The pivotal role that Philadelphia played in the founding of the United States of America is well documented and well known. It is where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed and was once the nation’s capital. The history of the city runs quite far back. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that it is also home to Elfreth’s Alley, a small sidestreet that is considered to be the oldest residential street in the United States.
Elfreth’s Alley has been inhabited since 1702. But you could be forgiven for easily walking right past this charming and historic stretch. I know I’ve driven by it for years and not even realized what I was missing! Any visit to Philadelphia should include a quick stroll down this Memory Lane brought to life.
A Brief History of Elfreth’s Alley
Elfreth’s Alley is located centrally in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. It was originally a short-cut to the nearby Delaware River that was created in the early 18th century when two landowners, Arthur Wells and John Gilbert, combined their properties. The cut-through was eventually named after Jeremiah Elfreth, a blacksmith. The buildings that line the street were home to tradespeople.
By the 20th century, the Alley was in need of some TLC. The Elfreth’s Alley Association (EAA) was formed in 1934. This helped to fight further deterioration and set the path for rejuvenating the historic block for today. The EAA have some really fascinating information on their website, including historic photos and blueprints for the homes. Even if you can’t see inside, you can get a glimpse!
Visiting Elfreth’s Alley
The Alley is located between 2nd and Front Streets and Arch and Quarry Streets in the shadow of the Ben Franklin Bridge. It is just around the corner from Betsy Ross’ house and not too far from the Museum of the American Revolution.
Elfreth’s Alley is set back a little from 2nd Street so it is easy to miss. But find the path and take the journey. The narrow cobblestone alley with its 32 homes is a postcard-perfect image. Indeed, there’s even a British union jack hanging from one home, hinting at the storied past of this neighborhood (and the city).
Because the historic street is a residential block it is, quite literally, open to the public. There is no cost to wander through. The only price is to show a little respect for the residents of the homes who, no doubt, have to put up with a lot of tourists peering in their antique windows. And right in the heart of the alley is the Elfreth’s Alley Museum. The Museum offers private tours for a fee as well as providing an overview of the street.
The Elfreth’s Alley Museum offers a free audio podcast you can listen to as you take a self-guided tour.
Elfreth’s Alley has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark since 1966. The homes are all built in the Federal or Georgian style. It is fascinating to think about how the homes have changed since the 18th century.
There is no dedicated parking lot for those wishing to visit Elfreth’s Alley. There are, however, several parking garages within a block or two where you can find paid parking.
With public transportation, you have a couple of options. Septa’s Market-Frankford Line has a 2nd Street Station that’s only a few blocks from the alley. The Arch Street & 2nd Street bus stop will get you just around the corner from Elfreth’s Alley.
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All photos, as well as opinions, are my own.