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Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: History Comes Alive in The Keystone State’s Capital

Capital of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg

The city of Harrisburg straddles the mighty Susquehanna River that flows from central Pennsylvania down into the Chesapeake Bay. At a little under 12 square miles in area, the historic city lies just south of the Blue Ridge section of the Appalachian Mountains. In addition to its status as the seat of Dauphin County, this Keystone state hamlet shares a rich history that includes a range of actors, from Native Americans to the early federal government.

Far from being the largest city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg comes in at number 13 where population is concerned, well behind giants like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, not to mention smaller towns like Lancaster. Since it isn’t far from larger metropolises like Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore, Delaware, and Washington D.C., it makes a great destination for field trips, family getaways, and a variety of other lowkey adventures that can’t be had in surrounding big cities. Whether you’re taking a short drive from Philly, or flying in from neighboring states like Ohio and Maryland, we hope this guide to the Harrisburg area helps you plan the perfect trip!

What is the Capital of Pennsylvania?

If you guessed that Harrisburg is Pennsylvania’s state capital, give yourself a pat on the back! As the capital city of the 2nd U.S. state, Harrisburg is second to no other city in the state of Pennsylvania, from Erie in the northwest, to Philadelphia in the southeast.

Quick History: The famous partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear energy plant happened right outside of Harrisburg in Londonderry Township. Not surprisingly, you won’t find the defunct plant on our list of places to visit. According to Wikipedia, it stopped operating in 2019.

8 Reasons to Visit Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

1. Pennsylvania State Capitol Building

Whenever you visit a capital city, one of the first things you have to do is visit its capitol building. Located in the sprawling Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex, the Commonwealth’s state house was inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica. As the home of state government, Pennsylvania’s senate and other legislative bodies meet there to conduct serious business on a regular basis. Like the majority of capitol buildings in the U.S., Pennsylvania’s is open for tours that take visitors past an interesting collection of exhibits, and perhaps more importantly, a gift shop.

2. National Civil War Museum

For you history buffs who are particularly interested in the Civil War, the National Civil War Museum is a must. From artifacts and archive events, to statues and paintings, the museum is a great destination for field trips, families, and other visitors with a thirst for historical knowledge. Surprisingly enough, the museum can also be booked for private events like weddings, although you shouldn’t expect a round of musket fire in honor of your vows.

3. Hersheypark

RELATED: Explore “The Promised Land” in Eastern Pennsylvania

Have you ever loved a candy bar so much that you wished it would some how give birth to a theme park with waterslides and rollercoasters? That’s exactly what you’ll find at Hersheypark, which its owners insist be spelled as one word. Although it’s located a little east of town, it’s worth the trek for folks of all ages. At the end of the day, it’s way more entertaining and relaxing than a visit to Hershey Medical Center.

4. The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Although Harrisburg does sport a hefty handful of museums, the State Museum of Pennsylvania is where you want to be if your interest lies in the culture and history of the state itself, as the name suggests. Their permanent exhibits work through millions of years and include natural history features like fossils and mammal dioramas, while their changing exhibits cover a lot of different topics and focus on everything from women in Pennsylvania’s history, to an exploration of their own restoration projects.

5. Whitaker Center

The Whitaker Center has a varied selection of attractions that include the Harsco Science Center, a live theater, an Esports arena, and a digital cinema with an enormous screen. Along with Girl Scout badge workshops, the center offers summer camps and birthday party rentals. While Whitaker might sound like it exists just for kids and educators, adults should know they also have acoustic music performances, serious staged dramas, and a “Story Slam” competition anyone can participate in.

6. Susquehanna Art Museum

Also known as the SAM, the Susquehanna Art Museum has enchanting galleries and hosts a fascinating range of traveling exhibitions. Whether you’re a traditional type who prefers classic oil paintings and print making, or an upcoming art collector who’s into prayer rugs on skateboards, the museum has your aesthetic pleasures in mind. Alongside the sort of installations you’d expect to find at any art museum, SAM also has some great hands-on programs for young learners.

7. Historic Sites

In addition to the capitol building, Harrisburg has quite a few historic sites and attractions you’ll want to visit if you’re a fan of America’s past. If you’re looking for historical things to do and see, consider taking a ride on the Pride of the Susquehanna, which is a steamboat that does tours of its namesake’s river, or visiting any of these places:

  • John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion
  • Fort Hunter Mansion and Park
  • Cathedral of Saint Patrick
  • Harrisburg Cemetery
  • Broad Street Market
  • Market Square Presbyterian Church

8. Outdoor Areas

Since walking around indoors all day can deprive you of some much needed sunshine, you’ll be pleased to hear that Harrisburg has a lot of outdoor recreation areas located both in and around the city. The following list covers popular destinations where you can enjoy easy walking and biking or some more rugged sports and adventures:

  • Parks in the City: Capitol Area Greenbelt, Wildwood Park & Lake, Italian Park
  • Parks Outside the City: Gifford Pinchot State Park, Little Buffalo State Park, Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area

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READ MORE: Annapolis, Maryland: 6 Reasons to Visit this Historic Capital City

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