Erie PA: Sandy Beaches and War Stories

WHY GO: The beaches are expansive and beautiful – in Erie PA! Ohio is not the only state that gets to bask in the fresh waters of Lake Erie. In fact, Presque Isle State Park is the No. 1 attraction in Erie.

Presque Isle beach Erie PA

Erie also has great maritime history showcased at the maritime museum, which is home berth to a Flagship of the War of 1812, the US Brig Niagara. Tour lighthouses, fish for perch, take a boat tour or sunset sail, and explore the history of this Great Lakes town.

Tranquil sunset sail on Presque Isle Bay PA

Erie welcomes maritime history buffs, beach-goers, fishermen, sunset fans, and those who love them.

FYI – the Sheraton Erie Waterfront Hotel made it onto our 20 Best Romantic Hotels Northeast USA 2021 list.

Things to Do in Erie PA

U.S. Brig Niagara
U.S. Brig Niagara, Erie Maritime Museum PA

VISIT: Erie Maritime Museum and Flagship Niagara

Parts of what was once the 1813 warship, U.S. Brig Niagara still exist in its current, reconstructed form. Scuttled in Lake Erie right after the war, the Flagship was raised out of the muck in 1912. It was spiffed up for the 100th anniversary of the September 10th 1813 battle.

Rebuilt with preserved pieces in 1988, a 40 minute guided tour provides a good idea of life onboard during one of America’s least understood wars. The tour is just one delight in a museum stuffed to the gills with commercial and military mementos from Lake Erie, as well as history of the area.

Dobbins Landing - Port of Erie tower PA

The Erie Maritime Museum, carved in 1998 out of the former Erie Power Station, stands where six ships in America’s first Naval squadron were built in 1812 – a fraction of the ships the British Navy had at their disposal at the time.

“We entered the War in a total state of unpreparedness,” Walter Rybka, Museum Director, mused.

As the fledgling United State’s first Declaration of War, debate over going toe to toe with the heavily armed British Army and Navy was heated, garnering the largest number of votes of dissent ever on record (40%).

Check out the graphic poster that asks the question “What Were They Thinking?” It’s an in-your-face illustration of how our new country was outnumbered on sea and land by many multiples.

For the Brits, however, “this war doesn’t even register,” said Rybka. “It was just a side skirmish of the Napoleonic Wars.”

Erie Maritime Museum
Erie Maritime Museum Recreation of US Lawrence

Don’t miss the life-size model of the US Brig Lawrence. Under the command of Commodore Oliver Perry, it sustained devastating damage in the Battle of Lake Erie.

Scientifically Re-Creating the Battle

Scientists and historians used the same wood with the same thickness as in the original ship and calculated range, weight of shot, and type of guns to create this detailed diorama.

The museum’s depiction of the splintered wood and holes in the hull is an accurate illustration of how the Lawrence would most likely have appeared after the battle. Perry managed to leave the US Lawrence and board the Niagara, from which he commanded a decisive victory over the British fleet.

Right after the smoke had cleared, Perry scrawled a message on an envelope to Major General William Henry Harrison. “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Iron U.S.S. Wolverine
Iron U.S.S. Wolverine

Upstairs, you’ll find the prow of the USS Michigan. Built in 1842, the Michigan was the US Navy’s first iron hulled and most sophisticated warship, assigned to Lake Erie due to fears of another British war.

Despite preservation efforts, the ship – which had been renamed USS Wolverine and used for civilian purposes– was sold for scrap in 1949. The prow is all that is left. April – Sept, Open Mon-Sat 9-5, Sun noon-5. Nov-March Thur-Sat 9-5. $10 adults, $5 kids.

Presque Isle SP is number one attraction in Erie PA

VISIT: Presque Isle State Park

It will take a good hour to drive on the 13 mile loop of this 3,200-acre “Almost Island,” as the French termed it, and most of a weekend if you want to do everything.

Summer beach at Presque Isle State Park Erie

Presque Isle is linked to the mainland by a thin arrow of earth. Here, you’ll find, on this resort of a State Park, miles of running trails, kayak rentals and launch areas, boat tours, two lighthouses, a Coast Guard Station, a prominent monument to Commodore Oliver Perry, and clean, enticing beaches.

