Philadelphia’s rich waterfront scene offers
cruisers a glimpse into the past.
When most people think of Philadelphia, they probably conjure up images of Independence Hall, Betsy Ross sewing a flag, Valley Forge, Ben Franklin flying a kite, the Liberty Bell—the city that’s the birthplace of our nation. Philadelphia certainly is all that but also so much more, with world-class museums and cultural attractions, historic homes and some of the best parks in the U.S. But what most people don’t realize about Philadelphia is that it also has a lively, active, welcoming waterfront scene along the Delaware River with several modern marinas all within walking distance of many historic sites. Philadelphia, as it turns out, is a major boating destination.
In many ways, Philadelphia is ground zero for American history buffs. The first European settlers to arrive were the Dutch in 1623, although the English conquered the entire area soon after. In 1681, King Charles II of England granted William Penn, an early real estate entrepreneur, a charter for what is now Pennsylvania as partial repayment of a debt.
Penn, a Quaker, wisely paid the local Lenape tribe for the land to make peace and named the city Philadelphia, Greek for brotherly love. Because of its waterfront location and relatively friendly relations with the Indians, the city prospered. Indeed, by the mid-1750s, Philadelphia surpassed Boston as the biggest port in America and the second largest in the British Empire, just behind London. At the same time, Benjamin Franklin founded many city services including a library and one of the first hospitals in the colonies.
Philadelphia was also home for the Revolution. Meeting in Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress created the Declaration of Independence in 1776. After the war, the Constitutional Convention deliberated there, and from 1790 to 1800 Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the newly created United States while the Federal City (now Washington, D.C.) was under construction. The city developed as a textile and manufacturing center during the 19th century and, growing on Franklin’s heritage, became a cultural and scientific center as well.
Getting there by boat is straightforward. If you’re coming from the Atlantic, Philadelphia is 83 nm up the Delaware from Cape May; if you’re coming from the Chesapeake, it’s 35 nm above the C&D Canal. The main waterfront area and the marinas start about three nm after you pass under the Walt Whitman Bridge.
First comes Penn’s Landing, which is hard to miss since it’s home to a 359-foot tall ship, a 344-foot Navy cruiser dating to 1895, and a 307-foot WWII submarine. Penn’s Landing has 34 slips, with 6 for transients. It can handle yachts up to 150-feet LOA and offers 30-, 50- and 100-amp service. Penn’s Landing does not have bathrooms or showers, but it does have rental foot-powered swan boats, kayaks and canoes, plus the Moshulu, a four-masted barque that is the the oldest and largest square rigger still floating. Launched in 1904, today Moshulu is a restaurant—the only one on a tall ship. Almost next to Moshulu is the Navy cruiser Olympia, the oldest steel warship still floating and Admiral Dewey’s flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. Tied up next to it is the submarine USS Becuna launched in 1944 and credited with the sinking of several Japanese ships during the war. Both Olympia and Becuna are registered as National Historic Landmarks and are open for tours.
The next marina up the river is Pier 5, with 110 slips (6 for transients) on floating docks inside a new 128-foot breakwater. Pier 5 does have heads, showers and laundry, and 30- and 50-amp service. It can hold yachts up to 128-feet LOA. Just a stone’s throw farther up the river and immediately north of the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Philadelphia Marine Center is the largest marina in the area, with 338 slips, including 65 for transients. It can handle boats up to 130-feet LOA, and has 30-, 50- and 100-amp service. The Philadelphia Marine Center has heads, showers and laundry and is the only one of the three marinas with pump-out facilities plus gas and diesel fuel docks.
After you’ve tied up the boat, you won’t have to worry about things to do. At Penn’s Landing, the Independence Seaport Museum exhibits show the history of shipbuilding along the Delaware, a boat shop dedicated to traditional boat building and a full-scale replica of a 1700s coastal schooner.
It’s just a short walk to Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both signed. The iconic Liberty Bell is nearby. Its message, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof,” was a rallying cry for abolitionists to end slavery.
The Betsy Ross House built around 1740 is now a museum with period actors and only a five-minute walk away. From there it’s also just a few blocks to Elfreth’s Alley in the heart of the Old City, a street with 32 restored buildings dating from the 1720s to the 1830s; it’s the oldest residential neighborhood in the U.S.
To continue the colonial theme, take a tour bus or rental car 24 miles out to Valley Forge, a national park with 30 miles of trails and picnic areas. A five-mile inner loop includes George Washington’s command center, the troops’ huts, cannon, and parade grounds where the Continental Army trained and suffered during the terrible winter of 1777-78, while the British occupied Philadelphia.
Back in town, the Philadelphia Museum of Art holds 200 galleries spanning 2,000 years. It is one of the most important museums in the world with Italian, Flemish and early Renaissance masterpieces, plus the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. And if you want to imitate Rocky Balboa, run up the 72 steps leading to the museum.
After all this touring, it’s time to eat. If you’re still in a historic mode, head for the City Tavern near Independence Hall, a replica of a 1773 restaurant where the Founding Fathers gathered. The staff is in colonial costumes, and the menu is devoted to 18th century American food, including sweet potato biscuits (Jefferson’s favorite), turkey potpie and ale made from Washington’s own recipe.
Having lived in Philadelphia for five years, I can state that no trip there is complete without a visit to the Reading Terminal Market in the center of downtown. An urban farmers’ market since 1892, Reading Terminal now has more than 100 merchants in stalls and storefronts, with everything from Amish specialties to artisan cheese and fresh meat.
For another local favorite, take a cab to the Roxborough neighborhood for Philadelphia’s legendary cheese steak at Dalessandro’s Steaks open from 11AM to midnight. Place your order at the counter; everyone from Philadelphia lawyers dressed in suits to construction workers in hardhats eats here. Then for a more traditional dinner, head for Pesto in South Philly, which looks plain on the outside but has delicious southern Italian food on the inside. The portions are large and the staff is friendly.
By Peter A. Janssen, Southern Boating Magazine September 2016
PHILADELPHIA CRUISER RESOURCES
Penn’s Landing Marina
301 S. Columbus Blvd.
(215) 928-8803; email@example.com
Pier 5 Marina
25 N. Columbus Blvd.
(215) 545-1500; thepiersmarina.com
Philadelphia Marine Center
235 N. Columbus Blvd.
(215) 931-1000; philamarinecenter.com
Independence Seaport Museum
211 S. Columbus Blvd.
(215) 413-8655; phillyseaport.org
520 Chestnut St.
(800) 537-7676; nps.gov/inde
6th and Market Streets
(215) 965-2305; nps.gov/inde
Betsy Ross House
239 Arch St.
(215) 629-4026; historicphiladelphia.org
126 Elfreth’s Alley
(215) 627-8680; elfrethsalley.org
Philadelphia Museum of Art
2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
(215) 763-8100; philamuseum.org
1400 N. Outer Line Dr.
King of Prussia, PA 19406
(610) 783-1099; nps.gov/vafo
401 S. Columbus Blvd.
(215) 923-2500; moshulu.com
138 S. 2nd St.
(215) 413-1443; citytavern.com
Reading Terminal Market
51 N. 12th St.
(215) 922-2317; readingterminalmarket.org
600 Wendover St.
(215) 482-5407; dalessandros.com
1915 S. Broad St.
(215) 336-8380; ristorantepesto.com