Altoona, PA has emerged from its industrial past to become a destination of unique finds and preserved history. Here’s how to make the most of a couple of days there.
Altoona is a city the railroad built. In the mid-1800s, passenger and rail freight had a tough time traversing Pennsylvania’s mountainous middle. A connection from Philadelphia and Harrisburg to Pittsburgh was vital, but the Allegheny Mountains stood in the way. The Pennsylvania Railroad moved into the area in 1849 to begin working on the Horseshoe Curve (2400 Veterans Memorial Hwy); a semi-circular stretch of track riding on a manmade traverse of land between two mountains, which allowed safe and affordable travel across the state.
The Curve was constructed over three years as 400 Irish immigrants leveled and rebuilt the hillside by hand. Today, the National Historic Landmark is still in use and trains navigate the turn approximately once per hour as guests watch the action from a visitors’ center. It has been the inspiration for beer names and snack foods, and it is the moniker for the city’s Minor League Baseball team, the Altoona Curve.
The city’s Whiskey Row, where coach class visitors could find plenty of alcohol and a place to rest for the night, is long gone. The history of the railroad is still celebrated, but Altoona and the neighboring towns of Hollidaysburg, Tipton, and Tyrone have shaken off the soot and polished their attractions to become a small destination with big possibilities.
Museums and Attractions
A stop at the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum (1200 9th Ave) is a must for any visitor wanting to understand the history, culture, and growth of the area. The railroad’s reach goes beyond the tracks and ties, and this interactive, three-story museum can entertain and inform for hours, even those with no particular interest in trains. Weather permitting, guests are welcome to view the roundhouse and collection of historic locomotives.
Altoona residents have a creative streak, as evidenced by ongoing mural projects and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (1210 11th Ave), which is hard to miss because of the two-story red, silver, and blue poles standing curbside. Locals are welcome to take project kits and art supplies from the museum’s Lending Library. Admission is free, and visitors enjoy rotating exhibits from local, regional, and national artists.
Altoona is popular with train enthusiasts, and Everett Railroad Co. (244 Loop Rd, Hollidaysburg) offers something other local exhibits cannot—a ride on an antique, steam-powered locomotive. Scenic train excursions take place throughout the year with special events around holidays. The Everett Railroad runs from Hollidaysburg south to Martinsburg; the 27-mile round-trip ride takes about three hours.
Trains have influenced many things in Altoona, including the name of the local minor league baseball team, the Altoona Curve. This affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates plays home games at Peoples Natural Gas Field (1000 Park Avenue) in the shadow of Lakemont Park (700 Park Ave). PNG Field is the only ballpark in America with a roller coaster backdrop and the Curve mascot, Loco, has been spotted on the ride during home games.
The only Italian American-themed amusement park in the United States is DelGrosso’s Amusement Park (4352 E Pleasant Valley Blvd, Tipton). Called Bland Park by the original owners, the name did not fit well with the sauce making, family business started by Italian immigrants. The park features Laguna Splash Water Park and over 30 rides, including the Crazy Mouse roller coaster and the X-Scream Tower drop ride.
The former home of an iron baron family, the Baker Mansion (3419 Oak Lane) is the only Greek Revival style mansion serving as a public museum in Pennsylvania. Completed in 1849, the mansion was built to house Elias Baker and his young family, who relocated to the area from eastern Pennsylvania. After careful revitalization, the building is now the home of the Blair County Historical Society, which holds permanent displays of local interest, special exhibits, as well as public and private events.
More refined entertainment can be found at the Mishler Theatre (1208 12th Avenue). Built in 1906, the venue is home to the Blair County Arts Foundation who present shows ranging from family musicals to classical music concerts. The gilded theatre has seen the likes of George Burns, Al Jolson, and most recently several tribute performances have graced the proscenium. The Spiritz Lounge is a speakeasy-style watering hole in the theatre’s basement.
Where to stay
The Wingate by Wyndham (909 Chestnut Ave) is in the perfect downtown location for a visit to Altoona. Located near museums, legendary eats, and historic sites, the Wingate is also within easy access to routes 36 and 99 for trips outside the city. This clean and modern hotel offers guests a pool, fitness center, and a spacious lounge, which is home to a complimentary breakfast each morning.
For travelers looking for a stay in nature, the Canoe Creek State Park (205 Canoe Creek Rd, Hollidaysburg) is home to eight modern, two-bedroom cabins overlooking Canoe Lake. Each cabin offers electric heat, an indoor bathroom, kitchen and living room with contemporary conveniences. Cabins are available year-round and are equipped with a fire ring and picnic table for outdoor enjoyment. Guests can find recreation at the lake and historic limestone kilns in the park.
Allegheny Street Bed & Breakfast (703 Allegheny St., Hollidaysburg) is a fit for those looking for a quaint stay in the heart of Hollidaysburg’s Historic District. Quiet and comfortable, this B&B caters to customers’ needs including drop-off and pick-up for those travelling by bike or train, with a discount on bookings, too. The inn includes six guest rooms all with private bath and strong wi-fi.
Where to eat
Dan and Gloria Taddei opened Allegro (3926 Broad Avenue) in 1978 bringing Altoona a taste of Abruzzo, Italy. The restaurant is a fixture in time and a local favorite. Despite having reached an age when most people retire, chef Philip Delloso still runs a kitchen producing family-style meals from an ever-changing menu. The emphasis at Allegro is on veal and steak entrees.
While Allegro straddles the line between fine dining and family fare, it is certain Marzoni’s (1830 E Pleasant Valley Blvd) is a place to relax and unwind in a casual atmosphere. The walls are lined with local sports memorabilia at this brick oven pizza eatery turned craft brewery. Creative pizzas include Brandon’s Crab Rangoon and the Marzoni’s Special. Year-round beers, brewed on site, like Patchway Pale Ale, Highway 22 Wheat, and Stumblin’ Chef Belgian-Style Tripel tap side-by-side with seasonal offerings.
A stop at Tom & Joe’s Diner (1201 13th Ave) has visitors rubbing elbows with the locals—everyone from the district Congressman to the neighborhood plumber. A stop for breakfast is recommended, but the folks here serve lunch, too. Around the corner, a great cup of coffee can be found at The Clay Cup (1304 11th Ave.), which also doubles as a paint-your-own pottery studio.
The U.S. Hotel Tavern (401 South Juniata Street, Hollidaysburg) opened in 1835 and has been adorned with renovated touches while maintaining the history of the building. Artwork and memorabilia provide a look at the building’s past. The original, flow-through spittoon along the bar floor still works. Food ranges from pub grub to fish and steak entrees.
Altoona is proud of their connection to confections. This city is home to Boyer Candy (821 17th St), maker of Mallo Cups, Clark bars, and the old-fashioned favorite Jimmie Stix. The factory opened in 1936 and the attached outlet store is open seven days a week selling first run and seconds products. Blair Candy Company (3421 Beale Ave) is another retail outlet offering bulk candy, snacks, and seasonal items.
In neighboring Tyrone, Gardners Candies (30 W 10th St, Tyrone) has been known for their Original Peanut Butter Meltaways since 1897. More than a candy store, this downtown shop houses a candy museum and an ice cream parlor in the back. The business was founded by 16-year-old James “Pike” Gardner.