My husband and I are Penn State grads who met while we were students at Penn State. (WE ARE!). This is an insider’s guide with tips for things to do in State College, best things to do at Penn State (Main Campus), where to party in State College, where to get an adult drink in State College away from the undergrads, where to stay in State College, where to eat in State College, awesome day trips from State College (things to do in Centre County).
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State College is the quintessential American college town. It’s cute, walkable, and has a great bus system. Expect lots of Penn State stores, lots of student bars, and cute hipster places for the grad students/professionals to take refuge from the undergrads with. For academics and professionals on a visit to Penn State for conferences, it’s truly a cute compact college town with all you need for a peaceful visit.
Index of this guide
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Where is State College and where is Penn State?
If you imagine a rectangle and make a point in the center, you have found State College. The city of State College is located about 2.5 hours from Pittsburgh, 5 hours from New York City, and 3 hours from Philadelphia. (It's NOT UPenn. UPenn is in Philadelphia)
The Pennsylvania State University is commonly called Penn State. If you’re wondering why people just say Penn State instead of State College is because the town was built around the university after the Civil War. State College is basically Penn State, but one is the campus---and one is the town around it.
Things to do in State College & Things to do at Penn State
Some of these things are great for first time visitors to Penn State while others are really catered to those living in State College. That said, if you’re living in State College long-term, I swear there’s some fun things to do in State College that you haven't thought of.
Things to do at Penn State campus
Most of the best stuff to do while visiting State College is centered around the Penn State University (what a shocker!).
Go to the Arboretum at Penn State. This beautiful garden is FREE and one of my favorite places to walk in fall due to its gorgeous viewpoint.
Visit the Palmer Museum of Art. This art museum is 100% free and full of some really great art. Check the opening hours carefully.
Attend the MANY free festivals at Penn State:
Stroll across Old Main. People watch and take in the beautiful architecture. It's so pretty year-round and you'll understand why I think that Penn State has one of the prettiest campuses I've visited in the United States.
Have an ice cream at the Penn State Creamery. You’re not allowed to mix flavors (unless you're a US President) and I usually get a cup as their portions are ridiculously large. IF I get a cone, I get a cup just in case. If you don't do anything else, this is a MUST. Expect long-lines during Penn State game day weekends. (Note they have dairy-free sorbet.)
Attend a Penn State Football Game and/or Tailgate. Regardless of whether you're a football person, experience ONE tailgate just to experience Penn State football culture. I'm amazed how Penn State inspires its alumni to come back year after year. If you want to tailgate, bring your own table/chairs/cups and arrive early (6am!). Penn State tickets are NOT cheap, so be sure to buy your Penn State tickets before.
Take a photo with the Nittany Lion statue.
For students: Join a club. There’s hundreds of clubs at Penn State, so just look for one that caters to your interests. It’s a bit harder to find non-undergrad ones but many departments have graduate specific clubs to join. You’re guaranteed to find one that caters to your interests. Outdoor lovers: ask at the Penn State Adventure Recreation Center for their upcoming trips (open to all with fee).
Things to do in State College PA
Walk around downtown State College
What to do in State College at night besides drinking
Pub trivia in State College: The Darkhorse Tavern has my favorite pub trivia, however I also love the trivia at Zeno’s.
Rock climb on Friday nights at the YMCA. So cheap and so fun. Passing their belay test is tough, but everyone is very friendly!
Attend a show at the historic State Theatre. They put on Broadway productions and show indie movies.
Do Korean-Style Karaoke (KTV) with friends. (Rooms are rented by the hour)
For hipsters and those who don’t drink (but are fine with smoke), Chronic Town is where to go (if you're not a drinker). They bring in smaller indie bands occasionally, so keep your eyes peeled for some really good indie bands, but it’s also my favorite place to go for a relaxing night out. They have pin ball, shisha, and cereal behind the bar. They don’t serve alcohol, so 18+ is allowed. Don't be afraid to go down the stairs.
Get tickets for an event at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Chill in Webster’s (open later some nights) with a good book and coffee. They often have events, including poetry readings, Tango, and a LGBTQA night.
