Bellefonte is the quintessential Pennsylvania small town. From its grid city road plan with “the Diamond” at its center to the iconic county courthouse to picturesque Talleyrand Park and its Victorian architecture, Bellefonte is postcard-perfect.
Nearly anyone can find something to love about this quaint Victorian town offering historical and cultural activities including art, architecture, and ancestry as well as outdoor recreation, terrific dining options, railroad history and so much more.
**Disclaimer: This was a hosted stay, however, all opinions are my own. I strive to provide my readers with my most authentic sentiments.
Where is Bellefonte, Pennsylvania?
Bellefonte is located in Central Pennsylvania in what is known as Happy Valley. It is the county seat of Centre County which is smack in the center of the Keystone State.
Situated about 20 minutes northeast of the better-known city of State College (home of Penn State University), Bellefonte is easy to reach via Interstates 80 and 99.
When driving from Philadelphia, New York City, or Cleveland, Bellefonte and Centre County are accessible from Interstate 80. Visitors from Baltimore and Washington DC will arrive using Interstate 99.
Travelers from these major cities can expect to make the trip in around 3-1/2 to 4 hours making it the perfect destination for a weekend getaway.
A Bit of Bellefonte History
The earliest records related to Bellefonte’s history date back to 1745 when the first European purchased land from the Native Americans. Two decades later, the Treaty of Stanwix allowed tracts of land to be purchased from the indigenous people with the intent of using those parcels for settlement. Through this process of surveying that land, the Big Spring was discovered. To this day it remains the town’s water source.
In 1785, William Lamb purchased 750 acres of the original tract and built Bellefonte’s first residence, the Thomas House, along with a mill and several other structures.
By the late 1700s, Centre County was establishing itself as an iron-producing region. Following the Revolutionary War, a general by the name of Phillip Benner built Rock Forge, the county’s first forge. In 1792, Colonel John Patton constructed Centre Furnace where the region’s first blasting operations began.
Just two years later, John Dunlop, the son of Colonel James Dunlop visited the area to view the operations of these ironworks. Seeing the potential for the production of iron ore the Colonel, his son, and son-in-law James Harris purchased and moved onto two tracts of land.
From the beginning, the economy of Bellefonte was founded on the ironworks. There were a number of factors that made Bellefonte and the surrounding area suitable for this industry including an abundant supply of limestone, timber, and Spring Creek which was used to power the machinery.
By 1795, Colonel Dunlop and Harris, a deputy surveyor had laid the original plans for Bellefonte, then known as “Big Spring.” With Harris at the helm as postmaster, Bellefonte’s first post office opened in1798.
Harris went on to be elected a State Senator. He, along with Colonel Samuel Miles, petitioned for the creation of Centre County. They achieved their goal by February of 1800.
I widely circulated legend says that a number of towns vied to become the new county seat. Bellefonte’s most notable competition was nearby Milesburg, a leader in navigation. To counter that advantage, Harris and Dunlop loaded a flatboat and pulled it to Spring Creek from Bald Eagle Creek arguing that Bellefonte had similar capabilities. It is rumored to have influenced the decision to make Bellefonte the county seat.
As the county’s new center of government, a courthouse was erected along with other governmental buildings.
As the iron industry continued to flourish so did Bellefonte. Multiple turnpikes were developed providing more direct access to the main roads.
But ultimately the best route for shipping iron turned out to be through Lock Haven and then onward to Harrisburg along the river. In 1833 the Bald Eagle, Nittany, and Bellefonte Turnpikes were built to accomplish this. Soon after, a navigational company began construction on a canal that would move iron by barge along the same route as the turnpike.
The canal was completed by 1848 but by this time the forests surrounding Bellefonte were nearly depleted and more easily obtainable ores were being discovered elsewhere. Bellefonte was falling into decline. But, unlike so many other iron towns, Bellefonte did not become a ghost town.
This was because Bellefonte, during its first 60 years grew its population and economy, but most of all it swelled in political influence. In fact, Bellefonte had become not only the political center of the county but also the state.
Through the years, this politically influential town has been home to seven US governors: Five Pennsylvania governors, one California, and one Kansas. Bellefonte is proud of its hometown heroes and is often referred to as the “Home of Governors.”
