State College, PA is known to most as a sports-loving college town. However, it is so much more than just football! Just 3.5 hours northwest of Philadelphia, it’s also where you can trek a butterfly trail, set sail into a cave, discover historic American memorabilia, and visit a legendary ice creamery that will have you begging for seconds. Whether you’re a family of foodies, nature lovers, history buffs, or sports fanatics, you’ll want to see this impressive list of things to do in State College.
When I arrived in State College, Pennsylvania – home of Penn State University – I was a little skeptical. After all, an all-American spot that dubs itself “Happy Valley” yet is little known to most of the world beyond the college and sports seemed to be a little much. Yes, checking out Beaver stadium is a must do, and if you’re there at the right time, see what the fuss is about with Penn State football. But there’s more! Within moments of trying their ridiculously inexpensive farm-to-table restaurants, hiking in their luxuriously beautiful yet surprisingly empty hiking trails and checking out their mind-blowing history museum and logging time at the arboretum I, too, found myself very happy in their little valley in Central Pennsylvania.
State College, Pennsylvania
State College is tucked away about 3 ½ hours northwest of Philadelphia. It’s even got its own tiny airport with direct flights to Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia. It offers the perfect weekend away for anyone who loves history, the outdoors and food. They even have their own creamery, the Berkey Creamery.
Of course, most people know the area is dominated by sports. Penn State football is a huge draw. There’s also a ton of stuff to do with kids here, making it the ideal family vacation.
State College is where Penn State is located, so during the school year, it’s jammed pack with PSU students. During the summer months and on winter and spring breaks, it becomes a quiet sanctuary. But any time is a great time to visit, though you’ll have to deal with the frigid temps in the winter months. This is the northeast, after all.
State College has an incredible public transportation system throughout University Park, and you can also walk to most spots. But to remain central to everything, we recommend staying at the Nittany Lion.
Hop into a boat; you’re going on an adventure. This half-mile cave dates back 5 million years ago, and you can explore it by water. It’s the only Pennsylvania cave on the National Register of Historic Places, so you really shouldn’t visit State College without a stop here. Take a tour (it’s about 45 minutes long), and bring warm clothing, as it drops to 52 degrees year-round. You’ll go through cavernous passages and learn how water has sculpted the architecture down under.
The Nature Inn at Bald Eagle
Get your nature on here. It’s one of the most peaceful places on earth, and we’re not saying that lightly. When we arrived, we felt like the only people here, though we were told that the entire lodge (you can stay on-site) was filled for a wedding.
There are numerous hikes available, and we opted for a butterfly hike. While walking, we spotted a harmless snake, some not-so-harmless ticks (wear long pants) and lots of mountain ridges and streams. The Butterfly Trail was an easy 1 ½ mile hike – but if you’re more advanced, you can choose longer, more complicated journeys. The people who work here are so helpful and will guide you as needed. If you have more time (we should have reserved two days here), be sure to go fishing, boating, kayaking, birding and swimming.
Columbus Chapel & Boal Mansion Museum
This is a truly undiscovered gem in Boalsburg (a short drive from State College). When we visited, we were the only ones there, and I couldn’t believe how close were were able to get (we touched, shhh) to so much historic American memorabilia.
This central Pennsylvania mansion and chapel house the most significant Columbus collection in North America, as the mansion and much of its contents were literally imported from Spain (it was part of the original Columbus castle) in 1909. Here, you can check out two pieces believed to have been from Jesus’ actual cross as well as Columbus’ desk and documents signed by US presidents, among other items.
Windswept Farm Penn State
After 7 years in the making, this farm’s restaurant, RE Farm Cafe is finally opening (June 2019). We took a tour, smelled the herbs, spoke with the owner and chefs (called “composers” here) and were amazed by all the innovation. Truly a farm-to-table experience, diners have to purchase tickets to eat here in advance, as the composers will pick the food from the farm on the day you’re dining. The tickets ensure that the composers know how much to pick. You won’t know your menu until you sit down to eat. Then you’ll be served a meal that feeds you – no more, no less. But ask for more if you’re still hungry. It’s all about living and eating locally and sustainably.
This is a local legend. The Berkey Creamery is where Penn State students, alums and everyone else comes to celebrate little and big victories. And you can go there to treat yourself to the most delicious ice cream. The milk comes from Penn’s own cows, so it’s as fresh as can be, and the system is so refined, so perfect, that ice-cream masters from around the world come to train at this creamery.
You can’t mix ice cream flavors (say wha?) so make your choice wisely. We went with WPSU Coffee Break (coffee ice cream, chocolate chips) after trying about a million samples. The Berkey Creamery also ships throughout the United States, so you don’t have to move here if you get too attached. Post Berkey Creamery, we recommend walking off the calories at the arboretum, which is free and is a family fave within walking distance of the creamery and Penn State.
Big Spring Spirits
The cocktail menu at this Central Pennsylvania distillery may be overwhelming (it’s pages upon pages), but that simply guarantees that everyone in your party will be pleased. At Big Spring Spirits, they make about a dozen of their own liquors, and they create artisanal cocktails and mocktails. We tried four (two cocktails and two zero-proof cocktails) and each one became our new favorite
This is now our go-to spot near Penn State University. Their food, too, was incredible. In fact, the roast beef sandwich was the best we’d ever had. No wonder this area is such a happy valley.
In just a few days, we weren’t able to see everything, but we can’t wait to return to Pennsylvania to check out the Bryce Jordan Center, Centre Hall and the Discovery Space.
Want more to do in Pennsylvania? Philadelphia in a Weekend – An Insider’s Getaway Guide