This post highlights one of the best attractions in Philadelphia: the Reading Terminal Market. In here, I describe what this place has to offer and what makes it unique.
Sometimes, I start to ponder how little I know about the historical roots of the country I live in.
During my formative years, I only took a semester of US History. I know. It doesn’t make sense. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico which is a territory of the US. However, for reasons that go beyond the scope of this post, the social studies curriculum offered in public schools lacks certain basic elements.
It is not a surprise if I tell you I was not able to process years of pre-colonial, colonial and national history in a few months.
Living in California, far away from where the country started to grow, makes things more difficult. It is not like I can stop by Virginia or Massachusetts often.
I think that desire to know more about the early years of the United States is what made me find a lot of places in Pennsylvania interesting. While visiting my mom, on the Eastern side of the state, I was in awe at the strong European influence in the region. I admired Dutch architecture, ate German food and shopped in Italian markets. I felt like I was in an entire different country.
The most emotional moments came in Philadelphia. Yes, I was able to visit sites related to the American Revolution. On top of that, my heart filled with joy when I entered a dimly light, old school space filled with more than a hundred vendors. I was at the Reading Terminal Market and it was my first time experiencing a place like that.
Markets have been popular in Philadelphia since the city was founded. Even the city’s “main street” was renamed Market Street because of the many open markets that operated in the thoroughfare in the early and mid-1800s.
The Industrial Revolution demanded an expansion of the railroad and with that expansion big terminals (to accommodate travelers) started to be a reality in many urban centers in the country. The Reading Railroad’s heading terminal (and its market) opened in 1893. Many say the merchants who operated in the area refused to leave and became a big headache for Reading. The company settled things by having an indoor market in its terminal.
The market declined after the Great Depression and went into further despair once the railroad started to be replaced by other transportation mediums (1950s and 1960). The Reading Railroad Company filed for bankruptcy in 1971. After that, little attention was paid to the operations and maintenance of the market. Closing rumors started to spread like fire.
New light came in 1990 when the entire terminal was passed to the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority. The revitalization work started and the rest is history.
Nowadays, the Reading Terminal Market has over one hundred merchants selling fresh produce, meat, artisan cheese, baked goods, ice cream, flowers, ethic foods and much more. Everything sold inside is fresh and brought daily (or prepared on site) by local merchants. Tradition lives in the form of Dutch and Amish specialties sold in many stalls. Plus, some of the current merchants are descendant of people who sold on the market when it opened.
One hundred thousand people pass by the market every week. For the mentioned reasons, the Reading Market Terminal is a gem in the city of Philadelphia.
What makes the Reading Terminal Market unique?
The Reading Terminal Market keeps its lighting low, its stalls narrow and the prices reasonable. Many neon signs identify merchants or are used to advertise the food sold at a stall.
There are counters, stools and simple furniture. The eating areas are kept communal. It is easy to engage in conversation with the people sitting next to you.
Gentlemen with long beards and ladies wearing bonnets are going to served you. You may hear them calling you “Honey”, “Darling” or “Love.”
Food is fresh and flavorful. You are going to find goods based on Dutch and Amish recipes. Plus, those goods were made from scratch that day.
Call it old-fashioned, authentic or historic. It doesn’t matter how you describe it.
This place has no intention of being described as innovative, hip or cool. Its clear identity is what makes it unique. That is a welcomed attitude in a country were fancy food courts are popping everywhere.
When in Philly, you may want to try cheesesteak. The market offers two (“recommended”) options: Tommy Dinic’s and Spataro’s. They sell breakfast and roasted pork sandwiches too.
I am going to go ahead and be a hater. I didn’t like any on the cheesesteaks I tried in Philly. I went to places described by locals as “the best.” I found the cheesesteaks bland and overpriced. Therefore, research a bit before deciding on a place.
To be honest, I do not think a lot of people visit this market to buy produce. However, there is a nice selection of fruits and vegetables in one corner of the place. Prepared dips, pastas and salads are sold in the area too.
There are several stalls selling popular meat cuts and poultry. Vibrant fish and seafood is on offer too.
I was more interested in taking a look at the things I am not that used to see. I saw smoked pig ears, turkey necks, turkey tails (really?) and hamloaf. Plus, I observed big quantities of bacon and sausages.
I noticed a slight local obsession with cheese. I think I saw about ten different stalls selling all sorts of cheese. Muenster. Gouda. Raclette. Idiazabal. Manchego. You name it, they had it.
Amish cream and butter was available too.
And, let me not get started at the amazing grilled cheese sandwiches prepared by some merchants.
Baked Goods and Sweets
By looking at what is sold in the market, you can start to notice what people in the area like.
Based on what I saw, people in Philadelphia are into sweet things. The market contains about 30 stalls dedicated to cakes, pies, donuts, cookies, ice cream, chocolate and fudge. At some points, there were a hundred people on line waiting to grab a little piece of heaven.
I enjoyed seeing how certain goods were made to order (example, cannoli and donuts).
Seriously, if you have problems with sugar, this is not the place for you!
In summary, the Reading Terminal Market is a place filled with history, tradition and food served with great pride and love. I invite you to discover it if you find yourself in the city of Philadelphia (or if you want to escape to Europe without having to pay airfare).
- This market starts to get crowded around 11:00 a.m. Expect long lines, crowded halls and difficulty to find a place to sit.
- Visit early morning if you want to avoid the crowds
- The market is open till 5:00 p.m. but many places are sold out before that. As I mentioned, the earlier your visit, the better
- I focused the post on local food and products. However, a big selection of international food is available om site
More About Markets
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