visiting bethlehem pennsylvania at christmas time.

Our next stop: Christmas City, USA!

This small city, located in the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania, was given its name “Bethlehem” by Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a prominent member of the Moravian Church here in the New World. It has been said that on Christmas Eve, 1741, Zinzendorf and members of the new Moravian settlement gathered together in a log structure with a wall separating their vigil and the shelter for cows and horses. Apparently, the similarity between their surroundings and the stable in the Nativity story and the choir belting out “Not Jerusalem, Lowly Bethlehem”, inspired Zinzendorf to name the new settlement Bethlehem. Since that time, Christmas in Bethlehem has been central to the city’s identity and in 1937, the Chamber of Commerce began a campaign to have the city named Christmas City USA.

Today, Bethlehem is one of the best places to experience the holiday season in Pennsylvania from the not one, but two, Christmas markets, the horse drawn carriage rides, and the nation’s only live advent calendar.

I’d say it’s definitely worth the trip.

Visit the Christmas Markets

That’s right – markets. Plural. Because this little city actually hosts two. First, and probably the most popular, is the Christkindlmarkt located near the Steel Stacks. This massive market is loaded with artisans and craftspeople who create one-of-a-kind handmade gifts like the famous Moravian glass stars and Germany’s Käthe Wohlfahrt with their renowned homemade nutcrackers, incense smokers, and pewter ornaments; performers like those from Sculpted Ice Works who turn ice blocks into works of art, and a plethora of good food. Entry into the market is $10 per person on Thursday and Friday and $12 over the weekend but parking, while limited, is free. The second market: Christmas City Village, while significantly smaller, is located in Historic Downtown Bethlehem. This open-air festival is fashioned after the traditional German Weihnachtsmarkten with wooden booths lining the street hosting vendors providing hot mulled wine, baked goods, and even iron smiths.

I will say, while both these markets were enjoyable, I think I’ve been spoiled growing up near the Mifflinburg Christkindl. This outdoor market, in my opinion, is far superior in homemade gifts, seasonal fare, and performances. So, if you have the opportunity to hit up three holiday markets this year, I 100% recommend that one as well.

Stop by the Moravian Book Shop

The Historical Moravian Shopping District is the ideal Christmas atmosphere looking like something straight out of a Hallmark movie. Each door is festively decorated, and the holiday window displays are absolutely stunning. While this area is filled with numerous shops to check out, nothing is quite as special as the Moravian Book Shop. Founded in 1745 and serving booklovers for nearly three centuries, the Moravian Book Shop is the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world, and the oldest bookstore in America. However, this shop is so much more than just a bookstore. Inside, visitors can sample delicious beer from Lost Tavern Brewing who offers up to 18 beers on tap and Asian fusion specialties from Randevoo who opened their first brick and mortar location inside the book shop in the summer of 2020.

Take a Guided Christmas City Stroll

We love a good historical tour of a city! So, when I saw that Bethlehem had a walking tour where certified guides in period dress provide the rich history of one of America’s National Historic Landmark Districts, we had to book ourselves for one of the time slots! The tour starts at the Historic Bethlehem Visitor Center and walks down the main street highlighting important facts about the tale of a candle in every window and the renowned Bethlehem star. You’ll also be able to view the exquisite Victorian and colonial architecture that sprinkle the city and the two National Historic Landmarks located here. The entire tour is about an hour long, with the majority of it being outdoors, so dress appropriately and wear your walking shoes! You’ll thank me later.

Catch a Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride

If you’re short on time and can’t seem to fit an entire hour tour into your schedule, the most perfect way to enjoy the lights, sights and sounds of this Christmas City is by a 20-minute horse-drawn carriage! These cozy little carriages can hold up to 4 adults and 2 children (if they are able to sit on laps) in the 4-person carriage and 8 adults in the 8-person carriage and runs throughout the entire holiday season except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. I recommend making a reservation prior to visiting Bethlehem, though, as when we went to go purchase a tour the company was completely booked up for the day we were there!

Grab a Bite to Eat

We definitely wouldn’t tell you about visiting a city without talking about where to eat in that city! To be completely honest, I never really had much interest in visiting Bethlehem prior to UPtv airing a “Small Town Christmas” episode featuring it. Sure, my mother grew up near there – often referring to the city as “Beth-lum” – but other than that, I never really knew much about it, so it never really piqued my interest. However, once I saw that episode, I knew Bethlehem was on my must-visit list including the restaurant they visited in the show: McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub and Whiskey Bar. This location has an incredibly cozy atmosphere with some top-notch British and Irish cuisine. I recommend trying the wild scotch egg for a starter and finishing your meal with a sconut – a fried scone that’s been covered in sticky toffee sauce and powdered sugar topped with a scoop of honey ice cream.

Prefer a little more along the lines of “American” style food? Then head on over to Fegley’s Brew Works for a pint and a burger. This restaurant opened its doors in 1998 during one of the most difficult times in the history of the City of Bethlehem – the shutting down of the Bethlehem Steel plant. However, that didn’t stop the family from believing that a transformation was possible and with the help of other small business shop owners, the restaurant and brewery quickly became a Valley hotspot expanding to an additional location in the city of Allentown. So, if nothing else, show your support for small businesses and head over for a unique seasonal sip: Rude Elf’s Reserve – a Belgian that is brewed with a special blend of spices to create a delicious holiday beverage.

Fancy some baked goods? Head over to the Flour Shop and grab yourself one of their famous cruffins! These delicious hand-rolled croissants are filled with flavored pastry cream before being baked in a muffin tin and topped with a flavorful glaze. Or maybe you prefer a Danish? Or a Strudel made with fresh local produce? Whatever your baked good’s heart desires – I’m pretty sure the Flour Shop has you covered!

Join in on the Christmas Countdown!

If you’re staying in the city until later in the evening, I suggest gathering outside the Goundie House at 5:30 pm to find out what this day during the Christmas countdown has to offer. Every evening at 5:30 pm, one spectator will be asked to walk up to the door and knock. When the door opens, a special guests from a local business will appear and provide a treat or verbiage for that day along with live entertainment. This life-sized Advent Calendar has been a one-of-a-kind tradition for the past 16 years and is surely something not to miss!

Stay at the Historic Hotel Bethlehem

Due to the holiday season being a popular time to visit Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the historic Hotel Bethlehem may be booked up. However, if you get the opportunity, I recommend trying to reserve a night in one of the 125 elegantly restored guest rooms that provide spectacular views of the Historic Moravian Bethlehem. This building has quite the history! Dating back to the 18th century, where a little log cabin sat housing livestock and a Christmas Eve vigil, this very spot is where the city of Bethlehem was born. And although the “First House”, the term used by early Moravians, has been gone for nearly two centuries, it remains an icon in the city’s history.

If you are staying as an overnight guest in the hotel, be sure to tour the Christmas decorations the hotel has put up this season. During this tour you’ll journey back in time, learn the story of Bethlehem from the purchase of William Penn to the industrial age, all the while being surrounded by glistening lights and festive decorations. Bonus if you stop by the Tap Room for a Hot Toddy!

If you aren’t able to stay as a guest in the hotel, at least stop by the Shoppe! Here you’ll find the annual commemorative Christmas tin where three businesses work together to produce a memorable gift for the holiday season, a one-of-a-kind Historic Hotel Bethlehem ornament that is designed exclusively for the hotel – this year the ornament is celebrating the hotel’s 100th Anniversary and is hand-painted to resemble the hotel from 1922, or a glass Moravian star which you’ll have seen adorned from most buildings around the city.

Have you been to Bethlehem? What was your favorite part?

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