The cannons, all pointing southeast, stood silently under the ashen gray sky. Bronze leaves were hanging onto the beeches and oaks for a few more minutes before finally succumbing to the breeze and tumbling to the burnished gold carpet below. I looked over the low dry stone wall across the fields wondering what it must have been like back in 1863 when the cannons were roaring and men were screaming. I was in Gettysburg, the site of the defining battle of the nation’s Civil War and a crossroads in the nation’s development.
Mention Gettysburg, and you immediately think of the Civil War, of Abraham Lincoln’s short but entirely memorable Gettysburg address, or of a school trip here many moons ago. And while the famous Battlefield remains firmly on the travel itinerary of today’s eighth-graders, Gettysburg has an appeal that goes way beyond school trips and history buffs. There is a vibrant local farm to table industry here that makes any visit both historically rich and culinarily inviting. On a recent three day trip, my wife and I went to find out how Gettysburg has successfully fused the old with the new.
Start At The Gettysburg Heritage Center
A visit to the Gettysburg Heritage Center is a good way to get an overview of the history before heading out. Formerly the American Civil War Museum, the Heritage Center has been updated with new exhibits including the Cellar Experience -- recreating what civilians who remained in their cellars would have seen and heard during the battle -- and an excellent short movie that explains in easy-to-follow graphics how the Union and Confederate armies engaged each other.
Pro Tip: Labelling itself as “Your Gettysburg Headquarters,” the Heritage Center should be your first stop on arrival in Gettysburg.
There are many ways to explore the vast battlefield -- do a self-drive tour (follow the auto-route signs), take a horse-drawn carriage or bus tour, or hire a licensed battlefield guide. We chose the latter and booked an afternoon tour time and, in pre-COVD days, our guide would have joined us in our car to guide as we drove. However, today we toured in a caravan -- the guide in his car, we followed in ours. We met in town and before starting, our guide explained the three-day battle, who was doing what and where, and what we should look out for as we drove through the town to the battlefield. With much pointing through his window, our guide was able to highlight places of interest including buildings with bullet holes still visible from the battle. Neat.
The battlefield is about 6,000 acres, and 370 cannons stand in place. Three hundred are from the Civil War era, and 1,300 or so monuments and statues are dotted along the battlefield to commemorate those involved. We drove 11 miles in two and a half hours making six stops at key monuments. I actually preferred this way of touring as information was delivered in bite-size chunks and the time driving sedately between stops allowed that information to be digested before we received the next upload.
Pro Tip: It was really helpful to have a licensed Battlefield guide take us to the right spot and explain what was happening and, at $63 total, this was a bargain.
There is much history to see in the town itself -- buildings that were standing during the Civil War have a plaque attached (and there are many). Look out for a couple of houses where a cannonball is still lodged in the wall. Almost every building has a story to tell, and most became field hospitals as the injured were treated in churches and private homes. Although you can explore for yourself, there is a multitude of guided tours available and we selected two. The Reluctant Witness tour with Ken Rich focused on the civilians who got caught up in the war. We learned about Sadie Bushman who, at age nine, became a field nurse helping with the amputation of soldiers’ limbs. We also took the Seldom Seen tour, which took us down back alleys and allowed us to discover small graveyards each with their own tales. Not all stories related to the war -- Gettysburg is only a few miles away from Maryland where, in those days, slavery was legal and there are tales of how African Americans lived in fear of being kidnapped and transported across the state line. Each tour was around two hours, cost $18 per person, and it was just us and the guide.
Pro Tip: The walks are easy with no inclines, but there is a fair amount of standing around. Comfortable walking shoes are a must.
A stroll downtown inevitably brings you to Lincoln Square (though it’s really a roundabout) and a variety of eating places, craft stores, art galleries, jewelers, and David Wills house, where Lincoln stayed and penned his famous 272-word address. Just down the street is the old railway station where Lincoln arrived. The line remains in use today but only for freight. Heading out of town on Steinwehr Avenue, we strolled toward Evergreen cemetery, where Lincoln gave his address and many soldiers are buried -- a large number unidentified.
Get Spooked Out With A Ghost Tour
There are many ghost tour offerings. Our $10, one-hour trek down back alleys and standing in front of famous residences was from the Gettysburg Ghost Tours, which offer multiple tours each evening. A group of 30 of us followed behind our candle carrying guide frequently passing another gaggle of spirit hunters going the other way. We stopped at half a dozen locations all within a few hundred yards of each other and were regaled of stories of Civil War individuals -- soldiers, civilians, and children appearing in windows or on house porches. The guide encouraged us to take pictures of dark alleys full of nothingness in the hope that, just maybe, we would see a strange face in the image. As camera shutters clicked, a woman’s cry went up. “Oh my goodness, look at this -- I can’t believe it”. She proudly showed off her image -- she had captured an eerie red glow in the corner. It was the reflection of an Exit sign from across the street. Call me a skeptic.
Best Restaurants In Gettysburg
Mason Dixon Distillery: From Battlefield To Table
We started with lunch at the Mason Dixon Distillery on East Water Street located inside a century-old former furniture factory that houses a small, shiny distillery as well as a large, open-layout restaurant. It’s owned by father and son George and Yianni, who have restored the inside of this brick and wooden beam building to create an airy, open eating space (able to seat 120) that they say is modeled after German beer halls. An outdoor courtyard accommodates another 160.
