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It’s Wednesday! It’s time to procrastinate and daydream about traveling and visiting spaces you’ve never seen before. I must admit, I wasn’t always in love with State College, Pennsylvania. Growing up, I thought of it as a drinkers’ paradise where sports fans would flock on the weekends to watch Penn State football. I was absolutely right about those things, but State College is so much more than that. It’s Happy Valley, an adorable little city nestled between mountains in the middle of beautiful central Pennsylvania. As an adult, I was reintroduced to State College when Katie and her husband bought a home there. They both worked at Penn State University and I had just returned from Thailand when they convinced me (it wasn’t too hard) to move away from Philadelphia and move in with them. I spent the next eight months working as a delivery driver, walking their dog. readjusting to life in America and learning my way around town.
After a couple weeks, I knew the streets better than Katie, but she introduced me to a lot of the goodness on this State College city guide list. State College is a completely different space depending on what time of year you are visiting. During the summer, it is usually calm because many of the students are gone. The city actually halves in population! It goes without saying that summer is my absolute favorite time to visit. In the Fall, during football season, downtown is crazy crowded with students and fans that flock from across the state and nation to watch Penn State football. If you’re a female delivery driver that means stacks of cash and lots of traffic. In the dead of winter, State College is cloudy, icy and cold. I try to avoid winter in State College at all costs, but really, I try to avoid winter everywhere at all costs.
Downtown state college is easily walkable. Most places of interest are either on College Ave, Beaver Ave or very close by. There are cheap parking garages all over town; pick one, park and explore on foot. State College also has a reliable bus system, taxis and uber drivers roaming around at all hours. Katie and Calder’s favorite way to get around was by bike. There is a whole system of accessible bike trails that make biking not only easy, but safe!
Coffee & Books:
Saint’s Cafe is perfect if you just want a good cup of gourmet coffee and a muffin. I usually stop at Saint’s if I’m in a rush or need a mid-day drink. It’s a small place, so they try to get you in and out as quick as possible.
Irving’s is your stop, if you want a coffee along with a breakfast sandwich, bagel or smoothie. Irving’s almost always has a line at the counter, but it’s worth the wait. They move things along pretty quickly and there is usually a free seat you can grab.
The Waffle Shop (not the Waffle House) has classic and delicious diner food and is the best place to eat after a long night of studying, drinking, or whatever the hell you’re doing in State College. The omelets are so good. If you are in town during football season, expect The Waffle Shop to have a line.
The Diner is on this list mainly because of the sticky buns. They’re enormous, full of sugar and sticky as hell. The Diner will be there for you when you’re stranded in the middle of town at 3 a.m. Go in, have a bite to eat, and tip those poor waitresses well.
Webster’s Bookstore Cafe is an amazing little gem in State College. It’s a coffee shop, used bookstore and event space all under one roof. The menu has grown a lot since Katie and I were in town too. I feel like Webster’s is a valuable setting that fosters community.
Schlow Library if you know us, you know we love a nice library. It’s a free space to hang out, browse, read, or work and if you have a kid in tow, it’s the perfect indoor play space. There are plenty of hangout zones in Schlow and if your little one has more energy than you, Saint’s Cafe is less than a block away.
Things to do:
Yoga. There are plenty of studios in town, but this is my all time favorite and it happens to be the least expensive, which you can probably tell from their website ;). The owner, Doug, is one of the most genuine instructors I’ve ever met. It’s hot yoga, and even if it wasn’t marketed that way, it’s basically in a renovated attic, so it gets super steamy in there. They have a range of classes and teachers and the schedule changes each week. Doug also creates lots of alternative yoga-centric events. They are a lot of fun and a great place to meet like-minded people. I’m deeply connected to this studio because it had such a positive impact on my wellbeing during a time of transition and heartache.
Simply Health Salt Spa is a nice and relaxing way to start your day. If you’ve never been to a salt spa (I hadn’t until this one) you have to give it a try. Picture a room lined with bricks made of himalayan salt.. you’re halfway there to envisioning the awesomeness that is the salt spa.
The State Theatre is a dreamy little cultural hub. The State Theatre is a community-owned nonprofit home to a modern space for music concerts, opera, musicals & plays, dance & film. You can also visit the theatre to watch old, new and alternative films.
