Birthplace of independence and the Constitution, Pennsylvania is a pantheon of American originals. Among the pivotal events anchoring its great tradition of firsts, the Articles of Confederation were adopted in York (then Yorktowne) in 1777, and Philadelphia, so prominent in the American Revolution, served as the young nation’s first capital from 1790 to 1800.
American railroading began in the Pocono Mountains, where the first steam locomotive ran in 1829 on tracks in rural Honesdale. The Poconos also produced our first rollercoaster, an 1800s adaptation of a coal-hauling switchback railway in Mauch Chunk, later renamed Jim Thorpe. From the nation’s first steel mill near Harrisburg to its first successful oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania’s accomplishments impressively go on, including America’s first art institute, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and its first highway, the Lincoln, both originating in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania’s “Keystone State” moniker aptly describes its central, establishing role in so many things truly American. Among its many other originals are the nation’s first library, medical school, zoo, taxi service, department store, suspension bridge, municipal airport and radio broadcast.
“People are genuinely surprised to learn just how many things there are to discover and experience across Pennsylvania,” says Michael Chapaloney, director of tourism communications for the Pennsylvania Tourism Office. “Whether travelers want to explore our nation’s history, go white-water rafting, ski, shop or discover unique dining and world-class culture, they can find it all—and more—across the Keystone State.”
The same holds true for groups convening in the destination, where attendees are treated to myriad venues and experiences unique to Pennsylvania.
Encompassing Philadelphia, bucolic Bucks County, pastoral Lehigh Valley, the mountainous Poconos and the “Coal Region” of Luzerne County, eastern Pennsylvania’s association with nation-building, high-altitude vacations and industrial-strength heritage sites dates to America’s earliest days.
The birthplace of American democracy, Philadelphia’s many unique attractions start with Independence Hall. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both signed here; this UNESCO World Heritage Site is located in Independence National Historical Park, known as “America’s most historic square mile” and also home to the National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell Center and other “first and foremost” sites.
“Philadelphia is unique because it is so diverse,” says Jack Ferguson, executive vice president of the Philadelphia CVB’s convention division. “There is no other city like us in America. You have a combination of cosmopolitan chic mixing with a small-town atmosphere, mixing with unmatched history and unparalleled attractions. There is something for everyone in Philadelphia.”
Last October, the revered Please Touch Museum—the first museum in the U.S. for children ages 7 and under—tripled in size with a move into the landmark Memorial Hall, the lone major surviving structure from Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Grandly mixing play with history, the museum, which can stage private events, is located in Fairmount Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the U.S.
Comprising 63 individual park properties, this urban oasis also stars event-ready venues such as the magnificent Philadelphia Zoo, another American original from 1874; the incomparable Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Bartram’s Garden, America’s oldest living botanical garden.
Downtown, the event-friendly Franklin is Pennsylvania’s most-visited museum. From April through September 2009, this acclaimed institution will display one of only two existing Galileo telescopes in a one-time exhibition of the astronomer’s life.
An internationally renowned culinary destination, Philadelphia’s food menu includes the vintage Reading Terminal Market and Italian Market, the latter of which set the stage for the beef-boxing session in Rocky and is reputedly the nation’s oldest and largest open-air market. And who makes the best cheesesteak? Pat’s King of Steaks lays claim to inventing Philly’s signature food in the 1930s, while competitors Geno’s, Campo’s and Jim’s continue to vie for the best cheesesteak crown.
For trips to the surrounding countryside, groups can tour Valley Forge National Historical Park, site of the George Washington-led Continental Army’s historic 1777-1778 winter encampment, while several historic venues in the area are available for off-site events.
Other top attractions in the destination include the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, the celebrated French-born naturalist artist’s first American home, where he painted his magnificent “Birds of America.” A small museum houses all his major works on paper and several oil paintings.
Another nearby excursion option is exquisite Bucks County, home to quaint towns, event-ready wineries and signature off-site venues such as the Michener Museum, Pennsbury Manor and Fonthill Castle, as well as unique getaways such as the acoustic boulders at Ringing Rocks State Park.
The scenic Lehigh Valley at the foothills of the Pocono Mountains is home to cities such as Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, each offering unique historic sites and museums, many of which double as off-site event venues. Several sites in historic Bethlehem are available for private events, including the Moravian Museum, Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts, 1810 Goundie House, 1869 Luckenbach Mill and Burnside Plantation.
