WHY GO: Most of the things to do in Altoona PA and surrounding Blair County revolve around the railroad industry. But, when hotels in State College are full for the Penn State games, fans will bed down here, 30 minutes away, not knowing that there are other, greater reasons to give this part of Central PA two days of your time.
It’s home to the world’s oldest wooden roller coaster, a theme park that revolves around a craft pasta-sauce business, railroad engineering marvels from the 1800’s, a phenomenal Railroader Memorial Museum, a concentration of Bluebirds, and some bantering waitresses in an authentic greasy-spoon diner.
With a restored opulent theater, an accessible art museum, a “Duomo” Cathedral that has won architectural awards, and art galleries, downtown Altoona is the cultural hub of Blair County PA. Very offbeat surprises await both there and in the wider Blair County.
Extend your Getaway with a stay in State College PA – 30 minutes away.
Or visit Johnstown PA (50 minute drive), to learn about one of our country’s most horrific disasters.
For many more ideas on where couples can find adventures in Pennsylvania, check out Getaway Maven’s Top Romantic Getaways in PA.
Best Things to Do in Altoona PA
VISIT: Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark
One of the greatest engineering marvels of its time, The Horseshoe Curve, clinging to the side of a mountain, boggles the mind: Even more so because it was built in 1854 with picks and shovels – without aid of computers or sophisticated technology. It’s a National Historic Landmark, still in use, and a must-see when in Altoona PA.
Back when the United States was expanding Westward, the Allegheny Mountain Range presented a formidable barrier to East-West train travel. From the 1830s to the 1850’s travelers between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia had to use the cumbersome Portage Railroad (see below) – which lifted canal boats up a series of inclines.
Building what became known as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Horseshoe Curve solved that problem. This Altoona segment was so crucial, in fact, Hitler targeted it for destruction, as it was the only way to transport munitions across the county during World War II.
Now, watch freight trains as they make their u-shaped way from the end of one side to the other. It’s one of the most exhilarating experiences for kids and trainspotters. And, well, anyone.
You’ll get somewhat of an idea of the grandeur and engineering prowess of the pre-Civil War era in a small Visitor’s Center. For now, the funicular from the Visitor’s Center to the viewing platform is inoperative. So, you must walk up to the mid-point of the tracks and wait for the next train. They come about every 45 minutes.
VISIT: Railroaders Memorial Museum
Memorializing the workmen and victims of local train wrecks, the Railroaders Memorial Museum is far better than its nondescript exterior would indicate. In the early stages of America’s westward expansion, the Allegheny Ridge posed a 2,500 ft high roadblock between the Eastern Seaboard and the frontier.
Pennsylvania Railroad (aka “Pennsy”) engineers designed the Horseshoe Curve to circumvent rather than scale the ridge. Ever since then, this area of PA has been a railroad town.
The Pennsylvania Railroad was so dominant, its New York City terminus, Penn Station, was compared to the cathedrals of Europe when it opened in 1910. In 1963, the station’s demolition was so controversial, it led to our country’s first preservation movement.
The first floor of the Museum is impressive, but the second floor shines. Motion triggered exhibits introduce visitors to a loquacious newsboy, linemen, engineers and mechanics yapping about their day at the recreation of Kelly’s Bar.
You’ll see photos and artifacts from some of the most sensational train-wrecks, including the Memorial Day 1893 “Like Water For Elephants,” circus train crash that took the lives of five people and fifty horses; the 1925 “17th St. Wreck” when a train lost its breaks on the Horseshoe Curve sending engines and cars screaming into the center of Altoona at 75MPH; and the 1947 Red Arrow Luxury Flier wreck that claimed 22 lives.
The third floor contains a locomotive control board – as complex and overwhelming as the cockpit of a modern aircraft. This floor also encompasses a highly detailed model train section, and a lab to determine if you have the right stuff to be a railroader.
TOUR: Baker Mansion
Home of the Blair County Historical Society, the 1849 Baker Mansion is the only Greek Temple style home in Pennsylvania. It is also, many claim, haunted.
However, there were no ghosts in residence when I took a shortened one hour guided tour of the home (docent-led tours are usually 2 hours), leading me into the basement kitchen – with a massive walk-in refrigerator room (ice house), a speaking tube for servants, and dumbwaiter – and the rest of the house.
Iron cooking pots on display actually belonged to the Bakers. A recent renovation removed a wall that had been concealing the kitchen fireplace. Inside were those iron pots, blackened with use.
