Last Updated on July 11, 2023

Affectionately known as “Gem City,” due to both its sparkling waters and brilliant sunsets, Erie is the state’ fourth largest city and its only Great Lake port city. You’ll be surprised at the variety of what to do in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Sitting on the shores of the Great Lake that shares its name, Erie is rich in maritime history. Many American wooden warships were built right here. In the War of 1812, Commodore Oliver Perry defeated the British in the infamous Battle of Lake Erie. The great Brig Niagara was sunk in Presque Isle Bay. She has since been raised, reconstructed, and now resides preserved at the Erie Maritime Museum.

Today, Erie is an exciting hub of community, business, history, and recreation. Much care has been taken in its revitalization efforts and it shows throughout the city.

Getting to Erie is easy. It sits in between Cleveland and Buffalo on the I-90 and is just north of Pittsburgh on the I-79. Also, Erie International Airport has convenient non-stop flights from several major cities.

Come spend some time in Erie and discover all this small “big city” has to offer.

What is there to do in Erie, PA

Presque Isle State Park

What to do in Erie, Pennsylvania? Start at Presque Isle State Park, Erie’s premier destination year-round. Pennsylvania’s largest state park has something for everyone. You’ll want to grab your camera as you drive through 3,200-acres of forests, marshes, coves, marinas, parks, monuments, lighthouses, and seven miles of beaches.

Landlocked folks from miles around flock to Erie in the summer to soak up the sun on Lake Erie’s fresh-water beaches. Summer activities include swimming, surfing, camping, fishing, hiking, biking, kayaking, and boating (rentals and sightseeing cruises available).

Winter activities include much of the same (minus the camping) as well as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice-skating, wind skating, and ice fishing.

Presque Isle is one of the top birding spots in the country. Located on the Atlantic Flyway, over 300 species of birds stop here to rest, feed, and nest on their migration from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America and back again.

Sara’s Campground offers both RV campsites as well as tent camping on the beach (April-Oct).

Tom Ridge Environmental Center

At the entrance to Presque Isle, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center is a great place to visit. It has interactive exhibits, a kids’ play area, a theater, cafe, nature shop, and gallery. Be sure to ride to the top of the 75-foot-high observation tower for exquisite views overlooking the peninsula and across Lake Erie.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Seven days a week excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Parking and admission is free.

Waldameer Amusement Park and Water World

Waldameer has over 100 rides, roller coasters, water park, mid-way games, arcade, concessions, picnic areas, and other attractions for kids of all ages.

The 10th oldest amusement park in the country, the first roller coaster was built in 1907. Waldameer has been providing family fun in Erie for over 120 years. It is sure to put a smile on the kids’ faces (and yours too).

Park is open from the first weekend in May through Labor Day. Hours vary.

Parking and Admission are free. Ride prices vary with discounts for seniors and kids under 48”.

Sara’s Ice Cream

No trip to Erie is complete without a stop at Sara’s…ask anyone. This 50’s-style diner is a hopping place in summertime. You can’t miss the red-and-white striped rooftop and umbrellas as you drive by on the way to Preque Isle State Park.

Great food—hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, and onion rings—but everyone knows the best thing about Sara’s is the ice cream cones. My favorite is orange and vanilla swirl. It tastes like an old-fashioned 50-50 bar. They also have chocolate-vanilla swirl.

Tip: If you plan to have lunch and an ice cream cone, the meals are big enough to split.

Sara’s is seasonal, open from April 1 to September 30.

Bayfront District at Dobbin’s Landing

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© Loretta Berry

The revitalized waterfront of Erie makes it a favorite for residents and visitors. Located on the city-side of Presque Isle Bay, the Bayfront District includes restaurants, hotels, convention center, water taxi, boat tours(even a pirate ship), shopping, miniature golf, marina, Liberty Park, concerts, and other activities.

Take in the views from the top of the 187-foot Bicentennial Tower. There is a great souvenir shop and snack shack. Visit The Raymond M. Blasco M.D. Memorial Library.

Any visit to Erie must include the Erie Maritime Museum and US Brig Niagra. Plan at least two hours for tours.

Shopping

If you enjoy shopping, the Mill Creek Mall is the 10th largest shopping complex in the United States. The mall has a fantastic selection of retail shops, services, and restaurants. There is also a kids’ play area, movie theater, and food court.

Did I mention there is no sales tax on clothes and apparel in Erie? If you’re looking to add to your wardrobe, or want a whole new one, your trip to Erie is the perfect place and time.

Millcreek Mall is just 3 miles south of downtown on Peach Street.

Hours are M-F 10 a.m. – 9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Stroller rental is available and wheelchairs are loaned free of charge at customer service.

Chocolate

When you think of chocolate in the U.S., most people think of Hershey. Few people know that Erie’s rich chocolate history dates back just as far, to 1903, when Greek immigrant and chocolatier, George P. Pulakos, opened his first candy shop.

Shortly after, Romolo Stefanelli, a young immigrant from Italy, started making chocolates in his new home in Erie.

Today, three chocolate shops continue to make delectable chocolates in Erie, a hit with locals and visitors alike any time of year.

I challenge you to walk into any of these chocolate shops, look around at the array of chocolates and other mouthwatering candies, breathe in the aroma of deep, rich chocolate…oh, need I go on? I bet you can’t walk out without a box or bag full. Don’t forget to ask for a free sample.

Take a Drive

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© Loretta Berry

One of the best things to do in Erie is absolutely free. Drive around. Play Go Fish and Leap Frog. There are a couple hundred brightly colored fish and frog statues scattered throughout Erie, in front of buildings, on street corners, and inside buildings. See how many you can spot. Stop and take your picture with them.