Riverside Easton features the group-accessible Crayola factory, which produces nearly 3 billion crayons annually, and the National Canal Museum.
Allentown is the world headquarters for Mack Trucks, and the city’s new America on Wheels museum, focusing on the history of road transportation, has several areas available for group events.
For high-elevation retreats, the Pocono Mountains are a time-honored getaway for romantics, skiers, outdoor enthusiasts and groups alike. Bushkill Falls, a unique series of eight waterfalls nestled deep in the woods, is called the “Niagara of Pennsylvania” and is among the state’s top scenic attractions. One of the region’s trademark historic properties is the meetings-friendly Skytop Lodge, built in the 1920s and a member of Historic Hotels of America.
In the state’s northeastern corner, the Luzerne County region preserves its coal mining and industrial past with attractions such as the Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton and the nearby Lackawanna Coal Mine, with “black diamond” tours of abandoned mines 300 feet beneath the Earth. Another regional treasure is Knoebel’s Amusement Park in Elysburg, established in 1926 and renowned for its Haunted Mansion and Phoenix roller coaster.
Outside of Scranton, Old Forge is renowned for its Italian restaurants specializing in pizza made unique by thick, light crust and American cheese.
Featuring popular locales such as State College, the home of Penn State University; Hershey, America’s chocolate center; and historic Gettysburg, central Pennsylvania is for foodies, history buffs, star-gazers and railroad enthusiasts.
In the region’s heart, Bedford Springs is known for its century-old covered bridges and restored Old Bedford Village, while Penn’s Cave, located in Centre Hall, is America’s only all-water cavern. Chartered by the Commonwealth in 1855, Penn State University is a major meetings draw.
“Planners have access to a range of speakers from the university,” says Betsey Howell, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania CVB, while also extolling the region’s accessibility, affordability and breathtaking outdoor scenery.
A prime example is Cherry Springs State Park, north of State College in the Susquehannock State Forest. Home to Pennsylvania’s first official Dark Sky Park, the park’s observation field affords stellar views of constellations and astronomical phenomena.
Railroads are integral to Pennsylvania life. Outside of historic Altoona, the Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark is an engineering marvel for the ages. Constructed in 1854, this still-active mountain pass is a mecca for rail enthusiasts, with groups welcome at the event-friendly museum and visitor center. Another local group favorite is the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site. Visitors can also “ride the rails” at two vintage Altoona-area amusement parks, DelGrosso’s, established in 1919, and Lakemont Park, founded in 1894 and home of the world’s oldest-surviving roller coaster, the landmark Leap-The-Dips.
Known as the “Snack Food Capital of the World,” the region is a who’s who of original pretzel, potato chip and candy manufacturers. Groups can tour the factories of such famed brands as Utz Quality Foods, chip-makers since 1921; the Sturgis Pretzel House, which first commercialized the pretzel in 1861; and of course, Hershey Park. Chocolate pioneer and philanthropist Milton S. Hershey famously sweetened life for his workers. His legacy lives on in the town bearing his name, home today to a multivenue vacation, meeting and convention complex complete with an amusement park, museums and the historic convention-ready Hotel Hershey.
Another popular Hershey venue is the 70,000-square-foot Antique Auto Museum, while intrepid hikers know the Hershey-Harrisburg region as the halfway point of the famed Appalachian Trail.
Gourmandizing groups also find a welcome home in iconic Lancaster County, where Dutch Country roads wind across a rolling pastoral landscape made timeless by the local Amish culture. The Lancaster Central Market in Lancaster is America’s oldest farmers’ market building, where farmers have been bringing meats and vegetables for sale since the 1730s.
Evocatively named towns such as Ephrata and Bird-in-the-Hand feature farmers’ markets, there are several culinary trails to follow, and in the quintessential Amish community of Intercourse, dating to 1754, foodies can sample old-fashioned classics such as the Jam & Relish Kitchen and Stoltzfus Meats & Deli.
Gettysburg was the scene of the Civil War’s bloodiest fight in 1863, and then one of America’s brightest moments four months later, as the site of President Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address. With the new event-ready Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center transporting groups back to this pivotal American moment, visitors can also experience the Gettysburg Train Station, where Lincoln first arrived, and the David Wills House, where he finalized his speech and slept.
