Hidden Highlights: 11 Unusual Things to Do in Harrisburg PA

You may know Harrisburg as Pennsylvania’s capital, but there’s much more to this city than legislative chambers and government buildings. From history and culture to outdoor activities, there’s a variety of things to do in Harrisburg PA, making it a fantastic destination for all kinds of travelers.

Kid riding bike along Front St. Harrisburg PA

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a revelation in every sense of the word.  The nearly invisible, ignored mini-metropolis between Pennsylvania’s “only” cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Harrisburg does not flaunt its natural and manmade beauty. But it should.

Just visit the most magnificent State Capitol Building, and you’ll wonder why the world doesn’t know its beauty. And there’s so much more: river views, in-your-face Civil War exhibits, Victoriana galore, and our recommended spots to eat and bed down.

View of downtown Harrisburg PA from Capitol steps

Pair it with a visit to York PA , about 30-minutes away, for Murals, the arts, and some snack food factory tours. 

And – for many more (over 30) ideas for a dreamy weekend away in PA with your favorite person – check out our Top Romantic Getaways in Pennsylvania post.

Where Is Harrisburg PA?

Harrisburg is located in the south-central region of Pennsylvania and serves as the state’s capital. Situated on the banks of the Susquehanna River, the city is approximately 105 miles west-northwest of Philadelphia and about 204 miles east of Pittsburgh. Nestled within Dauphin County, Harrisburg is a crucial hub for transportation, culture, and commerce in the Keystone State.

Front of Pennsylvania Capital Building in Harrisburg PA

Best Things to Do in Harrisburg PA

TOUR: Pennsylvania State Capitol Building

When Teddy Roosevelt dedicated the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building on October 4, 1906, he called it “The handsomest building I ever saw.” A visit to Harrisburg is not complete without joining a tour throughout what was envisioned as a “Palace of Art.”

PA State Capitol lobby Harrisburg PA
Architect Joseph Huston envisioned Pennsylvania’s Capitol building as a “Palace of Art,” and that’s what he delivered.

Costing $13 million, it took four years to build, and then another 21 years to complete the art and marble work. Overwhelming in the quantity of exquisite details and craftsmanship quality, the Capitol Building is an epiphany.

Take a 30-minute guided tour so you don’t miss a thing. Among dozens of other factoids, you’ll learn that the central Carrera Marble staircase is modeled after the Paris Opera House, and the immense 52-million-pound dome replicates that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Decorated PA State Capitol dome Harrisburg PA
PA Capitol Dome Embellishments

Four murals around the base of the dome depict the “Four Forces of Civilization”: Art, Justice, Science and Religion. The Italian Renaissance House of Representatives room is cloaked in irreplaceable stone from a closed quarry in the Pyrenees.

Stunning stained glass windows weigh 200 lbs each, and four bronze-cast chandeliers are so large a man can stand inside of them (and must to clean them).

As incredible as the other rooms are, take time in the Supreme Court room. Four “Lawgivers Lamps” feature small bronzes of Moses, Solomon, Aristotle and Solon.

But the piece de resistance is the set of incredible murals by Violet Oakley, the first woman to win such a large and prestigious commission.

Her gilded oils on canvas, done in the first decade of the 1900s, are a veritable word search for the ages. She wove the words Love, Law, and Wisdom into her piece depicting Divine Law and managed to include a portrait of her sister as well.

Oakley’s work, 43 murals in total, can be found throughout the State Capitol building – she serves as a role model for all women in the arts. 

CRUISE: The Pride of The Susquehanna

One of the few remaining paddle-wheel riverboats, the Pride of the Susquehanna offers scenic cruises on the Susquehanna River. Whether you go for a dinner cruise or simply want to sightsee, the riverboat provides a unique perspective on Harrisburg and its surroundings.

National Civil War Museum
National Civil War Museum

VISIT: National Civil War Museum

So many Civil War memorials revolve around a battle, but the National Civil War Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, tells the story of our country’s divisive war from the Union and Confederate sides.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” stated President Lincoln, and this museum does an excellent job depicting the human costs of the conflict. Located at the top of a hill, it affords an incredible view of the river valley.

PA Views from Civil War Museum
View from property of National Civil War Museum

Plan to spend about two hours here, as you are introduced to several characters, who show up on videos throughout the well-designed exhibits.

The American Civil War was a “War of Firsts” – the first use of landmines, and photos of the dead, for example. So, you can see evidence of these firsts represented in dioramas, artifacts, and films. One multi-media diorama illustrates several men at camp, one reading a letter from his wife, another singing.

