Pennsylvania is an endearing state that should be on every traveler’s must-visit list. It features a wide range of cultures, ecosystems, and activities. The state is diverse in its people, politics, religions, and habitats.
Not only that, but Pennsylvania has the richest history of any state in the US! There are tons of things to do in Pennsylvania, and here are the best places to start.
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If you’ve never been to Pennsylvania, you should start with its most recognizable city, Philadelphia. The city of brotherly love has its flaws. Where else would a hitchhiking robot get destroyed, or would Santa get booed off the field?
There are also tales about the dangerous West Philadelphia, celebrated in songs of old. I’ve never been to that portion of the city, but the legends can’t be wrong, can they?
Despite its bad rap, Philadelphia is worth a visit. As one of the oldest cities in the nation, it’s rich in history and culture. Here are the top four things you can’t miss on a visit to Philadelphia.
Our Country’s Founding
Independence Square is an essential part of Philadelphia. Technically called Independence National Historical Park, this 55-acre block is home to some of the most iconic pieces of American Revolutionary history.
The Park is home to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were signed and debated. It was the primary meeting-house for the Revolution and the central point of early United States politics before moving to Washington DC in 1800.
Independence Park is also home to one of the most iconic symbols of United States freedom, the Liberty Bell. The bell began as a signal to let the early members of congress know that it was time to meet and to let the townspeople gather to hear the news.
Eastern State Penitentiary is an eerie, abandoned prison. Although it’s now nearly in ruins, it was one of the most extensive and expensive US prisons in the middle of the 20th century. It even hosted the infamous Al Capone for a few months!
The prison, built in the 1820s, was designed to flip the script on prisoner treatment. It had heating and indoor plumbing, which was incredibly advanced for the time, and unheard of for a prison. Before Eastern Penn, prison conditions across the nation were abyssal.
As the city grew, the idea of rehabilitating prisoners was lost. The prison became overcrowded, and the other cells were not designed with the same care. Rooms were small, dank, underground, and dirty. The prison closed in the 1970s and stood abandoned for over 20 years.
It reopened to the public in 1994, and now we can freely roam the crumbling infrastructure and see prisoners’ dismal conditions. Eastern State Penitentiary is a creepy place with historical significance and is worth checking out.
Philadelphia is not exactly renowned for its art, but it does have a few art museums that are worth a visit. The most important is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but not so much for its art.
You need to visit the Philadelphia Art Museum for its stairs.
Yes, the stairs.
The iconic stairs that Rocky Balboa ascends during his training montage to the emotionally charged “Eye of the Tiger.” The museum celebrates its place in pop culture history with a statue of Rocky to the right of the famous staircase, and I was honestly shocked at the number of people running up the stairs with “Eye of the Tiger” blasting.
It’s truly a cultural icon.
The museum itself is worth a visit as well. It houses some impressive Impressionist pieces, and I was amazed at the number of authentic medieval arches the museum imported and installed in its third-floor gallery.
As far as art museums go, it’s one of the smaller ones I’ve visited, but it has a wide variety of work from across cultures and ages on display.
There are multiple other fantastic art museums in the city. The Rodin Museum is a sculpture garden featuring casts of Rodin’s most famous works, including the iconic Thinking Man. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art is an art school and museum that features work from students and contemporary artists alongside great works of early American artists.
The last thing you need to see in Philadelphia while exploring the entire state of Pennsylvania is the Edgar Allen Poe house. Nestled in the Spring Garden Neighborhood just north of the city center, the house is the only standing home of America’s most famous poet remaining in the city.
Although there are landmarks to Poe in both Baltimore and New York, the Philadelphia house is vital because he published some of his best work while living in Philly, and this is the only place that survives from that time.
Some say Poe was happiest while living there, but only he would know for sure.
The house has transformed into a small museum for Poe enthusiasts. Visitors can stroll through his parlor and walk on the exact hardwood floor he walked on while alive.
As Poe moved frequently and sold his belonging, the house is mostly barren. The empty space feels like a portal into the King of the Macabre’s mind.
Although generally overshadowed by its older brother, Pennsylvania’s second-largest city is also worth checking out.
Pittsburgh has a few niche art museums, is home to the Pirates, and is close to a few other impressive sites. Visiting the town should be on everyone’s bucket list of things to do in Pennsylvania.
All the Museums
The art museums are the best thing about Pittsburgh, though I might be biased because I love art so much. Pittsburgh is home to an Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Contemporary Art. There’s also a Carnegie National History Museum and a Carnegie Science Center.
Andrew Carnegie lends his name to many museums because he spent most of his life working in Pittsburgh and is one of the city’s most famed residents. Although he gave most of his estate away, you can still tour his business partner’s, Henry Clay Fricke, house in the city.
