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From Colonial Charm to Industrial Marvels: 12 Can’t-Miss Experiences in Historic Bethlehem

August 4th, 2023 |

June 30, 2023 | In The News

Written by Ryan Hichens for places.travel

— Journey back to Colonial Pennsylvania in Historic Bethlehem. Once the home of hard-working German Moravian missionaries, this charming town features a National Historic District (and two National Historic Landmarks), 24 historical sites, stunning 18th-century architecture and a dynamic food and arts scene. Sip an Irish whiskey in a quaint tavern, stay the night in a historic hotel, or explore the many heritage trails. 

Whether you’re just passing through or staying for a weekend, these 12 can’t-miss experiences will guide you through this preserved slice of colonial and industrial America.

1. Explore the Moravian Church Settlement  – Bethlehem

Nominated for UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2023, the Moravian Church Settlement – Bethlehem encompasses 14 acres at the south end of Main Street in Pennsylvania’s first named National Historic District. Home to a wealth of historic buildings, a cemetery and two National Historic Landmarks, it’s the perfect introduction to Pennsylvania’s colonial history. While audio tours are available at the Visitor Center for a fee, you can explore the heritage trails on your own, walking the same paths as the colonial Moravians.

The Moravian Belfry in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Moravian Settlement. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com.

2. Learn about Bethlehem’s founders at the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem/1741 Gemeinhaus 

While exploring the original Moravian Church Settlement, you’ll discover the 1741 Gemeinhaus, Bethlehem’s oldest building and believed to be the largest 18th-century log structure in continuous use in the United States. Designated a National Historic Landmark, it once served as a community house where settlers lived, practiced medicine, worshipped and went to school. Today, the structure houses the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem. Guided tours are available by appointment – check out the Moravian Community Replica, the first example of town planning and Germanic architecture in the United States.

Moravian Museum of Bethlehem/1741 Gemeinhaus in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: Historic Bethlehem Museum & Sites.

3. Discover the first spark of industry in the Colonial Industrial Quarter

As part of the Moravian Church Settlement sites, step onto the grounds of the Colonial Industrial Quarter along Monocacy Creek. Schedule a guided tour, where a costumed guide will transport you to the 18th and 19th centuries. Marvel at the first pumped municipal water system in the United States at the 1762 Waterworks – you’ll see the original stone building, waterwheel and pumping mechanism. Check out the 1869 Luckenbach Mill, the site of the town’s flour mill. Or visit the 1750 Smithy/Moravian Blacksmith Shop, which housed forges and work rooms for the locksmith, blacksmith, and other trades. As you explore the American Colonies’ first Industrial Park, other sites include the 1761 Tannery and the Grist Miller’s House.

Colonial Industrial Quarter in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com.

4. Pay respects at God’s Acre and enjoy an architectural stroll

On West Market Street, take a peaceful walk through God’s Acre, the city’s oldest cemetery. Flat plaques mark the final resting places of Moravian colonists, Indigenous Americans and Moravian-born Africans who died between 1742 and 1911. Nearby, the industrial Barons’ Residences are exquisite examples of 18th and 19th-century architecture. Take a self-guided walking tour on the Heritage Trail or book a Victorian Bethlehem tour for deeper insight into these homes.

God’s Acre, Bethlehem’s oldest cemetery. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com.

5. Centuries of style await at the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts

Only one of 15 museums in the United States dedicated exclusively to decorative arts, the Kemerer resides in three 19th-century homes and showcases Moravian style and designs across three centuries. Rotating exhibits, galleries and period rooms feature furniture, paintings, antique china, clothing and silver. Guests will also see one of the largest antique doll collections in the country. Take a moment to stroll through the garden, which features stainless steel sculptures and sustainable plants.

Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com.

6. Shop ‘til You Drop on Main Street in the Historic District 

Considered one of the best Main Streets in the USA, the Historic District’s Main Street is home to dozens of boutiques, from ladies’ fashion to decorative hardware, antiques and even holiday decorations. Browse the Bethlehem House Gallery, grab a snack at Clusters Handcrafted Popcorn and step back in time at Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop. Love chocolate? The Chocolate Lab has you covered with dipped pretzels, fudge and other handmade confections.

Main Street in Bethlehem’s Historic District. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com.

7. Dine at the Historic District’s Specialty Restaurants

You’re bound to work up an appetite after exploring Historic Bethlehem, and the specialty restaurants in the Historic District will satisfy any craving. Whether you’re in the mood for a cold pint at a pub, flavorful Mexican cuisine, or classic diner food, Main Street is the place to be. Check out local favorites like McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub & Whiskey Bar, which serves to-die-for Scottish and Irish specialties – bangers and mash, anyone? Or go to Tapas on Main for delicious Spanish-style shared plates, like garlic shrimp and salmon tartare.

The Sun Inn is one of the Historic District’s specialty restaurants. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com

8. Relax and recharge at Historic Hotel Bethlehem

There’s no better place for a good night’s rest than the Historic Hotel Bethlehem, named the Best Historic Hotel in America by USA Today in 2021 and 2022. The site once featured the First House of Bethlehem, built in 1741, and later the Moravian-owned Eagle Hotel, established in 1794. Historic Hotel Bethlehem has hosted world leaders such as Winton Churchill and John F. Kennedy for over 100 years since its opening in 1922. Take a self-guided tour of the hotel’s Hall of History. See photos and memorabilia from the hotel’s early days and gorgeous murals from 1936 crafted by George Gray, a painter specializing in historical figures and military scenes.

Historic Hotel Bethlehem in Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com.

9. Turn the page at the Moravian Book Shop

The Moravian Book Shop opened in 1745 and continues to sell books to this day. While the bookstore has moved locations since then, it settled into its permanent home in 1871 next to the Central Moravian Church. Beyond being the official student bookstore for Moravian University, you can grab the latest bestsellers, Moravian history books, games and greeting cards. Pick up one of the beautiful 25- or 26-pointed Moravian stars sold on-site.

Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com.

10. Tour the Moravian University | Priscilla Payne Hurd Campus

Founded in 1742, Moravian University has operated for over 275 years, making it the country’s sixth-oldest university. Check out the Brethren’s House, once known as the Colonial Hall, which served as a military hospital during the American Revolutionary War. Looking for a dose of entertainment? Foy Hall regularly features student showcases, while Peter Hall hosts a variety of musical performances throughout the year. Art lovers should check out rotating art exhibits at Payne Gallery.

11. Entertainment awaits at the Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks™ and Hoover Mason Trestle

If you’re seeking quality entertainment, from incredible cultural events to year-round festivals, check out  SteelStacks. The 10-acre art campus along the Lehigh River is home to five towering blast furnaces, the oldest dating to 1914, and the Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks™ – a popular venue that hosts film screenings, a free summer concert series and Musikfest – a 10-day music festival in August. For a closer look at the blast furnaces, take a guided or self-guided tour at the Hoover-Mason Trestle, an elevated public walkway accessible via the Visitor Center.  

Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks™ & Hoover Mason Trestle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: VisitHistoricBethlehem.com.

12. Steam and steel collide at the National Museum of Industrial History

The Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of Industrial History features artifacts from the 1876 Smithsonian Industrial collection that highlights the United States’ industrial history, from steel manufacturing to textiles. Tour rotating and permanent exhibits featuring more than 200 artifacts located in the old Bethlehem Steel Corporation Mill. The mill produced 73 million tons of steel during World War II, thanks to 30,000 workers. Stop by Machinery Hall to see the 115-ton steam engine, or check out the Iron & Steel gallery featuring a towering 20-foot-tall Nasmyth steam hammer. 

The National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: NMIH.org.

 

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