People often say Pittsburgh is like one giant “small town.” If you like that intimacy, you’re going to love the actual small towns scattered throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania and within a day trip from Pittsburgh.
The region’s industrial heritage had a huge influence on communities located upstream from Pittsburgh. These towns were centered around factories that shipped goods and materials down the river to Pittsburgh.
For a brief period of time, many flourished into grandiose towns with elaborate architecture and cultural institutions. Today, with the manufacturing industries diminished, they are a slower-paced, cleaner version of their former selves, but still worth exploring. Though you’ll need a car to get around, many can be found within two hours of Pittsburgh. Here are the best day trips from the Steel City.
Oil Creek Park features numerous trails and four waterfalls © Douglas Sacha / Getty Images
Miles before the Allegheny River flows into Downtown Pittsburgh, it runs through a tiny town called Franklin, Pennsylvania. Franklin has as much curb appeal as any popular small town. The downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places, and its 19th-century streets are lined with shops, restaurants and landmarks.
You don’t need to look far to find something to do. DeBence’s Antique Music World Museum has a collection of over 100 antique musical instruments. Fountain Park, located on Liberty Street, features an elaborate 1896 cast-iron fountain. Local talent shines on stage at The Barrow Civic Theater. Nearby Oil Creek State Park has trails, four waterfalls, and a passenger railroad that runs a 3-hour scenic ride through the park.
How to get to Franklin: The drive takes 1.5 hours. Take I-79 North before hopping on I-80 and then PA-8 North for the remaining 15 miles.
What do Saxonburg and Brooklyn have in common? Engineer and inventor John A. Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge – that’s who. Born in 1806 in Prussia, Roebling immigrated to America in 1831 and established the German settlement of Saxonburg with his brother in 1832. The town was home to his wire rope factory, which he used in suspension bridges.
Today, Saxonburg is a charming town with plenty to see and eat. Local eatery Batch offers gourmet jarred and baked goods. Just a few blocks away is the popular Conny Creek Brewing cafe. Dine outdoors at the historic Hotel Saxonburg, or stay the night in one of their Victorian-era rooms. Saxonburg continues to honor Roebling with Roebling Park on Water Street, complete with a two-story model of the Brooklyn Bridge.
How to get to Saxonburg: Saxonburg is a 40-minute drive (33 miles) from Pittsburgh. Take Route 28N to Ekastown Road (Exit 16).
Laurel Highlands’ main attraction is Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Falling Water © Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images
Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands
Thousands flock to Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands every year to see Fallingwater, the masterpiece of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, but that’s certainly not the only reason to visit. The Laurel Highlands are nature’s masterpiece. Nearby Ohiopyle State Park has something for every type of outdoor enthusiast, including hiking, fishing and whitewater rafting.
The Great Allegheny Passage, a bike trail that runs from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC, passes through Ohiopyle, making it an easy spot to pause – or start – the trail.
How to get to the Laurel Highlands: A car is the best way to explore the Laurel Highlands. From Pittsburgh, it’s a 60-minute drive east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76). Private tours of Fallingwater are available from Pittsburgh.
If you head out of Pittsburgh and start driving northeast, the city will fade into rolling farms. Soon you’ll pass horse-drawn buggies and signs for Amish baked goods. You’ve arrived in Smicksburg, an Amish settlement with pottery shops, furniture stores and country markets.
It’s quiet and spread out, but that’s the charm. The town also hosts Strawberry Saturday every June, and Peach Saturday every August. When visiting Smicksburg, respect the Amish lifestyle and refrain from taking pictures of people.
How to get to Smicksburg: The drive will take a little over an hour. From Downtown Pittsburgh, take Route 28 North to PA-85E. As you near the destination, there will be horse-drawn buggies on the road, so drive cautiously.
Beat the heat with a stop at the Clarion River © Piper VanOrd / Shutterstock / Piper VanOrd
Pennsylvania’s Clarion River
A short drive north is all that’s required to spend the day horizontal, floating down the Clarion River. Thanks to a major initiative to clean the river in the 1970s, the Clarion River is a lush, tranquil escape.
The water is filled with fish, and the banks are lined with Hemlock trees, Pennsylvania’s state tree, and blue heron. To rent a tube or canoe, head to Pale Whale Canoe Fleet in Cooksburg. They offer all types of river raft rentals and have a transport van to the launch site, where you’ll work your way back to their private dock.
How to get to the Clarion River: Cooksburg, the launch site, is just under two hours from Pittsburgh. Take Route 28 N to PA-66 N.
Butler loves a good festival. Seemingly every month there’s another event, whether it’s the Butler Rib & Music Festival, the Big Butler Fair, the Butler Farm Show, or the Butler Italian Festival. If you’re looking for something to do, check their event calendar. You might get lucky.
Downtown Butler was laid out in 1803 and features a main street lined with Gothic and Victorian structures. It was here, in 1940, that the American Bantam Car Company designed the first Jeep – hence the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival held every June.
Nearby Moraine State Park holds Lake Arthur. Originally a glacial lake formed during the Ice Age, the lake offers 42 miles of shoreline.
If you’re looking for an excuse to extend the trip and stay the night, the Butler County Beer Circuit features 16 local breweries. Hotels, B&Bs and campgrounds are available throughout the county.
How to get to Butler: Butler is one hour (33 miles) north of Downtown Pittsburgh via Route 8.