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One of the oldest settlements in Philadelphia, Germantown has a relaxed, backyard feel that complements its many historic attractions. Unique eateries and stores thrive right next door to 300-year-old buildings and significant American Revolution sites that make up Germantown Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare that connects Germantown to Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill.
Just 20 minutes from Center City and running approximately from the historic Stenton house to the Cliveden mansion on Germantown Ave., Germantown’s is a long and interesting story ripe for exploration: three centuries of founding, settlement, tolerance, patriotism, abolitionism, architecture, industry and community service.
Now a six-acre oasis in the middle of a bustling Philadelphia neighborhood, Cliveden was an estate in the suburb of Germantown built just before the Revolutionary War. One of the most lavish mansions of its era, the Battle of Germantown was fought in the house’s backyard in October 1777, and dozens of British soldiers holed up inside during the firefight.
Duck into the partially hidden garden along busy Germantown Avenue for a 2.5-acre oasis of color and scent at the historic Wyck House. To find the Wyck House gardens, visitors just follow their noses. Dating back to 1824 and boasting 70 varieties, it is widely recognized as the nation’s oldest rose garden still in its original plan.
History goes on full display during the Revolutionary Germantown Festival, a day-long festival that celebrates the rich history of the historic neighborhood. The celebration features costumed characters, live music, food and drink culminating with a reenactment of the Battle of Germantown, the only military battle ever fought within the borders of Philadelphia.
Germantown is extremely well-served by public transit. A 20-minute ride on the Chestnut Hill East line, which leaves from Suburban Station, stops at the Wister, Germantown and Washington Lane stations in or near Germantown. The Chestnut Hill West line, also leaving from Suburban Station, stops at Queen Lane, Chelten Avenue, Tulpehocken and Upsal stations. If you’re taking a car, Germantown is a 20-minute drive from Center City Philadelphia.
Take a short drive northwest and you’ll end up at the Chestnut Hill Hotel in beautiful Chestnut Hill. Hotels along City Avenue, including the Crowne Plaza Philadelphia West, Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue and Homewood Suites by Hilton, are also close by. Alternatively, take the quick drive back to Center City Philadelphia and stay there.
Revolutionary War history never feels too far gone in Germantown. The magnificent Grumblethorpe mansion, a home that was occupied by the British during the Revolution, still shows the blood stain on the living room floor where British Brigadier-General James Agnew died from a sniper’s bullet. The Germantown White House once was home to the two fiercest foes in America’s history. After defeating George Washington in the Battle of Germantown in 1777, British General William Howe took over the summer retreat which was empty for the winter. Years later, Washington moved the first family into the home, a precursor to the “White House.” Both Howe and Washington also used the Stenton house as command headquarters in the fall of 1777.
Germantown has just as much historical importance outside of the American Revolution. In 1690, William Rittenhouse built the first paper mill in British North America at what is now Historic RittenhouseTown, a preserved village in beautiful Fairmount Park. It’s easy to imagine 19th-century freedom fighters Harriet Tubman and William Still meeting at The Johnson House, one of the few Underground Railroad houses still standing. And the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, built in 1859, is classic Victoriana, a massive, Gothic stone mansion that celebrates the traditional faux finishes, elaborate and exotic hand-painted ceilings, Rococo furnishings and landscaped gardens that defined the era.
All of Germantown’s past comes together at the Historic Germantown Visitor Center, an educational and research center dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of Germantown. Located at the Germantown Historical Society, visitors can peruse a library, archives and more than 50,000 objects, from the original Johnson House fence (complete with Revolutionary-era musket ball holes) to an extensive collection of Victorian dolls.
Most of Germantown’s historic sites are located on Germantown Avenue or just a couple blocks from it. The corridor connects Germantown with the rest of northwest Philadelphia, including Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, all of which are home to new restaurants, cafes and shops that are flourishing.
The iMPeRFeCT Gallery, located near the idyllic Maplewood Mall, highlights art from Germantown’s own vibrant community. Many arts and culture goings-on center around Germantown’s historic attractions, with ongoing and rotating exhibits, lectures and even theatrical productions taking place at the Maxwell Mansion, Germantown Historical Society, Wyck and more. The La Salle University Art Museum hosts a comprehensive collection of European and American art from the Renaissance to the present. And from First Fridays at Historic RittenhouseTown to Second Saturdays at Awbury Arboretum to Third Thursdays at Germantown Mennonite Meetinghouse, there’s almost always something going on.
Wissahickon Valley Park envelops 57 miles of trails in a lush, 1,800-acre gorge, crossing forest and meadow before plunging down to the sun-dappled waters of the Wissahickon Creek. Relax along Forbidden Drive, the low-lying gravel road that follows the creek, or venture up the steeply wooded paths for a more challenging hike or off-road cycling adventure. If you’re thirsty, or you need a snack, visit the historic Valley Green Inn, the last remaining example of the many roadhouses and taverns that once flourished here.
Maplewood Mall, a quiet, tree-lined street just off of Germantown Avenue, is home to a number of dining options. Rose Petals Cafe & Lounge serves breakfast and lunch, including some inventive waffles dishes. Little Jimmie’s Coffee Co., the “younger brother” to Little Jimmie’s Bakery Cafe in Mt. Airy, offers breakfast, lunch and coffee imported from Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ethiopia, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic. Flower Cafe at Linda’s serves up vegetarian, vegan and raw cuisine. Elsewhere, popular Germantown mainstay Diane & Tom’s Cafe has offered a healthy international food menu for nearly 30 years.
Germantown is home to numerous small and unique independent businesses. Cunningham Piano Co., founded in 1891, offers tours of one of the largest and oldest piano companies in existence. Another Maplewood Mall shop, the family-owned and -operated Maplewood Nutrition and Dietary Shop has been serving Germantown’s natural and nutritional needs since 1953. The boutiques, shops and jewelers on Germantown Avenue in nearby Mt. Airy also have a lot to offer, from furnishings at Lujon, women’s clothes at BellaNOR Boutique, and hand-crafted and vintage accessories at The Vendors Boutique.
Every year the annual Juneteenth Festival, held at The Johnson House, celebrates the anniversary of the end of slavery with exhibitions, performances, vendors, discussions, family-friendly events, activities about the history of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements.
Wyck’s Farmers’ Market, open on Germantown Avenue every Friday afternoon from in the summer and fall, provides produce to the neighborhood, most of which is harvested on the day of sale. And every Saturday in the summer, hungry folk can purchase fresh, organically grown produce at the only youth-run farm stand in Germantown at Grumblethorpe’s Farm Stand.
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