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Philadelphia: Hip, Hip, Historic

Philadelphia's Old City District


By John Grossmann

What you need to understand about Philadelphia is that better than in any other American city, the old and the new co-exist splendidly, offering a winning mix of the historic and the hip.

Nowhere is that enticing blend more prevalent than in Philadelphia’s recently revitalized Old City District, often called the most historic square mile in America. Home to such icons of Colonial America as The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the Betsy Ross House, this neighborhood tumbled into hard times in the waning decades of the last century, when most of the lights went out after the day’s last tour bus reloaded and departed.

To be sure, some rough edges remain, like the brash discount clothiers on Market Street, but in recent years an influx of art galleries and chic restaurants has brought a renewed vitality to Old City, Philly’s intriguing, in progress version of SoHo—so far, blessedly minus chain stores.  Here, in the easily strolled few blocks north and south of Market Street from Front Street to 6th Street, one can walk the same cobblestones as America’s founding fathers, then duck into Wi-Fi equipped Old City Coffee, where 50¢ buys an extra shot of its heady, six bean espresso; enter the church where the nation’s first president often worshipped from 1790 to 1797, then dine on duck confit across the street at Fork, a favorite spot of locals; honor local icon Benjamin Franklin’s birth by visiting his grave in the Christ Church cemetery at 5th and Arch Streets, then toast him with a perfectly made mojito, margarita, or martini at any number of nearby au courant eateries.  Who wouldn’t absorb plenty of early American history with rewards like those awaiting?

So off to class.   Tour Old City and you practically trip over historic superlatives. Stroll the block-long Elfreth’s Alley, putting pricey condo renovations and the 21st century at your back, and you’re flanked by modest brick rowhouses occupied continuously since 1713: America’s oldest residential street.   Nearby, at 2nd and Market Streets, stands the stunningly beautiful Christ Church, with its wine glass pulpit, often called “the Nation’s Church” or “the Patriots’ Church.” Its venerable congregation included President George Washington and Betsy Ross, whose pew is marked by a flag.  In 1754, when its steeple was completed, no building in America reached higher.

A few blocks north of Independence Hall you’ll find the National Constitution Center, a must-see museum of 160,000 square feet devoted to the creation and interpretation and endurance of the four-page document that begins “We the people…” For a more symbolic take on democracy and peace, visit the National Liberty Museum, another 2003 addition to the historic district.  Here, various glass sculptures, including a 21-foot high Flame of Liberty by Dale Chihuly, evoke the fragility of freedom.


Gallery hopping on First Friday.


Your artistic sensibilities piqued, it’s on to Old City’s galleries. Some of the best are north of Market on 2nd and 3rd Streets.  Don’t miss the  Moderne Gallery, featuring exquisite pieces by woodworker George Nakashima, including a dining room table with a six-figure price tag; and The Clay Studio, whose funhouse-like entrance hall dazzles with pottery gargoyles and a mosaic of mirror and pottery shards. Should your visit spill into the first weekend of the month, consider yourself blessed. First Fridays, Old City’s galleries stay open late and the area’s eateries reverberate with the added excitement.


Cuba Libra in Philadelphia


Ah yes, eats.  For a mid-afternoon gallery-hopping break,  The Franklin Fountain serves traditional phosphates, egg creams, ice cream sodas, and banana splits in an old-fashioned “ice cream saloon.” More serious Old City dining offers a culinary tour of the world:  Amada elevates Spanish tapas to new heights; Cuba Libre delivers the look and cuisine of Old Havana; the stunning, always packed Buddakan delights with haute Asian fare.  Historic culinary leap? Perhaps not, but certainly a hip one.


Old City Favorites:

Old City Coffee



FORK 306 Market Street, 215-625-9425 www.forkrestaurant.com

AMADA 217-219 Chestnut Street, 215-625-2540 www.amadarestaurant.com

CUBA LIBRE 10 S. 2nd Street, 215-627-0666 www.cubalibrerestaurant.com

BUDDAKAN—325 Chestnut Street 215-574-9440 www.buddakan.com

THE FRANKLIN FOUNTAIN 116 Market Street, 215-627-1800 www.franklinfountain.com

OLD CITY COFFEE 221 Church Street, 215-629-9292 www.oldcitycoffee.com


Christ Church, Philadelphia



NATIONAL CONSTITUTION CENTER 525 Arch Street, 215-409-6600 www.constitutioncenter.org

NATIONAL LIBERTY MUSEUM 321 Chestnut Street, 215-925-2800 www.libertymuseum.org

ELFRETH ALLEY east of 2nd Street between Arch and Race Streets

CHRIST CHURCH 2nd and Church Streets

MODERNE GALLERY 111 N. 3rd Street, 215-923-8536 www.modernegallery.com

THE CLAY STUDIO 139 N. 2nd Street, 215-925-3453 www.theclaystudio.org


Omni Hotel at Independence Park

Where to Stay: Omni Hotel at Independence Park.  Though not itself historic (the hotel was built only two decades ago), the 14-story Omni has an old world charm and is the only full-service, four-diamond hotel in the Old City neighborhood.  The majority of guest rooms face Independence Park, as does the second floor dining room,
which boasts floor to ceiling windows.  There’s a full-service spa, where the treatments include a bamboo massage featuring live bamboo stalks soaked in essential oils, and a gem of a pool bathed in soothing low lighting.  And best of all, the Omni is steps from Independence Hall and  the Liberty Bell and an easy walk to all that Old City has to offer.
401 Chestnut Street. (215) 925-0000



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John Grossmann has written about food and travel for Gourmet, Cigar Aficionado, Saveur, and SKY.
He was a finalist in the food journalist category of the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. He is the co-author, with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, of the book One Square Inch of Silence, (Free Press).

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