What to do in Bellefonte PA
Take a walking tour of the Historic District
Bellefonte has been called “Central Pennsylvania’s Victorian Secret.” It’s a very walkable little town. Visitors should take a bit of time to explore downtown and enjoy the vast collection of Victorian architecture that has been preserved here.
Because of that preservation, Bellefonte’s Historic District appears on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a perfect introduction to the various styles and construction of Victorian architecture.
Throughout this accessible town, you will find a variety of Victorian styles including Painted Ladies (Victorian homes painted in at least 3 colors) and gingerbread-adorned wood structures. But Bellefonte is best known for its large collection of both brick and limestone structures.
During your tour, you can expect to see Victorian architecture styles such as Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Folk Victorian. Many of the buildings do not adhere to strict architectural designs but rather cross style lines.
The historic district is flanked by Curtin Street to the north and Logan Street to the south. Ridge Street creates the eastern boundary with Water Street being the western edge.
A walking tour can easily be done independently using a map depicting Bellefonte in 1874 and marking forty-five historic homes. You can obtain a map at The Bellefonte Intervalley Chamber of Commerce located at the Train Station in Talleyrand Park. You can also find a digital version of the map online at the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Associations website.
If you’d rather not mess around with maps or fumble with your phone, consider a walking tour with local historian Matt Maris of Local Historia who offers both private and group tours, including themed outings such as ghost tours.
Visit the Centre County Courthouse and the Diamond
If you decide not to do the full walking tour of Bellefonte you should certainly visit “The Diamond,” a distinctive feature of Pennsylvania towns. Essentially it is what other towns might call the town center or town square. It is believed that this terminology and style comes from settlers of Scotch-Irish descent, many of whom made Pennsylvania their home when they emigrated.
You will find the Centre County Court House situated on the Diamond in Bellefonte. The courthouse is easily identifiable by its Grecian colonnades. However, the columns are not original to the building. While the first courthouse was built around 1805 the columns were not added until 1835.
In front of the Courthouse, you will find a statue of Andrew Curtin, perhaps the most prominent of the governors and certainly the hometown hero. The Curtin statue is set within the Soldiers and Sailors War Memorial. The memorial was designed by Joseph S. Huston the architect of the Pennsylvania capital building in Harrisburg.
Check out the Bellefonte Art Museum (BAM)
While meandering the historic district, pay a visit to the Georgian-style Linn Home. Today this limestone building houses the Bellefonte Art Museum (BAM). Take a few minutes or more to visit this small thoughtfully curated gallery. This intimate space offers a nice collection of artworks including pieces on loan from around the world as well as compositions by regional artists.
Additionally, this home was once a stop on the underground railroad. The third floor is devoted to this piece of history and offers a hint into the conditions which freedom-seeking slaves endured for that outcome. This exhibit was originally intended to be a temporary feature at the museum but has become a popular permanent installation. (133 N. Allegheny Street)
Research Your Ancestry at the Centre County Historical Museum
Located within the Centre County Library, the Centre County Historical Museum holds a collection of artifacts celebrating the region’s industrial heritage and everyday life in Bellefonte as well as throughout the county. Additionally, the library maintains the historical county archives, 200 years of newspapers on microfilm, and ancestry information for over 700 families.
Visit the Union Cemetery
Head up Howard Street to the Union Cemetery. This is the burial site of Governors Curtin, Beaver, and Hastings. Other notable figures buried here include Evan Pugh, the founder of Penn State University, and the United States Senator Andrew Gregg.
Additionally, the Union Cemetery holds the remains of negro Civil War soldiers, members of the “Army of James.”
Take a Stroll in Talleyrand Park
A stroll through Talleyrand Park is highly recommended. This scenic park features a large gazebo used to host summer concerts, three and a half acres of lawns intersected by paved walking paths, a playground for the kids, an edible garden, a pollinator garden, and the George Grey Barnard Sculpture Garden featuring a large bust of Abraham Lincoln sculpted by the garden’s namesake.
A suspension bridge traverses Spring Creek where ducks and geese frolic and children giggle with glee at their antics. But please do not feed the wildlife.
And of course, this lovely park is the site of a number of events throughout the year including the Big Spring Festival, Taste of Bellefonte, Fall Festival, and the Bellefonte Arts & Crafts Fair which attracts both local and national artists.
