Where We Wandered
On a four-day visit last November, my wife and I chose to stay in Society Hill just south of Old City, a neighborhood of charming historical row houses built more than 300 years ago. The streets, buildings and squares look almost like they did when Ben Franklin walked these very same streets over 250 years ago.
Our apartment, rented from AirBnB, was in a classic townhouse in the heart of Society Hill. Horse drawn carriages rode down the street in front of the house. Across the street, visible from our living room window, was the historic Hill-Physick House, former home of the “father of modern surgery” who treated the elite of Philadelphia society as well as several of the founding fathers of our nation.
Also visible from the window was Delancy Street, a cobblestone street with some of the most faithfully restored 18th century Federalist and Greek Revival-style townhouses in the neighborhood.
After a day of wandering through the neighborhood, we headed just a few blocks north to the Historic District to check out the most historic sites of all, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, and Elfreth’s Alley, a narrow cobblestone alley lined with faithfully restored houses built between 1720 and 1830. The Visit Philadelphia website calls it “the nation’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street.”
On subsequent days we explored South Street and Queen Village, just three short blocks south of our apartment. In my youth, South Street was a run-down, commercial district where I would go to buy cheap, invariably ill-fitting suits.
In the 70s and 80s, it turned into a hippy, bohemian, punk haven and then evolved into the tourist destination it is today, overflowing with “exotic” boutiques, tattoo parlors, headshops, hipster bars and inexpensive places to eat. It’s a lively street scene, perfect for people watching.
Just south of South Street is Queen Village. Queen Village is just as old and walkable, almost as historic, but not as upscale as Society Hill, so the restaurants, shops, and art galleries tend to be more quirky, lively, and cutting edge.
A couple of blocks east is Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River, where – you guessed it – William Penn (almost) landed about 350 years ago (he actually landed further south but the City of Philadelphia purchased the right to use the name).
More places to eat plus a promenade and plazas along the River, the Independence Seaport Museum and several historic warships including a WWII-era submarine, the Spanish-American War cruiser USS Olympia, and a four-masted steel barque built in Scotland in 1904 that now serves as a floating restaurant.
If you are planning a visit to Philadelphia, get a good pair of walking shoes, find a place to stay in or close to the Historic District, get a good map, take a look at it to get an idea of where you are going, then put it away and wander.
Check the map from time to time to orient and guide your wanderings, but let your heart, not the map be your guide. If a street looks interesting, go down it. If a café looks like a good place for a break, take a seat. If a house strikes your fancy, don’t be shy -- stop, stare, take a photo.
And don’t be afraid to eat one of those gigantic cheese steaks Philly is famous for. The worse that can happen is a good case of heartburn and a grease-stained shirt, the mark of a genuine, fully-fledged Philly flâneur.