This November, Gettysburg will be a major focal point of the Lincoln Bicentennial celebrations, including a reading of the Address and a Remembrance Day parade of thousands of reenactors.
Incorporated in 1791, Harrisburg is home to the National Civil War Museum, with other group- and event-friendly attractions such as the Pennsylvania State Capitol, the State Museum of Pennsylvania and the scenic Riverfront Park.
Divided from eastern Pennsylvania by the Appalachian Mountains, the state’s western portion might have become America’s 14th state, as colonialists once rallied for independence as “Westsylvania.” The region’s ultimate distinction, however, came as the birthplace of America’s steel, coal and oil industries. The smokestack era is over, but in Pittsburgh and other locales, groups can harness this powerhouse legacy via impressive heritage districts, museums and other cultural institutions.
A century ago, Pittsburgh’s factories, foundries and mills choked the city in smoke. A principal production area was the Strip District, where iron and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie first set up shop and aluminum giant ALCOA was founded. Today, the Strip smokes with fragrant cooking, as this one-half-square-mile district, exemplifying Steel City’s glorious ongoing renaissance, draws locals and visitors alike to its food stores, restaurants, nightclubs and museums.
Take a bite of a Pittsburgh legend at Primanti Brothers, home of an iconic 1930s sandwich of grilled meat topped with coleslaw, a fried egg, tomato and French fries on Italian bread.
Having turned 250 last year, Pittsburgh’s illustrious past is presented at the event-ready Senator John Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian affiliate that includes the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. Groups can discover the mystique of Super Bowl kings the Pittsburgh Steelers via tours of Heinz Field, while it’s glam events with a pop art twist at the seven-story Andy Warhol Museum in the bohemian North Side, and for an overlook of Pittsburgh’s three rivers and many of its 446 bridges, two historic funiculars—the Duquesne and Monongahela inclines—ascend to the top of Mount Washington.
Enhancing Pittsburgh’s appeal is accessibility.
“Across every category, all of our unique attributes are within walking distance of each other,” says Craig Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for the Pittsburgh CVB.
There are signature attractions aplenty in the surrounding regions, too, starting with the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile rails-to-trails natural corridor that connects Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.
Three event-capable Frank Lloyd Wright homes, including the famed Fallingwater, await in scenic Laurel Highlands. This Allegheny Mountain getaway is also home to Fort Necessity and Fort Ligonier, reconstructions of pre-Revolutionary War forts, with the former featuring a new $12 million educational center.
To the northeast of the Laurel Highlands is former steel city Johnstown, site of an infamous flood in 1889 that claimed more than 2,200 lives. Group draws include the Johnstown Flood Museum, the new Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center and the Johnstown Inclined Plane, billed as the world’s steepest vehicular inclined plane. In nearby Patton, former coal miners serve as guides in deep explorations of the Seldom Seen Mine.
Halfway between Johnstown and Pittsburgh, Idlewild Park is one of America’s most beautiful amusement parks; founded in 1878, the park features a tribute to Pittsburgh native son Mr. (Fred) Rogers.
To Pittsburgh’s south, Washington County is home to 21 covered bridges, while rural Butler County offers historical sites, agri-tourism opportunities, and unique venues like the Heritage School at Succop Conservancy, where visitors can take part in two-, three- or five-day workshops in everything from blacksmithing to beer brewing.
In 1859, Colonel Edwin Drake launched the modern U.S. petroleum industry by drilling a commercial well in Titusville, in Pennsylvania’s northwestern Great Lakes Region. Featuring a replica of Drake’s original rig, the group-friendly Drake Well Museum will be a focal point of this year’s 150th anniversary celebration.
Erie’s Presque Isle State Park, according to National Geographic, has the world’s second most beautiful sunsets; other Erie waterfront attractions include sandy beaches, the Erie Maritime Museum and the restored U.S. Brig Niagara, the sole surviving tall ship of the War of 1812 and now the official Flagship of Pennsylvania.
For More Info
Allegheny Mountains CVB
Bucks County Conference and Visitors Bureau
Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau
Central Pennsylvania CVB
CVB of Greater Monroeville
Hershey–Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau
Johnstown/Cambria County CVB
Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau
Lehigh Valley CVB
Luzerne County CVB
Pennsylvania Dutch CVB
Pennsylvania Tourism Office
Pocono Mountains CVB
Valley Forge CVB
York County CVB
Washington County Tourism