The next stop on our extended tour of great places to visit in the United States is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised. (Also birthed in the Keystone State, I might add, were the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. It is also where America’s first ambassador Benjamin Franklin launched his career, so I’m in great company.) To provide an insider’s perspective on navigating the many attractions that our State has to offer, I have enlisted my colleague Dorothy Mayhew, a 9th generation Pennsylvanian.
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Welcome to Beautiful Pennsylvania
by Dorothy Mayhew
What I love about my home State, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (or “PA” for short) is that it really is a microcosm of the United States as a whole – a beguiling mix of past and present, of the familiar and the little-known, of subtle nuance and grand gesture. Come to Pennsylvania for its glorious history – ever since its founding back in 1682, it has played a crucial role in the political, social, and economic development of America – but stay for its modernity, its natural beauty, its arts … education … sports … excellent food … spirit of tolerance … in short, for a boundless variety that reflects America itself.
Independence Hall, where the die was cast.
Tobyhanna State Park in the Poconos.
Public art in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love.”
Pennsylvania is located in the Northeast of the United States, bordered by (running clockwise from due north) New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, and finally by Lake Erie. With about 13 million inhabitants, it is the 6th most populous State in the Union. In three vertical sections (each running roughly northeast to southwest) the State’s diverse topography is determined by first the Ohio and Allegheny Rivers in the west, running off from the Appalachian Mountains and the northern tip of the Alleghenies; then through the rich agricultural central heartland of the Ridge and Valley Province; and finally through the Piedmont plateau region east of the Susquehanna River.
The principle cities of Pennsylvania are all to the south: Pittsburgh in the west (population 300,000) is the State’s industrial (and more recently high-tech) heart; Philadelphia in the east (population 1.5 million) provides its historic Colonial-era soul; and between the two, the political capital Harrisburg (population 50,000), is said by some to house the brains.
The first inhabitants of the State were Native American tribes including the Delaware, the Shawnee, the Erie, and the Iroquois. William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania under Royal Charter from King Charles II in the 1680s as a haven of tolerance for his fellow Quakers. “Philadelphia” is a Greek word meaning ”the city of brotherly love,” and initial relations with the local peoples were good. In fact, for much of its early history, Pennsylvania was notable for its spirit of religious acceptance and ethnic harmony.
That religious tolerance lives on today, exemplified by the large “Pennsylvania Dutch” communities such as the Amish and Mennonites, the Moravian community in Bethlehem, the Ephrata Cloister, and the Harmony society in Ambridge. (To clarify a common misconception, “Dutch” is actually a corruption of “Deutsch,” many of these religious groups being German in origin.)
In Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Pennsylvania was one of the 13 original colonies but has always carried an air of the frontier, being the only colony not enjoying direct access to the Atlantic seaboard. The Second Continental Congress came together to sign the Thomas Jefferson-penned Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 at what is now Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Eleven years later the same building hosted the Constitutional Convention, presided over by George Washington, where James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, et al drafted the U.S. Constitution. No wonder Pennsylvania has been nicknamed the “Keystone State.”
Founded in 1682, my home town of Philadelphia (or simply “Philly”) was the capital of the United States from 1776 to 1800. From Benjamin Franklin Parkway with its flags of every country, to Rocky Balboa running up the Museum of Art’s steps, to Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River, to City Hall topped with a statue of William Penn, there are many iconic views of the city to enjoy.
Philly from the Schuylkill River.
The famous Benjamin Franklin Parkway, home to Philadelphia’s cultural treasures.
Philly is the 5th largest city in the U.S., and more than 20% of its residents speak a mother tongue other than English. There are strong Italian, Irish, and Jamaican communities, and the city really is a collection of distinct, culturally rich neighborhoods. It is this diversity that fuels a diverse economy of over US$ 380 billion a year, with healthcare, banking, and ICT fueling continuing growth. Of course, tourism plays its part — the Liberty Bell Center National Park alone gets 2 million visitors a year!
Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park is the largest landscaped urban park in the world, at over 10,000 acres, and was the site of the first World’s Fair held in America, in 1876. The city has a rich cultural and artistic tradition (thanks in large part to Benjamin Franklin). It has the most public of art of any city in the U.S., best exemplified by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, a long-standing anti-graffiti project through which convicted taggers maintain the city’s public art.
Philadelphia’s world-renowned Liberty Bell.
Just one of Philly’s many eye-catching murals.
The Thinker at the Rodin Museum.
Other cultural highlights of Philly include The Rodin Museum and the Barnes Museum. Perhaps less high-brow, but no less important, are Philly’s contributions to national culture through food and sports. The city is the proud home to the Cheesesteak, soft pretzels, scrapple, Wawa hoagies, Tastykakes, cheesecake, cream cheese, and Yuengling Beer – and if some of these are new to you, I encourage you to try them all – just not at one sitting.
Harrisburg, the State’s capital since 1812, lies in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. The site had long been an important Native American trading center, and as canals and riverboats were developed, the city grew into a major transportation hub, allowing the agricultural produce of the Valley and Piedmont to get to markets. It was also a setting-off point for westward-bound pioneers.
The State Capitol in Harrisburg.
Harrisburg’s Capitol Building is a stunning example of Colonial Revival architecture, and it would have been all-the-more impressive rising up above the pastoral simplicity that marked the city in the early 19th century. When in Harrisburg, the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, with its 3 stories of exhibits, galleries, and theaters, is a must-do family destination. Every January, Harrisburg hosts the huge annual Pennsylvania Farm Show, the largest free indoor agriculture exposition in the United States.
Near Harrisburg is Hershey, PA, known as the sweetest place on Earth. You can visit Chocolate world and get a chocolate tour, ride the roller coasters, or just take a selfie standing at the intersection of Cocoa and Chocolate Avenues. It’s worth a visit simply because the entire town smells of chocolate!
Hershey, PA, The Sweetest Place on Earth.
Pittsburgh sits in the southwest of the state at the intersection of the Allegheny and Monangahela rivers, and has a very different history from Philadelphia in the east. The city’s roots are firmly blue-collar, in production refining the oil from the world’s first oil wells and forging the steel from which the modern, industrial U.S. was built. Pittsburgh gave us industrial magnates such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and H.C. Frick. A byproduct of this industrial period is the philanthropy of those titans, of which the city’s Carnegie Museum is world-class example.
Pittsburgh’s industrial might and strategic location also attracted the headquarters of many large companies, Gulf Oil, Sunbeam, Rockwell, and Westinghouse among them. For much of the 20th century, the city stood behind only New York and Chicago as a corporate center. As manufacturing jobs have decreased since the 1980s, Pittsburgh has reinvented itself as a high-tech hub, helped by the philanthropic legacy of those industrial titans. The city’s great libraries, research centers, and more than 68 colleges and universities generate a huge number of start-ups.
Known as the City of Bridges, “The Burgh” has a world-beating 446 river crossings.
This leads me to one of Pennsylvania’s signature traits – its fantastic commitment to education, in many ways a byproduct of its Quaker roots. The State has over 260 tertiary schools. The University of Pennsylvania (‘UPenn’) was founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and 24 other trustees as the Academy and Charitable School in the Province of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania State University (“Penn State”) has its main campus of more than 45,000 students in central PA’s Happy Valley University Park, as well as 22 affiliated campuses throughout the State hosting an additional 47,000 students (giving it a total population great than that of Palmerston North!).
A home football game at Penn State’s Beaver Park Stadium, seating 110,000.
