South Street Ranks Among the Coolest Streets in Center City Philadelphia

South Street

The archway entrance to South Street, Front and South Streets. In order to view the photo more clearly, just click directly on the photo, to enlarge it.

And is particularly so, on weekend nights.

For nearly half a century, the vibe of South Street has been unique and distinctive. Its bohemian atmosphere and ambience make it one of the most popular places to visit in Philadelphia, particularly for nightlife.

It is the southernmost street in Center City Philadelphia, which is the source of its name.

Surprisingly, given the penchant of William Penn and surveyor Thomas Holme for simple, geographical names, South Street was not its original name. But in keeping with the other tenet, that east-west streets were named after trees, its original name was Cedar Street.)

Particularly if you are traveling to Philadelphia, here is an important note:

South Street, despite its name, is not located in South Philadelphia - it's at the bottom of Center City.

The original design of Philadelphia consisted only of what we now know as Center City Philadelphia, with the rest of the modern-day city as "Philadelphia County". But since the city's borders were fixed in 1854 (and they have remained unchanged since then, since before the Civil War), the city of Philadelphia, and the county of Philadelphia are coterminous and identical.

How Did South Street Become Cool and Bohemian?

Ironically, it was due to an interstate highway, that was never constructed.

60 years ago, Philadelphians would have been astonished to learn that today, the South Street area had become a vibrant entertainment district. At the time, it was largely dominated by garment stores and shops, vestiges of which can still be seen today.

After World War II, the federal government vastly expanded the interstate highway system. In theory, a "Crosstown Expressway" was supposed to be built between I-76 (the Schuylkill Expressway) and I-95.

I-676, the Vine Street Expressway, which was designed for the same purpose, did not open, until the early 1990s.

This Crosstown Expressway would have meant demolition for much of South Street, and real estate values declined. But the inexpensive property meant opportunities for those interested in music, art, and counterculture in the 1960s, and South Street attracted them. And so the transformation, from garment store district to bohemian center, took place.

And as it turned out, the planned Crosstown Expressway, that had inadvertently served as the catalyst for the area's revitalization, was never built.

South Street occupies a significant niche in Philadelphia's national image, as it is mentioned in several popular songs, as well as movies and television shows filmed and/or set in Philadelphia.

It is vibrant with traffic at all hours, although not all of the street is hip and enjoyable. By and large, the cool part of the area extends from Headhouse Square, which is at 2nd and South, over to about 11th Street, tops. There's not much point in going west of there.

A Map of South Street and the Surrounding Area - The Blue Teardrop Indicates 3rd and South Streets, The Epicenter of Foot Traffic

View South Street in Philadelphia in a larger map

Getting To South Street

The area can absolutely be best explored, on foot. This is not solely due to the fact, that the foot traffic is central to the experience. Parking is extremely limited and expensive. And on a weekend night, due to the large volumes of foot traffic, it will take you a very long time to drive on its one-way, eastbound route.

Unfortunately, SEPTA service to the neighborhood is not as good, as it is to other popular Philadelphia attractions. The Broad Street Subway/Orange Line does have a stop at Lombard/South Station (Lombard Street and South Street). But you have to walk a considerable distance to get to the cool blocks near the Delaware River, so we generally wouldn't recommend Lombard/South.

There are SEPTA buses that run down the low-numbered streets, but they probably would be more of a hassle to find, to be worth the time. You're better off walking down from Old City or taking a cab (it's a short ride and isn't particularly expensive).

In addition, South Street and Headhouse Square are among the few places to visit in Philadelphia, that do not have Phlash Trolley service. Likewise, take the Phlash to 2nd and Market Streets in Old City, and walk from there. (As noted on the Phlash page, it only runs till 6 PM anyway, and you're more likely to be on South Street during the evenings...)

If you're taking SEPTA Regional Rail from the suburbs or the outlying neighborhoods, you can do something similar. Get off at Market East Station (11th and Market Streets), walk east on Market till about 6th Street, and then turn right and walk down 6th until you get to 6th and South, several blocks down. At that point, you can start exploring the neighborhood, and wind up at Headhouse Square, over at 2nd and South. (Or take a cab, up and/or back.)

Please be cognizant of the fact that SEPTA Regional Rail does not run 24 hours a day, and you're likely to be down there on a weekend night, when it will stop around midnight or so. It's a long walk (or a short cab ride) from Market East Station, at 11th and Market. So make sure you leave a comfortable cushion of time, in order to make it back to Market East, before the last train departs for your destination.

If you want to drive, the best thing to do is to drive your car somewhere else in Center City, preferably in Old City. Park there, and then walk the several blocks down to Headhouse Square and the surrounding blocks.

A general rule would be to try to park in the low-numbered streets in Old City, to reduce the length of your walk. From Old City, the walk is generally safe, although you should always be conscious of your surroundings. This is particularly true when it's late at night (that is, the best time to visit the neighborhood). Likewise, if you're traveling to Philadelphia and you're not familiar with the area, be alert.

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