Elias Baker and his wife, Heddy, move into this home in 1850. An ironmaster and owner of a local iron forge – Baker was far from robber-baron status. The construction of this home, basically an act of hubris, nearly bankrupted him.
The Bakers had three children, only one of whom married and had a child of his own. The Baker’s daughter, Ana, lived here until 1914, and subsequently, the building and its grounds became the property of the Blair County Historical Society.
Lincoln’s Secret Meeting in Altoona
Of course, your tour will take you to all of the decorated rooms of the home, and there are stories galore about each one. But there’s one that stands out in Blair County history – involving President Abraham Lincoln’s secret meeting at the no-longer standing Logan House Hotel in Altoona.
During the Civil War, the Logan had one feature that guaranteed that vulnerable elected officials could come and go, sight unseen. A railroad stop at the front door allowed visitors to be whisked from train car to conference room; away from paparazzi’s prying eyes.
Thus reassured, on September 24, 1862, Lincoln gathered 13 Northern State Governors to confirm their financial and moral support for the Union Army, and their agreement to have his back after he released the Emancipation Proclamation. (All but one – Maryland – agreed).
Incredibly, the very conference table used that day now showcases a Gilded Age lunch in the Baker Mansion dining room. Your guide will lift the tablecloth to reveal a brass plate inscription of that auspicious event.
Haunted Wedding Dress
Oh – and about those hauntings? Visitors say that they have experienced paranormal activity. But it’s an 1831 wedding dress on display, belonging to a woman from another local historic family – Elizabeth Bell – that seems to have a life of its own. Some claim that’s because Ana Baker, a jealous spinster, just wants it gone.
But, whether you see or feel something from beyond the grave or not, a tour of the Baker Mansion is fascinating in its own right – full of wonders and surprises.
VISIT: Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA)
Enter the former Bretts Department Store – now the So. Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA) – to see an exquisite self-portrait by hyperrealist sculptor, Carole Feureman. It gives you an idea of what’s to come in this exciting, three-gallery downtown art museum.
Yes, SAMA’s permanent collection includes Classic American Art from the 1700’s until today, but the museum is known for having the largest collection of works by Magical Realist, Colleen Browning, whose sometimes-surreal compositions are seen on NYC Subway cars.
Although it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a larger institution, SAMA does provide valuable community resources – artswise – for the neighborhood. One initiative allows those who don’t have access to art supplies to take home a crochet, painting, drawing, or clay “Art Kit.” For free!
SAMA launches about 4 or 5 exhibits per year, with cool events and special programming: always giving visitors new ways to experience this earnest institution. Museum Coordinator, Dante DiAndrea, is happy to coordinate your own special event – including, but not restricted to….marriage proposals in the foreground of your favorite work of art!
THEATER: Mishler Theatre
First built in 1906, the very grand Mishler Theatre has been undergoing restoration for decades. Walk in to see gold trimmed red upholstered seats, gilded carved woodwork, stunning wall and ceiling murals, and a glittering chandelier.
In the 1960’s, the Mishler was destined to become a parking lot. But thanks to a very appreciative and philanthropic membership, it was reclaimed as a jewel of downtown. After all, the Mishler is home to the Altoona Symphony Orchestra. At 95 years old in 2023, it’s the longest continuously performing community orchestra in the USA.
BASEBALL: People’s Natural Gas Field
See the minor league Altoona Curve, an AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, at People’s Natural Gas Field. It’s the only baseball stadium in the world with a roller coaster right behind Center Field
PHOTO OP: Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament
The dome of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament dominates the Altoona skyline (and is sometimes mistaken for City Hall). But this grey, bland from the outside structure – winner of the Blair County Arts Hall of Fame as Architectural nominee – holds treats for the eyes within.
Groundbreaking for the Cathedral began in the 1920’s – but stopped during the Depression. It wasn’t until the 1950’s, when the Altoona community rallied around its completion, that it first opened its doors. Even if you’re not Catholic, enter its vast halls to see spectacular stained glass and the stunning interior.
DO: Clay Cup
Do an art project (paint, personalize a ceramic piece) while sipping fresh-roasted Westfall Coffee at The Clay Cup. Young owner, Sarah Vogel, purchased, and has been rehabbing, this former downtown Altoona men’s clothing store building floor by floor, and is creating quite a magnet for creative folks in the process.
