Brian Cicioni | Special to USA TODAY 10Best
When it comes to Pennsylvania cities, Philly and Pittsburgh tend to get most of the attention. Sure, touristy places like Hershey and Lancaster County are also popular day trips and weekend getaways, but many travelers’ curiosities tend to end there. So, we’re digging deeper and exploring everything from beaches along Lake Erie and cycling along the Lehigh River to historic hotels and the oldest public markets in the country.
From historic mansions in Erie and Williamsport to York’s revitalized downtown, there’s so much more to the Keystone State than its two main cities and Hershey chocolate. Here are 10 smaller cities to check out in Pennsylvania.
More than 120,000 people live in Allentown, making it Pennsylvania’s third-largest city. You’ll find a variety of entertainment options, hidden history and a diverse food scene.
America on Wheels and the Allentown Art Museum are the two most popular museums, but there are also a handful of smaller, equally interesting options. At the Liberty Bell Museum, you can see where the one currently on display in Philly was hidden during the Revolutionary War. There’s a replica that you can ring, as well as Allentown’s own Liberty Bell, which dates back to 1769. For a crash course in local history, we recommend starting your visit at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum.
The Lehigh Valley has a large Syrian and Lebanese population, so you’ll have no trouble finding delicious kibbeh, falafel or shawarma. Aladdin and Damascus are two well-established local favorites. In the years since the PPL Center and adjacent Renaissance Allentown Hotel opened, several breweries, coffee shops and New American bistros have popped up downtown. If you’re anywhere near Dorney Park, be sure to try Cumin N Eat. For Thai food, check out Thai Origin on the city’s western edge.
Allentown is easily accessible by plane from the Midwest and southern states. And buses run nearly every hour to and from Port Authority in New York City. Once you get here, we recommend getting a car. The local attractions are very spread out, and many of the best restaurants are located in strip malls.
When Billy Joel sang about “living here in Allentown,” he was referring to neighboring Bethlehem. Pennsylvania’s eighth-largest city makes up the B part of ABE (Lehigh Valley International Airport), which many visitors fly into. If you’re looking for a mix of history, culture and cuisine, and want to stay in an urban setting, Bethlehem is the Lehigh Valley’s showcase city.
There are two main pedestrian-friendly areas in Bethlehem. The primary one is along Main Street between Church and Broad Streets. Here, you’ll find a mix of art galleries, small boutiques, historic sites and upscale dining options. If you want to explore Bethlehem by foot, we recommend staying at the Historic Hotel Bethlehem, which was our top historic hotel pick in the country for 2021. Over the past 99 years, they’ve hosted a who’s who of entertainers, professional athletes and world leaders. He’s not on their list of notable guests, but Ozzy Osbourne was banned from here in 1986, only to be allowed back a quarter-century later.
You should also check out the SouthSide Arts District. Along East 3rd and 4th Streets, you’ll find an eclectic mix of Latin American restaurants, Irish pubs and Asian fusion cuisine. Jenny’s Kuali is the only Malaysian restaurant within a 50-mile radius. Their satay peanut and ginger garlic sauces are a fixture in local stores. Here, you can try favorites like rendang, roti paratha and chow kuey teow, as well as a variety of vegan dishes. Penang-born owner Jenny Lim has already published two vegan cookbooks. Reservations recommended on weekends.
There are a variety of dining options outside of the touristy areas. At Nonna Sulinas, you can try a mix of traditional Italian and nonna (or grandma) recipes from Carini, Sicily. Machu Picchu serves Peruvian standards in a no-frills spot just a stone’s throw from the Wind Creek casino. Other local attractions include the National Museum of Industrial History and SteelStacks, which is a 10-acre entertainment complex on land formerly owned by Bethlehem Steel.
Easton is most known for crayons, Larry Holmes and one of America’s oldest continuously operating open-air markets. The Lehigh River bisects the city before flowing into the Delaware River. New Jersey is on the other side.
If you’re traveling with children, chances are you’ll end up at the Crayola Experience. 650 crayons per minute are produced at the nearby factory. History buffs should start at the Sigal Museum, which chronicles the history of Northampton County. If you’re looking to mix some nature with the small city experience, head to the National Canal Museum. Admission includes a mule-powered boat ride to the Locktender’s House at an extremely leisurely pace. You can cycle here from downtown via the Lehigh Canal Towpath.
Buses from Port Authority stop downtown. The journey usually takes less than two hours, and there are several buses running during the day. Centre Square and most of the local attractions are a couple blocks north of the stop. 3rd & Ferry Fish Market and Maxims 22 are two of the higher-end dining options. You can also find Indian, Mexican and Japanese spots within walking distance of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which protrudes from the fountain in Centre Square.
