Pa.’s 15 finest small cities, ranked, for the right fall day journey

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Jim Thorpe

Fall is made for road trips and Pennsylvania is full of great destinations.

The Keystone State is home to countless adorable small towns, but time is limited and you can only see so many before all the leaves have fallen and winter has set in. To that end, we’ve crafted a list of 15 of the best small towns in the state, pulling largely from a list of the greatest small towns that we did back in 2017.

This list is entirely subjective, so feel free to disagree! Here’s how we made it. We opted to only look at towns that had populations of less than 10,000 people. COVID also means that some small towns that are usually bustling with activity are a little quieter right now. We ranked higher those that still had most of their attractions open for socially distanced fun. Also, fall is all about the leaves. So each one on our list should offer some great fall views, whether it’s in the town itself or nearby.

With that in mind, here’s our list of the 15 best small towns in Pennsylvania.

Named after its founder’s daughter, Zelienople came into being in 1802. It’s your quintessential small town, it has a bustling downtown with stately red-brick buildings. Zelienople’s slogan is “a modern place with old fashioned grace.” Come with a full wallet that you’re okay with emptying, as there are plenty of coffee shops, boutiques and restaurants to patronize, including Herb Brittner’s Smokehouse, home to some of the best beef jerky around.

The porch of the Summerdale Cottage in Mt. Gretna. Sunday August 14, 2016.

Daniel Zampogna, PennLiveHAR

Originally meant to be a summer retreat for Methodists in the late 1800s, Mt. Gretna today is a quaint small town. While Mt. Gretna is known as a summer destination, it’s just as beautiful in the fall. Plan on walking around for a few hours just marveling the unique architecture of the various cottage homes. Head down to the Mt. Gretna Roller Rink which plays live organ music as you skate on Saturday nights in the fall.

READ MORE: Highlights of the Mount Gretna Tour of Homes and Gardens

You don’t have to be a Bucknell University student to enjoy all that Lewisburg has to offer. Head downtown for numerous small shops, restaurants and art galleries. Catch a film at the Campus Theatre, a restored Art Deco movie theater. Due to the pandemic, it’s open for rentals of groups of less than 22 people. Fans of the written word will want to walk down Poetry Path, which winds throughout historic downtown with poem markers throughout.

GROUNDHOG DAY EVE IN PUNXSUTAWNEY

Punxsutawney Phil waves to cars on Mahoning Street on Groundhog’s Day eve in Punxsutawney, Pa. 02/01/2013 Sean Simmers | ssimmers@pennlive.com THE PATRIOT-NEWSTHE PATRIOT-NEWS

It’s always Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney.

Throughout the downtown area you’ll run across painted groundhog figures. Check out the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center (which has its own hall of fame) for a chance to learn about the science behind extreme weather. Then you can meet the weather prognosticator himself at his home in the town library.

READ MORE: The love story between a town and a groundhog and 9 underrated places to visit near Punxsutawney

Just 40 minutes outside of Pittsburgh lies this adorable town, which was once a summer retreat for Rudyard Kipling in 1889. Head to 3rd St. to check out all the small shops and many of the town’s restaurants. Pop by on Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to explore the Beaver Farmer’s Market and enjoy fresh produce from the area. Fans of history will want to check out the Beaver Area Heritage Campus which includes a museum, 1802 log house and a restored 1897 Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad station.

This adorable town sits in the midst of the Allegheny Clarion River Valley and offers excellent fall foliage views. It’s also a must-visit for golf fans: the American Golf Hall of Fame resides at the Foxburg Country Club, which is also the oldest continuously used golf course in the United States (it was established in 1887). While you’re in town, treat yourself to a handmade confection at Divani Chocolatier or a glass at the Foxburg Wine Cellars, which has more than 30 different varieties of wine in stock including the high alcohol “Wineshine.” Then prepare to enjoy the great outdoors by hiking along the Allegheny River Trail.

The Old Sled Works is the can’t-miss stop in Duncannon. This antique mall has penny arcade games, an operational soda fountain and a whole slew of oddities. It also hosts the occasional auto show. Taste some wine at the Buddy Boy Winery and Vineyard while you’re in town, which is known for its sweeter varieties. Then prepare for a hike; the Appalachian Trail passes through here and you’ll want to see the great view of the Susquehanna River from the trail’s Hawk Rock (pictured) yourself.

READ MORE: 10 of the best hikes in Pennsylvania to enjoy this spring, from great views to beautiful waterfalls

If you aren’t a fan of artist Andrew Wyeth and his father N.C. Wyeth before you visit Chadds Ford, you will be after. They both called Chadds Ford home and their work is highlighted at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, where you can actually tour their studios. Their work is also on display at the Christian C. Sanderson Museum, which is also the home of numerous artifacts from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and II. The Sanderson Museum is open by appointment only because of the pandemic, so be sure to request entry at least 48 hours before you want to visit. Grab your pumpkins and other produce from SIW Vegetables (pictured). Make sure you pencil in time to visit the Chaddsford Winery, and then a few hours (at least) at the nearby Longwood Gardens. Just note that you’ll need to grab a ticket in advance of a Longwood Gardens visit.

