If you are looking for a long weekend destination that has not yet been overrun by tourists, Pennsylvania’s capital city makes for an ideal getaway. Harrisburg is marketing itself as “The Heart of Pennsylvania.” While that may not be 100 percent true based on Keystone State geography, the slogan makes sense because it is so accessible to more well-known destinations. Lancaster (Pennsylvania Dutch Country), Gettysburg, Reading (home of the nation’s first manufacturer’s outlet mall) and Hershey are all within a half-hour car ride of Harrisburg. Lodging in Harrisburg is also less expensive than at comparable properties in the areas.
Harrisburg is named after John Harris Jr., a Revolutionary War patriot, who in 1785 donated four acres of his farm land along the Susquehanna River to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the express purpose of serving as the state’s capital. State government is still the city’s leading employer, thanks to Harris’s philanthropy.
The State Capitol Building possesses possibly the most magnificent architecture of any state legislative house in the United States. Architect Joseph Huston had a French palace in mind when he built the Pennsylvania State Capitol at the turn of the 20th century. The building’s most distinctive feature, its ornate dome, is based on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., while its interior rotunda consisting of fine marble and grand staircases, was patterned after the Paris Opera House.
Harrisburg has three museums that are certainly worth visiting. The National Civil War Museum contains an equal number of artifacts such as weapons, uniforms and recruiting posters from both the Union and the Confederacy. The State Museum of Pennsylvania, which is starting to celebrate its centennial anniversary, consists of four floors of exhibits that trace the history of Pennsylvania from prehistoric times to the present. The Susquehanna Art Museum is only 15 years old and therefore it is not surprising that it does not have paintings by any of the European masters. It has become, however, one of the area’s best showcases for contemporary art. Its Doshi Art Gallery wing is dedicated to works created by local artists.
Twenty years ago, downtown Harrisburg was a dreary locale that had a lot of deserted storefronts. Those shops closed their doors at 5 p.m. every weekday and did not open on weekends. Things have certainly changed for the better. The city’s downtown boasts plenty of thriving art galleries and clothing boutiques while Second Street has become “Restaurant Row” with the kinds of ethnic restaurants you would expect to find only in America’s biggest cities.
City Island, located in the Susquehanna River, is Harrisburg’s recreational gem. Here you will find an 18-hole golf course, canoeing facilities, and jogging and bicycle paths. Children of all ages will enjoy a pleasant trip back to simpler times on the City Island Railroad, which circles a good chunk of the island, and then riding the 24-horse Mengels Carousel. During the summer you can also relax on a 45-minute cruise on the paddlewheel riverboat, the Pride of the Susquehanna. The Washington Nationals’ (formerly Montreal Expos) Eastern League affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators, play their home games at City Island’s RiverSide Stadium.
Harrisburg is an ornithologist’s dream as more than 400 species of birds make the Susquehanna river their home. If you forget to bring your binoculars or just don’t have the patience for birdwatching, then you can see plenty of ravens, hawks, golden eagles, owls, vultures, and falcons at ZooAmerica in nearby Hershey, as well as such North American mammals as pumas, gray wolves, bobcats, and bison.
For more information call the Harrisburg Visitors Bureau at 877-PAPULSE.