Every year, Visit Hershey & Harrisburg offers Media Days – a chance for writers to come and explore the area just 100 miles from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. The location was a perfect weekend getaway destination for my Baltimore-based family and we started making plans for three days in Pennsylvania.
My goal was to pack as much into three days as I might get on a more organized press trip but this time I had the opportunity to cater it to my family’s whims. And our first rule was to only experience things we hadn’t done. And with that, we pretty much eliminated all of Hershey.
We love Hershey and we’ve spent many years visiting Hersheypark in all four seasons, Hershey Gardens, Hershey Lodge, Hotel Hershey, Hershey’s Chocolate World, and even the Hershey Theatre. If you haven’t been, I highly recommend checking it all out. And while you’re on your way to Hershey, you’ll be sure to notice the historic bridges crossing the Susquehanna River as you drive past the small city Harrisburg.
To be honest, up until our weekend trip, that was our only experience with Harrisburg. I had work ahead of me in order to familiarize myself with the area and the attractions and plan an itinerary that would keep us entertained but not exhausted.
As our weekend getaway approached, my husband was called away for a work trip to California and our family trip shifted to a mother-son adventure – something Evan and I were looking forward to. Here’s how our weekend played out.
Day 1 in Harrisburg, PA
The Pride of the Susquehanna
After a filling breakfast at the hotel, we checked the weather for the weekend and knew rain was in the forecast. So we spent our first day exploring as many outdoor activities as possible. That meant making our first stop, City Island, an island right smack in the middle of the Susquehanna River facing the downtown skyline of Harrisburg. On the island, you’ll find fun family activities like arcades, batting cages, a choo choo train, and the port for the Pride of the Susquehanna.
We boarded this authentic stern-driven paddle wheel riverboat right around noon for the first voyage of the day. It’s a short ride just a bit north on the Susquehanna and then the boat makes a u-turn and heads back to port. The entire voyage took about 45 minutes. We did get a nice view of the historic homes bordering the river and spotted a little wildlife. But mainly we found it a nice way to ease into our weekend.
Fort Hunter Mansion and Park
As you might expect by its location, Harrisburg is chock full of history and although there are plenty of museums, we wanted to get a little more hands-on. I opted to take Evan to Fort Hunter, a Federal style mansion, on the site of the old French and Indian War fort aptly named Fort Hunter.
The original portion of the house was built in 1786 with additions being added in 1814 and 1870 by a total of three prominent families. You won’t necessarily find an impeccably restored mansion. Instead, you’ll find a historic home that showcases much of the original furniture from the three families spanning over 100 years. It gives it an authentic, lived-in atmosphere that we both loved.
Although we only had time to tour the mansion, we’d love to come back to explore the beautiful grounds and tour the Tavern House and Centennial Barn on the property or visit during one of the many events during the year.
Whitaker Center for Science and the ARTS
Evan was happy to accompany me wherever I took him but the Whitaker Center was tops on his list. My fear was that, at a very bright 11 years old, it might feel more like a kids museum and less like a place to satiate his scientific questions. It turns out that it’s really an attraction for kids of all ages, including myself.
We spent a quick two hours racing through as many exhibits as we could before the 5pm closing time and felt like we got a pretty good cross section. We started upstairs with physics and worked our way down the two additional floors to discover biology, technology, and a little earth science. On our next visit we’d love to explore the Medical Digital Cinema and spend a little more time in the gift shop.
Day 2 in Harrisburg, PA
Indian Echo Caverns
As predicted, the rain started in the morning and continued all day but we met up with my friend Shannon and her family to explore a little of Harrisburg and Hershey together. The first stop that both our families wanted to visit was Echo Dell, better known as Indian Echo Caverns.
It’s a little known fact but I’ve spent time spelunking and I sort of have a thing for caverns. So we were prepared for the chilly, damp, 52 degree weather of the caverns. Our tour lasted about 45 minutes and we all received a great cardio workout going up and down the stairs to reach the cavern!
On our way back, the rain slowed long enough for us to head over to the nearby petting zoo and then we ended our trip in one of the best cavern gift shops I’ve seen (but I didn’t buy anything!).
Now this may seem like just another restaurant but The Millworks is a local and sustainable brewery/bar/restaurant and artist gallery in the heart of what’s known as Midtown Harrisburg. Not only was the food fresh and delicious, but Shannon and I split a flight of their locally brewed beer (and we both fell in love with the Cherry Berry Gose).
We walked through the artist studios that were open and had a chance to shop the gallery store where you could find artisan good make on the premises.
Hershey’s Chocolate World
With the rain still coming down, we decided that there was only one way to make it all right… CHOCOLATE! Just a short 20 minutes away, we made the drive to Hershey’s Chocolate World. If you haven’t been, here are 5 things you need to know:
- You can park there for free for up to 3 hours!
- Hershey’s Chocolate Tour is FREE and you get a little candy bar at the end.
- There are enough paid attractions inside to keep you easily busy for 3 hours.
- You’ll find the freshest and most unique Hershey’s candy inside their large retail store.
- If you’re kids are young enough, they’ll think that it’s the same thing as Hersheypark and you can save money! (Ask me how I know).
We went, we toured, we bought, we ate.
Day 3 near Harrisburg, PA
National Watch & Clock Museum
On the last day, we were headed out of town and wanted to check out some neighboring attractions. Our primary scheduled stop was the Turkey Hill Experience but we quickly found that we could purchase a combined ticket for that and the National Watch & Clock Museum.
It may not be an attraction that would normally be high on your list but for my watch-obsessed son, it was like a dream come true. In about an hour, we explored the history of timekeeping devices and witnessed an extensive collection of clocks and, finally, wristwatches. Evan’s day was made when he was able to put his eyes on a Rolex worn by James Bond in one of the many movies.
Turkey Hill Experience
The timing worked perfectly for us because we arrived late in the day for the ice cream extravaganza at Turkey Hill Experience. Although admission is available at anytime, we wanted a chance to make our own ice cream in the Taste Labs experience, an add-on that’s only available a few times per day and does sell out!
Again, I was a little worried that this experience might be geared more towards young kids but it turns out it’s geared toward anyone that loves ice cream. I’ll admit we might have spent a little too long in the all-you-care-to-taste ice cream room. My favorites: Black Raspberry and Banana.
Dining in Harrisburg, PA
It may sound like we gorged ourselves on ice cream (we did), but we also stumbled across a few good places that I recommended checking out in Harrisburg if you’re looking for dining recommendations.
You know the food is good when you forget to take pictures before you chow down. We ordered a few small plates including Oven Roasted Brussel Sprouts, Gnocchi, and a Della Nonna pizza (with egg, potatoes confit, red onions, fennel sausage, truffle oil, pecorino and bianca sauce). So good!
With so much to do and so little time, we ended up missing lunch on one of the days and stumbled across a great little crepe place downtown. Evan grabbed a banana and nutella crepe and I devoured a brie and raspberry jam crepe.
I already mentioned the beer but the food was just as good. I decided to eat “small” with a Roasted Beet Salad (baby mesclun mixed greens, roasted organic beets, whipped camelot valley chevre, candied walnuts, mustard vinaigrette) and could barely make a dent in it!
Whether you love good food or family attractions or something that’s not the same old tourist destination, the next time you’re looking for a weekend getaway anywhere along the East Coast, be sure to add Harrisburg and Hershey to your short list!