Western Pa. boasts small towns featuring natural beauty, charming historic districts, and thriving art scenes.
Pittsburgh and Philadelphia may be centers of history, culture, and diversity, but Pennsylvania is also home to dozens of small towns that pack a punch for their size. These towns may feature natural beauty, charming historic districts, or thriving art scenes. We’ve selected a handful of small towns on the western side of the commonwealth that you may want to take a day or a weekend to explore. Each is within driving distance of Pittsburgh, the biggest city on the western side of the state. Read on and get inspired for your next trip.
Johnstown is famous for a terrible reason. In 1889, a dam upstream from Johnstown failed, and 20 million tons of water raced toward the town. More than 3,000 people are thought to have died. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club—whose wealthy members included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick—owned the dam and was blamed for the disaster in the court of public opinion. The club and its members, however, were never held legally responsible.
Today, Johnstown has multiple markers of that tragic history, including the Johnstown Flood Museum, which tells the comprehensive story of 1889’s Great Flood, and the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, where you can see the remains of the dam. You can also ride a very steep incline—which was used to evacuate Johnstown residents during the floods of 1936 and 1977. For lighter activities, Johnstown is home to a branch of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art as well as the children’s museum at the Heritage Discovery Center. In the summer months, you can tube the Stonycreek River or watch a movie at the Silver Drive-In. Johnstown is roughly an hour and a half from Pittsburgh.
This small town nestled in the Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania, just over an hour from Pittsburgh, attracts visitors with its charming downtown and its place in American history. Fort Ligonier may be the biggest attraction, as the site was a British fortification during the French and Indian War. Indeed, Ligonier leans into this history: October’s Fort Ligonier Days hosts tens of thousands of visitors who come to see battle reenactments, a parade, and music. Like any good festival, there’s also plenty of shopping and eating—all against a backdrop of gorgeous fall foliage. The same can be said for the Ligonier Highland Days, a Western PA version of the Scottish Highland Games.
Outside of the war that crept through Western PA, Ligonier’s old downtown is full of shops and restaurants to entice you inside. But outdoors, during the summer, Ligonier holds the Ligonier Country Market, a large outdoor market selling farmers’ goods as well as handmade art, jewelry, gifts, and more. If that’s not enough, there’s also Idlewild Park, an amusement park geared towards kids that’s one of the oldest theme parks in the country. Idlewild first opened in 1878!
Ohiopyle may only have a permanent population of a few dozen people, but that changes on the weekends. This small town in Fayette County is the jumping off point for all sorts of outdoor recreation enjoyed by people in the Greater Pittsburgh Area, as the town is just over an hour from Pittsburgh. The central gem of Ohiopyle is the state park that shares its name, Ohiopyle State Park. The name “Ohiopyle” derives from the name given to the park’s falls by the Lenape people: Ohiopehhehle, which means white, frothy waterfalls.
The white, frothy Ohiopyle Falls can be found along the Youghiogheny (yawk-ih-gay-nee] River, which is a major attraction for whitewater enthusiasts. Kayakers can paddle the “Yough” while rafting tours provide opportunities for family-friendly adventure. The state park is also home to trailheads for both the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail, which spans from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, and the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.
Zelienople came to be when a wealthy German immigrant purchased 10,000 acres of land in order to build his own town. He named the place, now just half an hour from Pittsburgh, after his daughter, Zelie.
The town is rather like an archetype of an American small town: a place with a quaint, historic downtown full of shopping, eating, and leisure opportunities, as well as a little something special all its own. Zelienople has a thriving business district with shops and restaurants next to historic homes. Baldinger’s is a candy store—operating since 1933—that stocks old-time candies that may be hard to find. There’s also an artisan market, a florist, a community coffee shop and bakery, and much more. Wandering Zelienople, one will also notice the restored Strand Theater, a historic building that brings the stage to the town known as “Zelie.”
Meadville is a cute town in Northwestern PA, the former home of actor Clark Gable, and one of the oldest towns in Pennsylvania. Less than an hour’s drive from Erie and about an hour and a half from Pittsburgh, Meadville was founded in 1788. Like many old towns, there’s a lovely historic district that’s also home to the oldest indoor food market in Western PA. The Meadville Market House has been operating out of the same building since 1870 and is open year-round. The market sells produce and other farmers’ goods as well as arts and crafts; the market even has an artist-in-residence. Other interesting shops in the historic district abound: boutiques, antique stores, thrift shops, gift shops, and even a yarn store. Near the town square, Julian’s Bar and Grill is a local dinner favorite that regularly hosts live music.
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