Erie is affectionately known as Gem City. Some say it's because of its sparkling waters and the fantastic sunsets that glitter off of them. I say it's because it is truly a hidden gem of a city: a big city with a small-town feel and laid-back vibe.
Erie is Pennsylvania’s only Great Lakes Port City. It features Presque Isle State Park, a vibrant, revitalized downtown and Bayfront, shopping, dining, wineries, breweries, amusement and water parks, theaters, zoos, sporting events, and museums.
Visit for the day or stay for the weekend. Erie offers convenient, affordable, and even free fun and adventure. So, put on some comfortable shoes, grab a water bottle, and enjoy some fabulous fun without spending a dime.
1. Presque Isle State Park
Erie's most popular attraction is Presque Isle State Park. It is the largest (3,200 acres) and most visited state park in Pennsylvania. Presque Isle has so much to offer. Pack a picnic lunch and immerse yourself in PI's abundant nature. Presque Isle provides a place for year-round recreational activities including swimming, fishing, bicycling, hiking, skating, kayaking, and boating.
Explore PI by car, bicycle, skating, or walking. See Perry Monument, lighthouses, and marinas. Watch sailboats and fishermen, or just gaze across the bay at the Erie skyline. On the lakeside of the isle are 11 beaches. Our favorite is Beach One. It's a great place to swim, have lunch, or just relax on the warm sand. The park has many turnouts, piers, and picnic areas with tables and grills.
I was astonished to find that Lake Erie actually has waves like the ocean. In the winter the waves will freeze, making another spectacular outing just to see that!
Pro Tip: Enjoying Presque Isle is entirely free. There are paddle boats and bikes to rent. At Perry Monument, there are boat tours available for a small fee. The park, its picnic areas, and its bathrooms are all accessible.
2. Bird Watching
Presque Isle is a National Natural Landmark and is located on the Atlantic Flyway. It is one of the top birding spots in the country. Birders come from all over the world to spot and record over 300 species of birds. Presque Isle is a favorite spot of birds to stop, rest and eat, on their migration across Lake Erie to and from Canada. Northbound migrating birds cross Lake Erie in spring while southbound migrants stop in the fall. Waterfowl winter migration takes place in late November through December. Grab your binoculars and camera and you'll soon be a “twitcher” -- British for someone who likes to watch birds.
3. Walking And Hiking
One of the most popular hiking areas in Erie is, you guessed it, Presque Isle. It has 11 miles of hiking trails ranging from an easy quarter-mile walk through a grove of pine trees to a fully accessible, paved, multi-purpose 13.5-mile trail. In the winter some trails are maintained for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Another popular hiking spot is Asbury Woods. Explore 205 acres of fields, forests, and streams on 5 miles of trails. Asbury Woods has several trails (PDF) ranging from a short, fully accessible boardwalk trail with a resting gazebo by the wetlands, to the 2.2-mile Greenway Trail -- the longest in the Woods.
4. Bayfront District At Dobbins Landing
The revitalized waterfront of Erie makes it a favorite spot for residents and visitors alike. It is located on the city-side of Presque Isle Bay, a few blocks from downtown. We love to walk in this area looking at the boats in the marina, the beautiful bay waters, and across the bay to Presque Isle. Nearby Liberty Park holds free concerts and other activities. Sunsets here are amazing!
Take in the views of Erie's skyline and the bay from the top of the 187-foot Bicentennial Tower. The first Tuesday of every month, visitors can ride to the top of the tower for free.
The Historic Bayfront District also includes restaurants, hotels, a convention center, water taxis, boat tours (and even a pirate ship), shopping, and miniature golf.
5. Maritime Museum And U.S. Brig Niagara
On Front Street near Dobbins Landing is the Erie Maritime Museum and U.S. Brig Niagara. Erie's maritime history is amazing, from being a major shipbuilding port to making its place in history in the War of 1812. The Niagara, built in Erie, along with eight other ships, defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie. This was a pivotal point in the War of 1812 which led to regaining Detroit and lifting American morale.
You can see the tall ship Niagara from several vantage points on the bayfront. Tours of the museum and ship cost under $10 but the Museum Gift Shop is free to visit. We easily spent an hour in the gift shop looking at all the memorabilia and souvenirs. Plan at least another 2 hours for tours. All exhibits are accessible as are the restrooms.
6. Raymond M. Blasco Memorial Library
Next to the Maritime Museum is the Raymond M. Blasco Memorial Library. This is probably the most impressive public library I've ever seen. It is easily university quality. Sit and read a book in comfortable seating near the large windows overlooking the water and the tall-ship Niagara. They also have a 3D printing lab, recording studio, sewing machines, revolving displays, and an auditorium.
7. Tom Ridge Environmental Center
Enjoy a fun and educational outing to the Tom Ridge Environmental Center. It is a hands-on, interactive educational experience highlighting nature on Lake Erie and Presque Isle. Fascinating giant whirly-gigs depict life in the air, on the land, and in the water. Take an elevator (or the stairs) to the top of the observation tower that has an expansive view for miles in every direction. On a clear day, you can even see Canada. There is a small theater, a gift shop, and a cafe that has an extensive menu and is reasonably priced.
You could easily spend an hour or two walking around and browsing the gift shop. The Environmental Center has plenty of parking and admission is free for the whole family.
8. 54 City Parks
Did you know that Erie boasts 54 city parks? Each one holds something different for locals and visitors to discover -- for free.
Explore the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park (LEAF -- opens as PDF) tree museum, commonly known as an arboretum. Stroll the pathways, learn about over 100 different trees, cross over bridges and next to creeks. There's even a labyrinth to puzzle you.
Also north of the Bayfront District is Chautauqua Park, a grassy little park with benches overlooking the bay. Perfect for watching the dazzling Erie sunsets. There is access down to the water's edge but it's a bit of a climb back up.
Visit the first lighthouse on the Great Lakes at Erie Land Lighthouse and Lighthouse Park just north of the Bayfront District. The lighthouse is not open, but there are great views of it standing proudly over the bay. There is also a grassy area with covered picnic tables and a playground.
Located in Millcreek Township, Asbury Woods and Park are spectacular outdoor recreational areas, any time of year. There are trails for walking and hiking through wetlands, forests, fields, streams, and historic properties. In the winter snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are favorite outdoor activities. The Nature Center at Asbury Woods is one of the premier award-winning environmental education centers in northwestern Pennsylvania.
9. Leap Frog And Go Fish
One of the most fun things to do in Erie is absolutely free. 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 businesses. Drive around town. 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, and at the UPMC Baseball Park, just to name a few.
10. Waldameer Amusement Park
Waldameer is the 10th-oldest amusement park in the country. The first roller coaster was built in 1907. There are over 100 rides, roller coasters, a waterpark, midway games, an arcade, concessions, picnic areas, and other attractions for kids of all ages.
Here's the best part. Waldameer proudly offers free parking and free admission into the amusement park. That means, unlike other amusement parks, you only pay for the rides and attractions that you want. You could spend several hours walking around admiring the gorgeous landscaping, award-winning gardens, and bronze statuary throughout the park. There are many benches and shade trees throughout.
The 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” tall.
11. Take A Drive
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, and Victorian, to Italiante and more. Some of the historical homes are museums and open for tours.