With hipster havens in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh bookending Pennsylvania, you probably don’t think of Harrisburg as the first spot for a cool, urban location to spend a day. But you should. Don’t underestimate Harrisburg. The capital city’s Midtown neighborhood will make you rethink what you think you already know. The neighborhood is rich with a farmer’s market with an internal food court, art galleries, street art and an independent bookshop that puts the rest to shame. And all of those things are set in and around a backdrop of historic buildings with the kind of architecture they just don’t make anymore. Midtown Harrisburg is laidback and easy going in a way that “the big city” just isn’t.
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Get to Know Harrisburg & Midtown
Less than a decade ago, the city of Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy. Those words are like a flashing red stop sign to tourists and visitors. But any idea you have in your head of Harrisburg is completely wrong. I know because I certainly visited Harrisburg with some of these same preconceived notions in my head. And Harrisburg completely surprised and impressed me.
Harrisburg is already long on the road to financial recovery. The perfect example and reflection of this “new” Harrisburg is the city’s Midtown neighborhood. Stretching north along the Susquehanna River from the State Capitol to the Governor’s Mansion, Midtown is urban and downtown. But when I say urban, I mean historically urban. Beautiful buildings line the streets with architectural details people yearn for. With many of the buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stone, copper, and brick are everywhere you look.
Midtown is young, walkable, and easy-going. And the best part is that it’s still growing with more to discover. It’s the “big city” in name only.
What to Do In Midtown Harrisburg
Midtown is a center of art and culture. Simply a cool, hip place to be. The neighborhood is home to the Susquehanna Art Museum, where visitors can always see something new from a rotating list of current and upcoming exhibitions. And just down the block from there is the Midtown Cinema, one of the rare independent movie theaters you’ll find these days.
Along 3rd Street and Verbeke Street I found some great spots like the Broad Street Market, Millworks and the Midtown Scholar Bookstore.
Midtown Scholar Bookstore
From the outside, the Midtown Scholar Bookstore looks like your average, run of the mill independent bookshop. Shelves of books at discount prices line the sidewalk directly out front of the store. But there’s more than meets the eye.
Part of the Midtown Scholar’s building is an old movie theater from the 1920s that became a department store in the ’50s. Once inside, however, it’s a bookworm’s paradise. Favorites of literature line the walls as densely packed shelves extend out behind a small seating area. Up above, encircling the first floor is a second story with shelves of fiction, poetry, and more. And yet more books can be found in the basement. There you will find vintage and antique editions in glass bookcases that are looking for a loving home (preferably humidity and climate controlled, I’d imagine).
Throughout the store it’s a mix of old and new books. And they’re nestled by lovely architectural details like stained glass windows and a huge bell. If the special book you’re looking for exists, there’s a good possibility it’s here. It’s an adventure to find it, and better yet, to find what you aren’t expecting or looking for.
The shop also has a really nice coffee shop with loose tea and baked goods. There are even vegan options. Tables are dotted throughout the shop so you can sit in the open or find a quiet, hidden spot to absorb a book and caffeinate.
Take in the Historic Architecture
As if the historic buildings that are now the Midtown Scholar Bookstore aren’t enough, there’s more. Just go for a stroll through Midtown. Some of the buildings are homes or have been repurposed. Some have been reborn with murals. It’s exciting because the architectural styles and details vary from block to block and even building to building. The buildings range from the 19th century to the early 20th.
Enjoy the Street Art
You don’t have to go far in Midtown Harrisburg to find murals covering multistorey buildings. Each piece has a different style, a unique image, and a distinct message. And, really, that’s what’s great about street art. Without even stepping foot inside a museum, you can enjoy great works of art that are unique to a city, or even to a specific neighborhood.
Not all street work is clandestine Banksy-like works that are put up under cover of darkness. On the contrary! In Harrisburg, one group looking to beautify the city with art that everyone can enjoy is Sprocket Mural Works. I spotted several works in Midtown by this group that’s looking to beautify Harrisburg one mural at a time.
Stroll the Susquehanna River & the Historic Bridges Nearby
With the Susquehanna River forming the western edge of Midtown, you might expect not to find much to do. But along the riverfront are parks and trails. The Capital Area Greenbelt is a 20-mile loop around the city that includes a section parallel to the river. The Riverfront Park and Harrisburg Sunken Garden are also places to pause and look across the water. Also, there’s the massive stone arch Market Street Bridge from 1926 that somewhat resembles an aqueduct. Not far up the river is the Harvey Taylor Memorial Bridge, a steel girder bridge from 1952.
Where to Eat in Midtown Harrisburg
The most difficult part of eating in Midtown Harrisburg? Picking a single spot. You have your choice of restaurants and coffee shops.
If you’re looking for the hip place to hang out, Millworks is for you. The spot is a restaurant, a brewery, and artist studios. With beer brewed on-site, art created on-site, food cooked on-site from local and sustainable ingredients, it’s something you would expect to find in a city of a much larger size. And yet here is Millworks, ready to inspire and feed you literally and figuratively.
Broad Street Market
The Broad Street Market is as much “something to do” and “somewhere to eat.” The market is the country’s oldest continually operated markethouse and dates to 1860. There’s no doubt that much has changed during that time. But the tradition remains alive. Today, you can visit Broad Street Market to do your grocery shopping direct from the farmers or grab lunch from one of many independent vendors, or grab coffee that’s freshly roasted. The market is made up of two separate buildings.
Without a doubt, you’ll spend a fair amount of time just wandering the two market buildings. I browsed the Broad Street Market twice, once just to check it out and then returning later for lunch. From authentic African cuisine to pizzas baked on site and popular Korean dishes, the range and variety that’s at the Broad Street Market is somewhat surprising and incredibly tempting.
Midtown Harrisburg is easily accessible via Interstate 81, which runs along the north, or Interstate 83, which runs along the south. You can reach both interstate routes from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
There is street parking available around Midtown. There is free 2-hour parking available along Verbeke Street for visitors to Broad Street Market and Millworks. Additionally, the Harrisburg Parking Authority is a good resource for parking options, from street parking to garages.
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Thank you to Visit Hershey & Harrisburg! All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.