Speaking of houses, Pittsburgh is also home to quite a few well-designed and architecturally essential homes. There’s the Bayernhof house, a Bavarian-style home built with intricate passageways, the Hartwood Mansion, where you can see what life was like for the wealthy at the turn of the 20th century, and Trundle Manor, filled with an eclectic collection of odd and sometimes morbid oddities.
See an Architectural Wonder
Falling Water, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest masterpieces, is located just an hour outside Pittsburgh. This stunning mansion was built upon a small waterfall nestled on a creek in the forests outside of the city.
Designed in 1935, this home embodies Wright’s philosophy that man should live in harmony with nature. It was gifted to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in the 1960s and is currently a museum and a center for education.
Things to do in Pennsylvania Outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh
Though Philadelphia is the state’s most iconic city and Pittsburgh is exceptionally well known, they aren’t the only places to go in Pennsylvania. The rest of the state has rich pockets of culture, breathtaking hiking trails and scenic routes, and a lot of history.
Here are the things in Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia that you can’t miss!
Hike the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is a two-thousand-mile hike that stretches from Maine to Georgia. Some folks are hardcore enough to hike the entire trail in one go, but most of us prefer day hikes.
Pennsylvania is a perfect state for day hikes through portions of the trail.
There are over 200 miles of Appalachian trail to hike in the state, and the terrain varies from rocky in the Northern portion to smooth sailing towards the southern end of the state.
Pennsylvania is also home to the midpoint of the trail. An Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove State Park also hosts the Half Gallon Challenge, where hikers can attempt to eat a whole half-gallon of ice cream to win a coveted golden spoon. It’s an excellent place for people who aren’t hiking the entire trail to stop and get an idea of what the path is all about.
The full Appalachian trail is strenuous, so if you attempt it, ensure you have the correct hiking gear. Even some tiny day hikes in Pennsylvania can be treacherous, so it’s essential to be well-prepared.
Visit Amish Country
Pennsylvania has a diverse set of people and religious sects, and non is as iconic as the Amish. The Amish, known as Pennsylvania Dutch, forgo modern technology and live without electricity. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is home to one of the largest Amish settlements in the country.
It might seem weird to visit a group dedicated to staying away from all things modern, but don’t worry; they love it! They welcome visitors, enjoy showcasing their way of life, and even sell their wares to tourists.
Explore the Poconos
The Poconos Mountains are a fun touristy destination for the rich people of New York City and the surrounding areas. This resort area abounds with indoor water parks, hiking trails, horseback riding, and other fun activities for visitors.
Although open to visitors all year round, the seasonal attractions in the Poconos are worth considering. Jim Thorpe is breathtaking in the fall when the surrounding mountains burst with brilliant shades of red and orange.
The region’s most extraordinary claim to fame is the winter snow. The mountains feature perfect paths for skiing, snowboarding, and even snowmobiling!
Find Out How Much Winter is Left
The story of Punxsutawney Phil is an iconic part of American Heritage. Every February second, this famous groundhog comes out of hibernation and lets us know exactly how much more winter we can expect.
For most of the year, there’s nothing spectacular about the small town of Punxsutawney. But, it’s home to the biggest Groundhog Day celebration in the country. If you want to brave the cold to see the groundhog live, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is the place to do it!
See Hawks Fly
Hawk Mountain probably isn’t on many lists of things to do in Pennsylvania. It doesn’t have the best hikes in the state and is far from most big cities. However, it is a scenic mountain central to the migration path of majestic birds of prey.
Hawk Mountain is a conservancy for these endangered birds. Over the year, you can view various species soaring, making the Pennsylvania skies their home. The mountain also features multiple hiking trails, ranging from easy to rugged, and is near a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
Visit the Oldest Brewery in the Country
Beer fanatics need to check out Yuengling Brewery in Pottsville, Pa.
Yuengling is the oldest still-functioning brewery in the United States. Pottsville isn’t necessarily a tourist destination, but it’s only an hour north of the capital, Harrisburg, and an hour south of the Poconos mountains, so it’s a perfect spot for a day trip if you’re visiting either of those regions.
Visitors can tour the brewery and enjoy free samples of the delicious brew (those under 21 can have pop instead!). Embark on a free tour and explore the famous caves dug before technological advances gave us refrigeration. Visit the modern brew house for a peek at current brewing techniques, and catch a glimpse of the iconic stained glass windows.
After the tour, peruse the gift shop to take home a piece of brewific history (and more samples of the iconic beverage!).
Visit a Hipster Town
Although Lancaster County is renowned for the Amish, the city within the county is a spectacular hipster’s paradise. You wouldn’t think a small town nestled in Amish country would be so trendy, but Lancaster is full of surprises.
Lancaster is home to a ton of small local breweries and cute independent stores. It’s the ideal place for a bar crawl and to support local small businesses. The variety of small, ethnically diverse restaurants is a hidden gem in an otherwise bland part of the state.
