The central swath of our commonwealth is home to a mixture of remarkable scenery, unique attractions, and unforgettable history.
The political strategist James Carville once notoriously suggested that Pennsylvania was a state with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on either end and Alabama in the middle. First of all, Alabama can be quite nice. Second, the central swath of our commonwealth is not homogenous: it’s home to a mixture of remarkable scenery, unique attractions, and unforgettable history.
From the Allegheny Mountains to the Susquehanna River Valley, to Happy Valley and Cumberland Valley, Central PA may be wildly different from the state’s biggest cities, but its small towns are also quite different from each other.
We’ve put together a list of some must-visit small towns throughout the center of the state, including those in the north-central and south-central regions. Read on to learn more about the friendly Main Streets and stunning vistas just waiting for you!
What is a small town without a charming downtown? Bellefonte, a town north of State College, is no exception to the “charming downtown” rule. Indeed, Bellefonte’s historic downtown district features Victorian-era architecture and is flanked by the waters of Spring Creek and the greenscape of Talleyrand Park. You can wander the downtown streets to visit boutiques, coffee shops, the Bellefonte Art Museum, or any of the town’s regular events, like their Bellefonte Victorian Christmas. You can also take a self-guided walking tour of the historic district; the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association publishes walking tour maps you can pick up around town, or you can plan your tour at home with the association’s virtual walking tour.
Besides the town itself, Bellefonte is near numerous recreation opportunities, like the Spring Creek Canyon Trail or nearby Bald Eagle State Park. After you’ve finished a long day of walking town streets or hiking nearby trails, stop and unwind at Big Spring Spirits. This local distillery has a tasting room where you can sip craft cocktails while munching on food by local Nomad Kitchen.
Wellsboro may be known as the home of the breathtaking Pennsylvania Grand Canyon (otherwise known as the Pine Creek Gorge), but the town itself, located in the north-central region of PA, is definitely worth a visit too. The downtown district offers a lesson in nostalgia, with the streets still lit by gas lamps, the oldest independent, family-run department store (Dunham’s), and historic buildings like the century-old Arcadia Theatre (which still shows movies and live performances). Unsurprisingly, the town hosts an old-fashioned, Dickens-style Christmas celebration each year.
Be sure to leave time to experience the panoramic views of the PA Grand Canyon, just a short distance from the center of Wellsboro. Navigate to the canyon’s Leonard Harrison State Park for scenic overlooks, hiking trails, and picnic areas.
This town, in the south-central part of the state, is near the unofficial border of Central and Western PA—it’s just about 100 miles from Pittsburgh. While the history and charm of Bedford attracts visitors today, its medicinal springs enticed visitors of yesteryear, as the handful of springs in Bedford were believed to cure illnesses. Some spas in Bedford still emphasize this history, such as the Omni Bedford Springs Resort and its “Springs Eternal Spa.”
Beyond searching for springs, you can enjoy Bedford’s historic architecture and its specialty shops, restaurants, and unique arts and culture. For instance, Bedford is the home of the National Museum of the American Coverlet, the first museum dedicated to the art and history of the coverlet—a woven bedcover made on a loom. You can also visit The Coffee Pot, an 18-foot tall building in the shape of a coffee pot, which was a lunch joint when it was built in 1927, but is now just a fun roadside attraction.
Ridgway, the seat of Elk County in the north-central part of the state, serves as a gateway to the Allegheny National Forest—Pennsylvania’s only national forest. Ridgway, then, is an excellent destination for lovers of the outdoors. You can hike to Devil’s Den, a cool rock formation near the town, on a trail that affords you scenic views of the foothills of the Alleghenies. Or, walk the Clarion-Little Toby Trail, a rail trail that passes by waterfalls. Ridgway is also a great place to snowshoe or cross country ski in the winter.
And then, because sometimes the best thing about small towns is, well, their quirks, you should know about the Ridgway Chainsaw Carving Rendezvous. This annual event brings wood carvers from around the world to Ridgway, where they use chainsaws to create art. The carving is live and is accompanied by food and live entertainment.
This town is actually the only locality incorporated as a “town” in Pennsylvania, as most municipalities are boroughs or townships. And the town of Bloomsburg is a gem of the Susquehanna River Valley. Home to Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg is sometimes described as a college town. If you think of a college town as meaning a town that doesn’t merely have a college, but is also home to the independent stores, cute coffee shops, and walkable streets that tend to appear near colleges—then “college town” is a great descriptor for Bloomsburg. Visit Bloomsburg for its historic downtown architecture, but also its many art galleries, like The Exchange, which hosts themed open-call exhibitions for artists of all ages. Also in downtown is Turkey Hill Brewing Company, a popular brewery and restaurant that often hosts live music. Finally, we recommend Endless Records for vinyl and the Phillips Emporium and its Teeny Tiny Bookshop for gifts and books.