There is much more to the Keystone State than the City of Brotherly Love and the Steel City. What lies between these bookends is a mix of charming small towns and cities with burgeoning culture and unique style.
The view from afar shows Pennsylvania as tale of two cities, Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west. While the draw of one-stop vacationing in the bigger cities may be tempting, PA—the only state commonly known by its abbreviated initials—is home to hundreds of small-town wonders as well. To uncover these lesser-known gems, TravelMag asked more than 100 seasoned adventurers, travel writers, photographers, and industry professionals to name their top three most charming towns and small cities with populations of less than 100,000 people in Pennsylvania.
Below, in alphabetical order, we share the top ten towns and small cities in PA, along with what makes each place worthy of a visit, whether they are gold mines of historical importance, cultural epicenters, or getaways in the state’s river valleys and mountains. Pennsylvania is much more than a day trip; use these towns to experience the variety of what this charming state has to offer.
A deep sense of community pride flows through Bellefonte. The self-described Victorian Jewel of Pennsylvania was built around the iron industry and today enjoys a vibrant identity where history blends with the modern. Business owners champion this spirit, such as the fully-functioning soda fountain at Plumb’s Drug Store, which harkens back to yesteryear. The relaxing feel of this town of 6,000 is a bit deceptive as Bellefonte is filled with exciting cultural finds like breweries, green spaces, and a bustling boutique shopping scene. Bellefonte is built around a downtown spring and surrounded by a wide variety of architecture, as highlighted by Local Historia guide-owner Matt Maris. Bellefonte’s famed Spring Creek offers flyfishing downtown and at nearby Penns Creek, Fishing Creek, Spruce Creek and the Little Juniata River. Nature lovers seek out Rothrock and Bald Eagle State Forests and several state parks near Bellefonte.
Pennsylvania’s Christmas City is more than a winter wonderland. Bethlehem is a city where historic meets modern, drawing visitors for all over the world. There are two distinct parts to Bethlehem: the Northside and Southside. Northside is known for its historic buildings with 17 historic sites dating back to the 1700s. Because of its connection to America’s past and history of immigration, Historic Moravian Bethlehem is a UNESCO World Heritage Site nominee. Southside has transformed into an arts and culture hub anchored by Lehigh University. SteelStacks, a once abandoned Bethlehem Steel plant now serves as a 10-acre arts and culture campus. The 230-foot-tall furnaces—manicured and preserved—now serve as a stunning backdrop for concerts and special events. Bethlehem is the site of a 10-day music festival featuring major headliners and more than 500 free concerts. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy the connectivity to the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, a system of trails running from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia.
As every US school kid knows, Gettysburg played a pivotal role in the American Civil War. It was here the tide of war changed in favor of the North. Today, over one million visitors make their way to Gettysburg each year to visit Gettysburg National Military Park, the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center, and Gettysburg National Cemetery. The National Military Park covers over 9 square miles and can be seen on foot, by car, or even on horseback. Approximately 1,328 monuments, markers, and memorials are located in the park. Visitors to the cemetery can stand in the same location where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the famous Gettysburg Address. A few blocks away sightseers who like to delve into the macabre or relish in the spiritual can take one of the many walking ghost tours leaving from Steinwehr Avenue to civil war sites of death around town. Downtown is filled with a myriad of shopping options highlighted by the spacious and eclectic Lark Gifts and the fun and hands-on Nerd Herd. Over the past few years Gettysburg has aimed to highlight its growing culinary scene with destinations like Mason Dixon Distillery and Mela Kitchen, home of Jack’s Hard Cider.
Nestled in the Pennsylvania woodlands, Huntingdon is a popular stop on the way to nearby Raystown Lake in the summer months. But for those without a boat, there is plenty to see, do, and learn in this town of about 7,000 residents. Topping the Huntingdon “must see” list is the Isett Heritage Museum. Plan to spend an entire day at this eclectic collection of 40,000 plus items of Americana gathered by Melvin and Beulah Isett and housed in four buildings. The displays preserve everyday living, from a 1950s ice cream parlor to the “new” technology of the 1980s. Huntingdon’s Swigart Museum is considered the oldest automobile museum in the U.S. and is host to a 104-piece collection of vehicles ranging from a 1911 Sears Roadster Model K to an authentic 1960 Volkswagen “Herbie the Love Bug” Beetle; number 9 of an estimated 50. Just outside of town, Lincoln Caverns has been open to guests for over 90 years. The caves were discovered when a piece of heavy equipment disappeared into the mountainside during the construction of Route 22.
