Exploring Philly's backyard

Philadelphia's skyline seen from the Reading Viaduct, private property that includes the abandoned Ninth Street Branch of the Reading Railroad.
Philadelphia's skyline seen from the Reading Viaduct, private property that includes the abandoned Ninth Street Branch of the Reading Railroad. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 06, 2013

Guided tours, when successful, are a sort of archaeological excavation. You could walk the path and look at the same objects on your own, but with a leader, all the behind-the-scenes stories are revealed.

In a city as rich in culture and history as Philadelphia, guided tours abound - in Old City, along the rivers, in neighborhoods, underground.

But there's a new way to see your surroundings, and it has less to do with showcasing the city's highlights than it does with getting at the guts of the town by following the lead of an expert.

Sidetour, a company with operations in New York; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and now Philadelphia, takes the concept of a guided tour and goes a step further, offering mini-experiences that span the worlds of food, drink, architecture, history, art - even astrology. Since August 2011, Sidetour has offered 30 rotating experiences: "Discover the City's Stunning Ironwork with a Local Blacksmith" ($38 a person); "Unearth Philly's Underground Stories of Freedom and Slavery" ($25); or the lighter "Drink and Discover the Classic Cocktails of Tiki Culture" ($65).

About 80 percent of patrons on each Sidetour are local. But the concept was born far from here, on a trip CEO and cofounder Vipin Goyal took with his wife several years ago. The two former tech start-up workers were bored with the scene in New York, so they sold most of their possessions and bought two plane tickets for a journey around the world, with stops in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and New Zealand. The most memorable experiences, Goyal explains, were the ones in which a local host connected them with natives' day-to-day experiences and lives.

The vacation prompted Goyal to think about the way people approach their own locales.

"Why is it when we travel we are in this mode of discovery?" he asks. "We're wide-eyed and curious. And then we come back to the cities that we live in, and put these blinders on."

The idea behind Sidetour is to meet the "fascinating people who are doing crazy, remarkable things every day" and to "take a walk in their shoes."

The only way of truly knowing your city, the company advises, is to know the tastemakers. So I met some.

My first Sidetour was also the first to be offered in Philadelphia: a walk through the Reading Viaduct led by Paul VanMeter, the cofounder of VIADUCTGreene - a project devoted to the repurposing of the abandoned Ninth Street Branch of the Reading Railroad.

Starting in Fairmount and winding through Callowhill into Chinatown, the $25 tour followed the viaduct, but did not tread on it. The land, VanMeter explained, was private property. We watched in envy as a stream of independent visitors casually disregarded that fact.

For two hours, VanMeter educated us on the tract's history and plans to reinvent it. Carrying passengers and mail to Reading Terminal for more than 100 years, the elevated rail line represents an important period of industrial development in Philadelphia. Since it became inactive in 1984, the railway has morphed into an enchanting and surreal urban jungle, overgrown with shrubbery and trees. VIADUCTGreene, VanMeter explained, aims to create a garden park "of intersecting culture and wildness." Think New York's High Line.

At its end, VanMeter suggested we decide for ourselves whether to step through a hole in the fence, use a cord tied to a tree, and climb up to the viaduct. I did, and in some ways, it felt like the real tour was just beginning.

My next choice was a wine, cheese, and honey tasting hosted by Annie Baum-Stein, who runs Milk & Honey market in West Philadelphia at the edge of Clark Park, and co-owns Urban Apiaries. Baum-Stein chatted with our group of eight about urban beekeeping, leading us through a tasting based on local zip codes - which we learned meant huge variations in taste. South Philadelphia, for instance, is replete with window-unit plants and small gardens. This honey tastes floral, with an up-front sweetness. Bees in West Philadelphia, on the other hand, are more likely to feed on flowering trees, which yield vegetal honey with a greater depth of flavor.

I stuck around after the official tasting was over, eating the leftover cheese and honey and visiting with Baum-Stein and the other guests. The food and conversation, helped by a lovely location at the center of Logan Square, was hard to leave - until someone had to go to softball practice.

My third Sidetour - a trip through Old City's waterfront - called for walking shoes again. We met our guide, Harry Kyriakodis, a historian and author, at Christ Church on Second Street, eventually making our way up to Northern Liberties on a path along the Delaware. The tour took us under the Benjamin Franklin bridge, over cobblestone streets and cracked sidewalks, and through Kyriakodis' living room (you don't get that kind of treatment on Independence Mall). A resident of Pier 3, Kyriakodis wanted us to see how a historic pier had been converted into a modern complex.

Much of the tour was conducted in spaces where this or that used to be, making it difficult to engage with the material. But Kyriakodis was largely successful in setting the scene of a lively colonial port, sharing pictures and drawings that helped us to better envision the history beneath our feet. As we walked alongside I-95, we stopped at an inconspicuous stairway between Vine and Callowhill Streets connecting Front and Water Streets. More than 300 years old, the "Wood Street Steps," named for a now nonexistent alley, are the last remnants of a series of eight to 12 sets of steps commissioned by William Penn to guarantee water access for all Philadelphians.

Educated in railroads, urban beekeeping, and the waterfront's history, I'm hungry for more.

A side benefit of Sidetour is that it succeeds in satisfying your curiosity on a subject while piquing it in others. Plus, it's hard not to become an enthusiastic supporter of a tour's topic after you've spent an hour or two with someone who has made it their life.

Perhaps Sidetour could become an addiction?

Contact Elizabeth Horkley at ehorkley@gmail.com.

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