Hiking & Mountain Biking! There are plenty of places to hike (and bike!) in Happy Valley, but our favorites are Mt. Nittany, Tussey Mountain and Rothrock State Forest. Pick up a Purple Lizard Map from Appalachian Outdoors, pack a snack and a drink bottle and you’re all set. The trails are wide, worn and clearly marked so you could survive without a map, but I would never feel comfortable recommending that to anyone. Hike Mt. Nittany if you want to sweat, tone those buns and a get great view of the valley. Tussey and Rothrock are perfect for long off-leash strolls with the pup, especially Rothrock because the main trail runs nearby the creek.
People Watching on the Old Main, is always a fun way to pass a few hours. I usually take a blanket and book and waste my day under perfect blue skies.
Farm Visits! You Pick It farms are e v e r y w h e r e in central Pennsylvania. We love picking strawberries and pumpkins at Way Fruit Farm. Seasonal Festivals are also abound. Our favorites are the Apple Cider Day and Fall Festival at Way Fruit and the Annual Tomato Festival at Tait Farms. Another great family friendly fest is Ag Progress, which is held every year in August by the college of agricultural sciences.
Tussey Mountain Wing Fest makes for a glutenous summertime Thursday. Wings, beer, music and a beautiful natural setting.
Arts Fest is held each July. It’s definitely the busiest weekend of the summer because a lot of students come to town to party and lots of alumni treat it as a reunion weekend. I love arts fest. It’s rare that I buy anything, but when I do it’s most likely an amazing Christmas present for someone. The official Festival of the Arts is held downtown where the streets are blocked off and vendors move in and take over. You can and should visit the People’s Choice Festival, which features only PA artists, and is a ten minute drive outside of town. I’m partial to the People’s Choice Festival, but I find it inspiring to walk around both all the while eating my weight in indian street food and kettle corn.
First Night Ice Sculptures are simply amazing to see. If you find yourself in State College during New Year’s Eve, don’t miss these beautiful, temporary pieces of art.
There are so many
damn venues and stadiums in State College it seems like there is always something to cheer for. I must admit, the cheer “We Are Penn State” makes me cringe every single time, but hearing 100,000 people at Beaver Stadium say it is pretty powerful no matter how wasted everyone is. I’m definitely in the minority when it comes to showing school spirit in State College. You can also catch a hockey game at the Pegula Ice Arena or see a concert at the Bryce Jordan center. State College is also great for golfing, if you’re into that.
American Ale House is a laid back restaurant that serves up an amazing Sunday brunch. It’s also great for lunch and dinner or a few brews. American Ale House is one of those places you take your dad and he actually has a good time. So do it, take your dads.
Green Bowl is an all you can eat stir fry buffet. It’s amazing. It’s actually the single best buffet I’ve ever been to and that includes seafood buffets. So now that you know how serious I am about this place, you’ll visit, right? I recommend going during lunch because it’s cheaper and as much as we want our stomachs to fit more food during dinner time, it just ain’t happenin.
Herwig’s Austrian Bistro is unique and tasty with a menu that changes daily. It’s not every day you can find legitimate Austrain cuisine, am I right? The first time I visited, I was a vegetarian, but I totally cheated in the name of authentic Austrian style brats. Totally acceptable. Their slogan is “where bacon is an herb,” which we think is amazing and we know your manfriend will totally appreciate it too.
The Deli is perfect for lunch or dinner. It’s a restaurant BTW. It only took me like three months of people talking about it for me to figure that out. This is the type of restaurant that will please a party of ten. The menu is enormous and you will want to order everything on it. The indoor seating is cozy and they offer outdoor dining too. I loooove The Deli so much that I hate it because I never want to eat anywhere else.
My Thai is Thai food at its best. Every time I order takeout, you can be certain it’s from My Thai. Every single curry on the menu is amazing and that is coming from someone who lived (and gained 15 pounds) in Thailand. It seems a little expensive, but hey, this isn’t Chinese takeout, it’s delicious Thai food that will feed you for three meals. Get the mango sticky rice for dessert.
Sakura is my idea of a perfect first date restaurant. It has dim lighting, it’s quiet, and it’s classy without being overpriced. I have a thing for sushi, but I’m very critical and these rolls stand up strong to the Sarah test. Calder actually took Katie and I to Sakura for a birthday dinner back in 2012. We did the only rational thing and ordered the Love Boat.