Open since July 1, 2016, not only does the Mason-Dixon offer a variety of “Comfort Food Done Well” but also a range of locally produced liquors. The best part (apart from the Monte Cristo sandwich, which had a tasty triple berry jam for dipping) is that most of the ingredients for both food and drink are supplied locally. That might not sound like anything special; after all, many restaurants boast the same thing. However, the grain and wheat used for the liquor production are grown on the very battlefield that put Gettysburg on the tourist map. Yianni leases 47.5 acres of the battlefield, and by growing his crops there not only sources his own distilling operation but also preserves the land as it would have been back in 1863, fusing the old with the new. Yianni very kindly gave us an impromptu tour of the distillery where he makes rum, gin, vodka, and whiskey and told us how he personally performs all the quality control. I’m surprised he doesn’t have more hangovers. All the liquor is bottled manually on site, and I was impressed to see the finished articles in use at other local restaurants and taverns. Before leaving, we cleaned our hands with hand sanitizer -- Yianni’s own. In a continued spirit of supporting the local community, he had dedicated some distilling capacity to produce hand sanitizer.
Garryowen Irish Pub: Authenticity From The Emerald Isle
No matter where you are in the world, it seems there is always an Irish pub. In Gettysburg, the place to go is the Garryowen Irish pub on Chambersburg Street. Owned by Irish emigres, the establishment is three houses knocked together, and you will often find a line of people waiting to enter. Popular with locals as well as tourists of all age groups, there are a number of distinctly different rooms here, which makes the place so cool. Upon entering you find yourself in a tavern with a long wooden bar, the next room is more formal and modeled after an old Irish manor. Others are less formal and each one is decorated to represent a specific part of Ireland. There is an outdoor courtyard with cobblestones and diners were being entertained by a two-piece folk band. The food is hearty comfort food and with a Scotch egg appetizer and (one of the best) sticky toffee puddings for dessert, the Garryowen is a great place to relax at the end of the day.
Pro Tip: Make a reservation!
Historic Dobbin House
Built in 1776, the Dobbin House is the oldest standing building in Gettysburg and a popular place to visit. Although two large tents have been set up in the courtyard for outdoor eating, there is still limited capacity for indoor dining, and a reservation is recommended. This famous old building serves lunch and dinner (try the Baked Kings Onion soup) in historic surroundings where, it is said, ghosts still roam.
The Ragged Edge Coffee House: Gettysburg’s Best-Kept Secret
For breakfast, The Ragged Edge Coffee House, located a few doors from the Garryowen on Chambersburg Street is a gem the locals would probably like to keep to themselves. And I wouldn’t blame them. This breakfast and lunch eatery is where coffee, art, and good food intertwine. Think Starbucks in someone’s home -- this is it. There are two rooms on the ground floor with a grand dark wooden staircase to a second floor. Well-thumbed books line the window sill. Upstairs tables, sofas, and comfy chairs allow you to work or look at the eclectic art on the walls. It feels like a cross between a gallery, a library (with none of the formality), and all the comforts of a cozy home (magazines lay strewn over a coffee table). No wonder the locals come here to work on their laptops. Out front, there is a small porch with room for a couple of tables and at the rear, a shady patio for al fresco dining. Best of all, along with the relaxing ambiance, is the great assortment of coffees and baked goods. A toasted bacon and cheese bagel and a mocha set me up for the day. I could have spent hours here.
Just Beyond Gettysburg (Nearby Places Worth Visiting)
Mansion House 1757 In Fairfield
Go before it gets seriously famous.Eight miles west of Gettysburg, the Mansion House 1757 in Fairfield is a must-visit restaurant. Originally called the Fairfield Inn, this Civil War-era building (built, you guessed it, in 1757) has recently been purchased by George Keeney who, also happens to be the chef. This three-story, 10,000-square-foot house serves not only as tavern and restaurant but also has four rooms and two suites for rent. There is a treasure trove of history here with George proudly showing off century-old visitor sign-in books and faded black and white photos. All the rooms are large with impressive high ceilings, deep 18-inch window sills (they built them strong in those days), impressive stone fireplaces, and sloping floors that add a touch of historical authenticity.
Black iron grates in the floor are telltale signs of ancient central heating from a long cold boiler. There are multiple restaurant rooms, from a large hall with an impressively sized open fireplace to a smaller room that feels more like someone’s dining room/lounge at home. An open fireplace belches out heat, contemporary original paintings hang on the walls, and through the archway, a comfy sofa and grand piano beckon. The food here is exquisite (I particularly liked the Trilogy of Soups -- three taster soups) as witnessed by the number of patrons -- there were 40 diners the first Saturday of opening in July 2020; by October that number had risen to 122.
Pro Tip: This place will get busy. Book in advance. Note that Fairfield is about a 15-minute drive west of Gettysburg.
Sachs Covered Bridge
Heading out of Gettysburg, we stopped at the oldest, most famous and picturesque covered bridge in Pennsylvania -- Sachs Covered Bridge on Waterworks Road (opens Google Maps). Originally built in 1852, the bridge only accepts foot traffic today. Both Union and Confederate armies crossed this bridge -- either in advance or retreat, depending which side they were on and it is, apparently, very haunted. With a small dam downstream and easy access to the water level, this is a perfect location for scenic photographs.
Eight miles west of Gettysburg in Biglerville, the Round Barn is exactly that -- large and round. It’s also a farmers market and an event venue. Built in 1914 and family owned, the barn is one of very few round barns still standing. Surrounded by orchards and farmland, the barn is now a farmers market selling all types of fruits and vegetables (who knew about “Turks”?), breads (apple cinnamon bread), dressings, and jams of all varieties all arranged on neatly curved tables. I learned how many pecks make a bushel (four) and discovered types of apples I had never heard of before. Walking around the tables, I felt I was slowly being drawn into the middle like water flowing towards the plughole. Upstairs, the large wooden floor is set out with white table clothed tables and chairs ready for its next 600-person function.
Gettysburg’s attraction is its history but its appeal is the rich diversity of interesting places to stay, eat, and visit both in the town and surrounding environs. Allow yourself at least two days to experience the worst of the past in the best of the present. Also read up on