When I first moved to Philly from Jersey City, the most confusing thing for me was the subway system. This seems strange to me now, because really there are only two main lines to the subway system, but, at the time, the only way you could really ride the subway was to purchase tokens from either a teller or a machine.
Coming from New York and Jersey City, where both the MTA and PATH have reusable cards and make it relatively easy to purchase new ones from machines, the idea of using tokens was archaic. The worst part? Almost everything was cash only!
Since then, SEPTA (Philly’s transit authority) has thankfully started to roll out their new tap-to-use SEPTA Key cards and also offer single-use paper tickets from machines, but the system can still be confusing if you’re new, so I’ve written a short guide to getting started.
Navigating the Subway, or “El”
Entrance to 2nd Street Station
As I mentioned earlier, there are two main subway lines in Philly– the Market-Frankford line, which runs east and west, and the Broad Street line, which runs north and south. These two only overlap for one stop: 15th Street (City Hall).
The Market-Frankford line is the one you want to use if you’re traveling around Center City. Using the MFL (also called the “El” which is short for “elevated line” because it runs above ground at points) you can get to most of the major touristy sites in Philly, like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the Old City district and City Hall. You can also take it to/from 30th Street Station, which is where most Amtrak trains arrive.
Here are some stops to know about:
For the Old City district, including Penn’s Landing, the Betsy Ross House, and Elfreth’s Alley, get off at the 2nd Street stop.
For Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, get off at 5th Street (Independence Hall).
If you’re visiting the Convention Center or Chinatown, you’ll want to get off at 13th Street.
And for City Hall, you want to get off at 15th.
All of these stops are wheelchair accessible (assuming the elevators are working!)
Some other stops to know:
If you’re looking to visit Northern Liberties, you can take the subway to Girard and walk north along 2nd street OR you can take it to Spring Garden and walk south. You’ll also want to get off at Spring Garden if you’re planning on visiting Fishtown. Note that the Spring Garden stop is wheelchair accessible, but Girard is currently not. Both of these stops are above ground, so don’t panic if you start seeing daylight.
And as I mentioned above, you can get the MFL straight to/from 30th Street Station if you’re catching an Amtrak train (or heading to Trenton to connect to NJ Transit).
The MFL does NOT stop between 15th and 30th, so make sure you get out at City Hall if you want to stay in Center City.
Navigating the Broad Street Line
The Broad Street Line runs north and south along Broad Street, one of the main avenues in Philly, and intersects with the MFL at City Hall. There you can get a free interchange between lines (or hop on the trolley).
If you’re just visiting Philly, you’re most-likely going to use the BSL if you’re going to an sports game or concert at the Sports Complex in South Philly. I’ve never taken the BSL there, but there’s an express service that stops at City Hall (as well as a few others– check the SEPTA website) and will take you to the complex. You can also get on a regular train at any of the other stops and go there as well.
Purchasing Your Ticket or SEPTA Key Card
Single-Use Tickets: Use one of the machines located in the station to purchase your ticket. If you’re just doing a one-off ride, it’s easiest to purchase a Quick Trip ticket. These cost $2.50 per ticket and can be used on both the MFL and BSL. You can pay by cash or card.
To use your Quick Trip ticket, you simply swipe the card at one of the turnstiles. If you’re unsure, use the turnstile next to the teller window, and they can help you if you have any problems!
Day Passes: SEPTA also offers one-day Convenience Passes and Independence Passes, which will charge you a flat rate for one day of travel. The Convenience Pass gets you 8 trips on the bus, subway, or trolley for $9. The Independence Pass will allow you one day of unlimited rides on buses, trolleys, the subway, and regional rail for either $13 per person, or $30 for a family of 5. I’ve never gotten either of these, but they’re worth considering if a) you plan on using a lot of public transit in one day or b) you’re arriving via regional rail. You can buy them at regional rail ticket offices (i.e. in Suburban Station or Jefferson Station).
Long-term options (SEPTA Key Card): If you’re planning on moving here, or will be here for a week and plan on taking a lot of public transit, then your best bet is to get yourself a SEPTA Key Card. These are re-loadable cards that you can top up with either money or with unlimited weekly or monthly passes (called a “TransPass”) by choosing to add funds to your “travel wallet”.
Once you’ve filled your card, you tap it on the digital screen at the turnstile. It’ll beep and show a green check mark and at that point you can walk through. You can also register your card on the website, which will allow you to refill it online (instead of at machines). That’s really help if you ever decide you want to take the bus!
** Please note that ticket prices and products are subject to change, but everything in here is accurate to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing!
I hope this information is helpful for anyone visiting Philly for the first time (or to anyone moving here)! I still think the best option is to walk around Philadelphia, especially if you’re only visiting Center City for the day, but if it’s pouring out, if you’re tired of walking, or if you’re going to be here a while, it’s always good to know your options.
Please let me know in the comments if you think this article is helpful (or not!)