Spats Cafe & Speakeasy serves New Orleans cuisine and it’s so f’n spicy and delicious. If you’re hungry for seafood with a kick, head to Spats. I’ve eaten my way through New Orleans and I can say Spats was better than half of the ‘must eat’ restaurants in Louisiana.
As they claim, Rey Azteca really is the best Mexican food in state college. This restaurant is outside of town, in a really weird spot, but we promise the food is delicious. They have an enormous menu and tons of great vegetarian options as well.
The Penn State Creamery is really, really good. I’m a total ice cream snob too. Get that Turkey Hill out of my face. It is certainly worth the wait and you might have a bellyache if you try to eat the entire serving. I recommend Keeney Beany Chocolate.
Meyer Dairy Store is another great place for hard ice cream and fresh, local milk. I’m kind of a milk snob too. I like to know the backstory, ya feel me? I visit Meyer Dairy much more more often than the PSU Creamery because there’s usually no line and there’s lots of parking.
Maybe this is a strange thing to add onto a city guide, but maybe you are hungry and you really like good grocery stores. If that’s the case, Wegmans has everything, including a large assortment of freshly prepared foods. I’m a big fan of their mac and cheese! If you’ve never visited a Wegmans GET THERE NOW. I’ve never felt so strongly about a grocery store in all my life.
Bars + Breweries:
Cafe 210 is a great place to start your evening of bar-hoping. Why do I love Cafe? There is plenty of outdoor seating, which is perfect for people watching. Added bonus if you’re near a crack in the sidewalk and you get to watch people stumbling over it all night. There is also a secret ladies room, which very few people realize. I shall never wait in line again. Oh and there’s live music all weekend long.
Zeno’s is by far my favorite bar in State College. It’s a basement bar, but don’t you dare compare it to the next bar on the list. The local beer lineup originally drew me in, but the food and music don’t hurt. There’s also a pool table with just enough room around it to make it work. The bartenders are prompt and nice. I just feel at home there. Hah!
Phyrst is a basement bar that almost always has a line. Why? Local bands play there every night of the week. There is also lots indoor picnic table style seating, but it’s usually packed, so good luck finding a table for you and your crew. The Phyrst also has a couple pool tables in the back. I like the Phyrst if I’m trying to get drunk in the dark while listening to really loud music, but if you want a place to sit, eat, drink and chat, try Local Whiskey.
Local Whiskey is the mature older sister of the Phyrst. It’s located above the Phyrst and owned by the same folks. The two spaces could not be more different. Local Whiskey has a large selection of, you guessed it, whiskey. They also serve really tasty food and a variety of cocktails. Local Whiskey also has a bunch of TVs in case you want to watch a game.
Happy Valley Brewing is relatively new. The architecture and design is amazing. Check out the bright and airy upstairs if you want to eat and the downstairs if you’re looking to drink at the bar.
Ottos is another brewery and pub with a great beer flight. The menu isn’t too inspiring, but the beer makes it all worth it.
Big Springs Distillery I actually haven’t had the chance to visit yet (it’s relatively new), but I have tasted the alcohol and I approve. Big Springs is located in Bellefonte, which is a twenty minute drive, but it’s a sweet little town and worth the visit. The menu also looks amazing. I just realized how hungry I am after writing about all these restaurants.
Mt. Nittany Winery is set in a beautiful location and it’s awesome to know you are directly supporting a three-generation family-owned winery. Seven Mountains Wine Cellar just opened a new location in Boalsburg (five minutes outside of town) so there is absolutely no excuse for not trying it out. There are a bunch of wineries in the area, but these two are my top picks.
Outside of town:
I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t mention a few out-of-town destinations. Penn’s Cave is awesome as a kid or an adult. I went just a couple years ago and loved every second of it. It’s not every day that you get to ride on a boat in the pitch darkness with complete strangers…
Elk Creek in Millheim is one of the best restaurants in central Pennsylvania. Not only is it a restaurant, but it’s also a brew house and concert hall. Everything about Elk Creek screams, or politely whispers, local, local, local. The food is great, the beer even better and the people sweet and genuine. Millheim is a quaint little town and worth checking out in itself. It’s one of those towns I would have to stop at if I was on a road trip and hadn’t ever seen it before. If you’re passing through, be sure to check out The Green Drake art gallery as well.
So many suggestions! Go explore!