Now may be the best time of year to visit Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Known as the Christmas City, the former steel town has special ties to the season. The city puts on its holiday best for visitors with beautifully lit and decorated streets and storefronts.
As local lore has it, it was Christmas Eve 1741 when a Czech nobleman, Count von Zizendorf, settled here with a band of Moravian missionaries. He named it Bethlehem for the historic birthplace of Jesus; he also christened Nazareth, 13 miles north, for the place where Jesus spent his youth.
Note to fellow road-trippers: We set our GPS for Main Street, the bustling hub of Bethlehem, but were initially led to old Main, a residential area. It took a few stops and talking to friendly locals to make our way to the town center. Once there, we didn’t need to venture further. If it’s a day trip for you, there is more than enough to see and do downtown.
Bethlehem is well-known for its industrial past. For most of the 20th century, Bethlehem Steel was a powerhouse of American industry, producing steel for the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the U.S. Supreme Court building, as well as aircraft, munitions, defense plants, and fleets of Allied warships.
Though the steelworks closed in 2003, its blast furnaces and exhaust towers have been carefully preserved. The onetime factory is now the site of Wind Creek Bethlehem—a casino resort, of all things—and home of SteelStacks, a 10-acre cultural center and concert venue. Nearby is the National Museum of Industry History affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and filled with artifacts of the city’s manufacturing heritage.
Bethlehem boasts “one dozen firsts” in its one-square-mile historic district, including the first and oldest continuously operating town clock; the oldest trombone choir (probably not much competition in that category), and the first Christmas tree to be displayed in America, in 1747 at the German Moravian Church. The tree reportedly was decorated with apples, candles, and bible verses. Moravian University, founded in 1742 as the Bethlehem Female Seminary, was the first women’s college in the nation.
Best of all for yours truly, Bethlehem is home of the oldest continuously operating bookseller in the country, and one of the oldest in the world. The Moravian Bookstore, established in 1747, still operates on Main Street. The feel, alas, is not quite historic—this may as well be a Barnes & Noble or B.A.M. store. Still, we enjoyed browsing the shelves and picked up a few books for gift-giving.
You can’t miss the magnificent Hotel Bethlehem, which dominates a full city block along Main. Stop into the Tap Room bar, which features a photo gallery of famous people who have dropped by—a long, long list that includes Thomas Edison, Shirley Temple, Amelia Earhart, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and even the Dalai Lama.
I took this road trip with a special young person. After roaming around town for a bit, she declared a hankering for Mexican food (not very colonial, but okay by me), so we stopped at Urbano on Main. Our host, Ricardo, acted as though he had been waiting just for us, and showed us to a window seat so we could people-watch. He extolled the wonders of this historic city, pointing out that the Sun Inn, just up the street, was once the watering hole of choice of George and Martha Washington.
Our attentive server, Anthony, quickly produced a tray of chips and salsa for noshing. My girl ordered a chicken burrito stuffed with pinto beans, rice, and cheddar cheese, served with hand-cut fries, and strawberry lemonade. For me, it was chicken tortilla soup and a seared shrimp taco with guacamole, pineapple salsita, and chipotle aioli. Absolutely delicious. I also ordered an apple ciderita, made with rum and cinnamon schnapps and served in a brown sugar-rimmed Mason jar. No wonder it’s the house-favorite cocktail.
Then it was back to sightseeing. We made our trip on a Sunday, but virtually everything was open, including landmarks like the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem and the Gemienhaus, the oldest and largest log building in the country, dating to 1741.
Then there’s the Colonial Industrial Quarter just off Main—another “first.” Overlooking Monocacy Creek, it includes a restored grist mill, a blacksmith shop, and a tannery. If you can block out the sound of traffic rumbling across the bridge, it’s easy to imagine what it was like to live here almost 300 years ago, before this country was a nation.
To see more points of interest, you may want to consider a walking tour or special seasonal tour. Choose from the 1752 Apothecary Tour, the Colonial Industrial Quarter Tour, the (yikes) Death and Dying Cemetery Tour, or the Christmas City Stroll.
Of course, there are plenty of boutiques and specialty stores on and around Main Street if holiday shopping is on your to-do list.
While Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is a city for all seasons, it’s especially lovely wreathed in lights and evergreens. So why not see the Christmas City at Christmastime? ■