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It’s old, it’s noisy, and it’s crowded. Those may be words that an advertising professional would dread, but they define the simple reality of the Reading Terminal Market in the heart of Center City, Philadelphia. In fact, rather than being negatives, old, noisy, and crowded are the very attributes that make the Market such a good place to visit. It’s fun and the food is amazing.
The Reading Terminal Market (commonly referred to as just “The Market” or “Reading” or “The Terminal”) is the oldest continuously operating farmers market in the country. It is the ancestor of the open-air markets that had run from the Delaware River into the center of town, along the aptly named Market Street, since the 1600’s. As the city grew, so did complaints about the outside stalls, which were considered nuisances and health hazards by area residents. After nearly 200 years, the City finally banned them in 1859. In part, they were replaced by the Farmers Market and Franklin Market at 12th and Market Streets, which served the region until the Reading Terminal Market opened 1892 as part of the consolidated headquarters, passenger station, and depot complex for the Reading Railroad. (For our younger Monopoly players, yes there really was a Reading Railroad!)
This complex, which housed an enormous train shed, offices, as well as a passenger terminal, was built above street level as a compromise to settle use and ownership issues with area merchants and property owners. Trains brought passengers in via the Reading Viaduct (in and of itself and interesting story) and dropped them off above the flourishing market below. The original market was approximately 78,000 sq. ft in size and designed to handle 800 vendors in tiny six foot stalls. One of the often overlooked features of the early market was its vast refrigeration facility of 52 rooms, encompassing over a half-million cubic feet of space. This area served as the storage area for vast amounts of food that ultimately found its way throughout the region and, in fact, a free, rail based delivery allowed personal grocery orders to be transported from the terminal to the various train stations in the suburbs.
The Market survived the Depression and grew in importance during WWII as many sought “relief” from rationing. Unfortunately, as is often history’s way, the glory years of the market began to fade. The market was directly tied to the railroad, which was confronted with falling revenues as road and air travel grew exponentially. Late in 1971, the Reading Railroad declared bankruptcy with its freight operations going to Conrail and its passenger lines to SEPTA. Over the course of the next decade, the Reading’s above ground lines and facilities were abandoned in favor of sub-surface trains and the underground Market East Station. This station complex, with its extensive Gallery shopping area that houses many national chain stores, was built as part of an extensive urban renewal project that sought to renovate the declining Center City area.
OK, so what does this have to do with a farmers market? Well, the Reading Terminal Market found itself caught between the old and the new. Times were tough and the world was changing around it. The tracks had gone silent and the giant train shed was due to be torn down; the future of the market was very uncertain. Fortunately, the buildings were within the Market Street Redevelopment Area and the vision of city planner Edmund Bacon as well as the voracity of the community allowed the complex to be incorporated into the new Pennsylvania Convention Center and directly linked to the Market Street Station. To the benefit of all, it has turned out to be a remarkable combination of facilities.
Renovations began in the 1990’s and, today, the Reading Terminal Market is both a vibrant entity unto itself and an integral part of one of the best convention facilities in the world. It is easy for the casual visitor to miss the seamless integration of the Market Street Station, the Convention Center, and the Market because you never even have to step outside. The old train shed is the new home of the Grand Hall of the Convention Center and the Hard Rock Cafe occupies the ground floor of the old Reading Headhouse. Of course, the Market is still there, and it is better than ever.
So what should you expect when you go to the Market? That’s simple. Every type of food you can imagine. You’ll find spices from around the world, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, a great selection of Amish foods from Lancaster County, sandwiches of all types, sushi, crepes, pretzels, candy, pizza, cookies, coffee, and, of course, ice cream. You’ll also find books, kitchen aids, gifts and enough other stuff to look at and buy to keep you busy for quite awhile. As an added bonus, once your belly is full you can get the best shoe shine in Philly at the Market!
The Market is a very popular place to grab lunch, so if you are looking for some place quiet, this isn’t it. There are lots of tables scattered about (but grab an open one when you see it) and the isles can get congested, but that is all part of the fun. This is a high-energy environment. You’ll often be treated to musicians playing a variety of instruments and the combination of colors, movement, and sound make for an environment that is uniquely Philadelphia. If you are just visiting the city, this is one place that you don’t want to miss.
Tip #1: If you are coming to the Convention Center for an event, you might want to plan on taking a break from that activity and eating at the Market. You’ll save money and your taste buds will appreciate the short stroll.
Tip #2: Side-by-side, and facing the Center Court, are two of our all-time favorite places to grab a sandwich. The Original Turkey has never failed us and Hershel’s East Side Deli makes corned beef and pastrami sandwiches that are nothing short of astounding.
Tip #3: If you go to the Market during the Flower Show be prepared for extra crowds and leave yourself a little extra time. The same is true for most restaurants throughout the Convention Center area.
Tip #4: The Market hours are 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday through Saturday, but some of the restaurants close after 4:00 PM. About two thirds of the market is now open on Sundays, but all of the Pennsylvania Dutch vendors are closed.
Tip #5: Discount parking is available for people who are just coming to the Market. Click here to check their website for details.