Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania (surprise, it’s not Philly), has long held a reputation for being a pretty dull place; the type of city where everyone leaves their government job at 5 p.m., and promptly goes to sleep. And for a long time, this was hard to dispute; musical performances were few and far between and finding a good cup of coffee was a daunting task. There may have been more first date spots available at Castle Black.
But over the past few years, an influx of artists, creators and doers have breathed new life into the city. The beautiful Midtown and Uptown neighborhoods, on the banks of the slow-flowing Susquehanna River, remain more affordable than a parking spot in many major cities, and Portland’s sell of being a retirement community for young people seems far more applicable here.
We’ve put together a beginner’s guide to the best of what the city has to offer, whether you’re coming for an afternoon or to stay; a mix of the OG spots that have stood the test of time and exciting additions that show just how much the city has changed.
1. Little Amps Coffee Roasters
Little Amps began at a location on Green Street in Uptown, but has expanded along with the city’s arts scene, quickly adding two more locations. Founded by Central Pennsylvania native Aaron Carlson, Little Amps offers small-batch coffee roasted locally and terrific pastries (disclaimer: my mom makes some of them). The Cold Jar—espresso shaken with ice and brown sugar, topped with milk and served in a Mason jar—is a go-to favorite for summer days.
Little Amps is a place to enjoy music just as much as coffee. The original Uptown store in particular offers a great selection of vinyl, both lining the walls and in bins near the register. Local label Tree Cover, which has been quietly putting out some of the best indie rock in town, from groups like the AfroBeat-indebted Flower Garden to the snarky, seething punk of Concrete Beach, sells tapes at the store. Both the uptown and downtown shops host regular performances by local acts and touring musicians alike, a great place to start your weekend and make new friends.
2. The Millworks
The Millworks opened recently in Midtown in, you guessed, an enormous old mill. Covering 24,000 square feet, the bar and restaurant were designed with a mix of old wood found in the building and new materials to create a vibe that is cozy as much as it is chic. Proud to rep their home turf, the bar features a rotating cast of 20 local beers and ciders, including brews from Tröegs and the Appalachian Brewing Company. Bonus: in warm weather you can sip your drink in the outdoor beer garden.
Upstairs, Millworks also rents (at a rate that would make any Brooklynite weep) space to over 30 artists who regularly open their studios for public tours and sell their crafts in a little shop adjacent to the Millworks’ main entrance, providing good presents to bring back to your friends/fellow future Harrisburgers.
3. Broad Street Market
The oldest continuously operating farmers market in the United States, Broad Street Market is the point of intersection between old-school Harrisburg and the new kids on the block. The 40 vendors who set up Thursday-Sunday in the indoor stone building include fresh produce by vendors like Peach Ridge and prepared foods like Mel’s Rock N’ BBQ and Evanilla’s Gourmet Doughnuts.
4. Midtown Scholar
Walking into this cavernous shop feels like you’re entering a magical universe of Hogwarts-like proportions. Built around a central open space that features a cafe and a stage for regular concerts, the Scholar is home to over 200,000 rare, new and used books (not to mention the two million books at their nearby warehouse). Visitors to the bookstore will immediately notice the enormous mural that fills an entire wall of the store, blessedly preserved from the external wall of the store’s old location.
5. Vietnamese Garden
With its bright green façade, you’ll have no trouble finding the Vietnamese Garden, one of Harrisburg’s most beloved institutions. It’s a place where Harrisburgers of every walk of life come together over bowls of cheap and delicious pho. The condensed milk iced coffee is a no-brainer, and the vermicelli with egg rolls is a classic best ordered large—this way, you’re ensured lunch for the next day (or you just eat it all, no shame). Just be sure to check that they’re open before you go as the hours can be a little wonky. For a great date, combine a trip to the Garden with a film next door at the Midtown Cinema, Harrisburg’s blood bank-turned-art house theater.
6. Boyd Big Tree Preserve
If you find yourself looking for some tranquility, there’s no better destination in the Harrisburg area than Boyd Big Tree Preserve. Take Front Street north along the Susquehanna River and past historic Fort Hunter to get to this lush, 1000-acre preserve. With a sprawling view of the surrounding forest, even the parking lot is a sight to behold. Big Boyd offers over 12 miles of trails in varying degrees of difficulty, and cross-country skiing in winter. Home to turkeys, black bears, gorgeous vistas and one big pond, Boyd Big is a quiet place just a short drive from downtown Harrisburg.
7. Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts
Not your average museum, the Whitaker Center, located around the corner from the glorious state capitol building in downtown, is home to an enormous digital movie theater and a beautiful performance space as well as three floors of hands-on science exhibits (which are kid-friendly, but thoroughly entertaining for adults as well). Any fan of music and/or enormous musical instruments would do well to visit summer 2016’s traveling exhibit, GUITAR, which features, among other attractions, the world’s largest playable guitar—measuring 43.5 feet long, 16 feet wide and weighing 2244 pounds (and is on view through Sept. 4).
If you’re looking for some entertainment where you can park your ass in a comfy seat, be sure to check out who is coming to the Center’s 700-seat Sunoco Theater (pictured above); upcoming sets include Graham Nash, Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, and Citizen Cope. Also, the adjacent movie theater boasts a screen four-stories high, and an eclectic mix of screenings, from Finding Dory to Grease. At the risk of sounding like a tour guide who has thoroughly consumed the Kool-Aid, there really is something here for everyone.
You’re in the capital of Pennsylvania, you’ve got to do something that commemorates that, but we understand the desire to avoid overrated tourist trap history museums. Luckily Harrisburg’s two major historical attractions aren’t that bad and are well worth a quick visit. If you’re into beauty, take a tour of the State Capitol Building (pictured at top), “the handsomest building” President Theodore Roosevelt ever saw. For a more somber afternoon, the National Civil War Museum emphasizes the “human side” of the conflict.
Max Savage Levenson Would rather listen to thirty hours of Limp Bizkit than thirty seconds of Trump.