Erie is the only larger Pennsylvania city where you can have a beach experience. Presque Isle juts out into Lake Erie, shaped like a giant chicken drumstick. The beaches face the southeast corner of Ontario, which is on the other side of the lake.
If it’s your first time visiting, we recommend starting at the Hagen History Center or Erie Maritime Museum. The former is located along Millionaires’ Row, which is lined with historic mansions that were built by the local industrialists who you can learn about at the Erie County Historical Society. The Maritime Museum will give visitors an overall idea of Erie’s historical significance dating back to the Battle of Lake Erie. They have a cannon on display that was captured from the British in 1813.
Whether you’re intrigued by ships or not, a sailing journey along Lake Erie is an essential experience while you’re in town. The Flagship Niagara League operates 90- to 120-minute sailing journeys around the bay.
There are a handful of Nepalese and Middle Eastern restaurants scattered throughout the city. So, you’ll have no problem finding delicious momo or kebabs at an affordable price. Like My Thai is also a local favorite, where the staff seem to know every patron by name. For ambiance, nothing can beat The Brewerie, which is located inside historic Union Station. In addition to their full bar and local beers on draft, you can try aptly named sandwiches like Railway Rueben and The Train Wreck. For an overall view of the local food scene, check out Erie Food Tours. Their downtown tour starts outside of Like My Thai.
We recommend staying near the Convention Center at the Bayfront. If you stay at the Courtyard Erie Bayfront, you can take in views of the harbor whether you’re sitting by the pool, doing your morning cardio, enjoying local walleye at the Shoreline Bar & Grille or relaxing in your room. There’s also a Sheraton on the other side of the Convention Center.
Thanks to frequent Amtrak service, Pennsylvania’s capital city is an ideal weekend getaway for New Yorkers and an easy day trip from Philly. Most of the main attractions are between 7th and Front Street, which abuts the banks of the Susquehanna River. If you’re going to visit any state capitol building, make it the one in Harrisburg – it was Teddy Roosevelt’s personal favorite. The nearby State Museum of Pennsylvania houses more than 3 million historical objects and is an ideal place to start your visit. If you’re a train enthusiast, don’t leave town without checking out the Harris Tower & Museum.
Second Street is known as Restaurant Row, and the more high-end dining options are in this area. You can find affordable Jamaican restaurants one block east of the Amtrak station along Cameron Street. And there are more Vietnamese restaurants in Harrisburg than in most cities twice its size. For a little bit of everything, check out the must-see Broad Street Market, which is one of the oldest public markets in the country.
If you visit during the summer, you have to check out City Island. It’s a mile-long island in the middle of the Susquehanna River with batting cages, miniature golf, minor league baseball and a small beach club. Pride of the Susquehanna river cruises depart daily from City Island. If you’re planning to stick to Downtown, Midtown and City Island, you won’t need a car. But if you want to see the National Civil War Museum or the quirky Doll House Museum, you’ll need one.
People from outside of Pennsylvania seem to have an endless fascination with Amish culture in Lancaster County. The city itself has a walkable downtown, where streets are teeming with history, dating back to Colonial times. Lancaster City was the nation’s capital for one day back in 1777. And their Central Market usually gets the nod for the oldest public market in the county.
Today, you’ll find a variety of friendly cafes, small clothing boutiques and record stores within walking distance of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, which marks the geographic center of Pennsylvania’s 11th largest city. The Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square is an ideal place to stay, especially if you’re traveling without a car. Their rooftop restaurant (The Exchange) offers the highest dining experience in the city. And you can find Uruguayan empanadas, Swedish candy, Trinidadian comfort food and award-winning cupcakes within five minutes of Penn Square.
So far, James Buchanan has been the only American president from Pennsylvania. He’s buried south of downtown in Woodward Hill Cemetery, while his former home near Franklin & Marshall College is a museum. If you’re visiting for the first time, we suggest signing up for the African American Heritage Walking Tour to get an idea of Lancaster’s historical significance.
There’s more to Reading than pretzels and pagodas. Pennsylvania’s fourth-largest city is spread out across ten square miles, with most attractions located east of the Schuylkill River. The Berks County Heritage Center is an ideal first stop for a Reading newbie. Here, you’ll get a historical overview of the area in a serene setting along the Tulpehocken Creek. And you’ll have to walk across one of Pennsylvania’s famous covered bridges to get there.
Like many American cities that has seen major industries leave, Reading has had to get creative with former industrial spaces. For an example of this, check out GoggleWorks, which challenges human beings to “transform lives through unique interactions with art” in an 1871 goggle factory.
