Philadelphia is a city of surprises, even to longtime residents, with good places to get off the beaten track. The town’s greatest blessing is the strength and character of its neighborhoods, which number as many as 200, depending on how finely one draws the boundaries. Paradoxically, this can also be a curse, as the vitality of Philadelphia’s communities can engender a comfort and insularity that keeps residents content to leave vast swaths of our urban landscape unexplored. There is, in fact, a great deal to see, far beyond the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the museums of the Parkway, the cheesesteak shops and even the gentleman’s estates of Fairmount Park. There are urban oases, architectural jewel boxes, unique historical attractions and an abundance of great dining.
Perhaps the city’s best known “hidden gem” is Wissahickon Valley Park, the 1,800 acres of placid woodlands which spread through northwest Philadelphia from Manayunk up to the city limits in Chestnut Hill. Strolling alongside the banks of the Wissahickon Creek on Forbidden Drive, you’ll see horses trotting by, hikers and off road bicyclists searching for new veins of trail and anglers casting lines into the creek – all within the confines of a 1.5 million person metropolis.
The Wissahickon is the spine of northwest Philadelphia, but the area’s topography and history make it a treasure trove of off the beaten path sites. The expansive neighborhood of Germantown – once an incorporated borough in its own right until it was absorbed into Philadelphia in 1854 – was for many years home to the city’s moneyed elites. A great deal of distinctive patrician architecture survives, spanning the colonial era through the gilded age. A number of these homes can be toured – just be careful to check admission hours and call ahead to be sure. One personal favorite is Stenton, the former plantation of James Logan (a friend and advisor to William Penn). While the Georgian style house and grounds are interesting in and of themselves, the story of Logan – a true Machiavellian and a mendacious ambassador to the local Lenape tribe – is a revealing window into colonial era Philadelphia and its memorable cast of characters.
Fast forward a century or so, and visit Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, a magnificent Victorian style home built by an industrial age cloth wholesaler. Like Stenton, Ebenzer Maxwell is tucked into one of Germantown’s many side streets. Back along the Germantown Avenue artery is the comparatively modest Johnson House, originally owned by abolitionist Quakers and at one time a stop on the Underground Railroad. Finally, while you’re in Germantown, take a stroll through the perennially underappreciated Awbury Arboretum (free). Like Johnson House, this 55 acre oasis was owned by Quakers, whose descendants opened up the stone house to visitors and transformed the grounds as a public resource.
On the opposite, westerly side of the Wissahickon sits the quiet, middle class neighborhood of Roxborough. Here you’ll find the unique Schyulkill Center for Environmental Education, great for short, family-oriented hikes and birdwatching. While hardly a dining hotspot, Roxborough also boasts a couple real finds. In addition to locals cheesesteak favorites Dalessandro’s and Chubby’s, pay a visit to Pierogie Kitchen, where owner Marie Thorpe boils and fries more than two dozen varieties of top notch fare – split an order or two for a few bucks and eat on site.
The north Philadelphia neighborhood of Olney is home to the city’s largest Koreatown. Travelers interested in an authentic Korean meal can visit Olney’s North 5th Street corridor and chow down on soondubu, bulgogi and other such delicacies from a number of fine restaurants. While English isn’t always spoken or, necessarily, printed on the menus, adventurous diners willing to put themselves in the hands of the kitchen are rarely disappointed here.
Off near the suburban border in the Overbrook community is Cobbs Creek Golf Club, the city’s best public links, as well as its most historic. The Olde Course (one of two on site) is now a century old and at one time hosted PGA tour events. Though not perfectly maintained, Cobbs is quite scenic and greens fees are reasonable.
Finally, take a look back to where the European exploration of the Delaware Valley began with a visit to the American Swedish Historical Museum. Though not commonly known, the Swedes were the first European settlers to visit the region and this museum – a lordly building tucked into South Philadelphia’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park – does an excellent job telling that story as well as the history and contributions of Swedish culture in a more general sense.