Since Bellefonte loves its governors, Talleyrand Park features a monument honoring all seven governors prominently displayed. Note that all the Republicans are on one side and the Democrats on the other.
In spring, Talleyrand Park is awash with hues of yellow due to a 2016 initiative to plant close to 30,000 daffodil bulbs throughout the park. Since that time, the daffodils have done what daffodils do, they have split and divided producing what is known as the Daffodil Trail.
Visit the Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society
Located at the railroad station in Talleyrand Park, the Bellefonte Historical Railroad Society teaches visitors about train and railroad history especially as it relates to Bellefonte and Centre County.
Outside the station, you will find operational trains that in normal times (non-COVID-19) operate excursions (hopefully they will return in the future). And kids can climb up on a wooden caboose. Inside the train station, you can find exhibits and photographs documenting the county’s railroad heritage.
Learn about Stamps at the American Philatelic Society
Stamp collectors and those interested in learning more about stamps and mail history should swing by the American Philatelic Society situated in the old Match Factory adjacent to Talleyrand Park. The American Philatelic Society is the largest nonprofit stamp-collecting foundation in the world.
You might wonder what the connection between this Victorian historically iron ore-producing town and stamps could be. And who could blame you? But there is a logical connection.
On December 18, 1918, Pilot Leon D. Smith made the first stop on the 1st Airmail flight from New York City to Chicago in Bellefonte. From 1919 to 1927 Bellefonte was a major refueling stop for airmail traveling this route, making it a fitting location for the American Philatelic Society (the study of postage stamps and postal history).
Additionally, visitors wishing to learn more about these early aviators or to visit the airfield will need to travel just a touch out of town. You can find a historical marker located at the high school on E Bishop St (PA 550) at S School St.
Sample Spirits at Big Spring Spirits’ Tasting Room
This working distillery is located in the former Match Factory. Big Spring Spirits creates artisanal whiskey, vodka, and gin using locally sourced ingredients and water from the Big Spring all while using an environmentally friendly process.
Visitors can sample the distillery’s offerings, sip cocktails, and enjoy a bite to eat in their tasting room overlooking Talleyrand Park. When the weather is favorable, grab a table in the courtyard.
If you are interested in learning about the distillation process, tours are available. The cost is $15 per person and includes the tour, a cocktail, and a tasting of 3 spirits. Tours must be arranged in advance.
Visit Eagle Ironworks at Curtin Village
Bellefonte was built on the Iron Industry. In the 1800s, it was this opportunity that drew moguls to the region.
Located on the “Big Spring,” the town’s main water supply; the vast supply of wood in the region to fuel the furnaces, and the plentiful limestone which acts as a fluxing material in iron and steel production all made Bellefonte ideal for this enterprise.
Just minutes from downtown Bellefonte is Eagle Ironworks at Curtin Village. The village depicts life in a 19th-century company town. The site features Pleasant Furnace, a waterwheel-powered cold blast charcoal furnace, the Roland Curtin Mansion, and the worker’s village.
Fish for Brown Trout from Spring Creek/ Fisherman’s Paradise
While fishing is not permitted at Talleyrand Park, you can still cast a line on Spring Creek. You will simply need to head to Fisherman’s Paradise on the outskirts of town. This is a popular spot for fly fishing where brown trout are abundant.
The Fisherman’s Paradise section of Spring Creek has been called “legendary.” It is said that this stretch has “more wild fish per mile than any other stream in the state.”
The 1-mile segment from the Stackhouse School Pistol Range downstream to the lower boundary of Bellefonte State Fish Hatchery is Catch and Release Fly-Fishing Only. Check with the PA Fish and Boat Commission for a full listing of rules and regulations related to fishing in Pennsylvania.
To reach Fisherman’s Paradise coming from Bellefonte take Rt 150. Make a left before the Rutters onto Paradise Road. Then make a left onto Spring Creek Road. You will find parking about a half-mile down.
Bike or Hike Fisherman’s Paradise
You’re not into fishing? Well, that’s no reason to skip Fisherman’s Paradise. This is a beautiful location popular for cycling and hiking.