Taste the Land of Chocolate
Did you know that Pennsylvania is home to the Hershey Chocolate Factory?
Hershey, PA, is a small town outside the capital, Harrisburg, and the entire town revolves around chocolate. The street lights even look like little Hershey kisses!
Tour the Hershey Chocolate factory to discover how your favorite treat gets made. The tour offers a peek behind the curtain, showcasing the chocolate-making process and educating visitors on the company’s history.
For an exhilarating thrill while in town, visit Hershey’s theme park. Racing roller coasters and carnival rides keep kids of all ages coming back for more. The park isn’t as big as six flags, but it’s definitely worth checking out.
Hershey also has a zoo, botanical gardens, and one of the largest convention centers in the state.
Visit an Eerie Great Lake
A small nugget of Northern Pennsylvania lies on the coast of Lake Erie, one of the five great lakes. Even though only a tiny portion of the lake touches the state, it’s one of the most crucial access points.
Erie, Pennsylvania, in Erie County, is the city that sits on the shore of Lake Erie. It’s the largest city in Northern Pa and the gateway to the lake. The city is known for its maritime museum, where you can learn about the battles that raged on the lake during the war of 1812 and the shipping industry around the great lakes.
It’s also known for its lighthouses, fishing, and all the outdoor adventures you can have nearby.
Understand Our Country’s Most Devastating Battle
The most solemn thing to do in Pennsylvania is to visit Gettysburg, the home of the largest battle ever fought on American soil. This battle was the turning point in the civil war but is also remembered as one of the deadliest battles in US history, with over twenty thousand causalities.
The battlefield is now a National Military Park managed by the National Park Service. Visitors can experience Civil War reenactments, tour the various camps, and visit the National Cemetery on-site. Be on the lookout for spirits during your visit, as many claim it is haunted by the ghosts of Soldiers who lost their lives.
Gettysburg is in Adams County, in the state’s southeastern part. It’s about an hour and a half away from either Lancaster or Harrisburg.
Tour a Coal Mine
Pennsylvania is coal country. During the glory days of coal, the mountainous regions in the foothills of the Poconos were some of the country’s most affluent, most populated parts.
Now that our reliance on coal is fading, the areas are experiencing a decline. However, many of the old mines have been converted into tourist attractions.
The #9 coal mine in Lansford, PA, takes visitors down a short rail into the mine, allowing them to experience the deep depths of the mine for themselves.
Outside the mine is a museum and gift shop, where visitors can learn about anthracite coal and the heyday of the coal mining industry.
Visit the Office
The hit television show “The Office” occurred in a Scranton, Pa, paper company. Although the company on the show was fictional, Scranton embraced being its setting, and now you can take yourself on an Office walking tour of the city.
This tour takes you to some of the iconic sites featured in the show, like the Electric City sign and the genuine Pennsylvania Paper and Supply Co featured in the opening credits.
If you’re a fan of the Office, visiting Scranton is definitely one of the top things to do in Pennsylvania.
Take a ride on the Reading Railroad! Okay, maybe that’s not all there is to Monopoly, but the iconic railroad in the game is very real, and it’s in central Pennsylvania.
As a kid, I always thought it was pronounced reading, like reading a book. When I moved to Pennsylvania, I learned the proper pronunciation is “Redding.”
Although the rail line is mainly a cargo line, you can still take a passenger car across its rails. Trains take passengers from the valleys in Reading up to see the gorgeous fall colors at Jim Thorpe in the Poconos.
After learning about all the fantastic art museums in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, you likely realized that Pennsylvania is a celebration of the arts. However, don’t limit your artistic exploration to the two major cities.
Reading, PA, is home to the famous GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. This center hosts art classes and several yearly conventions, including Illuxcon, the premier convention for fantasy artists.
Many of the small cities in the states have their own art centers. Walk-in art centers, pop-up galleries, and local centers for the arts abound in the state. Explore the local areas to see what small, local artists are up to.
All the Hiking and Wilderness
Although we’ve highlighted some of Pennsylvania’s incredible cities, art, and culture, the outdoor activities in the state are indeed out of this world. There are hundreds of waterfalls scattered throughout the various state parks. Hiking, hunting, and fishing are out of this world.
The natural landscape of Pennsylvania changes throughout the state, with the rolling hills and valleys of Lancaster county leading into the foothills of coal country, which shift to the Poconos and Appalachian mountains.
The middle of the state is filled with forests, and the Western edge of the state leads into the Ohio valley. Everyone has something to discover with such a vast array of geographic features.
Plan Your Visit to Pennsylvania
If you’re ready to discover Pennsylvania, start planning your trip! Book flights and hotels with Orbitz, and head to Viator to book tours in specific regions. You won’t regret visiting this wildly diverse state and experiencing the amazing things it has to offer.
Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life.