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University City

Posted on Tuesday, January 12, 2016

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University City is one of Philadelphia’s most diverse and vibrant neighborhoods.

The History

The land that is known as University City today was originally the territory of the Lenni-Lenape Native American tribe. In 1677 an Englishman named William Warner purchased from the Lenape 1,500 acres of land situated on the western banks of the Schuylkill River. Warner named his new town Blockley after his native parish in England. Blockley actually predates the arrival of William Penn and the founding of Philadelphia by five years as Philadelphia would not be founded until 1682. Despite its earlier beginning, Blockley was quickly surpassed in size by Philadelphia which had grown into the largest city in the American colonies. By the turn of the 19th century, Blockley had become economically and culturally tied to the nearby city of Philadelphia which was located directly across the Schuylkill River. A large part of Blockley Township even became known as West Philadelphia. By the mid-19th century, Blockley and West Philadelphia officially became part of Philadelphia with the consolidation act of 1854.

The neighborhood’s current name, “University City” is derived from the large number of Universities located within the neighborhood. The University of Pennsylvania became the first university to enter the neighborhood in 1872 after spending over a century at multiple locations within Center City Philadelphia. Following UPenn’s move to the neighborhood in 1872, Drexel University would be founded nearby in 1891. Throughout the years a number of other institutions of higher education would move to the area including the University of the Sciences and the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. The area is also home to many medical institutions that have ties to the nearby universities including the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. The first hospital in the United States dedicated to the healthcare of children and one of the largest and most reknowned children's hospitals in the world, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is also located in Philadelphia. Capitalizing on the multitude of nearby universities, University City is also home to a number of scholarly societies including the University City Science Center and the Wistar Institute.

View of Center City Skyline from Drexel's campus in University City

Today, University City is a neighborhood that is in many ways shaped by the universities and educational institutions that call it home. Due to the tens of thousands of college students who live within the neighborhood, University City is a very vibrant and lively part of Philadelphia and a great place to visit on any trip to Philadelphia.

What to See

Based on its name and the large concentration of universities in the area, it’s understandable to assume that University City is only for college students, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Within University City there are attractions that are sure to entertain people of all ages.

Over the past few years, University City has become recognized as one of the most impressive culinary neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The Marigold Kitchen is an upscale avant-garde restaurant located in a former Victorian home that was recently named one of the top 100 restaurants in America. A contrast to the elegant and proper Marigold Kitchen, Distrito is a vibrant and colorful celebration of the cuisine of Mexico City run by Iron Chef Jose Garces. While the upper floor of Distrito offers upscale dining, the first floor of the restaurant is a more casual dining experience known as “Distrito Taqueria,” and on either floor the food is delicious. Visitors should also be sure to check out the White Dog Café which has been serving environmentally sustainable food to University City for over 30 years. The White Dog Café is often known as one of the “original farm to table restaurants” that helped inspire a culinary movement across America to focus on fresh food and supporting local communities.

University City is also home to some very interesting museums and galleries with ties to the University of Pennsylvania. The Institute of Contemporary Art has been a center of the contemporary art world since its founding in 1963. The influential museum hosted the first ever museum shows for Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana and many other influential artists. Today the ICA continues to be on the cutting edge of the contemporary art and best of all, admission to the ICA is free. While the ICA focuses on the most modern and experimental Art in America, another University City museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum), contains works of art that date back millenniums. At the Penn Museum you can explore a collection of art that spans thousands of years collected from across the globe, most of which was discovered on archeological digs that were conducted by the University of Pennsylvania itself.

Construction of Cira Centre South, soon to be West Philadelphia's Tallest Building

Insider Tips

University City is an Architecture buff’s dream as the neighborhood is teeming with architectural works of art. One of the most prominent buildings in University City is 30th Street Station which is Philadelphia’s largest train station and the 3rd busiest train station in the United States. This early 20th century classical revival designed building serves as a grand entrance to University City. Surrounding 30th Street station is the Cira Centre, a collection of modern skyscrapers, some of which were designed by the world renowned architect Cesar Pelli, including the currently under construction Cira Centre South which will rise to a height of 736 feet, making it the tallest building in West Philadelphia.

Drexel's Main Building - Built in 1891 by Joseph M. Wilson

The campuses of Drexel and especially the University of Pennsylvania are filled with incredible buildings that date back to the 19th century. Even the surrounding residential neighborhoods, largely consist of beautiful Victorian houses that were constructed over a century ago in a time when University City was thought of a greener, less expensive location option than Philadelphia’s overly crowded downtown. No matter what part of University City you’re exploring, there will be plenty to catch the eye.

How to Get There

For guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour, University City is a manageable 2 mile trek from the National Constitution Center where all of our tours begin and end. Those looking to walk to University City should head south on 6th Street from the National Constitution Center, take a right on Walnut St in a couple of blocks and then you can walk straight along Walnut and across the Schuylkill River to reach University City. University City is also easily reached by car as it directly adjacent to Interstate 76 and there are multiple parking lots and garages in the vicinity that serve the universities and hospitals.

30th Street Station

The easiest way to get to University City however is by public transit. Not only is University City served by the aforementioned 30th Street Station, the Market Frankford Subway line also runs through University City. University City is also served by underground trolleys that make getting around the neighborhood a breeze.


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Additional Information

University City District
3940-42 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

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