GO: Lakemont Park
One of the last of a dying breed, this family theme park is also famous for maintaining the “World’s Oldest Wooden Roller Coaster.” Leap-The-Dips was built in 1902, and still clickity clacks away every day at the otherwise modest Lakemont Park.
Things to do in Blair County PA
TOUR/HIKE: Fort Roberdeau, 20 Minutes From Downtown Altoona
* Watch out for Amish horse and buggies as you make your way out to Sinking Valley and Fort Roberdeau from downtown Altoona. Many have settled this rich farmland in recent years.
In 1778, Daniel Roberdeau wrote to George Washington, of the westernmost U.S. Revolutionary War Fort, “I have built with logs at the mine in Sinking Spring Valley a fort, in cabbin (sic) fashion, 50 yards square with a bastion at each corner.”
Importance of Lead Mines During War of Independence
Back then, protecting American lead mines was of vital importance. While expanding the colonies, England’s King George III was all too happy to send lead here for his army’s rifles. But after those upstart colonies declared Independence, not so much. So, local militias had to find domestic sources for the metals used to make bullets for the Continental Army.
Built to protect a lead mining and smelting operation on the Pennsylvania frontier, Fort Roberdeau was only open for a couple of years and never saw battle. It did, however, protect farmers and settlers. Interestingly, many of the musket balls found on this property were made in Britain.
For the bi-centennial, in 1976, a facsimile of the fort was recreated onsite. Naturally it thrills school children no end with its costumed interpreters and Revolutionary spirit. But that’s not the only thing to do at this 230-acre Blair County park.
Many visitors come to see the original Bank Barn, which houses a gift shop and orientation room on the first floor; and an original, late 1700’s Conestoga freight wagon and weaving looms and spinning wheels in a new exhibit, “Fiber on the Frontier,” upstairs.
There’s a Log Cabin in the woods – redolent of cook’s fires – where a costumed docent might be whipping up a meal for visiting students, or families during special events. Nearby there’s a short path to a limestone sinkhole: just one of the many that gave “Sinking Valley” its name.
But wait – there’s more!
As a Dark Sky designated park, Fort Roberdeau is a perfect place to stare into the nighttime sky. The small Mountain Lion Observatory has several impressive telescopes, which are employed during monthly star-gazing programs led by local astronomers.
Speaking of Space, there’s a short Space and Discovery Trail, which starts by the observatory. One side shows the planets in our Solar System spaced out to scale. The other side displays a Revolutionary War event timeline.
Fort Roberdeau is also a conservation area for Meadowlarks and Bluebirds. As this color-saturated species is plentiful here, you just may just discover your own Bluebird of Happiness on the Bluebird Trail. This nearly mile long trail follows a “long circuitous hedgerow,” passing 40 Bluebird boxes that are quite active during nesting season.
So, whether you’re a history nut, have birds on the brain, or just want to take a walk and picnic in beautiful surroundings, there’s something for you at this treasure of a County Park.
GO: Canoe Creek State Park, Franklin Township
The nearly 1,000 acre Canoe Creek State Park has been deemed “One of the Top 20 State Parks in Pennsylvania,” and a Must-See. There’s a 155-acre lake with a beach and fishing year round, and miles of hiking trails. But its most interesting features are man made: a series of limestone kilns used for the extraction of iron and steel in the early 1900’s.
SEE/HIKE: Chimney Rocks Park, Hollidaysburg
Views of downtown Hollidaysburg PA from Chimney Rocks Park are worth the drive: Even from the lower, handicapped accessible overlook. Hike up to the highest overlook to spot the rocks that gave this park its name.
While they are not actual chimneys, these 20 ft high geologic formations are imposing and fun (yet steep) to hike to. Our friend at UncoveringPA has all the details on the trails and access point of Chimney Rocks park.
WANDER: Hollidaysburg PA
Hollidaysburg – a “small town” movie set ready downtown if there ever was one – is as charming as its name suggests. You’ll find memorable restaurants (see below under where to eat), and cute, independent shops.
VISIT: Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Park, Gallitzin
Prior to the construction of the Horseshoe Curve in 1854, Charles Dickens, Jenny Lind and Harriet Beecher Stowe were but three celebrities who traveled west on this ingenious “portage” contraption that carried goods and passengers over the Allegheny Ridge: The Allegheny Portage Railroad.