National Civil War Museum
Amputation diorama at National Civil War Museum

There’s a life-size replica of the gory death of Lt. Cushing, the bible that General Lee took into battle, mourning badges from Lincoln’s funeral, and shackles and slave bracelets from the early 1800’s. The museum does not shy away from the most unconscionable aspects of history.

Perhaps most engaging is “Meet Mr. Lincoln” – an interactive video Q&A where you can ask Honest Abe questions about his opinions and feelings. My favorite film, though, shows President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressing elderly Civil War vets at the 75th Anniversary of the War in 1938. These now-frail men entranced me, as they were the very last of those who witnessed firsthand brother taking up sword against brother.

Fort Hunter Mansion parlor Harrisburg PA
Victorian Parlor at Fort Hunter Mansion

TOUR: Fort Hunter Mansion And Park

I don’t usually go gaga about period home tours but include The Fort Hunter Mansion on your itinerary for sure if you want to be schooled in quirky Victorian rituals. In the modern world, we like sleek, uncluttered spaces, but in the Victorian era, extreme frippery was the order of the day.

A 45-minute traipse through this “Museum of the Victorian Age” introduces you to the world of Helen Reily in the most engaging way. Reily was the childless last owner of the Fort Hunter Mansion, who moved in with her husband, John, in 1886 and ran a prosperous dairy farm on the property.

My guide was Julia Chain, a funny, folksy, entertaining MA level historian who began by stating, “One of the failings of house tours is that they focus on dead white guys.”

So, Chain’s tour does nothing of the sort. After an introduction to the owners of the home through their portraits by the front door, the house tour focuses on Helen, an avid collector of pitchers who was also an active local philanthropist.

“Helen had so many pitchers, she gave them as gifts to friends who brought them back. We used to sell them in the gift shop.”

Family medicine chest at Fort Hunter Mansion Harrisburg PA
Victorian Meds

Step into the parlor, gussied up with a $500 marble fireplace (expensive for the time), a horsehair settee and a portrait of a three-year-old girl in a dress – actually Uncle Henry – wearing what was typical for young boys at the time.

You’ll hear the full sound of a rare copper disc music box and sit on a couch in the hall to look up at the region’s first “floating staircase” ever built.

Upstairs, the Master bedroom features the best Susquehanna River views, a family Medicine Kit, dowels to push out the inverted fingers of gloves (yes, that was a thing), and a stand-alone tub for bathing. “By now, people would bathe once a week rather than once a year.”

A quilting frame stands in the center of the Lady’s Sitting Room. “Idle gossip was looked down upon, so women would get together to sew and gossip – no longer idle.”

The creepiest exhibit is a collection of porcelain dolls and an Ouiji board in a hallway closet. The dolls’ complexions are pitted, their eyes witchy-black: a result of finishing wax that has melted off over the years. But disturbing nonetheless. 

You’ll see guest rooms, the old kitchen house, and the grounds, too. You will certainly leave with a greater appreciation for that era in history.

"To the Fire" at National Fire Museum Harrisburg PA
“To the Fire” at PA National Fire Museum

TOUR: Pennsylvania National Fire Museum

The PA National Fire Museum‘s motto is, “Give us 90 minutes, and well give you the history of the fire service from 1790 to the present.” And what a fun 90 minutes it is. The station was in operation from 1899 until 1980. In 1995, repurposed as this terrific museum, it appears as it did at the turn of last century.

Walk in to the old Reily Hose Co. Hook and Ladder #10 and say hello to Bert and Charlie, fabrications (complete with sound effects) of the real horses that used to pull the fire wagon.

Back in the early 1800’s, Firehouses were essentially privately run and in competition with each other. Whoever got to the fire first got paid.

You’ll learn about this and other little known facts about the early fire service and its equipment.

Horses were well trained to be ready when an alarm came into the firehouse. Chains across each stall released quickly so that the firemen could hitch up the horses in a timely manner. 

The Museum also contains the complete Johnstown Gamewell Call System – a communications marvel in the pre-computer era. Yes, this place is kid-heaven. But adults, also, like to see what the interior and underground parts of a fire hydrant looks like and push buttons to “Sound the Alarm.” Listen to antique fire “alarms” – from an 1873 firebox to, humorously, a gossiping woman on a Party Line.

WALK: Wildwood Park

The defining feature of the out of town 229-acre Wildwood Park is its shallow 90-acre lake. Although you should think twice about kayaking here (these wetlands are more muddy swamp than pristine body of water), you should take the popular 3 mile Wildwood Way Trail that circumnavigates said lake, which offers lots of opportunities for wildlife viewing and canoodling. There are also several other urban wetlands trails, a mile of boardwalks, and the Olewine Nature Center – which provides a bit of hands on nature for kids.

