Exploring Elfreth’s Alley: The Oldest Street in America

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Everywhere you look in the city of Philadelphia, you will find the rich and colorful fabrics of early American life. For most of us, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall come to mind. However, many of the historical artifacts that make up the city’s foundation tell not only the story of political figures, but the everyman.

One such artifact was carved out as a cart path in 1703 and now carries the title of the oldest street in America. Today, Elfreth’s Alley and its attached museum remain popular tourist destinations for cultural exploration.   

History

Colonial homes in Elfreth's Alley, America's oldest street
The street is full of picture-perfect colonial-era homes

Elfreth’s Alley, named after blacksmith and land developer, Jeremiah Elfreth, was initially opened as a solution to Philadelphia’s overcrowding. Conveniently located by the Delaware River between 2nd and Front Streets, this street was the ideal place to house the surplus of artisans and merchants that flocked the port city.

As commerce flourished, more and more tradespeople settled in this cobblestone alley, using the space for their residences and also their businesses. As time went on and the industrial era boomed, the landscape and demographics of the neighborhood began to change. Factories surrounded the narrow alley as the architecture of Philadelphia shifted. 

The historical marker sign at the entrance to the alley
The historical marker marks the entrance to the alley

While the 20th century took a toll oldest street in Philadelphia, the Elfreth’s Alley Association, founded in 1934, helped to preserve the alley’s historical nature as well as its name. The organization saved the street from demolition and allowed it to grow into the thriving tourist experience that it is today. 

What to See

National Register of Historic Places plaque at 139 Elfreth's Alley, circa 1703
The homes are recognized as historic

The wonder of this charming cobblestone street does not end at a mere glance or the beautiful building facades. Located in 124–126 of Elfreth’s Alley, the Elfreth’s Alley Museum preserves an old dressmaker’s home from the 18th century. The interior has been reimagined to immerse visitors in the home’s colonial past. For a small fee, you can wander the halls complete with colonial garb and antique furniture while an audio guide educates you on the history of each artifact. Guided tours may be available depending on the time of year so make sure to check the website for the most up-to-date hours. 

In addition to audio and guided tours, Elfreth’s Alley Philadelphia hosts a number of festive events throughout the year for the entire community. In December, visitors gather to attend “Deck the Alley,” where they can enter a number of the homes on the block, each brightly decorated for the holiday season.

Home in Elfreth's Alley decorated with wreaths and garland
Deck the Alley with trees and garland for the holidays

When the weather gets warmer in June, the street celebrates “Fête Day,” which acknowledges the alley’s diverse ethnic heritage with historical reenactments and festivities. The Alley also hosts events for Fourth of July, Oktoberfest, and Halloween.

Vising Tips

Entrance to home in Elfreth's Alley with green door, shutters, and a wreath covered with the colonial American flag
The street continues to preserve the colonial history of the city

If you intend to get the alley to yourself for photography or simply to bask in the historical glow in solitude, make your way to alley in the early morning or around sunset to beat the crowd. The street runs east to west, so there aren’t harsh shadows in the morning or evening.

Additionally, to avoid missing out on upcoming events or potential closures, always check out the Elfreth Alley’s website before your visit!

How to Visit

The pretty colorful homes in the colonial-era Elfreth's Alley
The homes are pretty with lots of accent colors

Located in the Old City district of Philadelphia, the cobblestone alley is an excellent first stop of a historical city tour. Just walking distance from sites such as Independence Hall, Betsy Ross’ House, the United States Mint, and Christ Church, it’s the cherry on top of a history-rich excursion. 

While the street itself is open anytime to visitors and casual strollers alike, your visit to Elfreth’s Alley Museum House may require a little more pre-planning. The museum house is typically open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m with self-guided audio tours are available throughout the day for $3. Guided tours are also typically available at 1 p.m. on Fridays, and at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on weekends for $8 for adults and $2 for children. Make sure to double-check for any potential closures before your visit to this enchanting, cobblestone alley and enjoy your walk through America’s oldest street.

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