Pennsylvania has so many facets to it, which you can only discover when you visit this beautiful Northeastern state. Unlike the major metropolises of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which are often in the headlines, it is in the small, lesser-known towns where you will find a rarely talked about personality of the Keystone State. These towns boast stunning natural landscapes and exciting outdoor pursuits, making them a dream come true for explorers.
One of the oldest states in the country, Pennsylvania comprises small areas that possess a storied historical heritage characterized by culture-rich communities and unique traditions, which are expressed through local arts and festivals. If you want to experience the magic of the state’s backcountry, here are eight must-visit small towns in Pennsylvania.
Christened the “Switzerland of America,” Jim Thorpe is a small community in Eastern Pennsylvania with attractions for all seasons. It stands out for the gorgeous architecture of its well-preserved historic buildings and the scenic Pocono Mountains that encircle the town. There is a lot of history to explore, starting with the landmark Asa Packer Mansion Museum. This 19th-century Italianate mansion, which belonged to Asa Packer, maintains its original Victorian décor from the 1900s.
You can combine your love for history and exploration aboard the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway. This old diesel train takes visitors on a scenic ride through Lehigh Gorge State Park, traversing sheer cliffs, dense forests, and other dramatic landscapes in a once-in-a-lifetime sightseeing experience. Jim Thorpe’s outdoors are spellbinding in the fall, making it an excellent time to explore its scenic paths, like the D&L Trail, on a hiking or biking expedition.
This quaint village in Pike County lies along the banks of the Delaware River, surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Poconos. Its picturesque natural scenery makes it a top spot for outdoorsy travelers, but it offers something for all preferences. Milford Beach, part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, presents a delightful natural space with opportunities for swimming, rafting, picnicking, and boating. Alternatively, you can explore the Raymondskill Creek Trail, which leads to the state’s tallest cascade, Raymondskill Falls.
Away from the outdoors, Milford boasts a rich historical heritage, dating back to its founding in 1796. It houses several landmarks that will intrigue history buffs, including The Columns Museum of the Pike County Historical Society. Here, you can admire the 1904 mansion’s eye-catching neoclassical architectural details while viewing exhibits including Charles Sanders Peirce’s personal items and the famous 'bloody Lincoln Flag.’
Zelienople, located 28 miles from Pittsburgh, offers an excellent escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. This small town of about 4,000 residents offers the best of both worlds, balancing small-town charm with big-city amenities. Despite its urban flair, Zelienople has lovely open spaces like the Zelienople Community Park, a hub of activities with family-friendly facilities like a swimming pool, baseball fields, picnic pavilions, and a skate park.
The town traces its roots to its founding in 1802 by German immigrants. You can explore its German heritage at Buhl House, an ancient 10-room house constructed by the German immigrant Christian Buhl. This is the oldest structure in the town, offering a glimpse into life in Zelienople at the time. For art enthusiasts exploring the charming downtown area, you can catch a live performance at The Strand Theater or stop by CURIO Art Gallery & Studio to admire beautiful handicrafts.
You might know Gettysburg for the famous Battle of Gettysburg, but there is more to this town than its war history. War enthusiasts will find an ideal pastime at the Gettysburg Museum of History. This impressive Civil War museum displays a vast collection of artifacts that depict America’s military heritage over the years. However, outdoor explorers might prefer visiting Gettysburg National Military Park, which encompasses the battlefield.
The Sachs Covered Bridge, an iconic town landmark spanning Marsh Creek, is a must-visit. Built in 1854, it serves as a stark reminder of the 19th century and its use by soldiers during the war. In the town center, there are several quaint spots to visit, including the family-friendly Dobbin House Tavern for a wholesome meal. Additionally, The Horse Soldier specializes in charming military antiques related to the Civil War.
Ridgway is perfect for those seeking to escape city noise and enjoy a secluded vacation away from crowds. This village in Elk County is only 11 minutes from Allegheny National Forest, offering activities like hiking, biking, and camping. Within the town, Sandy Beach Park offers various outdoor activities and welcomes anglers, sports enthusiasts, kids, and sightseers to its natural setting.
History enthusiasts can visit the Elk County Historical Society to learn about Ridgway’s past. The complex includes a historic chapel, two museums, and research rooms, preserving regional history with thousands of artifacts. For socializing with locals, visit Jordan’s Bar & Grill, a popular spot serving American fare and ice-cold beer in an upbeat atmosphere.
Home to fewer than 100 residents, Ohiopyle offers privacy and tranquility for a small-town Pennsylvania getaway. Located in Fayette County, this village is nestled in Ohiopyle State Park, making it a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Opportunities abound for hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting, with the stunning Ohiopyle Falls being a park highlight.
The 100-acre Ferncliff Peninsula Natural Area in Ohiopyle is a compelling reason to explore the town’s wilderness. Designated a National Natural Landmark, it boasts rich biodiversity and rare plant species. Ohiopyle Trading Post and River Tours provide thrilling whitewater rafting expeditions on the Youghiogheny River.
Many first-time visitors to Eagles Mere in Sullivan County rank it among the best small towns in Pennsylvania, captivated by its spellbinding allure. This charming village offers rich natural scenery, a peaceful atmosphere, and hospitable locals. Upon arrival, a great start is visiting the Eagles Mere Museum to acquaint yourself with the area's history. This quaint museum displays a collection of cultural and historical artifacts, tracing the town's evolution over the years.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Eagles Mere Conservancy offers an ideal natural setting, with lush surroundings, scenic trails, and diverse wildlife. Additionally, Eagles Mere Lake provides a serene atmosphere for unwinding, particularly in the evenings when moonlight reflects on the clear waters.
New Hope, an artistic community along the Delaware River, has a population of fewer than 3,000 residents. This town offers a rich cultural experience with numerous art galleries, museums, and historic structures. At the Perry Mansion Museum, visitors can explore the lifestyle of late 18th-century locals, with the homestead showcasing original furnishings from that era. The Bucks County Playhouse, a historic venue, hosts engaging theater dramas, musical performances, and children’s plays. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, a 134-acre botanical garden featuring over 800 native plant species. Don’t miss dining at Martine’s RiverHouse Restaurant for European-inspired cuisine in a riverside setting.
While there are numerous lesser-known destinations in Pennsylvania, these small towns stand out for their unique allure. With stunning natural scenery, historical attractions, and abundant outdoor activities, they showcase a distinct personality of the state that is unforgettable.