Lititz Wins Title of America's Coolest Small Town

Lititz has won the title of America’s Coolest Small Town in an online contest by Budget Travel. Shops along East Main Street in Lititz.
02/20/2013
Dan Gleiter | dgleiter@pennlive.comPENNLIVE.COM

Voted America’s Coolest Small Town by Budget Travel in 2013, Lititz is a must-visit for small town fans. Stroll through Lititz Springs Park to feed the ducks and enjoy nature’s beauty. Head over to Bulls Head Public House and immediately feel like you’ve been transported to England. It was also named one of the best beer bars in the country by CraftBeer.com. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to wander along Main St. and see all the quirky and fun shops. And, before you leave, be sure to twist your own pretzel at Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery.

Fonthill Castle

Fonthill Castle, in Doylestown, was built between 1908 and 1912, by archaeologist and tilemaker Henry Chapman Mercer, who also designed it. Julia Hatmaker, jhatmaker@pennlive.comHAR

Love castles? Doylestown is the place for you (supposing you’d rather forego crossing the Atlantic). There are two in the area: Fonthill Castle (which mixes Byzantine architecture with gothic and medieval) and the Mercer Museum (home to 50,000 historical artifacts). Both were built by archaeologist Henry Mercer and are a feast for the eyes. Both castles are open to the public, although there are admission fees. You can learn more about Mercer and his Moravian tile business at the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works, a living history site. It is open by appointment only and limited to just six visitors because of the pandemic. There’s also the 1842 Pine Valley Covered Bridge to see, Doylestown Cemetery walking tours to go on and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa to visit.

READ MORE: A ‘castle for the new world’ is a treasure in Doylestown, Pa and Pa.’s Mercer Museum of ‘junk’ gives insight into American history

Named one of the best small towns in the country by Country Living, Ligonier was a natural fit for our own list. Its downtown area is filled with great shops and restaurants, including the Ligonier Creamery. In the middle of the historic downtown sits a gazebo, a perfect place for hanging out with friends or, in the summer, hearing live music. Back when it was just a fort, it was a key spot in the French and Indian War. Fort Ligonier today is a museum that boasts living history demonstrations and re-enactments.

Wellsboro, PA: boomtown

Wellsboro, Pa. is less than ten miles from the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.
Mark Pynes | mpynes@pennlive.com

This historic town is lit in the evening by old-fashioned street lamps. The downtown is filled with little shops and places to eat. Be sure to at least step inside the Penn-Wells Hotel, which was built in 1869. Bid the town farewell to explore the gorgeous Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, aka Pine Creek Gorge. It doesn’t get better than this hilly landscape to see the changing leaves.

READ MORE: Wellsboro: Today’s top fall foliage spot in Pennsylvania and 7 reasons to visit the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon

Come to New Hope prepared to shop. The town is great for antique lovers, with many stores offering up numerous vintage pieces. There’s also a thriving art community here too, so be sure to check out the various galleries. History lovers will want to go on one of the town’s ghost tours or take a ride on the New Hope Railroad. It’s also just a half hour drive’s away from the famous Ringing Rocks County Park, where you the rings sing when hit with a hammer.

READ MORE: Bucks County’s 10 must-visit spots: Ringing Rocks, Sesame Place, New Hope and more

Jim Thorpe

Downtown Jim Thorpe, Pa., — sometimes called “The Switzerland of America” – is a storybook pretty mix of turn-of-the-century charm with modern-day hipness. (Photo courtesy poconomountains.org) SJNSJN

Jim Thorpe is a treasure hidden snugly in the Lehigh Gorge. Originally founded as Mauch Chunk in 1818, it was renamed Jim Thorpe in 1954 after the famous athlete, whose remains are still there. The town’s location makes it perfect for seeing the leaves change, and its plethora of little boutiques and restaurants makes it a perfect place to spend a day. No trip to Jim Thorpe, however, is complete without a trip on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway.

Getting Gettysburg Ready

A statue of Abraham Lincoln stands in front of the Wills House in the square in Gettysburg.
Mark Pynes | mpynes@pennlive.com

Take a stroll through history at Gettysburg. There’s the Gettysburg National Military Park, where you can walk on the battlefield and see monuments to the fallen soldiers. Or head towards the Gettysburg National Cemetery to see where Abraham Lincoln delivered the famous Gettysburg Address. The haunted Sach’s Covered Bridge is decidedly worth seeing as well, even if just for a photo. In terms of non-Civil War things to do, head over the Land of Little Horses to pet adorable miniature horses or pop by Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium to see the wide variety of elephant statues. You can also tour the Eisenhower Homestead to see where President Dwight Eisenhower would vacation. And of course be sure to check out one of the town’s many ghost tours.

READ MORE: What to do in Gettysburg other than visit the battlefield: 12 non-Civil War attractions to check out

This story has been adapted from our 2017 list of the 35 best small towns in the state for a fall day trip.

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