The Spring Creek Canyon Trail is a 6-mile mostly flat, out-and-back ride. The trail follows Spring Creek from the parking lot to the PA Fish and Game Commission. It is mostly a double track with some single tracks mixed in. Spring Creek Canyon is an enjoyable and scenic ride for people of all fitness levels.
A word of caution: Be mindful to avoid veering onto the gun range. It shouldn’t be an issue as it is well-marked. But you should be aware that it’s there.
To pick up the trail follow the directions in the previous section and park in the same lot.
Get Outdoors at Bald Eagle State Park
Those seeking outdoor adventure will find a plethora of recreational activities within the Bald Eagle State Park. The park offers over 14 miles of trails ideal for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Throughout the park, you will find picnic areas with pavilions.
The centerpiece of this state park is the Foster Joseph Sayers Reservoir at Bald Eagle. This engineered lake provides over 630 acres suitable for fishing. Launch your boat, kayak, or canoe from the marina of fish from the shore.
Great Restaurants (and Coffee) in Bellefonte
Go for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Oh, Hell. Go for all three because you won’t be disappointed. This casual dining place is amazing. Everything on the menu is just a bit over the top.
For breakfast try the URBN Breakfast Sandwich. It’s both delicious and filling. You may even be able to skip lunch.
The Club Sandwich is the biggest you’ll ever see. If you order it, skip the fries. If burgers are more your thing, they serve burgers made from exotic meats such as Wagyu, Elk, Bison, and Boar.
Finish off any meal with one of their ridiculous donuts that are really a dessert. They come in flavors such as Fruity Pebbles, KitKat, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
And don’t forget to try one of their creative lattes. Both the S’mores and the Razmataz are scrumptious.
This is a Build-Your-Own Burger joint just across the street from the courthouse. And they offer some crazy combinations. In addition to awesome burgers, they offer poutine, a not often seen menu item around this part of the country. Amazing!!
Satisfy your sweet tooth with a hand-spun milkshake or one of their other sweet treats.
While the Overlook Grill is a bit out of town you won’t find a better view of the valley than from here. The unobstructed view from the dining room looks out over miles of unspoiled farmland. Fall presents a patchwork quilt of colors in the valley.
Whether you go for lunch or dinner, you can expect a unique menu. This is the kind of place that you go to for a romantic dinner with a date. I recommend trying to time your meal to be there for sunset.
Stay at a Bed and Breakfast in Bellefonte
With so many historic homes in the lovely Victorian style, it will probably come as no surprise that a number of these have been converted to B and Bs or Inns.
The Queen, A Victorian Bed & Breakfast located within the historic district, this Queen Anne style Victorian BnB offers hospitality, nicely appointed rooms, and a tasty breakfast. Nancy, the gracious host is a wealth of knowledge about the community, among other things such as gardening and antiques. And she’s happy to share all that information with her guests at no charge.
Gardeners will truly appreciate Nancy’s lovely gardens. If you are visiting in fair weather I recommend taking your coffee and breakfast on the patio where you will be surrounded by a little patch of heaven. And if you are lucky you may even find some of Nancy’s own freshly picked berries included with your meal.
Our Fair Lady BnB – This Victorian beauty has original hardwood floors, pocket doors, and stained-glass details. The rooms are well-appointed and quiet.
The location in the historic district and within walking distance of downtown makes it ideal. Park your car in the off-street lot and explore on foot.
You won’t find better hospitality anywhere. The hosts, Bob and Tami are wonderful. They are so helpful. And Tami is an excellent cook.
Reynold’s Mansion – This iconic Gothic Revival style mansion constructed of blue brownstone built in 1885 by Major William Frederick Reynolds, a wealthy businessman, and banker is on the National Historic Register. This lavish inn has eight guestrooms in the mansion plus two luxury suites in the carriage house which has a modern industrial style. A gourmet 3-course breakfast is included with your stay.
After freshly fallen snow, Bald Eagle State Park turns into an amazing winter wonderland. It offers a completely different experience from what you may have during the summer months. Adventurers can try sledding, ice skating, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and more.
For a real adventure, pack your fishing gear and pop-up shelter, then head to Foster Joseph Sayers Reservoir. This engineered lake provides over 630 frozen acres suitable for ice fishing.
Those who prefer some creature comforts may want to book a stay at the Nature Inn located within the State Park.