Philly may bring out your inner wanderer
I learned the art of urban wandering in Philadelphia, the city I grew up in.
The French have a word for it: A flâneur is someone who strolls, rambles or saunters almost randomly through city streets, observing people and places, looking for the novel, the interesting and the unexpected.
Flâneurs will peek down a street and change course, pulled in by the architecture, the look of the people, the hidden parks, the stores that support the neighborhood, or a café where others take a break from their own explorations and perambulations. Sometimes it’s simply the way the sunlight filters down through the trees.
The keys to successful flânerie are spontaneity, serendipity and discovery. As the feet wander, so does the mind, revealing observations, memories and insights.
When I was growing up, my father, a great wanderer in his own right, would lead me through the narrow streets of what is now known as Old City — the historic district near the Delaware River, where in 1681 William Penn founded the “greene country town” now known as Philadelphia.
Since then, whenever I visit a city I spend a day or two exploring it on foot. But my favorite place to explore is Philly, especially the Old City and the Society Hill and Queen Village neighborhoods to the south.
Their narrow, tree-shaded streets, many of them cobblestone, are lined with restored 18th- and 19th-century townhouses, small parks and squares, hidden courts and mews, and a restaurant scene that is as creative and lively as it gets.
Time travel to a quieter era
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 historic row houses built 200 to 300 years ago.
The streets, buildings and squares look much as they did when Ben Franklin walked these very same streets more than 250 years ago.
Our apartment, rented from Airbnb, was in a classic townhouse in the heart of Society Hill. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clopped past our door.
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.
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 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 passage lined with restored houses built between 1720 and 1830. The website of Visit Philadelphia 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 rundown commercial district where I would go to buy cheap, invariably ill-fitting suits.
In the 70s and 80s, it turned into a hippie, 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. Its lively street scene is perfect for peoplewatching.
Art galleries and a riverwalk
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).
There you’ll find more places to eat, plus a promenade and plazas along the river. It also hosts the Independence Seaport Museum and several historic warships — including a World War II-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.
How to be a flâneur
If you are planning a visit to Philly, find a place to stay in or close to the Historic District and bring a reliable pair of walking shoes. Get a good map, take a look at it to get an idea of where you are going, then put it away and just 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. 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.
If you go
Amtrak trains run frequently from D.C. to Philly for as little as $30 each way. Or you can drive up I-95 in about two hours. However, parking and congestion on the narrow streets can be expensive and annoying.
We booked Cobblestone Street Sanctuary, a one-bedroom apartment with a fully stocked kitchen in the heart of Society Hill, through Airbnb for $125 per night plus fees.
For something more conventional, try the Philadelphia Marriott Old City near the major historic sites. Rates start at $218/night.
As for restaurants, try these:
Southwark — an excellent neighborhood restaurant and classic tavern in the heart of Queen Village specializing in farm-to-table American cuisine.
Famous 4th Street Delicatessen — a hundred-year-old deli in the heart of Queen Village serving the thickest pastrami sandwich I have ever eaten outside of New York.
Jim’s Steaks — Monster cheesesteak sandwiches on South Street. Typical Philadelphia attitude: “Order and move on.” The food is worth the attitude.
Zahav — A modern Israeli restaurant that has earned worldwide praise and a James Beard award for the chef. Possibly the best meal I have ever eaten. It’s a difficult reservation to get, but persistence will be well rewarded.
Le Virtù — Outstanding Italian restaurant on Passyunk (pronounced “Pashyunk” by the locals) Avenue in South Philly near the Italian Market.
Marrakesh — an excellent, inexpensive Moroccan restaurant located in Society Hill for almost 50 years.
For more information see visitphilly.com.