The North Pole has nothing on one historic Pennsylvania town
On Christmas Eve in 1741, the little town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was founded as a Moravian community in the Lehigh Valley. But it wasn’t until 1937 that the district received the declaration that it had been longing for—the official countrywide title of “Christmas City.” Every year since then, Bethlehem has taken its role ever more seriously. With its annual profusion of twinkling lights, tinsel, guys in red suits, festooned firs and stars, it may be the richest source of holiday cheer on Earth.
Before you consider booking a holiday excursion to the United States’s jolliest destination, it’s important to brush up on the cultural history that has made the state’s seventh-largest city a day-tripper’s playground. Poised along the Monocacy Creek just an hour and a half from downtown Philadelphia, Bethlehem carries a briefcase of historic acclaim. From building the first waterworks in America (in 1762) to housing the oldest continuously operating bookstore (Moravian Book Shop, dating back to 1745) and touting six distinct national historic districts and two national landmarks, this Christmas City offers more than mistletoe.
At any time of year, the food scene alone merits a visit. In the industrial shadows of the former home of Bethlehem Steel, up-andcoming restaurateurs, craft breweries and artisan purveyors contribute to a surprisingly urbane culinary culture. Hopscotching around mom-and-pop shops and iconic mainstays, Bethlehem now features a delicious mix of movers and shakers in cahoots with generations-old businesses.
WHERE TO STAY
Immediately following Thanksgiving, downtown Bethlehem morphs into a holiday wonderland. Businesses of Christmas City spruce up their facades, lining them with white lights and candles, greenery and wreaths. Christmas music blares through the strollable streetscape, with the historic Hotel Bethlehem at the epicenter of the hustle and bustle. Known for decking the halls with lights, holly, trimmed Christmas trees and manger scenes, the hotel is also famous for its family-friendly Santa brunches. Executive chef David Troxell mans the culinary program for the two in-house restaurants, 1741 on the Terrace and the Tap Room. Both spots place a firm focus on produce sourced from nearby Coopersburg’s Liberty Gardens.
WHERE TO EAT
With menus so seasonal they are different every day, chef Lee Chizmar and his partner, Erin Shea, of Bolete Restaurant and Inn, expose diners to the ingredients, farmers and artisan purveyors of the Lehigh Valley through breathtaking dishes. Situated in a colonial-era stone inn, Bolete is a hub of the farm-focused food scene here. In fact, one regular became a farmer because he was so inspired by his meals.
Chizmar’s cooking is just as exceptional as his ingredients. The chef ’s tasting (six courses for $75) might be the best Christmas present you could give yourself. From crispy asparagus salad with sunny-side-up duck egg, to fork-tender grass-fed beef with foie gras emulsion and Misty Bay day boat sea scallops with porcini puree and foam, his dishes entice all year long. And don’t forget to leave room for the Mason jar–served butterscotch pudding.
Splashed in purples and lime greens, Mint Gastropub, based in a former bank building on Bethlehem’s South Side, takes a whimsical approach to the upscale bar concept. Chef Domenic Lombardo, a mainstay of the Lehigh Valley food scene, runs the kitchen. His specialty is reinvented comfort food. The “Buttons and Bones,” for example, pairs pickled button mushrooms with bone marrow pancetta. His “Sloppy Doe” is a clever, venison-based take on the lowbrow Manwich. The cocktail program, with dueling new- and old-school rosters, is in sync with the chef’s menus—cheeky yet time honored.
WHERE TO DRINK
Ever since spring 1998, the Fegley family has led the craft beer culture of the Lehigh Valley, paying homage to the region’s industrial past with Bethlehem Brew Works. The most attractive brewpub seat is at the red-brick-lined bar, where you can spy repeat Great American Beer Festival–winner Beau Baden in the brewing room concocting his next cult classic, like the dry-hopped Hop’solutely Triple IPA. His more obscure releases arrive seasonally, including the Rude Elf ’s Reserve, a high-octane dark ale accented with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove.
