With spring officially sprung, now is the perfect time to begin planning a trip to Philadelphia’s Urban Enclave of Chestnut Hill. While part of Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill sits just 12 miles from Center City Philadelphia on the border of Montgomery County.
Along with Germantown and Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill is one of three Philadelphia Garden Neighborhoods. It is easily accessible by train from 30th Street Station on the Chestnut Hill West line. Therefore, if you are visiting the “City of Brotherly Love” there is no reason not to plan a side trip or weekend escape to this stunning green (pink, purple, and yellow too) community.
Visit Morris Arboretum, The Official Arboretum of the Commonwealth
Morris Arboretum is undeniably one of the most delightful places to enjoy spring blooms. Situated on 92 wooded acres, the arboretum was once the summer home of siblings, John and Lydia Morris, heirs to the I.P. Morris Company, an iron-manufacturing firm. The Morris’s landscaped and built an impressive plant collection including both indigenous species and botanicals they gathered from around the world.
In addition, the siblings, through their travels brought art from the Americas, Asia, and Europe to Compton, as it was known, and sculpture became part of the landscape. Morris Arboretum is listed both on the National Registry of Historic Places and is the official arboretum of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Additionally, Morris Arboretum ranks among the 50 Most Stunning University Gardens and Arboretums.
Beginning in March, Morris Arboretum offers a lineup of classes and special events. The roster typically includes a Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival the first two weekends in April. Thus, there is no need to go all the way to Washington DC to enjoy the perennial blooms of the cherry tree.
In keeping with the Morris’s tradition of making art part of the landscape, each season the arboretum brings in an exhibition of artist work. Past exhibits have included, wind art, stick art, and even a crochet artist who “yarn bombed” the property in 2015. The theme for 2023 has not yet been announced.
In addition to seasonal and annual exhibits, you will not want to miss the many unique features and collections the gardens offer. One characteristic unique to Morris Arboretum is the many varieties of trees found on the premises, some of the oldest in the area. After all, Pennsylvania literally means “Penn’s Woods,” after the famous Philadelphian, William Penn. However, the tree varieties go beyond those indigenous to the region to include the Japanese Zelkova, Cilician Fir, Chinese Elm, and more.
Be sure to look for the many unusual, Japanese garden elements as well as the property’s traditional Victorian gardens, in addition to the unique varieties of trees. Stop at Swan Pond and enjoy its tranquility. If you are interested in a more in-depth appreciation of the many elements found throughout the gardens, Morris Arboretum offers several tour options.
If you have kids, you will want to visit Out on a Limb. Here you can experience the forest from high above. Scramble across a huge, netted area like a squirrel moving from tree to tree. Sit in a giant bird’s nest complete with Robin’s eggs. This fun learning exhibit for adults and kids is fully accessible.
Kids can also let their imaginations run wild in the Fairy Woods in the Sculpture Garden. Here kids can learn about plants and gather pinecones, acorns, bark, and lichen to build fairy houses.
Explore the Chestnut Hill Neighborhood
Chestnut Hill has so much to offer all year round including some fantastic dining, boutique shops and antique stores, and the Woodmere Art Museum (if you are biking, you will pass Woodmere just before coming into Chestnut Hill. More about biking to Chestnut Hill later)) featuring art and artists with a connection to Philadelphia. But when spring is in the air, there is no place better to be than touring the amazing gardens which grace the area.
As you venture away from Germantown Avenue, the main street, you will find beautiful stately homes on the side streets. Mature Azaleas and Rhododendrons along with daffodils and tulips are hallmarks of the spring garden. Chestnut Hill Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Enjoy Brunch in the ‘Burbs
If you have spent the night in Chestnut Hill or arrive early, I recommend brunch at Cake, a local café/bakery situated in a former greenhouse. Even when the skies are gray, all the natural light that floods the restaurant makes any day a bit brighter. Cake offers up a menu ranging from lighter fare including pasties and fresh fruit to more substantial fare including eggs and a quiche of the day. If you have sweet tooth you may want to try their waffles and French toast.
I had trouble deciding between French toast and the quiche. Ultimately, I went with the quiche. It was a combination of caramelized onions, roasted red pepper, fontina cheese, and a bit of rosemary. The pastry was flakey perfection and the combination of flavors made for a savory treat.
Since a springtime visit to Chestnut Hill is all about the gardens, you will want to take a piece of the garden home. Before departing, pick up a brilliant bouquet of cut seasonal flowers from Robertson’s the local florist, which happens to be attached to Cake. These spring blooms will surely remind you of your delightful visit to Philadelphia’s Garden District for days to come.
Bike to Chestnut Hill from Center City
For cyclists, the garden district is easily within reach from Center City. And the ride will take you along some of Philadelphia’s amazing bike paths and through the parks and natural areas the city is known for.
Pick up a bike share from Indego located at the Philadelphia Art Museum. The kiosk is at the base of the famous Rocky Steps and statue, so be sure to snap a picture with Rocky or record a video of you dashing up the steps. If you decide to use the bike share, be aware that there are no kiosks in Chestnut Hill. Additional nearby rental options include Wheel Fun Rentals at Boathouse Row or Fairmount Bicycles.
From the Art Museum, you can opt to ride either side of the river. Ride the west side along MLK Drive or the east side on Kelly Drive. Both routes will take you through Fairmount Park and past Philadelphia’s famous Boathouse Row. For the best view of colorful Boathouse Row, you will need to be on the west side which provides panoramic views of the Schuylkill River and the boathouse.
From MLK Drive cross the Falls Bridge, an old steel bridge spanning the river. Those on Kelly Drive will not cross but you can stop for photos. From the bridge pick up Ridge Avenue and take that to the Wissahickon Trail. You’ll see the trail after crossing Lincoln Drive and the Wissahickon Creek (the trail is on the left).
The Wissahickon Trail provides a scenic ride into Wissahickon Valley Park, but you will only be on the path for under a mile and a half. You’ll be sticking to the paved and gravel bike trails but Wissahickon Valley Park is known in the Philadelphia area for its challenging, rocky, mountain biking trails. The path follows the creek and Lincoln Avenue.
After crossing the Henry Avenue Bridge, you will make a left onto Forbidden Drive. Just past the bridge is Lovers Leap a popular spot for photos. And when you make the onto Forbidden Drive watch for Ten Box, another scenic spot for pictures.
Forbidden Drive winds through Wissahickon Valley Park for about 2 miles. You will pass several photogenic spots along the way. At the Valley Green Inn, a historic inn and popular dining spot, you will cross the creek and onto Valley Green Rd. From here you will be riding on public streets. But it’s only for a few miles. Nevertheless, use caution!
You will remain on Valley Green Road for about 3/4 of a mile before making a left on Lincoln Drive where you will remain for only a block. At this point, make a right onto West Willow Grove Avenue and take that for .2 miles to Germantown Avenue, the heart of Chestnut Hill.
Where to Stay in Chestnut Hill
A Center City hotel is nice for the convenience of Philadelphia sightseeing. But a stay in an old Chestnut Hill hotel is lovely and still allows for easy access to the city’s museums, shopping, dining, entertainment, sports, and nightlife. If you opt for a stay in the suburbs, then consider the Chestnut Hill Hotel, a historic boutique hotel with all the luxuries of any modern hotel.