Jim Thorpe, the town with a full human name, is the Pennsylvanian’s PA town. Easily reached by car or scenic railcar originating in Reading, this picturesque Victorian village, nestled in the Lehigh Gorge, is filled with history, romance, and family fun. The former coal mining town was originally known as Mauch Chunk and was renamed after Native American athlete Jim Thorpe in 1954. His 20-ton mausoleum is found in a small green space along North Street. Jim Thorpe’s walkable downtown is filled with quaint shops, restaurants, and pubs. Embracing the hashtag #VisitJimThorpePA, visitors are encouraged to find marked “selfie spots” located throughout the historic district. Other creative ways to explore the town include walking tours, or via the sidecar of a vintage BMW motorcycle. A trip to Jim Thorpe is only complete with a visit to the Asa Packer Mansion to view a legendary piece of American architecture.
Named after the English city of Lancashire, Pennsylvania’s 10th largest city still holds onto the UK city’s symbolic Red Rose (from the House of Lancaster). PA’s Red Rose City was incorporated as a borough in 1742 and proudly displays its heritage and history (Lancaster served as the capitol of the United States for one day: September 27, 1777) throughout town in the form of museums, living history tours, and annual events. While Lancaster County is best known for its Amish and Mennonite populations, the heart of Lancaster City, Penn Square, is marked by the impressive Soldiers and Sailors monument. East King Street is home to restaurants like Bistro Barberet and Annie Bailey’s. Heading northwest through Lancaster Central Market (one of the oldest and most beloved farmer’s markets in the US) leads visitors to Prince Street, home of the Fulton Theatre and the artist trove known as Gallery Row. A visit to downtown should always include time spent wandering through the diverse shops of the 300 block of North Queen Street.
Pretzels, chocolate, and craft beer! These three things attract visitors to Lititz. Founded in 1754 as a Moravian church settlement, Lititz still respects the achievements and hallmarks of its forefathers though it has progressed in industry through the Wilbur Chocolate Company and Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, both of which serve as tourist destinations offering culinary delights and educational enrichment. With a bustling downtown at the T-intersection of Broad and Main Streets, Lititz is the place to find the perfect gift for a special occasion or to add to one’s closet, kitchen, or curio collection. Festivals showcasing the town’s signature style take place throughout the year, but no ticket is more sought after than the annual Lititz Craft Beer Festival in September. Quieter days in Lititz see many visitors and locals enjoying the downtown Lititz Springs Park, still owned by the Lititz Moravian Congregation and maintained for public use by the Churches of Lititz.
A visit to New Hope on the Delaware River, 40 miles north of Philadelphia, is a rite of passage. New Hope is more than its eclectic shopping and riverside restaurants, but those are both important reasons to make New Hope part of a Pennsylvania excursion. Money can be well spent on items ranging from bonsai trees to premise-made chocolates, re-funked furniture to “magickal” crystals, or artisan leather goods and fine art. New Hope is filled with scrumptious places to eat or pick-up carryout food for a scenic outdoor lunch, but it is hard to beat the atmosphere and cuisine at the Logan Inn. Founded in 1727, the Logan Inn is one of the oldest continually operating inns in the US. A 2020 expansion added accommodations and revitalized the main floor housing the restaurant, bar, and social areas. Other dining standouts in this culinary-rich town include Nektar, Karla’s, and Stella. Outdoors, visitors can take a walk to New Jersey and back by crossing the New Hope-Lambertville Bridge or enjoy the trails at the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve.
Phoenixville has risen from the ashes of its industrial age founding to become a flourishing and vibrant community. The settlement on the banks of the Schuylkill River was first inhabited by members of the Lenape tripe and became a frontier silver-mining town in the late 1600s. By the 1800s iron had taken over as the chief employer in the area. Today, a lively Main Street beckons visitors, especially thirsty ones: Phoenixville has more brewpubs per capita than any other Pennsylvania community, such as Sly Fox Brewing Company and the fun-inspired brews from Root Down Brewing Company. A short drive out of town is Stickman Brews, a cult favorite in eastern Pennsylvania. Beyond beer, Phoenixville offers visitors a year-round calendar of events including the annual Blobfest: a celebration of the 1958 sci-fi classic which featured the town’s Colonial Theatre in an iconic scene. Opened in 1903 to show “one-reelers”, the Colonial Theater still shows contemporary and classic films, and also hosts comedians, musicians, and other special events.
In 1799 Col. Jacob Stroud and his family laid out the plans for Stroudsburg with wide, open walkways separating the downtown buildings from the street. Today’s Main Street is occupied by busy boutiques, thriving restaurants and bars, and fun-filled activities from a flourishing cultural scene. Shoppers delight in niche shops like Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop and the floor-to-ceiling collection of books at Carroll & Carroll Booksellers. The area’s Irish roots are represented by Fitzpatrick’s Irish Shop and traditional Eire food at Siamsa Irish Pub. A stay at the newly renovated Penn Stroud Hotel puts visitors in the middle of downtown. Originally opened in 1833, the town’s first hotel became a grand and lively destination for travelers including dignitaries such as President James Buchanan, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Academy Award-winning actor Charles Laughton. A winter trip to Stroudsburg, a.k.a. The Heart of the Poconos, is not complete without a venture to nearby Shawnee Mountain to take in the area’s bountiful skiing.