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Harrisburg: A “Capital” City

A view of downtown Harrisburg from City Island.

Story by Will A. Davis

Yes, Harrisburg is the capitol of Pennsylvania (that’s right -not Philadelphia “Jeopardy” fans!) and in addition it is in many ways a “capital’ city as our British brethren like to say. So let me suggest as a travel destination Harrisburg fills both of those definitions and we’ll use a three day visit formula to explore the cultural delights that it has to offer from architecture to baseball and museums, bookstores to restaurants all wonderfully seated along or close to the beautiful Susquehanna River. It’s perfectly situated for the weekend getaway just 90 miles from Baltimore, under four hours from NYC and about the same from Pittsburg.

Let’s begin by finding a place to stay during our visit. Downtown Harrisburg has some of the leading hotel chains such as the Crowne Plaza, Hilton, and Comfort Suites and they are all wonderful centrally located options but for a change of pace how about a bed and breakfast such as the City House Bed and Breakfast ideally located along the Susquehanna River but adjacent to Front Street which affords easy access to almost any direction or location you might want to explore by foot or car in this city of 50,000.

City House B & B

City House B & B is a two story federal style building originally owned by one of Harrisburgs leading merchants and built in 1925. Four uniquely styled bedrooms afford quiet and comfortable amenities. Our Westin Heavenly bed was absolutely lusciously comfortable.

City House B & B Living room

The first floor is tastefully decorated in period furnishings and contemporary additions. Large public rooms included a library/reading room, dining room for breakfast, enclosed and outside portico’s and large living room. The owner and innkeeper are most helpful with suggestions for your day. A hearty breakfast each morning sent us on our way. Having settled our nightly accommodations it’s time to develop an itinerary for our stay.

Pennsylvania State Capitol

As mentioned Harrisburg is the capitol of Pennsylvania and the State Capitol Complex is located just a few blocks from the B&B at the heart of downtown. Located in the complex are the capitol building, the State Museum, the State Archives. The capitol building is extraordinary, one of the most beautiful I have seen while reminding me of the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

State Capitol Dome

The capitol was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 who proclaimed it to be “The handsomest building I have ever saw”, and it is a wonderful example of American Renaissance architecture by Philadelphia architect Joseph Huston who envisioned the building as a “Palace Of Art“.   Its design inside and outside reflect French, Italian, English ,Roman and Greek Victorian influences. The Senate chamber is French, The House Chamber is Italian, and the Governor’s Reception Room is English. The five story exterior of the capitol building is faced with Vermont granite and the roof is green glazed terra cotta tile. The piece de resistance though is located just after entering the building and standing at the bottom of the incredible open faced stairway leading one to look up and view the 272 foot tall, 52 ton pound dome inspired by Michelangelo’s design for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This treasure is a must for any visit to Harrisburg but please allow sufficient time to explore. If you need to rest ,take in a session of either the Senate or House Chambers when in session it is quite interesting. We were amazed how fast they tally the ayes and nays and moved on from bill to bill. The building is very user friendly with elevators and special needs access and a helpful pleasant staff. Tours are available so check with the information desk if you are interested in that offering.

You have probably worked up an appetite if you visited the capitol building in the morning or need some excellent food before an afternoon visit and restaurant Mangia Qui at 272 North Street located just a block from the capitol is an outstanding choice. This popular eatery serves delicious , eclectic and fairly priced meals freshly prepared in the kitchen daily. Need more choices? A short walk to North Second Street and Restaurant Row showcases over thirty eateries that attend to any kind of palate; domestic or international. Nightlife abounds here also.

If you are up for learning more about the people, places and things of Pennsylvania a visit to the Pennsylvania State Museum located right next to the capitol building should fill the bill. Four floors of history from Earth’s beginning to the present all relative to Pennsylvania.

On the way back to your accommodations try walking down North 3rd Street and stopping at the   fun, legendary, independent  Midtown Scholar Bookstore and Famous Reading Café . It’s a multi level bookstore and café to quench anyone’s taste for books, new, old, and older, about almost any subject while also offering freshly brewed coffee and desserts.

No need to get in your car and drive about for dinner as Harrisburg, as you may have noticed, is a very walkable city. Perhaps you made reservations at one of the many restaurants whose menu’s you observed if you strolled through Restaurant Row but those are far from the only choice’s. A check with staff at your accommodation for suggestions will bring names of “local” favorites.

