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Things to do in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley
The Bethlehem Steel Stacks
Arguably the biggest and the best of the Bethlehem attractions, the Bethlehem Steel Stacks tower over the south side of town, the Lehigh River, the Sands Bethlehem Resort, and the ArtsQuest complex. The massive gray and black structure casts a long shadow over the city and speak to the city’s roots as a company town.
The history of the site dates back to 1857 and the creation of the Bethlehem Iron Company, which later became the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Along the shores of the Lehigh River, the Bethlehem Steel Works furnaces turned out steel for skyscappers and ships, including much of the heavy armor plating for the Navy during World War II.
When the Bethlehem Steel factory went silent on November 18, 1995, these massive blast furnaces were left to deteriorate. Today, the SteelStacks arts and cultural campus surrounds the giant shell of the Bethlehem blast furnaces hosting numerous events.
Visitors can explore the site on the guided Bethlehem Steel tour offered by the Historic Bethlehem organization. The tour, “Along the Lehigh River: The Rise & Fall of Bethlehem Steel,” explores all aspects of the company’s and the town’s history.
The Hoover-Mason Tressel
Located just below the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces, the massive Hoover-Mason Trestle is an engineering marvel. Constructed around the turn of the 20th century, this section of track is elevated over 40 feet off the ground and extends about a third of a mile. The narrow-gauge railroad that ran along this track would carry raw materials for steel production.
While much of the old Bethlehem Steel plant is gone (except for the blast furnaces), the Hoover-Mason Trestle has been refurbished and turned into an elevated walkway for visitors. Information panels explained what used to happen along the trestle and the nearby blast furnaces.
The Moravian Museum of Bethlehem and the Moravian Historical Sites
Most people associate the colonial period in Pennsylvania with the historical sites in Philadelphia, but there is lots of history in Bethlehem, too. In 1741, 80 Moravian refugees from Europe settled here to live the life of religious freedom. On 500 acres of land carved out of the Pennsylvania wilderness, they lived in peace with nature and surrounded by animals. They called the community Bethlehem after the stories in the Bible.
The Moravians hailed from the area that would now be considered the Czech Republic. They fashioned their community as a collective Utopia where all property was held by the church and everyone worked for the collective benefit of the community. From the beginning, women were given standing and the community even welcomed former slaves. The Pennsylvania Bethlehem Moravian community was a Utopian ideal – at least for a time.
A visit to the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is a great way to learn about this interesting historical period. Better yet, try to get in on one of the many walking tours offered of the various Moravian buildings in town. Children will particularly enjoy the blacksmith demonstrations in the original blacksmith shop dating from 1750 right on the main street of town.
Wind Creek Bethlehem
Built on the site of the old Bethlehem Steel plant, the Wind Creek Bethlehem (formerly the Bethlehem Sands Casino) was part of a massive brownfield redevelopment initiative for the city. Most of the abandoned steel plant was torn down, and a destination resort was built in its place.
The re-purposed Wind Creek Bethlehem contains a hotel, table games, slot machines, The Outlets at Wind Creek Bethlehem shopping mall, and numerous restaurants. We’re not huge gamblers, but if that is your passion, Wind Creek is a great place to indulge.
Martin Guitar Factory
The large Martin guitar factory is a temple to the glorious sounds of music. From country to rock, it has all been done on a C.F. Martin & Co. guitar. We don’t play guitar, so we aren’t as passionate as many visitors, however it is an absolutely fascinating and enjoyable experience.
Visitors enter though a rustic barn entryway into a thoroughly modern factory inside. The tour traces the 300 different steps in building a guitar as well as quality control (consisting of some workers riffing out some tunes on the newly minted guitars). But the highlight is the memorabilia room, where famous Martin Guitars can be seen along with with displays to the musicians who put the company on the map.
After the tour, if you know how to play guitar, you can pick one up in the visitor center and play a few tunes. And the 1833 shop has some of the most interesting and unique merchandise we’ve ever seen on a factory tour. The factory is a fascinating visit even for the casual music fan and is one of the best free things to do in the Lehigh Valley.
Lehigh Valley Covered Bridge Tour
Pennsylvania has long been known as covered bridge county. Immigrants, primarily from Germany and Central Europe, built several thousand covered bridges in Pennsylvania using the same construction techniques as the first covered bridges in Switzerland. Today, nearly 200 Pennsylvania covered bridges remain, with seven of them in the Lehigh Valley, mostly crossing the Jordan Creek north of Allentown.
Driving the 50-mile Lehigh Valley Covered Bridge Tour is liking traveling back in time, or at least experiencing a quieter pace of life. All seven of the bridges in the Lehigh Valley can still be visited today, and you can drive over five of them.
Along the tour, there are numerous information panels explaining the history of the bridges and the local area. And you’ll even learn the answer to everyone’s question: why are covered bridges covered? The answer is to keep the trusses and roadway dry, thereby preventing rotting and lengthening the lifespan of the bridge.
Discover Lehigh Valley publishes a handy Self-Guided Tour of Seven Lehigh Valley Covered Bridges which is helpful if you want to make the drive. (Download it here.)
Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom
One of the top attractions near Bethlehem are the twin amusement parks of Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom. Drawing visitors from all over Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, these parks hold the attention of kids and the young at heart. But thrill seekers will enjoy riding one of the longest roller coasters in the world.
Originally built in 1860 by Solomon Dorney on his farm/estate, the park was quickly taken over by the local trolley company. Dorney Park became one of the many trolley parks in the U.S. that were used by the trolley companies to boost ridership on the weekends. Over the years, the park has gone through numerous upgrades adding lots of roller coasters and thrill rides.
Built within Dorney Park is Wildwater Kingdom, one of the top Lehigh Valley attractions in the summer. This park has over 25 water slides and aquatic features to keep people cool during the hot summer months. On hot days, this park can be packed.
