Often referred to as “Happy Valley,” State College, Pennsylvania, is many things — home to the Penn State University, an outdoorsmen’s (or outdoors-woman’s!) paradise, a sustainable agriculture-lover’s dream, a bustling food haven and a growing regional tech hub. Regardless of the reason for visiting, most tourists in the area discover an affinity for State College and continue to return season after season.
When State College was founded as a resting place for the historic Penn State University, its central location was key, hence the city’s home smack-dab in the middle of the state of Pennsylvania, a brief drive from either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Though once relatively unknown, the rapidly expanding community is seeing an increase in nods from the media. CNN has called it one of the 100 best places to live and launch a startup; the American Institute for Economic Research has named it a top 20 college town; and Movoto gave it the No. 1 spot on its “Happiest Small Places in America” list.
Penn State’s reputation as a research-centric institution has played a role in many of State College’s accolades, as it draws high-earning professionals and innovative startup founders to the area. An impressive food scene, a wide variety of artistic and cultural outlets, and a long lineup of major events have followed suit.
However, “Happy Valley” was happy long before it started catering to the tech crowd. The name actually stems from the Great Depression. When much of the country was enduring a hard-hitting economic downswing, State College was left relatively unscathed, and the fitting name emerged.
Amidst all the relative newcomers who’ve arrived with the area’s more recent boom in popularity, you’ll still find the “townies” nearly everywhere you look. This is a community that’s highly intertwined. Even with a population of several hundred thousand in the surrounding county, nearly everyone knows everyone, and has worked with them in some facet. For every industry, there is a tight-knit community, breathing life into just about every interest a visitor may have, from agriculture, dining, and theater to philanthropy—the list goes on and on.
Visitors planning a trip to Happy Valley should check the local calendars. Reminiscent of the many beloved tiny towns of television (think Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls, for example), State College is always happening, hosting festivals and events year-round that everyone attends. The summertime Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts is the most widely known, but the list is extensive, including the Central PA 4thFest, WingFest, People’s Choice Festival, the Grange Fair, Happy Valley Music Fest—and this just scratches the surface.
The Nittany Lion Inn (200 West Park Ave.), the stately white building, constructed in 1931, with its columned portico, circular drive, brick patio and immaculate landscaping, turns heads for sure. Even locals can’t help but admire it when driving past. The Four Diamond hotel also has a spectacular setting, across the street from the Penn State golf courses, right on the outskirts of downtown State College, making for easy walkability. However, the tempting lineup of on-site dining experiences is the real star here. Throughout the summer, guests are treated to tapas and live music on the patio, during the PA on the Patio events. Regular wine dinners feature selections of the Inn’s Wine Spectator-awarded wine list (with more than 500 bottles on the menu). Plus, the Sunday brunch is practically a tradition, attracting locals and visitors alike.
A short drive away is the Carnegie Inn and Spa(100 Cricklewood Dr.), another Four Diamond hotel in State College. This highly intimate accommodation offers 20 guestrooms, outfitted with antique furnishings. The luxury experience extends to the award-winning dining, pristine spa and the elegant wood-paneled library.
State College’s newest hotel is the very modern Hyatt Place State College (219 West Beaver Ave.), which prides itself on being “a different State College hotel.” Its convenient Beaver Avenue location makes it easy to walk to downtown eateries, shopping and campus events. Though not necessarily a “local” hotel, the Hyatt Place is attracting a high number of business visitors with its chain amenities (like free Wi-Fi and breakfast, and the ability to earn membership points for future travel).
Restaurants & Bars
For lunch all the way to late-night cravings, Local Whiskey (107 East Beaver Ave.) is the spot in State College for not only whiskey-based cocktails with amazing flavor profiles, but also killer food that pairs oh-so-well with the drink menu. A fall favorite is the Apple Toddy, with apple brandy, vermouth, locally-made cider, and honey and ginger syrup. Craving something a little stronger? Try the smoky and very sexy Skyfall, made with scotch, citrus juices and more of that locally-made cider. The food menu offers plenty to soak up your beverage of choice, from the huge trays of fries to the Chicago dogs and ginormous chicken sandwiches piled high with jalapeño Dijon slaw.
