Due to Philadelphia’s proximity to Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the City of Brotherly Love is often credited with offering only cheesesteaks, the Liberty Bell, and Rocky Steps at the Philadelphia Art Museum.
Yet 6 miles from historic Olde City is Germantown. Purchased from Pennsylvania founder William Penn, the first German settlement (circa 1683) in what was then British North America was the precursor to all the German towns across the United States. Settled by Germans, Mennonites, and Quakers (Society of Friends), the history within this neighborhood rivals Downtown Philly and, in some ways, surpasses it. Known as “Freedom’s Backyard” and for being more of a low-key community, you will not find bus tours or a great invitation by the Tourism Office to visit. So, it is best to explore by walking or taking public transportation (Route 23) or Uber/Lyft. Thursdays through Saturdays are typically the best days to explore this neighborhood.
Philadelphia’s Germantown thrives due to its three intersecting identities: Colonial/Federal Era America, Quaker Life, and The Great Migration (1916–1970). The places and sites I suggest include all three identities. As it is impossible to list every locale, I focus on my personal favorites and highlight a few others.
Wayne Junction (completed 1881 as Wayne Station) is the official start of Germantown along its southern border. But before strolling down Germantown Avenue, which runs the entire length of the neighborhood, walk a few blocks east to see the first suggested stop on this tour…
1. Stenton Home
4601 N 18th Street
This former home of James Logan (1674–1751) was part of his estate that encompassed the surrounding area. Logan was a Quaker who came to the New World during William Penn’s second voyage (1702). He became a mentor to a young Benjamin Franklin. The house would later host George Washington and serve as the temporary camp for British General William Howe during the American Revolution.
Dinah, a formerly enslaved woman who lived on the grounds, became part of the house’s legends after she saved the house from British soldiers. Sarah Logan Fisher (1751-1796), is mentioned during tours of the grounds due to her historical research, which was later used by the Historical Society of Philadelphia.
2. Attic Brewing Co.
137 Berkley Street
Head back to Wayne Junction and continue through the passageway to “the Attic.” Housed in a former pencil factory, Attic Brewing Co. has quickly become a popular local hangout in the taproom or the outside garden. The collection of craft beers, mixed drinks using local spirits, and rotating food carts add to the relaxed mood.
3. Loudon Mansion
After quenching your thirst, walk 10 minutes up Germantown Avenue. On your left, you will notice a house in the middle of the park surrounded by a fence: Loudon Mansion. The site was used during the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777) to house wounded Continental soldiers. To date, it is known as being haunted by a ghost named Little Willie.
4. Lower Burial Ground At Hood Cemetery
On the corner of Logan Street and Germantown Avenue, you will find the Lower Burial Ground, also known as Hood Cemetery. If you look through the fence, you can see the graves of soldiers who passed away in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War. These graves are marked by their respective military flags nearby.
From here, take Bus 23, which travels up and down Germantown Avenue, or request an Uber/Lyft. On the way up, you will see the following sites of interest…
5267 Germantown Ave (philalandmarks.org/grumblethorpe)
This house was occupied by British Brigadier-General James Agnew (1777) during the Battle of Germantown. Agnew was mortally wounded in battle and passed away on the parlor floor, leaving a still-visible bloodstain.
6. First Petition Against Slavery Plaque
This plaque commemorates what took place in 1688. That year, the Quakers became the first religious group in the 13 colonies to submit a petition in a protest of enslaving Africans. That’s why today, a nearby mall is called Freedom Square.
While passing this location, admire the colonial and federal homes on both ends of the street. Many of them have their own stories that you can find online.
Get off the bus at Market Square, which is in the heart of Germantown. If you visit on a Saturday, you will see vendors selling items as many generations have done since 1703.
