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All Roads Lead to West Chester

This Pennsylvania borough that’s earned accolades such as ‘Great American Main Street’ and ‘Best Place to Live’ makes a great weekend destination.

By Theresa Gawlas Medoff


 

It was first known as Turk’s Head, after the inn that opened there in 1762 to serve travelers journeying along Pottstown Pike, Wilmington Pike, Philadelphia Pike and Lancaster Pike. Back then, the tavern—and the Pennsylvania borough that sprang up at this crossroads—was one day’s journey from each of those cities. Its current name might be less poetic, but today’s West Chester has become a destination in its own right, with a downtown dining and shopping district that’s the envy of many a small town, a rich history that can be read in its well-preserved buildings, and a host of nearby attractions. 

Day One
From City to Garden

Begin your introduction to West Chester with a self-guided walking tour of downtown, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (You can find a map and details online at downtownwestchester.com.) Historic and architectural gems date from the 1789 red-brick William Darlington Building, which served as home and office for the man considered the father of West Chester, to the Hotel Warner, which preserves the façade, lobby and grand staircase of the 1930 Art Deco Warner Theater.

Hotel Warner, West Chester, PA
Hotel Warner
Photo Courtesy of Chester County's Brandywine Valley

Several buildings downtown were designed by Thomas U. Walter, fourth Architect of the U.S. Capitol—the guy responsible for the Capitol Dome. They include the Greek Revival bank at 17 North High, the Historic 1848 Courthouse and the Romanesque-style Horticultural Hall that today is part of the Chester County Historical Society Museum. Stop in to see the museum’s permanent exhibits, which include an impressive collection of 18th- and 19th-century wooden furniture, and the temporary exhibit “Many Nations I Chester County,” on display through December 20.

You’ll be excused if you interrupt your walking tour periodically to duck into some of the dozens of shops on Gay, Market, High and Church Streets. There are numerous boutiques and vintage shops, multiple art galleries, and even a tobacconist and a second-hand bookstore. For my money, though, the best shop in town is Éclat, where European-taught master-chocolatier Christopher Curtin makes chocolates that have earned co-branding approval from the likes of chefs Anthony Bourdain and Jose Garces and the Williams Sonoma company.

Box of Chocolate
Éclat Chocolate

If you haven’t overindulged in dark chocolate, consider lunch at Pietro’s Prime (known for its steaks and prime rib sandwiches), or load up on artisanal cheeses, salamis, olives and Italian bread at specialty grocer Carlino’s. Eat in the market’s small dining area, or bring your lunch to the picnic area adjacent to your next destination: Longwood Gardens, a mere seven miles away in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

For those who haven’t yet discovered Longwood Gardens, the former estate of Pierre S. du Pont is a wonder to behold. Longwood draws visitors from around the world to enjoy its 1,077 acres of formal gardens, woodlands, meadows and 20-room Conservatory that showcase more than 11,000 types of native and exotic plants from across the globe. Through March 25, orchids overtake the Conservatory for the annual Orchid Extravaganza. Spring Blooms runs March 31–May 6, with all manner of spring flowers indoors and out.

The Main Fountain Garden fronting the Conservatory reopened last May after a two-and-a-half-year, $90 million revitalization that not only restored the ailing 1931 fountain garden but also enhanced it with today’s fountain technology. The fountains return to life May 7, with evening fountain shows Thursdays through Saturdays May 10 through the end of October.

Longwood Gardens
Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens
Photo by Daniel Traub

Dinner and a Show
West Chester’s 75 shops are matched by a like number of restaurants, with fare ranging from the enormous pizzas at Lorenzo and Sons that are a favorite of students at West Chester University to gourmand-approved spots such as The Original Spence Café, where West Chester native Andrew Patten helms the kitchen; Teca or Limoncello for Italian fare; and Vudu Lounge at High Street Caffe, with its funky vibe and Cajun and Creole cuisine. A number of West Chester restaurants are BYOB. If you’re dining in one of them, pick up a bottle of wine beforehand at Kreutz Creek Vineyards West Chester Tasting Room.

