Visit Philly: A Weekend Guide to Chestnut Hill
I am a big fan of small town vibes. I love visiting sleepy towns off season. The kinds of small towns where there is one main street (literally called Main Street often times) lined with aged taverns that caters to generations of family regulars, boutique flower shops and artisan craft shops that - despite their prices - are long standing businesses, notable breweries serving top notch drinks, and bakeries where families congregate on the weekends. I love these towns.
I recently ditched city life for small town vibes within my own city. Yes, it’s true: Philadelphia stretches so far that suburban-like neighborhoods are still considered within city limits. This is what makes places like Chestnut Hill and Manayunk so great. A few more reasons help, though, like the friendly and passionate people, delicious and lively restaurants, and easy access to and from Philadelphia’s Center City. Approaching my one year mark as a Philadelphia resident I dared myself to get to know these areas better and discover the other side of the city. A weekend trip helped me fall back in love with small town vibes, this time in a new city I now call home.
Weekend Guide to Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill
What to know
Chestnut Hill was founded in 1854 located Pennsylvania’s Wissahickon Valley and known as Philadelphia’s Garden District. It is home to the 92-acre Morris Arboretum and an annual spring Home & Garden Festival. In 2007, Forbes.com named Chestnut Hill “one of the top seven urban enclaves in the country” aptly named for its Victorian mansions and dog-friendly businesses just outside of Philadelphia.
Note: this is an affluent neighborhood so choose wisely what to spend your money on. I vote food and drink!
Chestnut Hill, originally part of Germantown township (a northwestern suburb outside Philadelphia), is 12 miles northwest from Philadelphia’s Center City area (literally, the center of the city) or an estimated 30-minute train ride on SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill East and West Lines on what many came to know as the R7 (no longer). A weekend one-way train ticket costs only $5 (see fares) which means you have no excuse to not visit. You can also drive for free (no tolls!) and risk traffic, or take your bike on the train and get around by bike once you arrive. Easy, fast, cheap.
Where to stay
The Chestnut Hill Hotel is actually the only hotel in the area. Conveniently located on the main drag – Germantown Avenue – and connected to a farmers market, the boutique hotel only has 36 rooms which are large and spread across three different buildings, each with its own theme. I highly recommend staying in the Post Office building, which has Andy Warhol pop art decorative walls and white marble bathrooms! Rates start at $200 per night so keep an eye out for hotel deals!
Where to eat
McNally’s Tavern for lunch should be your first stop for a bite and a drink. The family owned bar and restaurant has been around since 1921 and has barely changed. This is my kind of bar: sister-run, simple home cooking, small, and serving the same clientele since opening day. I ate a caesar salad and chocolate cake but people come here for the famous Schmitter®: a meat lovers answer to the classic cheesesteak.
Paris Bistro should be your dinner date. Enter the lively restaurant through the corner a few steps down from the hotel on Germantown Avenue and ask for a seat in the intimate jazz lounge downstairs. Dimly lit, velvet curtains, and screaming with bistro charm, the Paris Bistro is made for lovers who want to indulge in a night out on the town, while taking in a live jazz show. The menu is full of favorite classic French dishes like steak frites, french onion soup, and Duck a l'Orange. Do not skip dessert or wine. Do swoon over the jazz band.
Tip: Book a reservation in advance.
Cake is the go-to brunch spot in the neighborhood. If you did Paris Bistro right then you definitely slept in and maybe have a hangover so hop on over to the popular bakery for BYOB brunch. Daily quiches are available and a must, as well as the brioche french toast, my personal favorite (with a side of soft scrambled eggs).
Tip: Go to the nearby Fine Wine & Good Spirits to purchase wine or liquor for a proper BYOB brunch.
El Poquito is made for late afternoon drinks and bahn mi tacos. Get a margarita and people watch at the bar. Visit during warm-weather months where patio eating means family-style picnic tables and lounge chairs set below beautiful outdoor lights.
Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop is the place to stop by before you leave town. The 51-year old gourmet cheese shop is where dreams are made of, and the family that runs this shop won’t let you leave without trying a cheese you have never heard of or tasted. This is where I became a brie cheese convert. I’m not kidding. Buy all the cheese.
What to see
The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania is a 92-acre public garden featuring an impressive collection of plants and trees from all over the world. Founders John and Lydia T. Morris were world travelers and horticultural enthusiasts that brought back new ideas and inspiration to beautify their Victorian land. In the process, they also supported research and education to their staff, contributing to vast collections of outdoor sculptures and gardens, as well as a research library, archives, and continuing education courses for arborists, gardeners, and land managers.
Today the Morris Arboretum is home to 12,000 live plants, 2,500 shrubs, rose gardens, swan ponds, and more.
I loved the serenity that the Arboretum offered as you discovered how grand the grounds are. It was overwhelming yet rewarding to walk through endless terrain and seeing flowers starting to bloom. It’s impossible to experience the entire acreage in one day but it’s worth trying.
Tip: Free tours are available with admission on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm only. Adult admission costs $17. Bring comfy shoes and a camera.
The Woodmere Art Museum is home to a collection of 3,000 works of art by Philadelphia artists. This 19-century stone Victorian mansion was founded for Philadelphia art, celebrating local artists and now serves as a platform to support future generations of artists.
Art classes are open to children and adults including beginner classes on oil painting, drawing, watercolor, sculpting and still life starting at $125 with four session classes or more. Children’s exhibitions rotate throughout the year showcasing the work by regional students in a dedicated gallery, and with a proper gallery reception which gives young artists a chance to share the spotlight alongside accomplished artists.
What I loved most about this art gallery is that each room presented a different way to experience art – from the mantle displays to the ceiling chandeliers to the paintings set above cafe-style seating. The staff are passionate and offer stories behind each artist to make a personal connection to what is in front of you. It’s intimate and beautiful and educational, and a unique opportunity to learn about Philadelphia through a new perspective.
Tip: Friday night live jazz bands return at the end of the summer in the auditorium complete with wine and cheese. Members get in for $12 and tickets cost $22 for the general public. Every Sunday admission is free so plan a visit soon.
Interested in more activities in Chestnut Hill?
See what other visitors are up to using the hashtag #chestnuthillpa online or visit chestnuthillpa.com.
Thanks to the people at Chestnut Hill Business District for their hospitality!