As America’s first World Heritage City, Philadelphia enjoys global renown for its significance in the founding of the United States. And since history is rarely made without a little bit of liquid courage, the city also boasts some of the oldest and most celebrated bars in the country. Read on for details about five of Philly’s time-tested taverns, then head out to enjoy a pint, a shot, a bite and a dose of hands-on history for yourself.
McGillin’s Old Ale House opened its doors in 1860 and has been slinging drinks with a splash of authentic Philly hospitality ever since. Originally named the Bell in Hand Tavern, the bar soon informally adopted the name McGillin’s, the surname of the Irish immigrant family who owned it. In 1910, in honor of the pub’s 50th anniversary, its name officially changed to McGillin’s Olde Ale House. Patrons can see nods to its storied history throughout the space; every liquor license that the establishment has obtained since 1871 is proudly displayed, and authentic vintage signs of now defunct Philadelphia businesses like Wannamaker, Woolworth, Gimbel Brothers, and Le Bec Fin hang on the walls, a tangible reminder that McGillin’s has outlasted them all.
Cherry Street Tavern in Logan Square has hosted Philly locals and visitors since 1905. During Prohibition from 1918 through 1933, the space took a hiatus from the alcohol business and transformed into a barber shop before reclaiming its identity as the tavern we know and love today. In easy reach of attractions like the Franklin Institute and the Barnes Foundation, the establishment caters to hungry and thirsty customers with sandwiches, snacks and more than 40 varieties of beer.
American bars don’t get more historic than City Tavern. Not only does the establishment predate the incorporation of the United States of America, it played a key role in the country’s founding. Open since 1773, the venue was one of the grandest gathering spots of its time and served as a meeting place for Founding Fathers like George Washington and Paul Revere to exchange information and strategize about the Revolutionary War. Through the next few years, the tavern housed prisoners of war, served as a Continental Army headquarters and was the site of the country’s first Independence Day celebration in 1777. While the building suffered damage from a fire in 1834, it was rebuilt to its original specifications in 1975 and reopened just in time for America’s bicentennial celebration. Today, servers in period costume, historic décor and a hearty menu preserve its historic essence.
The quintessential dive bar, Dirty Franks first opened in 1933 less than a month before Prohibition was repealed. Originally owned by Lou Silverman, the second owner, Frank Vigderman, was known for his poor hygiene, which led to the moniker Dirty Franks. While a subsequent owner attempted to change the bar’s name, patrons resisted. Today, the building’s muraled exterior honors famous Franks from history, literature and pop culture. Look for likenesses of everyone from Frankenstein to Benjamin Franklin to Pope Francis and even a French franc marking the walls at the corner of 13th and Pine streets.
The National Mechanics Building has enjoyed iterations as everything from banks to churches since it was first built in 1837. Today, the architecturally exquisite locale is home to a restaurant and bar that preserves the structure’s legacy and integrity. Throughout National Mechanics, elements like gothic accents, exposed brick and oversized doors pay homage to its rich history. Located in Old City, the bar is a popular hangout for artists, techies and entrepreneurs who work and live nearby.