Presque Isle SP road
Presque Isle SP road, Erie PA

In fact, this National Historic Landmark is Pennsylvania’s only “seashore” and habitat for more endangered, threatened and rare species than any other area of comparable size in Pennsylvania. The Park creates Presque Isle Bay, the harbor for the City of Erie, which makes for a scenic kayak or sail.

Presque Isle is forever changing, thanks to storms, wind, and shifting sands. Everything is in flux, which makes it such a draw for nature-lovers. It is, according to naturalists, a “botanical wonderland.” The State park offers outdoor adventures in every season, including winter, when visitors can ice-skate, ice-fish, and cross-country ski.

To get the most out of a Presque Isle State Park visit, take a narrated boat cruise, and tour the Lighthouse. (Below).

Lady Kate narrated boat cruise of Presque Isle in Erie PA

Take a Boat Tour on the Lady Kate 

There’s no better way to see Presque Isle Bay and Park than on a 14 mile, 90 minute tour with a chipper, funny guide. There are, she allows, “13 beaches, 13 miles of roads, and 78 species of spiders” in the State Park.

Tour guide on the Lady Kate Presque Isle PA

The adventure begins in “Misery Bay” next to “Graveyard Pond” – and takes you to lighthouses, by expensive waterfront condos, past freighters arriving from India and China, around Erie’s waterfront, and through the dredged channel into the Lake.

All the while, you’ll learn tidbits about Admiral “We have met the enemy and they are ours” Perry, who built his ship in this very bay, and aspects of Erie PA that might surprise you. $16, adults, $9 kids. Daily, mid June-Labor Day 11, 1, 3, 5, sunset. Mid-May-Mid-June and after Labor Day through Sept., Sat-Sun only 11, 1, 3.

Tour the Presque Isle Lighthouse

Presque Isle Lighthouse 

Still an active guide to navigation, this lighthouse has been offering tours since the Lighthouse Keeper was no longer required to live on site. In 2014, the Coast Guard took over this computerized light, while the building itself is managed by the Presque Isle Lighthouse Association.

Lighting the Presque Isle Lighthouse lamp on a tour to the tower

The tour is a boon to Presque Isle SP visitors who can learn about the tough life of keepers prior to automated lights, and then climb the tight spiral staircase (78 claustrophobic steps) to the top of the tower. There, a stationed interpreter will demonstrate the light (daytime only), which at night can be seen by ship captains miles away. $7 for house and tower climb.

Rent Boats

You can rent kayaks, canoes, and small motorboats at Presque Isle Canoe and Boat Livery, and bicycles and surreys in the Waterworks Pumphouse area. Open 5am to dusk for activities, roads open until 9pm winter and 11pm summer. Free.

Map of Lake Erie shipwrecks at Presque Isle Lighthouse

PHOTO/TOUR: Three Erie Lighthouses

With six quadrillion gallons of water, the Great Lakes form the second largest collection of fresh water on earth (second only to the Polar Ice Caps). Lake Erie is, by far, the shallowest, and known as the “most dangerous navigable body of water in the world,” owing to its shallow depth and subsequent mega-waves that crop up in a matter of minutes.

Forget the Bermuda Triangle. The “Lake Erie Quadrangle” features the most dense field of maritime shipwrecks on the planet. So it was important to warn mariners away from shoals and sandbars.

Presque Island Lighthouse (See Above)

Erie Land Light

Originally built in 1818, Erie Land was the “first lighthouse to shine on the Great Lakes.” This limestone structure, the third on this spot, was built in 1867.

North Pier Light Erie PA

North Pier Light

Check out this post about the three lighthouses in Erie PA from our friends at Uncovering PA.

Tom Ridge Environmental Center Observation Tower Erie PA

VISIT: Tom Ridge Environmental Center

Considered “The Gateway to Presque Island SP, the TREC is a 7,000 sq ft. eye-catching eco-built edifice.

Start with the 15 minute “orientation video” which is more a Zen-like experience with calming music and beautiful scenes of Presque Isle SP in every season.