Market Street Pedestrian Bridge, Harrisburg PA
Market Street Pedestrian Bridge

WALK: Market Street Bridge

Pedestrians love this old railroad bridge over the Susquehanna River. Pretty and subtly lit at night, I’d recommend it for the view it affords of the series of extremely photogenic stone bridges that cross the river nearby.

SEE: Minor League Baseball Game

See the aptly-named Harrisburg Senators play at FNB Field, situated on the 63-acre City Island in the Susquehanna River – accessible via the Market Street Bridge. The Senators are a AA-Affiliate of the Washington Nationals, and if you love the community vibe of minor league games, this is a must-do.

Midtown Scholar Bookstore Harrisburg PA
Midtown Scholar Bookstore

VISIT/SHOP: Midtown Scholar Bookstore

What was once the first non-segregated movie house in PA (and then a succession of clothing and antique stores) is now one of America’s largest used academic bookstores.

The New York Times called visiting the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, a “nearly a religious experience.” You’ll see why as you wander through 15,000 sq feet of stacks containing over 100,000 books on several floors.

The maze of a basement goes on and on, extending right beneath the street. It’s where one of the building’s several businesses, Robinson’s Rare Books and Fine Prints, is located.

Owners Eric Papenfuse (Mayor of Harrisburg) and his wife, Kathy wanted to bring vitality back to this depressed area of town, opening this bookstore/coffee bar/café for book clubs, concert-goers, performing artists and discussion groups. A draw, it’s been attracting an influx of young families and artists since 2001.

VISIT: State Museum of Pennsylvania

At the State Museum of Pennsylvania, you’ll get an overview of the state of PA – from its geologic history, to Native American settlements, through wars, industry, to the present day.

DO: Whitaker Center For Science and the Arts

How do you encourage youngsters (especially girls) to get into science, technology, engineering, and math? Give them a VR controller, and let their imaginations run wild. This is but one component of the Whitaker Center For Science and the Arts – an innovative melding of creativity and learning – which presents both Hollywood and PBS-style flicks; maintains a drop-in “purposeful gaming studio” that teaches kids programming; hosts Esports (competitive video gaming); has a state of the art Science Center and “Innovation Zone; and offers live events from Judy Collins to the Nutcracker.

Harrisburg PA Restaurants

Smoked Salmon Salad at Home 231, Harrisburg PA
Smoked Salmon Salad at Home 231

EAT: Home 231

Cute and homespun, this little neighborhood spot – Home 231 – is famous for its unique homemade ice cream, house-made Lemonade, and farm-raised meats and produce. Go for the terrific salads, like Asparagus Tomato Salad with Chickpeas and Artichokes, sandwiches, and House Veggie Burger. 

Broad Street Market House Harrisburg PA

PICK UP: Broad Street Market

What’s your fancy? BBQ? Thai? Sushi? Nigerian? Mexican? Or something from dozens of other nations? You can get any of these and more at the Broad Street Market – the oldest continuously operating market house in the USA. Opened right before the Civil War – in 1860 – it’s been a Harrisburg PA landmark for over 150 years.

EAT: Locals also recommend

The Millworks, Greystone Public House, Korealicious, and Cork & Fork.

Hotels in Harrisburg PA

STAY: Harrisburg Downtown Hilton Hotel

After a major renovation, rooms at the Harrisburg Downtown Harrisburg Hilton, rival those of trendy boutique hotels. Rooms have been updated in contemporary hues.The bedding is pillow-top comfy.

STAY: City House B&B

For a more intimate stay, book a night at City House B&B – a four-guestroom urban townhouse overlooking the Susquehanna River that has won raves from visitors. Modernized in 2010, it offers “20’s charm” with 21st-century amenities.

STAY: Manor on Front B&B

At the Manor on Front, the Susquehanna River is front and center, which makes it ideal for bicyclists, walkers, and lovers of mansions turned into inns.

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  • 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, Shape.com, 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.

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5 thoughts on “Hidden Highlights: 11 Unusual Things to Do in Harrisburg PA”

  1. The Midtown Scholar is indeed a treasure, but please note that Mayor Papenfuse did not revitalize the area in quite they way you describe – The Midtown Theater was there for many years before the Scholar. Oh, and Millworks isn’t open yet. And the Broad Street Market has been in continual operation for 150 years

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  3. A big thing for me was always that the middle of the Appalachian Trail goes through the area. I used to drive under it every day going to work in a suburb of Harrisburg. Lots of great hiking really close.

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  5. I visited Harrisburg exactly a year ago for my birthday and didn’t do any of this. It would seem I completely missed out. I was out in the wineries near Hershey (which I also recommend!). We’ll need to go back and visit some of these museums. Thanks for sharing!

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