Check out what’s on stage at Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center, which opened its doors last year after re-casting the former armory on High Street into a cultural gathering space. Entertainment options include professional theater (look for Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical March 30–April 22) as well as monthly performances featuring jazz, dueling pianos, Latin-themed productions and comedy improv.

If you’d rather just enjoy a cocktail and some live music, opportunities abound in town on weekends. Check out Bar AV for jazz and The Social Lounge for a variety of music types.

The 80-room Hotel Warner is one option for tonight’s lodging. If you’d like something more intimate, try Faunbrook Bed & Breakfast one mile from downtown. It features seven guest rooms and suites (all with private bath) in a circa 1850 home that belonged to descendants of “Mr. West Chester,” William Darlington. Spend time relaxing in the common rooms, which include a library with fireplace as well as a wraparound porch that steps down to a shaded patio.

Day two
Out and About

Before setting off on today’s excursions, enjoy a leisurely breakfast at your lodging, or perhaps have brunch at Bar AV, which has bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys on weekends.

If it’s Saturday, stop by Artisan Exchange, a year-round specialty food market held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at a warehouse in an industrial park. The food purveyors at Artisan Exchange are an eclectic mix of mostly female entrepreneurs making packaged food from heirloom recipes, notes Frank Baldassarre, principal of Artisan Exchange and Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters, which also sells in the exchange.

Artisan Exchange, West Chester, PA
Artisan Exchange
Photo Courtesy of Chester County's Brandywine Valley

On any given Saturday, you might be able to sample and buy pre-packaged vegan Indian entrees, Hungarian and German baked goods, Chinese dumplings made from the owner’s mother’s recipe, and Massie cakes from MacDougall’s, which are butter pound cakes made from a recipe created by the owner’s great-grandfather, an elite baker in Ireland. The purveyors prepare their food in shared commercial kitchens at Artisan Exchange. Make a reservation for a behind-the-scenes tour; the cost is $10, but it comes with a $10 gift certificate to use at the market. Bring a cooler to take home your favorite foods.

If you’re a fan of the home shopping mega-giant QVC—or if you’re interested in how live television happens—take a guided tour of the studios at QVC’s worldwide headquarters. QVC sprang to life in the late 1980s and has since evolved into an $8.7 billion business with broadcast operations in five countries offering home shopping 24/7/365 via 15 TV channels, 7 websites and the QVC app.

Learn more on one of three paid tours: the one-hour Studio Tour offered Mondays through Saturdays; the longer Behind-the-Scenes Tour (offered twice a week and often selling out), which takes you into the prop and staging areas, the salon and green room, the kitchen where chefs prep food for display, and the storage area for some 350,000 products to be sold on the air; and, for real QVC-ites, the $100, three-and-a-half-hour All-Access Tour with lunch that’s offered once a week.

American Helicopter Museum
American Helicopter Museum
Photo Courtesy of American Helicopter Museum

If you pass on visiting QVC, head to the American Helicopter Museum overlooking Brandywine Airport. The greater Philadelphia region played a central role in the development of rotary wing aircraft, and four major helicopter companies are based in the area. The museum displays some 35 rotorcraft, from a 1945 Sikorsky S-51 to a Bell 47D, known for its use as a MASH helicopter in the Korean War, to the innovative Bell Boeing V22 Osprey tiltrotor. You can experience the Atlas human-powered helicopter, climb into the cockpits of several aircraft, and fly a simulator of a Cobra attack helicopter, the forerunner of the U.S. Army’s current Apache helicopters. 

If you’re still up for more touring, there are numerous other attractions in the area, including the Brandywine River Museum, which highlights works by the Wyeth family of artists, and Brandywine Battlefield, site of a 1777 Revolutionary War battle. Or end your day with wine tasting and small bites at Penns Woods Winery or Chaddsford Winery. West Chester may be a destination all its own, but it offers all the attractions of being a crossroads town, too.

For more information, visit brandywinevalley.com.

 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of AAA World.


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