Queen Village, Philadelphia: A low-key local wander

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If you’re looking for a way to break free of the tourists milling about downtown Philadelphia, check out Queen Village. This walkable maze of narrow streets in South Philly is home to eclectic shops, cozy local restaurants, eye-catching architecture and, of course, historic sites.

rainbow-hued row houses in Queen VilageThough it has undergone a revival alongside the rest of central Philadelphia, Queen Village has retained its funky character © Kirkikis / Getty Images

Once a suburb of Philadelphia, Queen Village was first settled in the 1600s by Swedish immigrants. Since then, successive rounds of evolution have taken it from a thriving, multicultural suburb to desolation and back again. Today it’s a bustling, affluent neighborhood that has retained its independent – and, in some spots, grungy punk – vibe.

Finds for foodies

From cheesesteaks and BYOB joints to bistros, there’s a little something for everyone in this South Philly neighborhood. If you’re heading out early, start with brunch at Hungry Pigeon, just past Fabric Row on 4th St. You might find yourself waiting for a table, but it’s well worth it. Breakfast sandwiches are served on house-made English muffins, and an assortment of pastries is available tableside or to go. For something a bit hardier, tuck into a breakfast salad with warm lentils and a thick hashbrown or a porridge and kimchi breakfast bowl.

As you’re zipping around, Queen Village’s many coffee shops will keep you going. In the neighborhood’s southeast corner, the busy yet inviting Philadelphia Java Company serves up baked goods, sandwiches, small plates and espresso to locals. Off South Street, Ox Coffee weighs their ingredients to guarantee you the same quality drink at each visit. Shot Tower Coffee, on Christian Street, uses locally roasted beans to craft its hot and iced beverages.

Once dinner rolls around, you’re again spoiled for choice. With a rotating seasonal menu of prime cuts of meat and savory pastas, Ela is a first-class pick if you’re looking for something a bit more upscale. For a more laid-back option, try Dmitri’s, with its BYOB policy, small plates and whole-fish entrees (it’s cash-only).

After-dinner drinks should be taken at Tattooed Mom, a kitschy bar that has gumball machine toys (think army men and fortune tellers) on the counter to entertain you while you await a local beer or a unique cocktail, like one featuring Pop Rocks. Upstairs, you’ll find floor-to-ceiling graffiti and pool tables, perfect for a late evening drink or snack. Or check out the aptly named Dive Bar, an appealingly grungy, cash-only joint that serves up free pizza during happy hour.

man cooks steak and onions over a hot grill at jim's steaks in philadelphiaPhilly’s iconic cheesesteaks are served up late into the night at Jim’s Steaks © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet

Any visit to Philly eventually requires a cheesesteak fix. In Queen’s Village, Jim’s Steaks is the place to find juicy, cheesy sandwiches prepared fresh and to your exact specifications. Expect a long line any time of day and even late into the night (they’re open until 1am and to 3am on Friday and Saturday) and be sure to bring cash.

Shopping, from vintage to vinyl

You’ll find your best shopping on 4th St and South St, where unique stores selling locally made, vintage and upscale clothing and home goods abound. Fabric Row, along 4th St, was an Eastern European Jewish enclave in the 1890s, and today features many third-generation fabric shops selling every pattern, material or sewing notion you seek. Nearby Brickbat Books will quickly draw in any book lover with its creaky wood floors and cozy atmosphere in which to enjoy rare finds and first editions.

stack of books rests on a wooden bench in front of stocked bookshelvesThe warm, inviting interior of indie bookstore Brickbat Books © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet

If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind or local artisanal gift, Moon + Arrow (with its kids-only branch, Little Moon) and Cactus Collective are go-tos. At each location, you’ll find apparel, jewelry, apothecary items, toys and decor ranging from pillows to candles to wall hangings and everything in between. Queen Village is also home to a number of shops selling vintage and secondhand goods. Tucker’s Digs, Retrospect Vintage and Philly AIDS Thrift are a few of the more popular spots. If vinyl is your thing, Repo Records on South Street – a 30-year-old business that remembers the original vinyl heyday – is a must see.

Hitting the history trail

Philadelphia is one of the most history-filled cities in the US, and as the city’s oldest established neighborhood, Queen Village – or Southwark as it was originally known – has plenty of stories to tell. Both Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon called Queen Village home back in 1763, when they began mapping out their eponymous demarcation to settle a land dispute between two families in Maryland and Pennsylvania. A historical marker at the corner of Front and South Sts marks the location where Mason and Dixon started their survey.

Though the building is gone, at the corner of South and Lithgow you’ll find the site of the nation’s first permanent theater, the Southwark – residents of the Quaker-dominated central city flocked here in the late 1700s for a bit of culture. And at the corner of Swanson and Christian streets sits Gloria Dei Church, the oldest church in the state. Famous flag seamstress Betsy Ross was married here.

brick 17th-century church with single steepleDating from 1677, Gloria Dei Church is the oldest in Philadelphia © John Greim / Getty Images

Although the addition of Interstate 95 to the neighborhood led to the destruction of hundreds of historic homes, buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries still line Front St, including one owned by an aide to George Washington. The southeastern corner of Queen Village is also home to one of the first shot towers in the US, where lead shot was made for the War of 1812. The grounds now host events and activities, like movie nights and Easter egg hunts.

Must-dos for design lovers

The visual art of Queen Village tells the story of the neighborhood’s modern reawakening. Keep your eyes up to take in the colorful row houses sitting alongside mosaics and murals that grace restaurants and shops alike.

One of the most distinctive along South Street is a massive glass mural designed by Isaiah Zagar, found on the exterior of Eye’s Gallery. Full of fair-trade goods and Latin American crafts, this longtime shopping spot is a neighborhood anchor and was among the first wave of businesses to invest in Queen’s Village nearly four decades ago.

colorful glass mural on the side of a building in Queen Village, PhiladelphiaThis glass mosaic mural by Isaiah Zagar is a Queen Village landmark © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet

Make it happen

Queen Village extends south from Lombard St to Washington Ave, and west from the Delaware River to 6th St. Accessing Queen Village is easiest on foot or bicycle, as parking is scarce, but public transit can also get you to the area’s southernmost boundary.

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