West Chester, a quaint college town nestled in Pennsylvania's Brandywine Valley, is a trip back in time.
Its quiet neighborhoods are leafy and green, its hip downtown is bustling with activity, and cars actually stop for pedestrians. The stylish boutiques and restaurants inhabiting the town's historic architecture make West Chester look like a postcard of Main Street, USA - stamped with cosmopolitan flair.
But it wasn't always this way. It was only a few years ago that new businesses started to crop up along the streets of West Chester's once bleak downtown. According to Malcolm Johnstone of the West Chester Business Improvement District, there was a time when three of the four storefronts at the crossroads of High and Gay streets were vacant. As a testament to West Chester's recent renaissance, where there were 25 downtown restaurants three years ago, today there are 50.
Some neighborhoods in West Chester continue to undergo renewal, but the revitalized, tree-lined downtown district listed on the National Register of Historical Places now hosts a multitude of award-winning restaurants and eclectic shops all in one compact and easy-to-navigate neighborhood. And it hasn't gone unnoticed. Last year the town won Best New Shopping District honors for the first time in the 23-year history of the Best of Philly Awards.
Only 35 minutes from Center City Philadelphia, West Chester is different things to different people. It's a small workaday town that is home to 18,000, it's the Chester County seat, a place steeped in Colonial history, a home away from home for West Chester University students, and a destination for city-dwellers seeking fine dining and shopping without the hectic city pace. But it incorporates the best of all these worlds with its equal parts of small-town charm and big-city style.
Use our listings as a start for exploring West Chester, but remember there's more to be found by simply wandering the area surrounding the intersection of Gay Street and High Street.
Swinging Summer Thursdays: A weekly family event featuring food, street entertainment and live music held throughout the summer in downtown West Chester 6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
First Fridays: Shops stay open until 9 p.m. on the first Friday of every month.
Growers Market: Fresh farm produce for sale at the corner of Church and Chestnut streets every Saturday morning from May to October.
Downtown Restaurant Festival: The third Sunday in September.
Fall Gallery Walk: The first Friday in October.
Where to shop
Acorn Cottage (14 W. Gay St., 610-430-3316): The eclectic mix of both antique and modern furniture, art, housewares and knickknacks at this sunny shop is culled from estate sales, auctions and garage sales.
Ashley & Whitney (119 W. Market St., 610-431-6851): Women's fashions by Nanette Lepore and Cynthia Steffe are staples at this shop where the selection is cutting edge yet classic.
Blink (136 W. Gay St., 610-431-221): You-know-what and you might miss this tiny boutique, but it's worth keeping your eyes peeled, if not for hard-to-find designer jeans like Citizens of Humanity, then for the chic French Connection gear and the soft-as-butter Juicy Couture shirts.
Grandiflora (138 E. Gay St., 610-918-4880): The comfortable-looking furniture, clean-smelling soaps and luxurious pajamas at this shabby-chic store make it most inviting.
The Lily Pad (150 E. Gay St., 610-719-6008): This store specializes in custom stationery but also stocks eye-catching gift items like Bermuda bags in splashy colors and monogrammed totes.
Luxy (27 N. High St., 610-431-7444): Fashion-forward pieces that fluctuate between girlie and punk make this girls-wear shop a must for females from any school of style.
The Mad Platter (111 W. Gay St., 610-431-1509): A music store stocked to the gills with new compact discs and rare records.
Malena's (145 W. Gay St., 610-738-9952, www.malenas boutique.com): This colorful boutique is full of vintage clothes, shoes, purses and jewelry as well as vintage-inspired clothing.
Play Nice (101 W. Gay St., 610-696-2410): This children's store sells everything from educational toys to Petit Bateau brand baby clothing and playful sequin-encrusted mermaid skirts with a tulle ruffle at the bottom.
Women's Exchange (10 S. Church St., 610-696-3058): Find a slice of traditional West Chester at this consignment shop characteristic of small-town America.
High St. Caffe (322 S. High St., 610-696-7435): Spicy Cajun and Creole food fill the menu at this restaurant specializing in exotic cuisine.
Coyote Crossing (102 E. Market St., 610-429-8900): Mexican cuisine and an enticing specialty-drinks menu.
Iron Hill Brewery and Restaurant (3 W. Gay St., 610-738-7240): Right on the corner of Gay and High streets, Iron Hill brews its own beer, serves tasty fare and offers outdoor seating.
Fish Market (9 N. Walnut St., 610-696-4180): Fish Market features fruits of the sea in soups, salads, sandwiches and pastas.
Kildare's (18-22 W. Gay St., 610-431-0770): Kildare's pours an authentic Guinness and serves traditional dishes such as bangers and mash and bread pudding as well as modern-day meals.
Kooma (151 W. Gay St., 610-430-8980): This sleek Asian fusion restaurant has a mind-boggling sushi menu.
Signature Pastries (132 Gay St., 610-738-9505): This delightful pastry shop calls its wares "edible works of art" and it's not kidding. Beautiful fruit tarts, such as spiced apple tarts and chocolate berry pyramids, dazzle in the display case, all for under $4.
Turk's Head Inn (15 S. High St., 610-696-1400): This fine-dining establishment is actully named after the town of West Chester, which was called Turks Head when it was only a small village in the early 1700s. The diverse menu and sophisticated setting are designed to impress.
Vincent's (10 E. Gay St., 610-696-4262): This cool, dark cave of a watering hole and restaurant offers refuge from the hot summer temperatures and presents live jazz and blues on select nights.
West Chester is about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Baltimore. Take Interstate 95 North to Exit 8, where you will pick up U.S. 202/Concord Pike toward Wilmington/West Chester. Take 202 North, which turns into South High Street/U.S. 322 into West Chester, and make a left onto Gay Street. The downtown district is anchored by the intersection of High and Gay streets. Parking is free on weekends.
Visit www.westchester bid.com, www.brandywinevalley .com or call 610-738-3350 or 800-228-9933.