Formerly a bustling steel town, Bethlehem has reinvented and revitalized itself with its new biggest asset: Christmas.
The small town of Bethlehem, located just two hours north of Philadelphia, was originally known for being home to one of the largest steel manufacturers in America. After the steel mill went dark, and Bethlehem Steel closed their doors for good, the town became known for its high levels of unemployment. With one of the town’s largest employers shuttered, the town teetered on ruin. Instead of leaning into the fate that beset nearby Allentown—which has made great strides towards improvement since Billy Joel made the third-largest city in Pennsylvania infamous—Bethlehem looked for other ways to bring money back into town. As it turned out, the town didn’t have to look much further than its namesake.
The Star of Bethlehem
It should come as no surprise that Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was named on Christmas Eve in 1741. The town received both its name and its secondary purpose that night. Even though it wouldn’t really lean into the idea of being a Bethlehem away from Bethlehem until centuries later.
Today, the town celebrates its namesake with a large, lighted star of Bethlehem that hangs atop South Mountain, just outside of the city limits. For weary travelers, that glowing star means they’ve almost reached Christmas City, home to both Christkindlmarkt and an authentic German Weihnachtsmarkt. The star can be found all throughout town and can be seen on signs directing travelers towards attraction areas, hanging in display windows, and above welcome mats across the city. Just like the biblical story, Bethlehem wants you to know when you’ve reached your destination.
Come for the Shopping
Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt, a traditional German Christmas market, has been recognized as one of the best in the country. Every year, the former steel stacks are transformed into a winter wonderland that becomes a temporary home to vendors from across the country. In addition to the crafts and products available for purchase at the market, you can also sample and buy some of the amazing local foods and drinks. The Lehigh Valley has an abundance of breweries, wineries, and distilleries worth checking out (just don’t try and sample them all!).
Stay for the Shows
You can also catch live performances from musical guests, or check out local artists as they show off their ice sculpting and glass blowing techniques. The glass blowing demonstration is also the perfect place to visit when you need to warm up—the furnace is kept piping hot all day long.
Kids can take a break from all the holiday shopping to visit with a traditional St. Nicolas (you won’t find any mall Santa here) who offers photo opportunities while taking gift requests. When all of that shopping and walking finally make you hungry, you can take a load off in the food pavilion, where you’ll find a large selection of food vendors and the perfect place to dine under strings of glittering lights.
Visit the Northside
In addition to Christkindlmarkt, visitors can visit one (or both) of the two central downtown areas to take in shopping and view Christmas lights. Each tree that lines Main Street is wrapped with lights, and large replica stars hang from the lamp posts. On the Northside, adults can grab a beer or mulled wine at one of the breweries or bars, while kids can marvel over the decorated shop windows and visit one of the oldest book stores in the country.
During the six weekends leading up to Christmas, the Main Street area is turned into an open-air market. Wooden huts filled with handmade local crafts line the street and visitors can alternate visiting the brick and mortar shops and their authentic German Weihnachtsmarkt counterparts.
Visit the Southside
On the Southside, both young and old can tour the Banana Factory, a mini-art studio, and a museum where local artwork is always displayed. There is a free Christmas Trolley that runs from November 16-December 23 to transport riders to and from various hot spots around the city. If you’re looking to travel around town in style, you can always opt to take a horse-drawn carriage instead.
No matter how you choose to get around Bethlehem this holiday season, you’re sure to be glad you made the trek to Christmas City this year.