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Pennsylvania is an interesting state. There’s a wide range of not only ecosystems but cultures as well. The state is diverse in its people, its politics, its religions, and its habitats. Not only that, the state has the richest history of arguably any state in the US! There are tons of things to do in Pennsylvania – and here are the best places to start.
If you’ve never been to Pennsylvania before, 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, it’s 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 the most important 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 both 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 old, abandoned prison. Although it’s now nearly in ruins, it was one of the biggest and most expensive US prisons towards the middle of the 20th century. It even hosted the infamous Al Capone for a few months!
Built in the 1820s, this prison was meant to change the way prisoners were treated. It had heating and indoor plumbing, which was incredibly advanced for the time.
As the city grew, the idea of rehabilitating prisoners in nice environments was lost. The prison became overcrowded, and the additional cells built to house the newcomers were not designed with the same care. The rooms were small, dank, underground, and dirty. The prison closed in the 1970s and stood abandoned for over 20 years.
It was reopened to the public in 1994, and now we can freely roam the crumbling infrastructure and see the dismal conditions prisoners faced. Eastern State Penitentiary is a creepy place but historically important and 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 that 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 some other amazing art museums in the city as well. The Rodin Museum is a sculpture garden featuring casts of Rodin’s most famous works, including the iconic Thinking Man. It’s a wonderful place to take a stroll on a warm spring day. 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. There are other museums scattered throughout the city as well, but these few are the most important in an overview of the entire state.
The last main 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 important 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 that he was happiest while living there, but only he would know for sure.
The house has been turned into a small museum for Poe enthusiasts. Visitors can stroll through his parlor and walk on the same hardwood floor he walked on while alive. There isn’t much furniture because Poe moved around a lot and sold most of his stuff, but it is fun to hang out in his rooms.
Although generally overshadowed by its older brother, Pennsylvania’s second-largest city is worth checking out as well. Pittsburgh has a few niche art museums, is home to the Pirates, and is close to a few other really cool 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 spent most of his life working in Pittsburgh and is one of the city’s most famed residents, so all the museums are named after him. Although he gave most of his estate away, you can still tour his businesses partner’s, Henry Clay Fricke, house in the city.
Speaking of houses, Pittsburgh is also home to quite a few well-designed and architecturally important 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 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 has become 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 extremely well known, they aren’t the only places to go in Pennsylvania. The rest of the state has rich pockets of culture, amazing hiking trails and scenic routes, 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 would rather do day hikes. Pennsylvania is a great 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. There’s an Appalachian Trail Museum in Pine Grove State Park that 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 a great place for people who aren’t hiking the whole trail to stop and get an idea of what the trail is all about.
Visit Amish Country
Pennsylvania has a diverse set of people and religious sects, and non is as iconic as the Amish. The Amish, also known broadly as Pennsylvania Dutch, have decided to forgo modern technology and live without electricity, and they make their home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
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 and enjoy showcasing their way of life and 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 is filled with indoor water parks, hiking trails, horseback riding, and other fun activities for visitors.
The real beauty of the Poconos is seasonal. Jim Thorpe is an amazing little town to visit in the fall when the fall colors are in full bloom. The winter months are ideal for skiing and snowboarding, which is how the region came to fame in the first place.
Visit the Oldest Brewery in the Country
If you’re interested in the history of beer, you 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 get a free sample of the delicious brew (those under 21 can have some pop instead!). The tour includes a look at the famous caves that were dug before refrigeration became a thing, and a look at the modern brew house and 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!).
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 all 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 it’s pretty far from most of the big cities. However, it is a pretty cool place and right in the migration path of a ton of amazing birds of prey.
Hawk Mountain is a conservancy for these majestic birds. Over the course of the year, you can view various species flying around and making the Pennsylvania skies their home. You can also do some light hiking at the mountain, and it’s close to a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
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 that a small town nestled in Amish country would be so trendy, but it really is.
The city of Lancaster is home to a ton of small local breweries and cute independent stores. It’s a great place to head out for a bar crawl and support some local small businesses. The variety of small, ethnically diverse restaurants is a gem in an otherwise bland area 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 right outside the capital, Harrisburg, and the entire town revolves around chocolate. The street lights are even built to look like little Hershey kisses!
While in Hershey, you can take a tour through the factory and see how your favorite candies are made. Also, be sure to visit Hershey’s theme park, filled with rides and roller coasters for the kids! It’s not 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 small portion of the lake touches the state, it’s one of the most important 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 about the shipping industry around the great lakes as a whole. 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 visiting Gettysburg, the home to the largest battle ever fought on American soil. This battle was the turning point in the civil war, but it was 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 watch Civil War reenactments, tour the various camps, and visit the National Cemetery located on-site. Many who visit the site claim that it is haunted by the ghosts of Soldiers who lost their lives.
Gettysburg is located in Adams County, towards the Southeastern part of the state. It’s about an hour and a half away from either Lancaster or Harrisburg.
Tour a Coal Mine
Pennsylvania is coal country. The mountainous regions in the foothills of the Poconos were some of the richest, most populated regions in the country near the turn of the century, during the glory days of coal.
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, where they can see the depths of the mine for themselves.
Outside of 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” took place 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 real Pennsylvania Paper and Supply Co featured in the opening credits. If you’re a fan of the Office, a visit to 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.
When I was a kid, I always thought it was pronounced reading, like reading a book. It was only when I moved to Pennsylvania that I learned the true pronunciation is “Redding.”
Although the rail line is mostly a cargo line, you can still take a passenger car across its rails. Trains take passengers from the valleys on Reading up to see the gorgeous fall colors at Jim Thorpe in the Poconos.
Maybe after reading about the art in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, you realized that Pennsylvania is a pretty arty state. But it’s not just limited to the two major cities.
Reading, PA, is home to the famous GoggleWorks Center for the Arts. This center hosts art classes and a number of 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, and it’s fun to explore the local areas to see what small, local artists are up to.
All the Hiking and Wilderness
Although we’ve highlighted some of the awesome cities, art, and culture to experience in Pennsylvania, the outdoor activities in the state are truly out of this world. There are hundreds of waterfalls scattered throughout the various state parks. The lakes and rivers are amazing places for kayaking. 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. With such a vast array of geographic features, there’s something to discover for everyone.
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 launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.