7. Uncle Bobbie’s
5445 Germantown Ave
If you need a menu or a moment to rest, visit Uncle Bobbie’s, which offers a touch of Bohemia in Germantown. The location invites local scholars, friendly conversations, and a preview of the future of Germantown provided by the younger generation. Once you step back outside, look to your left…
8. Deshler-Morris House
This house was used as President George Washington’s summer home during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. Although it’s closed throughout much of the year, it’s still worth a visit to see the facade and read the various plaques and signage outside.
9. Fromberger-Harkness House & Lest We Forget Museum
5501 Germantown Ave
On the other side of Market Square sits Fromberger-Harkness House, which hosts the Germantown Historical Society. On its bottom floor resides the Lest We Forget Museum.
This personal favorite museum houses a private exhibit of authentic slavery artifacts. Curated by the Ragsdales, this is the place to visit to have honest conversations about America’s “Peculiar Institution.” If you plan to visit, allow at least 2 hours — it will be well worth your time.
In the center of Market Square, you will notice various statues and memorials to the soldiers who died in the Revolution and Civil wars, including one who was on the Confederate side.
As you continue North up Germantown Avenue, pay attention to the large building on the right side of the street.
10. La Rose Jazz Club
5531 Germantown Ave
Throughout the year, Germantown hosts a number of special events that highlight local R&B and jazz. Typically featured on the local radio stations and at community events are a number of artists who have played at La Rose. Come to the club during the evening, and you may see future stars before they are “discovered.”
As you continue north of La Rose, you will notice a shift in the appearance of the area. To me, this is the most interesting aspect of the neighborhood. Throughout the 20th century, there was a bit of an identity crisis based around how the area should appear to visitors. To attract more tourists, many locals thought that focusing on the area’s German beginnings and colonial history would create the most interest. To me, the mix of all its histories — including those of Black and Brown Americans coming north during the Migration (1916–1970) and Italians looking for a cosmopolitan environment — is what makes it most interesting. You’ll see examples of this in a couple of places.
11. Maplewood Mall
Created in the 1970s as part of Philadelphia’s Urban Renewal project, this mall is one of the area’s hidden secrets. Along this small street, you will find various architecture highlighted by bold colors, G-Town Radio, the Prince Hall Masons Lodge, and various small shops ranging from café and vegan dining to private galleries.
12. John S. Trower Plaque (In Front Of The John S. Trower Building)
5706 Germantown Ave
This historical marker at Germantown and Chelten avenues highlights Black wealth in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
13. Vernon Park & Surrounds
This is the site of the Wister House, which is used by the Black Writer’s Museum. One of Andrew Carnegie’s libraries forms the northern edge of the park. Numerous memorials to the Continental Army stand throughout the grounds.
Across the street, you’ll find the ACES Museum at 5801 Germantown Avenue and can appreciate the various architectural styles along E. Price Street. Continue north and you will find Germantown City Hall, which stands out due to its unique design. A little further on, you’ll find the Wyck House, which highlights Quaker culture, at 6026 Germantown Avenue. From here, you can take another 10-minute walk north to see the following…
14. Johnson House
6306 Germantown Ave
Home to many generations of the Quaker Johnson family, this was also a site on the Underground Railroad and is rumored to have hosted Harriet Tubman for an evening.
6401 Germantown Ave
Keep on further north, and you’ll reach the summer home of Benjamin Chew (1722–1810) which was a Northern plantation that was in use until the 1970s and site of the Battle of Germantown, which Washington lost, thus allowing the British to march and occupy Philadelphia. This home hosted the area’s wealthy residents, as can be seen by their signatures carved into the glass.
More To See In Germantown…
If you are up to it, also visit the Young American Hard Cider Room, the Concord School House, and the Lower Burial Ground. Continue north to Chestnut Hill, which is another neighborhood that offers bistros, artisanal ice cream, galleries, and antique stores.
As you now know, there is much more to see in Philly than what is found downtown. By visiting Freedom’s Backyard, you can experience local history and interact with friendly residents.
Visiting Philly? Also read up on 6 Best Things To Do In Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, Plus Where To Eat and 13 Foods To Try In Philadelphia Besides Cheesesteak.