If you’re an aviation geek, check out the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, where you can see a Capital Airlines Vickers Viscount along with an Eastern Airlines Martin 4-0-4. Both aircraft still take to the friendly skies at least once a year. There’s also a cool firefighter museum south of downtown.
In Downtown Reading, upscale restaurants like Judy’s on Cherry and Cheers American Bistro are mixed in with more casual places like Mofongo and the classic Peanut Bar. At the latter, you can throw your empty peanut shells on the floor. For the best variety, head across the Schuylkill River to West Reading, which has a vibrant main street (Penn Ave) lined with small boutiques, award-winning cupcakes and international restaurants. Chatty Monks is probably the quirkiest place in West Reading. Here, you can enjoy Belgian beers along with classic American pub food with an Indian twist.
If you’re planning to explore Reading without a car, we recommend staying at the DoubleTree across from the Santander Arena. But you will need a car to visit the Reading Pagoda as well as most of the museums.
Many people who have never visited Scranton only know it as the setting for “The Office.” Pennsylvania’s seventh-largest city has a rich industrial history, a unique pizza style that locals consider to be the best in the world and the world’s only building dedicated to Houdini.
If you’re interested in the history of heavy industry in Pennsylvania, check out the Scranton Iron Furnaces and the Anthracite Heritage Museum. The latter will give you an idea of what life was like for coal miners in Northeast Pennsylvania. Although Scranton has not had passenger rail service for decades, you can still check out the Electric City Trolley Museum and the nearby Steamtown National Historic Site. Both offer short train rides. The former train station was converted to the coolest hotel in town back in the early 1980s.
Locals take pride in Old Forge-style pizza, which has a thick crust, crispy bottom and a chewy center. They tend to order cuts instead of slices and trays instead of pies. There are a handful of traditional Italian restaurants in the downtown area too. For something more modern, check out Bar Pazzo. They have a Neapolitan-style oven, espresso bar and the most delicious gelato you’ll get in this part of Pennsylvania. For bar food with a Mexican twist, check out the part-video arcade and part-watering hole, Bartari.
The Birthplace of Little League Baseball once boasted more millionaires per capita than any other American city. You can start your visit by learning about these lumber barons at the Taber Museum, which is located along West 4th Street, also known as Millionaires’ Row. They have incredibly detailed life-sized figures of the first area settlers as well as more than 300 model train sets in the basement.
South of the Susquehanna River, which divides Williamsport from South Williamsport, you can check out the World of Little League Museum. Every year, the area population doubles when the Little League World Series is held in the complex behind the museum. The Baseball Hall of Fame may be in Cooperstown, but the Little League Museum has its own Hall of Excellence, which lists notable former Little Leaguers like Bruce Springsteen, Kevin Costner and two of the last three American Presidents.
There are a handful of upscale Italian restaurants in the downtown area, as well as one of the coolest one-woman show Greek restaurants you’ll see outside of Europe. The Olive Tree is a small, casual dining spot located off Pine Square. The hilarious business hours are posted on the door; in summary, Rao’s isn’t the only place that can thrive while being closed on weekends and only accepting cash. Inside, every picture seems to have a story. Sophia’s food has been served on the set of “Breaking Bad,” and her 16 different baklava flavors could put anything in Astoria to shame if she wanted to open there.
Williamsport is also an hour outside the PA Grand Canyon. If you want to visit the Canyon during the day and have more of a city experience during the rest of your visit, you can stay downtown at the Genetti Hotel. This historic property has hosted a who’s who of politicians, sports figures and other entertainers since opening in 1922. When you dine at their Windows on 4th restaurant, you can see the “Inspiration Lycoming” murals, which depict local history in Pennsylvania’s geographically largest county.
York has a walkable downtown with great shopping and restaurants, as well as quirky attractions and important historical sites. It was the nation’s capital from late 1777 to mid-1778. The Colonial Complex and York County History Center are both ideal places to start your first visit. After you get an idea of the local history, you can check out downtown. There are dozens of cute cafes, small boutiques, yoga studios and bars within walking distance of Central Market.
As Tru by Hilton and most of the area hotels are located along the highway, if you want to stay downtown, it’s worth checking availability for rooms on Airbnb. Outside of downtown, you can try Maryland-centric soul food with a Philly twist at Skillet2Plate or upscale pub fare at The First Post.
People travel from around the world to check out the Haines Shoe House, which is located 6 miles east of downtown. This 25-foot-high, 48-foot-long shrine to once locally manufactured footwear gets the nod for the quirkiest attraction in the area. The foot has five floors of small rooms with local artifacts and artfully designed windows. Tours are guided. York also has Underground Railroad history, which you can learn about at the Goodridge Freedom Center & Underground Railroad Museum.