For those more inclined to imbibe prohibition-era cocktails, escape to the South Side of Bethlehem to the Bookstore Speakeasy. Like any proper speakeasy, the entryway is unmarked—look closely for the nearly hidden stairs leading to a side door. Once inside, a pseudo lobby lined with hardcover books surrounds you, but with the parting of the black-velvet curtains, you’re introduced to an amberlit dining room, accented with Art Deco touches, vintage furniture and menus secreted in books. Jazz musicians perform nightly, and barkeeps play their parts with the requisite waxed mustaches and ostentatious cocktail mixing techniques. The list of stiff concoctions changes regularly, but the Violet Tendencies (a mix of tequila blanco, sloe gin, crème de violette, absinthe verte and Champagne) will likely be on the menu through winter.
WHERE TO SHOP
Earmark an entire afternoon (or more) to explore Christkindlmarkt, a sweeping Euro-style open-air market specializing in handmade gifts, crafts, edible stocking stuffers and copious amounts of traditional German and Austrian street food. A mix of local food trucks also join the shopping extravaganza, and live music is featured, too. Entry fee is $8.
Similarly, Christmas City Village collects independent artisans for an outdoor market. Twenty wooden huts set up for the season throughout Main Street. While devouring the holiday spirit, escape to year-round Seasons Olive Oil and Vinegar Taproom for a proper taste test. Consider stocking the extra-virgin olive oil Escribano, which is imported from shop owner Soraya Balshi’s family’s olive groves in Jaen, a province just north of Granada in Spain.
Trek out of downtown for one last stop, to Josh Early Candies, a fifth-generation business that specializes in small-batch, handmade recipes developed in the early 1900s. The confectionary recently expanded its cocoa repertoire with the “Ultra” line, which features seductively intense, 72 percent cacao combined with ingredients like goji berries and pistachios.
After a taste of Bethlehem’s seasonal flavors, you’ll discover there is no place with more holiday spirit than Christmas City.
BETHLEHEM BREW WORKS | 569 Main Street
Relax with a craft brew and good view of Main Street in this hip, casual pub.
BOLETE RESTAURANT | 1740 Seidersville Road
Tues.–Thurs., 5–10pm, Fri.–Sat., 5–11pm, Sun., 10am–3pm
This acclaimed restaurant is widely considered the best in the area. It’s a cannot-miss for serious food lovers.
BOOKSTORE SPEAKEASY | 336 Adams Street
Uncover this hidden cocktail lounge for trendy drinks in a fun atmosphere.
CHRISTKINDLMARKT BETHLEHEM 2013 | PNC Plaza, SteelStacks,
645 E. First Street; www.artsquest.org/christkindlmarkt
Event opens Nov. 21, ends Dec. 22
This spirited, festive fare is guaranteed to be Grinch-free. Come hungry!
CHRISTMAS CITY VILLAGE | Sun Inn Courtyard, 556 Main Street
Event opens, Nov. 29; Event’s last day, Dec. 29;
Fri.–Sat., 11am–8pm, Sun., 11am–6pm;
This is another place to shop for handmade holiday gifts while taking in the scene of Main Street at Christmastime.
HOTEL BETHLEHEM | 437 Main Street
This beautiful historic property is right in the middle of everything.
JOSH EARLY CANDIES | 3620 Nazareth Pike
610.865.0580; Mon.–Sat., 9am–9pm, Sun., noon–6pm;
These treats are sure to be a favorite for travelers with a sweet tooth.
MINT GASTROPUB | 1223 W. Broad Street
This is the spot for those who love comfort food—with a creative twist.
MORAVIAN BOOK SHOP | 428 Main Street
Bookworms relish browsing the shelves at what is said to be the world’s oldest continually operating bookstore.
SEASONS OLIVE OIL AND VINEGAR TAPROOM | 504 Main Street
Mon.–Thurs., 11am–6pm; Fri.–Sat., 10am–7pm, Sun., 11am–4pm
Shop here for season gifts—or to stock your own pantry with exceptional ingredients