Outside of the downtown area, The Field (1 Country Club Ln.) serves up hearty portions of burgers and handhelds, all created using an array of local ingredients. While the eight different burgers are each uniquely amazing, as are the various sandwiches and salads, the fries and milkshakes really catch attention. Fries are served with reckless abandon, poured onto a simple sheet of butcher paper, right on your tabletop. That’s not all, though. They’re then covered with whatever special seasoning or sauce you like, making for a messy, good time. Field milkshakes are served hard, in a rotating array of flavors perfect for any sweet tooth, like the Candy Land, featuring grape vodka, vanilla ice cream, sour ribbon candy, a lollipop and a candy necklace.
Gigi’s Southern Table (2080 Cato Ave.) elevates farm-to-table fair, without losing any of the fantastic Southern, down-home flavors. Whether you’re seated in the cute and cozy dining room, or on the shaded patio, you’ll be treated to a mouth-watering experience showcasing Southern-inspired menu items that have somehow made their way all the way up to central Pennsylvania. The menu is reminiscent of what you’d find in an upscale regional restaurant in Kentucky, South Carolina or Georgia. Start off with a basket of biscuits or the candied pecan pimento dip (or both!). Entrees range from shrimp and grits to jambalaya to bourbon barbecue.
Berkey Creamery (119 Rodney A. Ericsson Food Science Building) is a requisite visit for any trip to State College, and everyone who’s been agrees. This local institution is part of the Department of Food Science at Penn State and also where Ben and Jerry (founders of the beloved eponymous ice cream company) learned the art of ice cream-making. The creamery is serious about its ice cream too: legend has it that the only person ever allowed to mix two of their different flavors in one cone was President Bill Clinton (however, after he left office, he was no longer allowed to do so). Stop by for a perfectly huge helping from one of their long lists of flavors. Regardless what you choose, you’re guaranteed the milk your ice cream is made with was still in the cow just a few days ago.
The Great Outdoors
With lots to eat and drink in State College, you may feel inclined to work off a few of those ice cream cones, milk shakes and cocktails. Luckily, the area is surrounded by outdoor activities for the most out of shape and the seasoned trail blazers alike.
If you lean toward a leisurely stroll in a picturesque setting, head to the Penn State Arboretum (East Park Ave.). Though the lotus pool, huge sundial (named after local weather giant Accuweather’s founder, Joel N. Myers) and pollinator garden are all worth seeing and filled with Instagram-worthy scenery, the Childhood’s Gate Children’s Garden may be the most popular spot within the arboretum. Filled with limestone and sandstone structures, there is a multitude of winding paths, wade-friendly streams, a manmade cave and rows upon rows of edible gardens.
The most popular hiking spot in the area is without a doubt Mount Nittany (500 Mount Nittany Rd.). Visible from so many spots in the city, its outline quickly becomes a recognizable feature for many visitors. With more than seven miles of hiking trails, Mount Nittany boasts six different overlooks, though some are easier to reach than others. Both the White Trail and the more challenging Blue Trail lead to the most popular vista, the Mike Lynch Overlook, from where you can revel in a view of a large fraction of the region, laid out at your feet like a patchwork quilt of farmland, businesses and interconnecting roadways. Not in the mood for hiking? Mountain biking is also a huge draw here.
Want a little more wilderness? About a 20-minute drive from State College, you’ll find Black Moshannon State Park (4216 Beaver Rd.), a super-unique and interesting spot where you can truly feel away from it all, as you’ll likely lose your cell phone service while driving up the mountain. Located on the Allegheny Plateau, the state park offers almost any outdoor activity you could want—hiking, camping, swimming, snowmobiling, kayaking, fishing, and more. The one-of-a-kind ecosystem is what sets this regional destination apart, though. With an environment typically only found much further north, the park is home to a huge bog, which is both strangely beautiful and filled with odd little creatures, like several species of carnivorous plants. Though safe for swimming and water sports, the bog also acts as a giant tea bag, filtering the water that feeds the large lake, turning the calm depths a deep black.