Take a Summer Trip to Pennsylvania's Christmas City
Bethlehem, PA offers year-round entertainment
Why would anyone want to explore a city known as The Christmas City during any time other than the winter Holidays? The answer to that question is simple: because this Christmas City doesn't roll up its sidewalks when January arrives. In fact, things are just starting to warm up at that point.
Historic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania lies in the Northeastern part of the state, in the middle of a tri-city area known as the Lehigh Valley. Centrally located sixty miles north of Philadelphia, ninety miles east of New York City, and forty miles south of the Pocono Mountains, Bethlehem is a suburban community with a twist. In just a few decades, this city, formerly a major player in the steel industry ( for many years, Bethlehem Steel Corporation was, for all intents and purposes, the only game in town) has transformed itself into a center for education and the arts. It did have a head start in the education and cultural areas, since Bethlehem has been home for many years to Lehigh University, Moravian College, and the world-renowned Bach Choir. In fact, both the Bach Choir performances and the yearly Sidewalk Art Show in the Spring serve as worthy preludes to what Summer has to offer in Bethlehem, PA.
The Banana Factory
Located in the South Side of the city, the Banana Factory is a large warehouse-turned-arts venue that hosts a plethora of exhibits and activities. Sponsored byArtsQuest, the group responsible for organizing many of the educational/cultural events and activities in Bethlehem, The Banana Factory is home to the Hispanic-American League of Artists and the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre, which trains and encourages young people in the dramatic arts. In addition, the Banana Factory boasts three galleries, a ceramics studio, a number of resident artists, a digital imaging center, and a ceramics studio. Classes devoted to a variety of artistic pursuits are offered throughout the year.
Named for the bastions of Bethlehem Steel that form its backdrop, SteelStacks is Bethlehem's brand-new ( the Grand Opening was the beginning of this month) cultural center. The focal point of Steel Stacks is the four-story ArtsQuest Center, which houses, among other things, an area for al fresco dining sponsored by Air Products; the Capital Blue Cross Creativity Commons, a performance center which also offers food and drink; the Fowler Blast Furnace Room "for experimental programming"; and the Yuengling-sponsored Musikfest Cafe', which will host a variety of live performances. (The schedule for this summer's entertainment at Musikfest Cafe, as well as at other SteelStacks venues, is available online.) The Levitt Pavilion will offer free outdoor concerts, and foreign, independent, and documentary films will be shown at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema, complete with food and beverage concessions, every day of the year. (The film being shown during our visit was, appropriately enough, Bethlehem: The Christmas City. ). One of the food concessions is sponsored by Bethlehem-based Just Born, makers of their trademark Peeps. SteelStacks opens its gates every Tuesday to a Farmers Market that features local produce and culinary delights and plays host to a variety of artists and craftspeople at the outdoor marketplace every Saturday And Sunday. (The day we visited, the marketplace included, among many other vendors, several booths featuring handcrafted jewelry, one that offered beautifully designed scarves, another with an assortment of soaps, and yet another with yummy homemade salsa (free samples were offered- and enjoyed- here.). One of the particular perks that comes with a visit to SteelStacks is the easy access to parking.
Whether you're a bona fide music afficianado or simply someone who enjoys singing, dancing, or just listening, Bethlehem's ten-day Musikfest celebration of all things musical (this year, August 5-14) is an event you don't want to miss. Come for the entire festival or just for a day; there's something going on at multiple venues in both sides of town . From local performers to nationally-recognized entertainers like Nick Jonas, Musikfest features a head-spinning array of daily nonstop entertainment. An added attraction: you can stroll down a city street and munch on a tasty array of food and drink, explore the Historic district, and peruse unique shopping venues like the historic Moravian Book Shop as you listen to the music. The 'Fest usually ends- literally- with a bang, as a fireworks display is featured the last evening.
The Sands Casino Complex
Perhaps casino gambling just isn't your cup of tea. That's not a problem. The Sands Casino (the Hotel is scheduled to open in less than two weeks, on May 28, 2011; retail shops are also in the works) has much more to offer. In addition to Emeril's Chop House and Emeril's Burgers, The Sands is home to Irish pub/restaurant St. James Gate, the famed Carnegie Deli, plus other dining options. Emeril Lagasse plans to open an Italian eatery inside the new Sands Hotel in early June. Also in June, The Sands will host a concert series featuring Paul Anka (June 9) ,Peter Frampton (June 21), and The Four Tops and the Temptations (June 23). The outdoor entertainment venue is located in close proximity to SteelStacks.
Speaking of Education....
While you're in Bethlehem, you might want to take a tour of Moravian College's two campuses: South Campus, which is located in the downtown Historic area, and Main Campus, which is just up the line. (The campus duality pays homage to the days when the College for Women was located down town, while the Men's College and the Moravian Theological Seminary were uptown. Both areas have undergone major updates.) Another major educational landmark is in South Bethlehem, at the mountaintop campus of Lehigh University. While you're exploring the Lehigh campus, there's a good possibilty that you'll also discover an interesting production or entertainer at the Zoellner Center for the Performing Arts or at Stabler Arena, which also plays host to a multitude of sporting events. In fact, it you time your trip right, you might catch the Philadelphia Eagles practicing at Goodman Field, adjacent to Stabler. If you continue South a short distance, you can make a stop at DeSales University and perhaps attend a dramatic performance that is part of the prestigious Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, which has become extremely popular during the Summer months. If you're on the College Tour, don't forget to check out Lafayette College in Easton and Muhlenburg College in Allentown.
While you're in the area, especially if you're travelling with children, you might want to continue a few miles East and visit Easton's Crayola Factory, which offers crafts and fun activities for young and old alike. If you head up towards Allentown, you might also want to make a stop at the America on Wheels Museum and The Davinci Center. Finally, If you have the time (and energy), cap off your trip with a visit to Allentown's Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom. (If you choose this option, make sure you set aside enough time to enjoy all that Dorney has to offer.)
So there you have it: a multitude of reasons why a trip to Pennsylvania's Christmas City and beyond need not be limited to the Holiday season. In fact, there's something going on in Bethlehem throughout the year. The next time you're mulling over places to visit, consider the Christmas City. There are plenty of places to stay (including some excellent Bed and Breakfasts), dine, explore, and simply enjoy yourself.
*Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the Bethlehem Area Chamber of Commerce or any commercial venues noted in this article.