5 Fun Things to Do in Philadelphia’s Old City

America’s oldest street rubs elbows with decidedly contemporary style and cuisine in this charming Philly neighborhood.

I lived in center city Philadelphia for three years and any time I wanted to dine, shop, or see art, I headed down toward the Delaware River, to Old City. Sharing a border with Philadelphia’s historical Society Hill neighborhood, Old City is perfect to dash over to after you have taken in Independence Hall and want a dose of elegant urban renewal in the midst of what is often called “America’s Most Historic Mile.”

1. Shop Local Businesses

One thing I love about Old City is that is full of small, local businesses that are truly unique to the area. You won’t see any chains except, of course, for the ubiquitous Starbucks and an occasional bank. The variety of cafes, boutiques, coffee shops, art galleries, and bars is enough to keep you busy for several hours of exploring. If you want to take home something that you can’t get anywhere else, you are in the right place. The Book Trader is a treasure trove of used books from floor to ceiling. Complete with a resident bookstore cat, if you are looking for a particular book, chances are it is at the Book Trader. Neighboring Omoi Zakka is a delightfully and tastefully curated—and affordablea— gift and stationery shop. The world-class Arden Theater is also tucked into the heart of Old City, offering the highest quality theater for adults and children at very reasonable ticket prices.

2. Brush Up on History

Society Hill may have Independence Hall, but the more stylish Old City boasts America’s oldest Street, Elfreth’s Alley. Almost entirely unchanged since colonial days, the alley is a wonderful place to imagine how it really looked back then. Just a few blocks away, Arch Street is home to the tiny but important Betsy Ross House, where Ross is said to have sewn the first American flag.

3. Indulge in Sweets

Follow Market Street down toward the water to continue the ye old vibe with a visit to Franklin Fountain for homemade ice cream. The vintage interior is beyond charming with its tin ceilings, perfectly period soda fountain counter, and retro chic stools and signage. If their sinfully delicious Southern Belle Sundae doesn’t entirely satisfy your sweet tooth, head a few doors down to Shane’s Confectionery. Shane’s is an exquisite period candy store chockful of homemade delights all served up by a costumed storekeeper. Visit the Chocolate Works Cafe in the back for even more tempting bonbons and divine drinking chocolates.

4. Explore Philly Cuisine

The food and bar scene in Old City is thriving and superb. Farmicia has been a staple of farm-to-table cuisine in Old City and maintains its standing with delicious plates such as their baked brie. What everyone does not know is that Farmicia has a happy hour during which their top-shelf cocktails are discounted. On a more casual note, if you want to experience the legendary “Philadelphia cheesesteak” (here, of course, they simply call it “cheesesteak”), drop into Sonny’s for what GQ calls "the best cheesesteak in town.” High Street on Market is an all-day restaurant and bakery with bread and pastries and a Cobb Saladk that is “to-die-for,” as my 103-year-old Philadelphian Grammy says.

5. Check Out Public Art

As you stroll, take note of the “ghost signs” of Old City’s previous industrial age. The National, a former factory turned mixed-use condo building, has some of the best vintage signage I’ve ever seen. Philadelphia is famous for its Mural Arts Program and you will find examples around every corner. Acclaimed sign painter Stephen Powers has worked with Mural Arts to create an eye-popping homage to Old City.

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