The National Civil War Museum

Refreshed and ready to explore and experience Harrisburg on day two? A good choice would be the National Civil War Museum located just a five minute drive from downtown on the beautiful grounds of Reservoir Park. Nationally we are observing the four year long susqentenial (1861-1865) of the Civil War and this is one of the signaturethemes this quite new building features while displaying the stories, artifacts, and time line of this terrible period in American history.

At the National Civil War Musuem

Interactive displays, technology, collections and a gripping north/south walk through the museum is an innovative way to understand every angle of the war from people to politics to the battles, large and small, that occurred on both sides of the conflict. Millions fought for both the Union and Confederate armies and millions more were effected and we are their descendants. The Walk of Valor located to the left of the museum entrance is a thoughtfully designed place for those who wish to memorialize their loved ones from this epic struggle.

The museum has a lot of visitors from diehard Civil War buffs to school groups and and many first- timers exploring this epic period. . Everyone will find something of interest here as many exhibits are mesmorizing.

Harrisburg is a city going thru urban renewal and surging forward from both a residential and commercial viewpoint and it shows with  wonderful results thus far. Part of this growth and renewal can be seen in several adjoining historic neighborhoods including Midtown, Old Uptown and Harrisburg.

Take a break while strolling the neighborhood to purchase a piece of pastry or have a meal or take-out of authentic Italian food at the Alvara Bread and Pastry Shop.

Alvara includes Italian pastries, bread, pizza, entrees, gelato and more

Here is just a sampling of some of their authentic Italian cuisine. Chicken Monte Carlo · Eggplant Parmesan · Italian Salad · Lasagna · Meatballs (Regular and Stuffed) · Manicotti · Stuffed Beef Bracioli · Stuffed Eggplant · Suppli alla Romana (stuffed rice balls) · Arancini alla Siciliana (stuffed rice balls) · Spaghetti Carbonara · Macaroni alla Bolognese · Polenta · Polpettone (Italian meatloaf) · Chicken Parmiggiana · Sausage & Sweet Peppers · Caponata (vegetables) · Risotto with Mushroom  Then top it off with Gelato made with imported Italian ingredients. Is this heaven?

Depending on the time or your schedule grab or linger for a freshly brewed cup of coffee at Little Amps Coffee open fro 6:45am until 2pm week days and 8am to 2 pm weekends. They also offer free Wifi. Harrisburg has many thriving independent coffee houses and now that Dr. Oz says coffee is a good thing we can stop at several for a cuppa !

At the Harrisburg Senators game.

One of  my favorite things to do is attending  minor league baseball team and when I’m visiting a place  like Harrisburg, home to the Harrisburg Senators a Double AA franchise of the major league Washington Nationals it’s surely time to take in a game. (Think Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper two all-star major leaguers both alumni of the Senators.) Tickets are inexpensive ranging from $9-$27 and the higher price ticket gets you a full banquet before and during the game.

Metro Bank Park

City Island in the middle of the river is within walking distance of the City House B &B and most of downtown via  the lighted Walnut Walking Bridge and also by car or bike over the Market Street Bridge. This  63-acre recreational area offers miniature golf, paddleboats volleyball courts, batting cages and other activities and is also home to Metro Bank Park where the Senators play. The whole experience is a delight going to the game in  the daytime or especially at night when you can stroll over the lighted walking bridge across the river to City Island and the stadium, free parking. Views from the ballpark over the river to the city are outstanding and the game atmosphere is family friendly with special features on and off the field for the kids and yes “wannabee” kids.

Of course there are other choices for the evening. Perhaps a play or musical if the Gamut Theater or the American Music Theater is featuring an event. And it’s not always a bad choice to just stay the evening at the B & B and enjoy a quiet time of talking and reading with perhaps some wine and cheese.

On day three why not try another short walk to the Midtown Arts District along Walnut and North 3-d streets and check out the galleries and artisans. Wonderful shopping opportunities are also intertwined. Perhaps you might want to book a river tour of the Susquehanna aboard the “Pride of the Susquehanna” paddle wheeler located at City Island park..

Nearby easy day trips, if you can extend your stay, include  Hershey Park and all it’s offerings just 16 miles away or perhaps down to Gettysburg for the historic adventure it offers just 35 miles away, explore a few of the nearby wineries on the Susquehanna Wine Trail or even better stay another night and day in Harrisburg and just enjoy a capital city!

Susquehanna Heartland Wine Trail

For more information and help in planning your Harrisburg getaway: