The English were a little late to this party. They went north and south, while the Dutch took New York – leaving the Swedes to establish the first European colony along the Delaware River. Yes, there was a time when Sweden was a European military power working to establish colonies. The “New Sweden” colony (running along the Delaware from Wilmington to Trenton) lasted from 1638 to 1655, when it was brought under control of the larger and more prosperous New Amsterdam (Dutch) colony (which was eventually taken over by the British in 1664). Still, Swedish settlers remained in the Philadelphia area. The most visible example is Gloria Dei Church (Old Swedes, c. 1700), which is the oldest church in Pennsylvania, surrounded by one of the oldest cemeteries. It is still an active congregation that is part of Independence National Park, and open to visitors Tuesday-Sunday 9:00-4:00 (except during services). Free
One of Betsy Ross’s 3 marriages took place in the church. Although much of the interior dates from a Victorian renovation, items of note in the church include models of the ships that brought the settlers to America, a c. 1731 Philadelphia-made baptismal font (barely visible on the right of the photo below), and two carved angels thought to be from the original 1646 church. There are supposedly visible remnants of an original Franklin lightning rod, but there wasn’t anyone around to ask when we were there, so… a project for a return visit.
To learn more about the New Sweden colony, check out the American Swedish Historical Museum. This off-the-beaten-path museum is the oldest Swedish-American museum in the country and is housed in a building whose cornerstone was laid during the Sesquicentennial celebration of 1926. The architect based the building’s design on combination of Ericsberg Castle (a 17th-century manor house in Sweden) and Mount Vernon, which is an interesting combination. The wings on each side of this central portion are what give it the Mt. Vernon-like feel. $10/adult $7/student The museum houses collections ranging from the history of New Sweden to contemporary Swedish art and culture (with some Viking stuff thrown in).
Viking sword and cloak pins from the spring 2019 exhibit
Besides the chance to learn some little known history, the museum is full of really cool details like this collection of mid-century textiles hidden in the basement:
The gorgeous map room (painted on bronze leaf), with its cool details of 17th century Swedish life (I could spend hours in here):
And, the 12 individual galleries, each decorated in a different historical style:
Field trips: The museum runs a variety of field trips for students pre-K through 12th (Vikings, Swedish holidays, Pippi Longstocking). Our group enjoyed in a fun program about the New Sweden colony back when the kids were studying Colonial America.
To top off Swedish Day, head a few miles north to IKEA for what is probably the best meal deal in Philadelphia – the Swedish meatball dinner (meatballs, mashed potatoes, lingonberry jam, and veggies) for $5.99. Plus, juice boxes in flavors like elder-flower or lingonberry and a nifty coffee machine that uses tokens to dispense lattes and cappuccinos. Visiting on a quiet weekday afternoon/evening is almost like a visit to an old-school (cheap) European cafe. And, if the museum visit inspired you, you can head into the store to purchase furniture and textiles that look remarkably similar to those on display at the museum.
Location: All 3 attractions are within a few miles drive south of Old City. There is plenty of free parking at the Swedish Museum and usually plenty of free street parking around Gloria Dei – and a big parking lot at IKEA.