with milder winters—Philly has a lot to offer students as well as visiting families. The schools range from the venerable University of Pennsylvania to the co-op programs at Drexel University and nearby liberal arts colleges, Haverford and Bryn Mawr.

Students often seek an urban college and then don’t venture out much beyond the campus borders. Philly-area students can take advantage of the burgeoning music and art scene, four major-league sports teams, ethnic restaurants and diverse neighborhoods to round out their college experience.

Based on my tour with my daughter, as well as reports from several friends, the greater Philadelphia area is well worth the trip. Before you go, check out One Big Campus to help you plan your trip and view the city from a college student’s perspective. The Web site includes 12 “Student Zones” such as the Avenue of the Arts, Chestnut Hill and Fairmount Park. For parents, the site lists and maps all schools in the area, offers directions to each campus and charts the distance between each campus.

Day 1: City Center

University of Pennsylvania

With tree-lined walkways, stately old buildings, and traditional ivy-covered exteriors along Locust Walk, it’s easy to forget that you’re still in the larger city of Philadelphia. Occupying 280 acres in West Philadelphia, University City features high-end retail shops, sophisticated restaurants, theaters and of course, unlimited intellectual stimulation. Penn is a highly competitive, research-driven school where undergraduates apply to one of four programs such as the Wharton business school, the college of arts and sciences, engineering, or nursing. There are several Wi-Fi cafes around the area, as well as posters on campuses advertising lectures and performances. Beyond the grand academic buildings and dorms, you can visit the stadium, ice rink and state-of-the-art fitness center, which will make even parents want to immediately apply.

Drexel University

Co-op work/study programs and businesses and technology majors are not for every student, but those who want a big-city experience and also a small-campus environment will be impressed by Drexel. It was recently named one of the best “up-and-coming” universities in the country for its innovative and practical educational approach.

Temple University

Temple is known for its communications, theater and art programs as well as its health and dentistry schools. Though it dates back to the 19th century, the campus has many 21st century amenities including a new Welcome Center where you begin your tour. After the morning session tour, you get a free boxed lunch or you can go to the Starbucks café to check your e-mail. The Student Center also houses a 700-seat food court and the campus bookstore. Although less chic than some of Penn’s local shops, One Liacouras Walk (known as The Mall) has a variety of stores. The nearby recreation center boasts a weight room, yoga and spinning classes, and an indoor track.

Day 2: Outward Bound

If the pace of daily metro life isn’t for your prospective student, you can quickly find quiet, suburban experiences at several outstanding nearby colleges. Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Villanova run along Route 30 west, which you could visit all in one day if you skip the tours and/or information sessions. Adding an extra day to your college-visits, however, will make your stay more leisurely.

Haverford College

Haverford is a liberal arts college on a 200-acre arboretum. It’s just 10 miles from the city via the Main Line railroad or a shuttle ride away from Lancaster Avenue where you’ll find cafes, bookstores and cinemas.

Bryn Mawr College

About a 35-minute drive southwest from the city center, Bryn Mawr is an all-female liberal arts college serving around 1,300 undergraduate students. The Wyndham Alumni house offers some overnight guest rooms available to visitors.

Villanova University

Continuing west is Villanova, which was founded in 1842 by the Friars of the Order of St. Augustine. Today, Villanova is a co-educational Roman Catholic institution that welcomes students of all faiths. The University has four main colleges (Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Business, Engineering and Nursing) as well as a law school, all of which are spread across 254 grassy acres.

Swarthmore College

Swarthmore is a 350-acre campus 10 miles southwest of Philadelphia. The small, elite college—founded by Quakers —offers engineering and liberal arts degrees with an emphasis on global, interdisciplinary studies. Because Swarthmore is closer to the airport, you may want to begin or end your visit there and stay at one of the many airport hotels.

Getting Around Philadelphia

Philadelphia International Airport is about 10 miles south of the city center—which is an approximately 20-minute drive to Penn. SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) trains run frequently; the R1 makes trips every 30 minutes between Center City Philadelphia and the airport and stops at each terminal.

Most East Coast visitors travel the few hours to Philly by car or by Amtrak train. Despite the traffic jams caused by ongoing construction, driving to most colleges is fairly easy if you allow some extra time. Once in town, you may want to explore the neighborhoods on foot. If you have limited time, you might find a double-decker bus tour a good way to get oriented around the city.

My rule of thumb is not to visit more than two schools per day unless you are just stopping by. Campuses tend to blur together when you try to cram too much in. A two-day itinerary that includes four top picks as well as some down time to enjoy the city, should give you a good feel for the schools as well as the local lifestyle.

Where to Stay, What to Do

Most college Web sites recommend hotels in the area, and One Big Campus also lists discounts, usually 20 percent for visiting families.

My friends stayed at The Conwell Inn, at 331 W. Berks St. on the downtown campus of Temple University, and found it to be a good value. The hotel is smoke-free and pet-friendly and has historic, 19th century decor and architecture. The Broad Street/Orange train line is two blocks from the hotel’s front door.

Temple is close to most major attractions including Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Center City shopping, the Philadelphia Art Museum (with stairs that were made famous in the movie, Rocky), and the Philadelphia Zoo—which appeals to both younger siblings and teens alike.

University City, the city-within-a-city that houses Penn’s campus, also has two major hotels: a Hilton Inn and a Sheraton. The Subway Surface Lines (SSL) or Green Lines serve five different areas of West Philadelphia. You can take most routes, except the No. 10, to reach University City.

Once you’re settled in, the City of Brotherly Love offers a great mix of activities and culture, from history to hip-hop. Art buffs can roam the Rodin museum, while foodies can head to the Italian market on 9th Street, Chinatown near 10th Street, as well as the huge open-air Reading Market where we found the famous Philly cheesesteak as well as delicious desserts, oysters and fresh Amish produce to pack for lunch.

In good weather, you can picnic or bike ride along the Schuylkill River, where you might catch a crew race. It’s a good way to soak up some sunshine as well as local ambiance. For clubs and night-time hangouts, the South Street area is the best place to be.

Destinations: Philadelphia

Themes: College Visits

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Shopping, Sightseeing