Purple Martin nest cam at Tom Ridge Environmental Center Erie PA

Fans of Purple Martins will love the nest cam mounted behind the reception counter. Purple Martins are “huge here.” Over 40,000 rest here in late July, early August, creating tornado-like sky shows with their “murmuration” formations.

Birding in Erie PA at Tom Ridge Environmental Center

Though there’s an elevator, it’s just 134 steps to the top of the glass enclosed 75-ft tall observation tower from which you can see Lake Erie and next door Waldameer Amusement Park and Water World.

Exterior of Erie Art Museum PA

The Environmental Center runs plenty of programming, including a Pontoon Boat Ride for free on Saturdays and Sundays in season. Open daily 10-6, free.

VISIT: Erie Art Museum

After its $10 million LEED-status expansion, including a funky four story black and white mural in the stairwell, the Erie Art Museum is cool to see. Most exhibits rotate, but the 80,000 sq ft. museum focuses on community building through Folk Art. Open Tues-Sat. 11-5, Sun. 1-5, $7 adults, $5 kids.

Erie County Historical Society Museums PA

Visit: Erie County Historical Society and Museums

This campus encompasses four buildings. Start in the Carriage House Visitor Center & Gift Shop.

Erie County Museums Visitors Center PA

Watson-Curtze Mansion

Built in 1891 in the Richardson-Romanesque style, the mansion includes 24 rooms, filled with extraordinary architecture, stained-glass windows, mosaics, 12 fireplaces, a ballroom and solarium.

Wood-Morrison Mansion Erie PA

Wood-Morrison House

Built by Dr. William Maxwell Wood in 1858, this historic house predates the Watson-Curtze Mansion. Wood served onboard USS Michigan, the U.S. Navy’s first iron-hulled warship.

New Exhibit Building

The first floor of the new exhibit building features new galleries that showcase the boom years of Erie’s growth from the 1870s through the 1950s including some architectural highlights.  The second floor of the new exhibit building will feature a comprehensive exhibit on the history of Erie County, with galleries Coming to Erie and Erie at Work, opening in 2022. Open Tues – Sun 10-5, Fri 10-8pm. $10 adults, $3 students. 

Perry Square Park with fountain in downtown Erie PA

PHOTO: Perry Square Park

This downtown fountain square is lovingly landscaped and features a monument to War of 1812 hero, Commander Oliver Perry. Stop to smell whatever flowers are blooming.

Fishing boats line up at dock on the Erie PA waterfront

DO: Go Fishing

Lake Erie is full of perch – and there are plenty of fishing charter boats, from party to private, lined up to help you catch a few. Choose one and head out.

Restaurant in Erie PA

Sara's Diner at entrance to Presque Isle State Park Erie

EAT: Sara’s Diner

At the entrance to Presque Isle State Park, this hot-dog-burger spot is often the first place Erie vacationers stop for lunch on their way to the beach. It’s quick and good – with fantastic curly fries.

Exterior of The Cork 1794 Restaurant Erie PA

EAT: The Cork 1794

Away from the waterfront, in a strip shopping center, the urban-style Cork 1794 offers reliably good food and plenty of it. (An order of Truffle Fries costs just $5 and comes in a huge, overflowing bowl). Solo eaters will find a friendly spot at the bar, backed by windows that keep it bright.

Pair the seasonal Watermelon/Goat Cheese/Walnut Salad and tasty flash fried Brussels Sprouts for a light supper, or add the signature NY Strip Steak ($36) or Oso Bucco as a heartier option.

Perch Sandwich on Bun at Oliver's Rooftop Erie PA

EAT: Oliver’s Rooftop

There was much anticipation for this restaurant atop the new Hampton Inn by the Bay – evidenced by the droves of patrons on a Monday night in July. I ordered the seasoned breadcrumbed Perch Sandwich and a glass of wine, and was not disappointed by either. There were enough fresh fillets to feed two – with planks of fish so meaty I didn’t need a bun. From the looks of it – people were enjoying the views of the Lake just as much as the food (and each other). For now, a very happening eatery.

