Drive time from NoVA: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Small Town Charm
Manayunk is Lenape for river, which translates to “place to drink.” That took on new meaning after 1989, when this working-class neighborhood built on a steep bank of the Schuylkill River was reinvented as a commercial district and popular weekend destination. Six miles upriver from Boathouse Row, Manayunk’s refurbished stone mills and warehouses lend the town an old-world industrial grandeur. You can stroll along a boardwalk beside the canal or explore the many shops, galleries, bars and restaurants lining Main Street and its hilly side streets. The neighborhood east of Main Streets is a series of parishes built in the 19th century to house immigrant communities who worked in the factories. Bells from their churches still echo through the neighborhood.
The iconic arches of the Manayunk Bridge, built as a railway in 1918, were purely decorative until 2015 when the long-abandoned bridge reopened as a pedestrian walkway. Now you can walk or bike across to Lower Merion and pick up the paved trail along the Schuylkill’s west bank. Every Thursday night throughout the summer, Manayunk hosts Stroll The Street with food trucks, vendors and live music. A farmers market at Pretzel Park runs from May through November and The Spiral Bookcase holds readings by local authors and artist exhibitions. In June, the neighborhood hosts the annual Manayunk Arts Festival, the largest outdoor, juried arts festival in the tri-state area.
For decades, Manayunk hosted an international bike race famous for a long, steep climb up Leverington Avenue known as The Wall. While the race is history, the neighborhood is still famous for its bike culture. Bike trails along this part of the Schuylkill were renovated along with the bridge bypass. You can now cycle from Center City all the way to Valley Forge, with Manayunk considered a favorite place to stop and drink. If you arrive in Manayunk on your bike (or want to leave with a new one), you’ll want to stop at Trek Bicycle Philadelphia Manayunk to test ride the latest models along the canal. Cadence offers yet more brands, plus coaching and repairs.
For foodies, Manayunk is also a must-do. It was named the seventh best small town food scene by readers of USA Today’s 10Best site last year for good reason. There’s amazing variety in cuisine and settings in this small area. You can people-watch from a sidewalk table outside Le Bus East Falls or Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar; look out on the canal while eating Cajun-style shrimp on the deck of Bourbon Blue; grab a burger at Lucky’s Last Chance; find Korean-Jamaican fusion at The Spicy Belly; and enjoy stuffed grape leaves at Smiley’s Cafe.
Weekends are the perfect time to grab a drink and check out a band at Dawson Street Pub, the Grape Room or The Locks at Sona. Live music can also be found at Manayunk Brewing Company, La Roca, The Goat’s Beard and Bourbon Blue.
Manayunk is also a great place to pick up unique gifts. Bendi Jewelers and Gary Mann Jewelers offer custom-made fine jewelry. Wilson’s Estate Jewelry has everything from Victorian cufflinks for a few hundred to vintage Bulgari and rare art deco diamond rings for several thousand.
Latitudes and Longitudes carries funny cards and artisan wares. The Little Apple has Philly-centric gifts for bridal and baby showers, decor and jewelry by local makers. Johnny Destructo’s Hero Complex is heaven for comic buffs and The Spiral Bookcase is the quintessential used bookstore, complete with a resident cat who has his own tip jar.
Make it a Weekend
There is only one fully appointed inn in this neighborhood but it gets rave reviews. Manayunk Chambers Guest House is a beautifully refurbished Victorian townhouse on a quiet street a few blocks uphill from Main Street and a short walk from the train to Center City. Built as a rectory in 1877, the inn converted into apartments and a beauty parlor during the Great Depression. Its current owners spent 15 years restoring and decorating before opening for business in 2015. Neal Orzeck has lived in Manayunk all his life, and his husband, Mark Jerde, is the primary innkeeper. Rooms are cozy and immaculate with antiques, fresh flowers and free Wi-Fi. A few have fireplaces and private baths. Jerde is friendly and helpful, serving wine and cocktails in the evenings and a bountiful breakfast with his own fresh-baked pastries.
Jerde and Orzeck spearheaded the newest Out & About in MNYK, a weekendlong LGBTQ festival held in October featuring drag shows, drag queen bingo and face painting, even drag story time for the kids. “With all the young people moving in and starting families here,” Jerde says, “story time was a must.”
What the Locals Know
“My guests always talk about the European flavor and small town charm of Manayunk,” says Mark Jerde, innkeeper at the Manayunk Chambers Guest House. “The way the houses are laid out on the side of a hill is very European. The parishes, while not thriving any more, still have a flavor of the various ethnicities that surrounded them a century ago.” Visitors appreciate the unique character of the mom and pop shops along Main Street, he says. “Stores and restaurants here are privately owned, business owners are friendly and we have great festivals throughout the year.”
This post is a part of our May 2020 print issue‘s cover story, “Small Town Adventures.” For more travel guides, subscribe to our Travel newsletter.