Tucked away between busy, bustling Arch and Race streets in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, the nation’s oldest residential street stands almost undisturbed from its colonial beginnings. Elfreth’s Alley dates back to 1702, and setting foot on this narrow, brick and cobblestone alley feels like a trip back in time. The 32 brick houses lining the alley, small by today’s standards but large enough for storefronts or multiple families in their heyday, feature old-fashioned flower boxes, shutters, and colonial trappings like the British Union Jack flag.
As a National Historic Landmark, Elfreth’s Alley has been faithfully preserved to withstand the test of time, and two adjacent houses on the street serve as a public museum. The museum is a popular tourist attraction, and its exhibits and guides tell visitors how the 18th-century dressmakers who lived in the houses would have gone about their daily lives. Tour guides also discuss the other houses in the alley and the details of the authentic 1700s and 1800s Federal and Georgian-style architecture.
Elfreth’s Alley was built in 1702 by two blacksmiths, John Gilbert and Arthur Wells, to connect their riverside businesses to 2nd Street, which at the time was a major road between Philadelphia and neighboring towns. Since 1702, the alley has been home to more than 3,000 people, and historically had a diverse population of merchants, artisans and craftsmen due to its close proximity to the Delaware River.
While the alley is a landmark and tourist attraction, many of the houses are still privately owned and occupied. The houses open their doors and take part in celebrations around the year, though, including the Christmas-themed Deck the Alley open house in December. The event features seasonal refreshments, colonial carolers and tours highlighting Philadelphia’s holiday history.
Elfreth’s Alley museum and alley tours are open Friday through Sunday, noon to 5 PM, and cost $5.00 per person. Group tours outside of regular hours are available by prior arrangement, and the alley’s cobblestone street is free and open to the public at all hours. For more information, click here.