DRINK: Waterfront Dives

Don’t expect upscale dining at these dive bars. But do expect views, crowds, and camaraderie that comes with these kind of gritty drinking establishments down by the docks.

Woody's waterfront bar Erie PA

Woody’s Backwater Barge and Grille

This slice of Florida Keys in Pennsylvania is proud to state that “time spent here is well wasted.” If you’re yearning to spend some time in Margaritaville, Woody’s is the next best thing.

Rum Runners on Presque Isle Bay Erie PA

Rum Runners

If you desire to sit outside, sipping a nice Pina Colada or any other drink in peace and quiet – come before the crowds show up. This place has been here over 30 years, and still draws them in.

EAT: Locals also love

Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro, Federal Hill Smokehouse, La Bella Restaurant, Picasso’s The Art of Food, Cloud 9 Wine Bar, and Firebirds Wood Fired Grill.

Hotels in Erie PA

Sheraton Bayfront Erie PA

STAY: Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel

This waterfront hotel sits next door to a bustling marina and a new, streamlined Convention Center. (In fact, there’s an enclosed skyway linking the Bayfront Sheraton to the Convention Center).

Reception and lobby at Bayfront Sheraton Hotel Erie PA

You’ll find an indoor pool and a fitness center with the latest equipment, a small shop for essentials and food items, and newly refreshed accommodations.

Sunset view of Presque Isle Bay from Bayfront Sheraton Hotel Erie PA

Rooms are clean, handsome, newly refreshed. All offer great views of either Presque Isle Bay or the nearby marina. Bright, gleaming bathrooms feature roomy glass showers.

Breakfast potatoes and white egg omelet at Bayfront Grille Erie PA

Stay on site for breakfast in Bayfront Grille, mostly for the Breakfast Potatoes. Small chunks of crisp deliciousness, they are more like incredible French Fries than the usual smashed sautéed version. Rooms from $199 per night. 

Courtyard By Marriott Erie PA Waterfront

STAY: Waterfront Hotels

The last several years have brought great improvements and upscale hotels to the Erie PA Waterfront. Courtyard By Marriott Erie Bayfront sits right on the Bay – and is optimal for watching those sunset cruising boats go by. The brand new Hampton Inn Erie Bayfront is located a few minutes walk to the water, and features the new hit restaurant, Oliver’s Rooftop.

Spencer House B&B Downtown Erie PA

STAY: Downtown Erie B&B’s

If you prefer a more intimate Victorian-era experience, stay in either the Victoria Inn B&B or Spencer House B&B. Both are uptown – about a 15 minute walk to the Erie waterfront – and beloved by repeat guests.

For a comprehensive up to the minue guide to Erie PA, check out Visit Erie.

DO: “The Great Wright Road Trip” 

A consortium of Frank Lloyd Wright sites located in Western Pennsylvania and Western New York – just a four hour drive from each other, have joined forces, launching a road trip that illustrates the epic arc and grandeur of the legendary architect’s career.

Beginning with his groundbreaking Prairie Style of the early 1900s through his visionary development of organic architecture in the 1930s at Fallingwater, just recently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and concluding with one of his most breathtaking Usonian houses of the late 1950s, the Great Wright Road Trip gathers together one of the most representative and inspiring collections of his work in the United States.

Visitors can also experience the working environment where Wright created many of his late-career designs — the architect’s San Francisco office has been reassembled and installed as a permanent exhibit at the Erie County Historical Society-Hagen History Center in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The partnering sites include:

Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands

Fallingwater (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Mill Run, PA

Kentuck Knob, Chalk Hill, PA

Polymath Park, Acme, PA

Erie PA

Hagen History Center, Erie, PA

New York

Blue Sky Mausoleum, Buffalo, NY

The Filling Station at the Pierce Arrow Museum, Buffalo, NY

Fontana Rowing Boathouse, Buffalo, NY

Graycliff, Derby, NY

Martin House, Buffalo, NY


  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine,, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

    View all posts

1 thought on “Erie PA: Sandy Beaches and War Stories”

  1. The Niagara is amazing! Definitely don’t miss an opportunity to experience a day sail on the working historic vessel during the warmer months. 10/10

Comments are closed.