Mack Trucks Historical Museum
Beginning in 1905 and for more than 100 years, the Mack Truck company was based in Allentown, Pennsylvania. While the headquarters moved to North Carolina over 10 years ago, the sentimental heart of the company still remains with the Mack Trucks Historical Museum.
This museum is one of the best family-friendly things to do in Allentown and is every four-year old boy’s dream. The museum features dozens of big trucks to geek out on (including the famous Megatron truck from the Transformers movie), while also showcasing the company’s history and memorabilia. More than just a corporate museum, the Mack Trucks museum is really a look at the technological design and developments in the industry as a whole.
The Moravian Book Shop
On Main Street in downtown Bethlehem, you’ll find The Moravian Book Shop. This just isn’t your average bookstore! Bethlehem’s Moravian Book Shop is the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world, and the second oldest bookshop in the world. Since 1745, the shop has been seeing to the intellectual needs of the town.
Peeps & Company Factory Store
One of the most famous items produced in the Lehigh Valley are Peeps, the yellow or pink confectionery treats that are synonymous with Easter. But in the Lehigh Valley these treats are enjoyed year-round. The company behind the treats, Just Born, is based here and produces the treats nearby, along with their other candies: Hot Tamales, MIKE and IKE, and others.
At the factory store in Center Valley you can load up on Peeps and other whimsical merchandise to spoil your kids or indulge your inner child. Visiting the Peeps store is one of the best things to do in the Lehigh Valley for kids.
Godfrey Daniels Music Hall
On the south side of Bethlehem, PA in a rather unassuming building is a world-class music venue: the Godfrey Daniels Music Hall. From humble roots in an abandoned donut shop to now being on the international map for independent musicians, Godfrey Daniels has been welcoming bands for over 40 years. From major musicians playing throwback sets to up-and-coming artists, a show at Godfrey Daniels is one you won’t likely forget.
Scuba Diving in Dutch Springs
One of the more unusual things to do in Bethlehem is scuba diving. Despite being over 75 miles to the ocean, thousands of people flock to Dutch Springs in the summer to learn to dive. Submerged deep in the quarry are objects for divers to explore: a firetruck, a school bus, a truck, a helicopter, and even an airplane.
The quarry also speaks to the Lehigh Valley’s roots as the cement capital of United States (or at least it was for a period of time). Most of the cement raw materials for America’s second industrial revolution and the build up for World War II came from the Lehigh Valley near Bethlehem. Diving in Dutch Springs is one of the most unique things to do in Bethlehem and is an interesting way to see the area’s history in a new way.
The Bethlehem Musikfest
For 10 days every August, hundreds of musicians descend on Bethlehem to perform a series of concerts that is collectively known as Musikfest. It’s part fair, part concert, and all kinds of fun. Spread over several stages, you can catch shows by Pennsylvania favorites The Amish Outlaws, or big-name acts like The Beach Boys, Dixie Chicks, and Maroon 5.
Best of all, the entire festival is free! Only the headline acts on the Musikfest Sands Steel Stage require a ticket. We spent a long weekend enjoying dozens of acts, including a performance by Dierks Bentley.
Christmas Markets in Bethlehem
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania markets itself as Christmas City USA. Named by the Moravians for the little town of Bethlehem in the Bible, the one in Pennsylvania tries to live up to its name. Every December, the city has the Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem – named one of the world’s best Christmas markets by Travel & Leisure magazine.
In big tents near the Bethlehem Steel Stacks, visitors can shop and browse for holiday gifts and try to create the magic of the German Christmas markets. While the great Christmas markets of Europe are outdoors and in the cold, the Bethlehem markets are in a tent to keep you out of the cold (and rain, as we experienced last year).
For more details on visiting the Bethlehem Christmas market and seeing the city during the holidays, check out this article.
Visiting the Social Still Distillery
The craft spirits revolution was late in coming to Pennsylvania to due to antiquated liquor laws. However, there are number of great Pennsylvania distilleries today, and one of them is in Bethlehem.
Located in an old bank building, the Social Still distillery is one of the most beautiful working spirit houses in the United States. The glass-encased production facility is a beautiful visual showpiece to the spirits and cocktails they produce. A small kitchen produces some delicious light bites allowing visitors to prolong their visit.
Getting a Refresher at Hardball Cider
Craft cider has come to Pennsylvania with the Hardball Cider Company in Mount Bethel, PA. Cider enthusiasts who enjoyed visiting the tasting room on main street in Bethlehem will soon be able to see the whole operation in action at the farm in Mount Bethel.
Fegley’s Bethlehem Brew Works
You can’t spend any amount of time in Bethlehem or the Lehigh Valley and not end up at Brew Works. This local institution has been dedicated to the craft since 1998. They serve top craft, both their own as well as from other breweries of merit, plus top-flight pub food. When a local tells you to meet them at the Brew, this is what they are talking about. And if you miss it on your trip to Bethlehem, then you are just missing out.
Where to Stay in Bethlehem
The Historic Hotel Bethlehem – The granddaddy of Lehigh Valley hotels, this hotel has a prime location right on Main Street in Bethlehem and is walkable to all the Moravian sites, as well as numerous restaurants. Year after year, the Hotel Bethlehem is one of the best places to stay in Bethlehem.
Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem – Whether you are a gambler or not, there’s no beating the Sands Resort. It’s a great location right at the Stacks and the hotel offers amenities like indoor pool and valet parking.
The Sayre Mansion – The Sayre Mansion is one of the finest B&Bs in Pennsylvania. This property has a great location, a fantastic breakfast, and just exudes romance.
We were the guests of Discover Lehigh Valley. All opinions of the fun, unique, and engaging are our own.