My Pennsylvania State Capital To-do List: what you have to do in Harrisburg

Today is my last day in Harrisburg.

A buddy and I are packing up my life from a summer-long post-graduate internship covering state government in Pennsylvania’s capitol. After visiting the 30th annual Pennsylvania Chili cook off here in Harrisburg who knows when I’ll be back.

So, here’s my Harrisburg to-do list and how I fared this summer.

  1. Restaurant Row – Center City Harrisburg blossomed, like many cities, in the past decade. This included a popular boon to its Second Street corridor, with the development of 15 or so good bars and restaurant that offer great night life, particularly on weekends. Though, its theme has been criticized as unfocused, my favorite bar is Sawyer’s Cantina – sitting outside by gas fires during summer nights. But Ceolta’s, Molly Brannigans, Brick Haus and McGrath’s are fine haunts. The best pizza in the region comes from Palumbo’s, and give a holler at Chilly Willy’s Ice Cream.
  2. Other restaurants – Second Street isn’t everything, though, so explore elsewhere. My favorite restaurant of all is on Third Street across from the capitol – Sammy’s. The Fire House Restaurant – a remodeled form of the Hope Fire Station, the second oldest in the Commonwealth – is delicious and has a cool vibe. Additionally, the Appalachian Brewing Company has all the style, food, drinks and feel of a good Philadelphia microbrewery, stop by for a tour, live music or free pool on Sundays. Also, not only do the streets rep Philly, so does the food – Philadelphia Steaks on Fourth Street just south of Locust  makes a good hoagie and Sixth Street’s Jackson House – the best burger in the city – comes with South Philly roots. Oh, and the best breakfast in town comes from the Flamingo Grill on Market east of Third Street. Check out their $3.10 morning special with the most delicious hot chocolate I’ve ever had.
  3. The Susquehanna River – The 422-mile waterway hits its urban peak along Front Street in Harrisburg. The city has done a great job of creating a beautiful tree-laden path, frequented by bikers, joggers and rollerbladers – something from which many cities like Philadelphia could learn. Take a long stroll.
  4. City Island – Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Harrisburg is the small island that sits in the middle of the Susquehanna. Designated a city park, the nice stroll – arrived by way of the stately Walnut Street Walking Bridge – includes people watching, batting cages, water miniature golf, the City Island Railroad, minor league soccer and football and, most famously, the AA affiliate of the Washington Nationals (See No. 5). Definitely give some time to walking, picnicking, a game of wiffle ball or luxuriating.
  5. Hershey Park Look, it’s all southcentral Pennsylvania. Hershey may be a 25-minute drive, but it’s good wholesome, family fun. The waterpark is even more fun – though smaller and longer lines – than its roller coasters and other rides. See pictures of my visit.
  6. Harrisburg Senators Game – You have to make it out to a Senators game – the popular AA affiliate of the Washington Nationals.
  7. The Capitol – It is the most beautiful building in Harrisburg. The capitol, circa 1906 and opened by then-President Teddy Roosevelt is noted by the main rotunda. The rotunda’s crown jewel is its spectacular, 272-foot high, 52 million-pound dome, modeled after the great dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. If you make it while the legislature is in session, be sure to spy on the state’s General Assembly.
  8. Reservoir Park – The 85-acre park is a bit of a hidden gem, including a fine view of the Harrisburg skyline particularly at sunset. The park features year-round events, the Civil War Museum – which I had no interest in seeing – and grounds on which to stroll. You can’t sensibly walk to it from the Capitol area, though.
  9. The John Harris Mansion – The tour is $7.50 so forget it, but take a gander at the home John Harris built in the 1760s, situated at the city’s south end of Front Street. Give yourself a chance to think a well-forested plot and Harris’s desire to establish a settlement. City Island features a replica trading post he set up to deal with the region’s American Indians – who were ultimately misused and displaced.
  10. Governor’s Mansion – For some reason these bastards don’t give tours of the residence in August, so I’ll miss out, but otherwise on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in the summer take a gander at the large home used by the Commonwealth’s governors since its construction in 1968. At the very least, take the long walk north along Front Street to Maclay and check it out.
  11. Center City – While not the metropolis of Philadelphia or other of the country’s largest, Harrisburg – you may be surprised to read – has a distinct and respectable downtown, in which I had the pleasure of living for a summer. I had no car, walked to work, to the market, to Second Street and elsewhere. Great experience.
  12. Midtown – If gentrification is inevitable, here’s where it’s happening in Harrisburg. Communities in this city that faced lower housing prices, rising crime levels and declining education levels have seen the resurgent popularity of urban living bring a mixing of poorer black neighborhoods and younger, whiter communities. Nowhere in this city is it more evident in Midtown neighborhoods like Capitol Heights. Midtown is north of Forester Street. Where Midtown ends and Uptown begins is a bit more complicated and something I will reserve for someone better versed than I – having been just a summer resident.
  13. The Patriot-News – Give some love to the Harrisburg Patriot-News. The daily, with circulation just below the noted bench mark of 100,000, is the three-time Pennsylvania newspaper of the year, has some great design elements and solid local reporting. Plus, like all newspapers, it faces declining advertising – buy a copy for 50 cents. Oh, I happen to have done some reporting for them.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.