Built as a series of ten inclines half a mile each, the portage would hoist specially designed canal boats, hitched to steam-engine powered wire cables, up and over the mountains, returning them to the water on the other side.
The Portage Railroad ran just twenty years – from 1834 to 1854 – as the only way to go directly between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
For scientists and engineers, it is a fascinating look at American ingenuity. See a model at the Visitors Center along with a full scale canal boat, and then walk down to the Lemon House on a lovely quarter mile boardwalk.
The house served as tavern for passengers and railroad workers and is restored just as it was when the Portage was in operation. A pub for men and dainty parlor for women and children – it was once a bustling place to catch up on the news of the day.
SEE: Gallitzin Tunnels Gallitzin
A couple of miles from the Portage Railroad NHP, be sure to stop here to see the lesser known engineering marvel that gets lost in the Horseshoe Curve hoopla. This still operational Gallitzen Tunnels runs 3,612 feet under the mountain town of Gallitzin, and it’s thrilling to watch trains head into and out of them.
Don’t miss a small museum located in Gallitzin’s Town Office, especially if you’re into stuff like original track nails, miner’s hats and old work buckets.
GO: DelGrosso’s Amusement and Water Park, Tipton
Fred DelGrosso Sr. was a railroader who loved the waitress at a small Altoona café as much as the sauce she made. Fred and Mafalda married, and in 1946, bought what was then Bland’s Amusement Park. They raised seven children and prepared DelGrosso’s Sauce right on site.
DelGrosso Foods is now considered the oldest major family-owned maker of pasta sauce in the United States, with its plant directly across the street from carousels, a tilt-a-whirl and other fun-park amusements. The park’s name was changed to Delgrosso’s Amusement Park in 2001, and now encompasses over 30 rides and attractions, catering mostly to younger children, and the Laguna Splash Water Park across the street.
The grounds are pristine and beautiful, with plenty of pavilions for reunions and other gatherings. There’s a palpable family feel to the place.
And even if you don’t have young children, come to tap in to the kind of genuinely friendly atmosphere lacking in other so-called “family” parks these days. Or, for the world-renowned potato salad. It’s so good, DelGrosso’s sells over 25,000 pounds of it each summer.
Aside from its traditional recipe, the family now makes a premium brand – LaFamilia – with sauces named for each DelGrosso child. Naturally, you can purchase jars on site.
SHOP: Gardners Candies, Tyrone
Original owner of Gardners Candies, James “Pike” Gardner, has been credited with designing the first heart-shaped chocolates box for Valentines Day in the late 1800’s. You’ll find a few of these, plus old kettles, molds and memorabilia from the turn of last century – as well as photos of the Circus Train Wreck that happened just down the street – in a small museum in back of the original store in Tyrone PA. Be sure to purchase at least one signature Peanut Butter Meltaway before leaving.
Best Places to Eat in the Altoona Area
EAT: Tom and Joe’s Diner
A throwback if there ever was one, Tom and Joe’s has been a stalwart Altoona institution since it opened in 1933. Waitresses banter with patrons (sometimes pushing the tease), and table-side nickelodeons still feature original 50’s song – like Louis Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and the best of Elvis.
Grandson of the original owners, George Batius, is now chef/owner – and food is diner-good. Signatures include the “Green Omelet” for breakfast and Cheesesteak Sandwich for lunch. According to Batius, Tom and Joe’s “goes through 1,200 lbs. of potatoes a week for home fries.”
EAT: U.S. Hotel Restaurant and Tavern, Hollidaysburg
Find good pub food in this very historic US Hotel Restaurant and Tavern hard by a train depot. First built in 1835 to accommodate travelers heading west via the Portage Railroad, it burned down in 1871, only to be reconstructed in 1905, with a mahogany bar and um, “flow-through” spittoon below the bar stools. That’s still there, just don’t think too much about it when dining on good bar food.
EAT: Allegheny Crepes and Creamery, Hollidaysburg
More like a funky California eatery – and very rare to find in small-town PA – Allegheny Crepes and Creamery dishes out innovative and luscious flatbreads, soups, salads, sandwiches, and of course, crepes – from scratch.
EAT: Locals Recommend
Where to Stay in Altoona PA
STAY: With no boutique hotels in Altoona, try for a decent branded lodging. The relatively new Fairfield Inn & Suites is is clean, friendly, and with a complimentary hot and cold breakfast, it’s the most upscale mid-range chain hotel in town.
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