Arts & Life

A Day in Bethlehem, PA - December 2010

Written by Jon Ferguson | Nov 22, 2010 2:06 PM

Bethlehem stirs powerful emotions before visitors even step inside the city limits.

For Christians, the city, named by Moravian settlers, conjures up images of the birthplace of Jesus — a bright star, a humble manger and royal visitors from the East.

The city, nestled in the hills of a valley and split by the Lehigh River, also exists as a symbol of the rise and fall of America's industrial might. Bethlehem Steel, which traced its roots back to 1857, declared bankruptcy in 2001, closing a chapter in the city's history that was inextricably entwined with key events of the 20th century.

But Bethlehem, a city of about 70,000 residents that straddles Lehigh and Northampton Counties, survived; the Sands Casino Resort now sits on land once occupied by the massive steelworks plant.

And Bethlehem, blessed with a keen sense of history that stretches all the way back to Colonial America, remains a vibrant, welcoming place.

A day spent in downtown Bethlehem is a day spent walking sidewalks lined with buildings made of red brick and heavy stone. It's a day spent walking across Fahy Bridge, which spans the Lehigh River, to get from the city's Historic Shopping District, where its Colonial past and Moravian underpinnings are most prominently on display, to the Southside Shopping District, the side of the city where Bethlehem Steel once made girders for the Golden Gate Bridge and Empire State Building.

It's a day spent visiting shops and stores of all sizes and descriptions, wandering into an eclectic collection of art galleries, and eating and drinking at the many and varied restaurants and pubs. It's a day spent stumbling upon fascinating historical tidbits, like the plaque affixed to the side of the Hotel Bethlehem that marks the site of a lovefeast on Christmas Eve in 1741 conducted by Count Zinzendorf, who decided then and there to name the place Bethlehem.

Any visit to the city should start at the Bethlehem Visitor Center at 505 Main St., right in the heart of the historic district.

Christmas in Bethlehem

No question, the holiday season is a special time to visit Bethlehem, as the city gets decked out in its holiday finery to greet and welcome visitors to Christmas City.

Not to be missed is Christkindlmarkt, which Travel and Leisure Magazine has touted as one of the top holiday markets in the world. The market features handmade wares by dozens of artisans from around the world, festive holiday music, foods inspired by the holiday and demonstrations by ice carvers and glass blowers.

There's also a Christmas Community Putz at Central Moravian Church, where the Nativity story is told with lights, narration and small figurines every half-hour, and a live Advent calendar at Goundie House.

A great way to see the city at this time of year is by embarking on one of the many holiday tours. For the hardy, there's a walking tour (the 6pm version is conducted by lantern); for the sedentary, a nighttime bus tour; for those seeking maximum atmosphere, a tour done in a horse-drawn carriage; and for the historic-minded, a tour of six attractions specially prepared for Christmas.

There are tons of other activities going on in Bethlehem during the holiday season. For a complete listing, go to christmascity.org.

History

Historic buildings abound in Bethlehem, and a lot of them are conveniently located within a block or two of each other.

The Colonial Industrial Quarter sits near a stream and consists of a number of 18th-century buildings, including a tannery and waterworks. Yale University also is conducting an archaeological excavation at a dye house on the site.

Nearby is the Goundie House, a Federal-style brick house built in 1810 that was the home of brewer and community leader John Goundie and now hosts a changing array of exhibits spotlighting various facets of Bethlehem's history.

The Moravian missionaries, led by Count Zinzendorf, who traveled to Pennsylvania to form a colony and wound up in the Lehigh Valley, played a huge role in the city's history, and their story is told at the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem. The museum is housed in Gemeinhaus, which was built in 1741 and is the city's oldest building.

Part of the fun in visiting Bethlehem is walking the streets with no particular destination in mind, but keeping the eyes wide open and on the lookout for the delightful historical details that abound.

Shopping and Galleries

Bethlehem is dotted with interesting shops that offer both a mainstream shopping experience and more offbeat wares. The city is home to Moravian College, near the Historic Shopping District, and Lehigh University, near the Southside Shopping District, which influences some of the stores found in the city.

One of the more unusual shops is Ostara, an "Old World Majick" store that offers items needed for the practice of witchcraft. More typical is Moravian Bookshop and Gift Gallery, which was founded in 1745 and is called the nation's oldest bookstore. It also is home to Donegal Square, which offers goods from the British Isles and Ireland (Bethlehem hosts the Celtic Classic Highland Games and Festival every September).

Galleries in Bethlehem range from the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts to the Banana Factory, a cultural arts and education center that hosts all manner of exhibits and gallery shows. In between those two are numerous smaller galleries that offer a wide range of the visual arts.

Dining

Nobody ever went hungry in Bethlehem. Not only does the city feature a lot of restaurants, it offers a mouth-watering array of cuisines from around the world. There are the ones you would expect — Italian at La Tosca and American at 1741 on the Terrace — but others that are completely unexpected, including Kenyan at Alando, French Asian at Edge Restaurant, Japanese fusion at East Asian Bistro and Sushi Bar, Indian at Nawab Indian Restaurant and Thai at Thai Thai II.

For the beer-lover, there's Bethlehem Brew Works. The microbrewery and restaurant, with part of its brewing operation visible from the sidewalk, offers an array of beers on tap, which change with the seasons. During a recent visit, the microbrewery offered an oatmeal stout, a pale ale, an English-style best bitter and a Belgian white ale.

Though it doesn't fit in any particular category, Bethlehem also is home to The Boyd Theater, a single-screen movie theater, a rarity these days. The theater, which posts reviews of the film it is showing near its box office, is utterly charming, as is all of Bethlehem.

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