Hint: I’ve found them in front of the library, inside the Maritime Museum, at the UMPC Baseball Park, just to name a few.

Take a drive along a portion of the 518-mile Great Lakes Seaway Trail, a National Scenic Byway, that stretches from the Ohio/Pennsylvania border to Rooseveltown, New York.

The Erie portion of the byway goes past Presque Isle and the Bayfront area, but my favorite portion is along the West Sixth Street Historic District. The 117 buildings in this district are mostly private residences giving it the name Mansion Row. The architecture is an eclectic mix of everything from Greek Revival, Federal, Second Empire, Tudor Revival, Victorian, Italiante, and more.

Some of the historical homes are museums and open for tours.

Eat, Eat, Eat

Eating is one of my favorite things to do on vacation (maybe my most favorite). There are so many unique and sumptuous places to eat in Erie, it’s hard to choose a favorite. Here are some of the top-rated restaurants I have had the pleasure of eating at:

Waterfront Favorites:

Downtown:

  • Molly Brannigan’s Irish Pub– A downtown Erie legend for over 20 years, Molly Brannigan’s is traditional Irish with elegance. Step inside and experience Molly’s, you’ll be glad you did.
  • Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro– A uniquely different food experience, with a fusion of southern and Caribbean cuisine.
  • Cloud 9 Wine Bar– Casual yet sophisticated offering locally-sourced cheeses and farm-to-table meats cured on site.

Breakfast:

  • Lawrence Park Dinor – (Yes, dinor. That’s how they spell it in Erie. No, they don’t know why.) Set in a historic train car, this celebrated, quintessential American dinor has daily homemade soups and specials.
  • Gem City Diner – (there it is again). The decor is a blend of classic American diner meets maritime—which is a big part of Erie’s history. The menu is basic comfort food with a local twist.

Drink Up

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© Loretta Berry

The craft brew scene is alive and thriving in the Lake Erie region. There are 11 local craft breweries currently on the Lake Erie Ale Trail. Each one is unique and different from the rest.

Remember that “drive around” suggestion earlier? While you are out seeing the sights in Erie, stop in at the local breweries and sample their handcrafted beer.

Some breweries serve great pub food while others have local food trucks. Several are in the downtown area and within walking distance of each other. Two of my favorites are Lavery Brewing Companyand VooDoo Brewery.

If craft beer is not your scene or you prefer a nice drive through the countryside, visit Lake Erie Wine Country.

There are over 50 wineries, wine cellars, and vineyards nestled along a 53-mile stretch of the Lake Erie shoreline. With so many different varieties, you could spend the day sipping until you find your favorite. Lake Erie “Wine Trail” map.

Presque Isle Downs and Casino

P.I. Downs and Casino is a premier racetrack and gambling destination. There are 15 live, on-site races a year (May-Oct), as well as off-track betting.

Can’t make it to Las Vegas? The Downs has over 1,500 slot machines, table games, and poker tables, as well as a Sportsbook area with large screen TV’s to watch all your favorite games.

The Downs has several restaurants including Churchill’s Bourbon and Brew, casual dining with a view overlooking the racetrack, classic American dining at LBV Steakhouse, all-you-can-eat at Backstretch Buffet and open 24/7 is the INCafe with everything from donuts to pizza and burgers.

Erie Zoo and Botanical Gardens

The Erie Zoo is a great (and inexpensive) place to take the kids for the day or to just escape by yourself for a couple of hours.

The zoo has nearly 400 animals and 11 gardens with 100 species of plants. Gardens at the zoo include a greenhouse filled with tropical plants, a children’s garden, rose garden, and Asian and African themed gardens, to name a few.

Rides at the zoo include the Safariland Train ride and Wildlife Carousel. (Both cost an additional $3  and both are handicap and wheelchair accessible.)

Location: 423 West 38thStreet (less than five minutes from downtown)

Zoo Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 1 to November 30 (Closed Thanksgiving)

Admission: Adults – $10, Seniors – $8, Kids 2 thru 12 – $6.

Peek n’ Peak Resort

Although not technically in Erie (don’t tell the locals as they claim it as their own), a short 30-minute drive across the New York border, set on a hillside in the splendor of tall pines is a magnificent resort—a beautiful Tudor-style “chalet” with old-world charm and modern amenities.

Best known for its winter sports, Peek n’ Peak offers a host of fun things to do in the summer and hosts many festivals throughout the year.

Summer activities include zip lines, miniature golf, disc golf, aerial adventure course, rope course, chairlift rides, segways, biking, hiking, and more.

Winter activities include three different terrain parks for skiers, 14 tubing lanes, equipment rentals, ski shop, and lessons.

Peek n’ Peek is a great getaway any time of year. Amenities include an indoor/outdoor heated pool, jacuzzi, kiddie pool, and cabana bar, spa, seven restaurants, Starbucks, gift shop, and convenience store.

Where to Stay:

There are several affordable hotels within a few miles of downtown. Marriott and Hilton hotels are on Interstate 79 near Millcreek Mall. Best Western, Microtel, Comfort Inn, and others are on Interstate 90 near Splash Lagoon Indoor Water Parkplus more on I-90 near Presque Isle Downs and Casino.

If you want to be right on the water, you can spend a little more to stay at the Sheraton or Courtyard by Marriott on Bayfront Parkway, near downtown.

Author

  • Loretta Berry

    Loretta Berry is a freelance travel writer and photographer. She loves discovering new places, soaking up the culture and experiencing the local food and drink. She has traveled extensively throughout the United States. She is a wife, mother of four, and grandmother of five. She loves traveling with her kids and grandkids, sharing with them her passion for fun and adventure. She is a member of ITWPA. You can find her on both Facebook and Instagram to follow her travels.