Immigrant Pride: Explore Philly’s Historic Swedish Community

Philadelphia is a cultural melting pot. Here we take a look at exploring Swedish roots.

Thanks to its central location along the Delaware River, Philadelphia has long been a key landing spot for settlers from all over the world.

Ships first traveled to the New World from Sweden in 1638, and Scandinavian culture has thrived in Philadelphia ever since. Visitors looking for a glimpse into the Swedish experience can get their fill at a variety of engaging stops across the region.

Start the Swedish American culture journey at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes) Church in Old City. This National Historic Site was erected between 1698 and 1700. Replicas of the ships that originally brought the Scandinavian settlers hang from the church’s ceiling, and the adjacent cemetery serves as the final resting place for Swedish sea captains and Revolutionary War soldiers.

The Lower Swedish Cabin in Drexel Hill offers valuable insights into what life was like for the early Scandinavian settlers. The two-room log cabin dates back to the 17th century and was built in traditional Swedish style. The home was continuously occupied for more than 300 years, and is open annually for Sunday tours from May through October.

Love shopping? Be sure to take home authentic souvenirs like the pelts, blankets and mittens that Christina and Jeff Ahlseem, owners of Tamarack Farm, bring back from their yearly trips to northern Europe.

The Ahlseems’s farm in Lancaster County is home to a herd of 39 Gotland sheep. Gotlands were first bred in Sweden and are known for their black legs, black faces and grey bodies.

“Historically in Sweden, a judge would come to each farm and determine which sheep could be bred and which would be sent to slaughter,” explains Christina.

The couple currently has 39 sheep, which they sell to others interested in raising the breed. They also sell yarn made from their animals’ fleece to local knitters.

Gallery at American Swedish Historical Museum

One of the best places for information about Swedish culture in Philadelphia is undoubtedly the American Swedish Historical Museum, the ASHM. As the oldest Swedish museum in the United States, the institution houses artifacts and honors the significant Swedish influence in America. The building itself preserves Swedish architectural influence, including elements inspired by two of the country’s most prominent buildings: the Eriksberg manor house and Stockholm’s City Hall.

Stuga at  American Swedish Historical Museum

The museum’s 12 galleries explore several aspects of Swedish history and Sweden’s contributions to the world. Visitors can learn about the bygone New Sweden colony, enter a recreated 19th century farmhouse, take note of the accomplishments of Swedish women and view colorful artwork and clothing. Kids love the Pippi Longstocking exhibit where they can play, interact and dress up like characters from Astrid Lindgren’s beloved children’s book. For home décor and other authentic goods, stop into the AHSM gift shop, the go-to spot in the city for Swedish merchandise.

Of course, no cultural journey is complete without a taste of traditional cuisine.

The ASHM offers a packed calendar of events throughout the year where guests of all ages can enjoy Scandinavian dishes and participate in Swedish customs. In January, the Pea Soup and Punsch Supper: Ärtsoppa och Punsch is an evening of hearty food and drink to warm up the soul. Semlor & a Movie in February gives visitors the chance to enjoy almond paste-filled Swedish pastries, hot coffee and a Scandinavian film.

Every June, Midsommarfest celebrates the arrival of summer with floral wreaths, dancing around the midsommarpole, food, games and more.  The season closes with the Summer Crayfish Party, where these crustaceans are cooked Swedish style in salted water and dill. In December, the Lucia celebration includes fresh-baked pastries, meatball dishes and strong Swedish coffee, along with live entertainment and a robust Christmas market.