And it’s not only with such academic and sporting powerhouses as Penn State and UPenn that students are spoiled for choice. PA also offers other top-ranking colleges such as, in the west, Carnegie-Mellon, Duquesne, and the University of Pittsburgh (and its famous Medical School, where one of the great public health breakthroughs of the last 100 years occurred in 1955, when Jonas Salk developed a working polio vaccine). For those who like the Philly side of the State there’s Temple, Swarthmore, Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Drexel, and Haverford; or Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, Muhlenberg, and Elizabethtown for those seeking a smaller town environment.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Pennsylvania is a sports lover’s dream. And not only do we have a team in every professional sport, but we often have two in each! With football, it’s the Philadelphia Eagles (or “Iggles” to fans like me) and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers, it pains me to say, have been the more dominant in recent years (with Samoan Troy Polamalu helping get them to the Superbowl).
NZ Maori All Blacks perform the haka before their game against the USA Eagles in Philly in November.
In baseball, it’s either the Phillies or the Pirates. For the ice hockey fan, you can support the Philadelphia Flyers or the Pittsburgh Penguins. And then there’s the 76ers (basketball), and the Philadelphia Fight (Rugby League). In fact, the first American Cricket Club was founded in Haverford, PA in 1834, and you can still catch some lovely cricket each spring! I should also mention the Philadelphia Union, our city’s soccer team, who kindly lent their stadium just last month to the visiting NZ Maori All Blacks in a sold-out game against the USA Eagles.
If sports are not your thing, don’t worry, because Pennsylvania abounds with beautiful scenery, huge tracts of uninhabited and unspoiled land, and a plethora of outdoor activity of the non-contact kind. In fact, approximately 1% of the State is dedicated to parkland. PA has a total of 120 State and National Parks, more than any other State except for the much larger Alaska and California. And admission to all of PA’s parks is free of charge.
Memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Some of the parks, like Gettysburg, are best-known for their role in history. Others offer remote wilderness, and yet others are an easy stroll from the nearest road and rest stop. Many are a mix of the two, examples of the diverse ecology in which Pennsylvania abounds. Hiking, hunting, fishing, horse-back riding, mountain biking, or just plain picnicking with the family – all are part of PA culture, and you can do them all without having to travel much from where you happen to be.
To the east of the Pennsylvania Dutch country are the Pocono Mountains and Big Pocono State Park, which are beautiful, serene, and famous as a honeymoon destination. They offering hunting, fishing, skiing, swimming, and general scenic relaxation. The larger Poconos area has seven state parks and 17 game lands in which hunting is permitted. To the east they are bordered by the stunning Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Elk spotting along Elk Country Scenic Drive.
Along the Pennsylvania stretch of Lake Erie, shared with a few other States and Canada, hosts the beautiful Presque Isle State Park. Often listed as one of the best spots for bird-watching in the United States, Presque Isle has an ecological center as well as a monument to the role of Lake Erie in the war of 1812.
Among Pennsylvania’s many other must-see parks is Cooks Forest State Park, which is home to the largest old-growth forest east of the Mississippi. It is regularly listed as one of the top 50 most beautiful parks in America.
A tip of Presque Isle.
A typical autumn in the Poconos.
Deep in Cook Forest State Park.
Part of the Delaware Water Gap.
It is the diversity of PA which makes it such an endlessly fascinating place to live or visit. From steel town Pittsburgh (which despite its hard-edged image is consistently voted one of America’s “most livable” cities), through the scenic beauty of the rolling, pastoral Piedmont and the rugged Alleghenies, to the historically-charged Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania really does have something to offer everyone. Come see for yourself.
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I couldn’t agree more with Dorothy, although I would suggest that you visit as well the non-Poconos part of Northeast PA to enjoy the historical sites and rolling hills of the anthracite coal country where I was born and raised. Stop for a while in Mahanoy City, just off Interstate 81 south of Hazleton (which is on the map Dorothy included near the beginning of her article) and say hello for me. Being a Friend of Dave’s might get you a beer or two in several of the bars in town.
Because of its central (i.e., “keystone”) position among our eastern States, Pennsylvania is an easy trip from New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington DC, Virginia, and other locations that we’ve featured in earlier articles. For more information for what to see and do when you get to PA, please visit the State’s official tourism website www.visitpa.com or the Pennsylvania pages on the general tourism website Discover America.