If you're an animal lover, I recommend visiting Centre County PAWS, the local dog and cat shelter. They are always accepting volunteers to help out if you're going to live in State College long-term. Both my husband and I are volunteers who adopted our cat from PAWS. They need help with various tasks, so get in touch with them to see what they need help with. It's rewarding work that allows you to play with kittens or puppies (what else can one ask for?). They also need help fostering animals, so if you're allowed a pet in your apartment, consider helping them foster a pet.
Where to stay in State College / Where to stay near Penn State
Budget Hotels in State College
Depending on your budget, there’s lots of accommodation options in State College. For those on the 0 budget, the Couchsurfing community here in alive and well with few people using it, making the probability of finding a good host high.
Airbnb is also an option for those just looking for a room on a budget. Expect to pay more for a hotel in State college on football weekends, move-in weekend or during graduation.
The Stevens Motel is a clean and affordable option for those looking for a budget hotel in state college. They’re in the range of $50 per night and they’re around the corner from the Waffle Shop. My husband’s parents swear by this budget motel close to Penn State about 20 minutes from campus. You need to book directly.
Midrange Hotels in State College
All of these hotels come from personal recommendations, however it's best to check the distance from campus as some are a bit further, depending on why you're in State College.
The Best Place to Stay near Penn State...is on campus.
The Nittany Lion Inn is State College’s best hotel and it’s directly on campus. If you’re looking for a luxury hotel near Penn State, this is where to stay in State College. I was lucky enough to stay here in a spacious suite and there’s nothing like a room service breakfast with a warm sticky from the Diner. The students from the hotel school are happy to help you with any questions you may have and there’s free apples by the entrance.
Where to eat in State College PA
This is a highly biased list of my favorite places to eat in State College. Finding good restaurants in State College on a budget can seem tough, but there’s actually a lot of great options (as there’s so many students). There’s a lot of mid-range options for food in state college for those visiting students and/or visiting for conferences as well. For those looking for romantic things to do in State College or a nice restaurant, there are also many luxury options, but it's best to make a reservation ahead.
Best Budget Food in State College
As a former broke Penn State student, I have a lot of feelings about where to eat in State College on a budget.
Midrange restaurants in State College ($9+)
Nice restaurants in State College ($12+)
Where to drink in State College
This is a college town and welp, Penn State is a party school and drinking is one of the fun things to do in State College. If you’re a Penn State student under 21, I’m sorry, but this is a list for 21+ bar patrons (with the exception of some of the clubs that will allow 18+ in with no drinking).
For all ages: If you’re a coffee drinker, you need to have the best coffee in State College at Saint’s Cafe.
For drinks, I like Cafe 210 for their beer pitchers and group seating, the Rathskeller for a divey beer, Local Whiskey for bourbon/whiskey (don’t ever order a triple bourbon), the Darkhorse Tavern for their dangerously delicious Tonto’s Demise, Mad Mex for margarita happy hour. The best LGBT bar is Chumley’s and their cocktails are amazing.
Don't worry craft beer aficionados....there's good beer bars in State College. My favorites places to have a beer in State College include Zeno’s and The Deli. Outside of downtown, you'll be able to take the bus to American Ale House, Happy Valley Brewing Co., and my favorite Otto's.
Where to dance in State College: If you’re an undergrad looking for a fun night, I recommend Indigo (18+ sometimes). If you’re not an undergrad, I recommend taking advantage of their bar until you’re feeling like you’re a college kid again (or don’t care if you’re old). Cafe 210 often has live music from cover bands and is a favorite of many alumni, but I hate getting my feet stuck to the floor. The Shandygaff and Phyrst are undergrad-only bars.
Things to do in Central PA & Day trips from Penn State
There are some fun things to do in Central PA if you’re living in State College. It took me a few years of living in State College to discover these, but Central PA has so much to offer in terms of amazing nature! (It's good to also check with the Penn State Adventure Rec Club for upcoming trips).
Climb Mount Nittany. The trail up Mount Nittany can be accessed via a path close to the cute town of Lemont (for those seeking cute coffee shops). It’s a steep hike, but fairly easy for those at all levels. The view from the top gives you a nice panorama of Happy Valley. It takes about 1-2 hours. Accessible by CATA bus.
Go skiing and go to WingFest at Tussey Mountain. This mountain resort is accessible by bus and you can ski (or go tubing) in winter here! In summer, they have host WingFest, which is one of State College's best known festival. WestFest is great for seeing great live music and it typically hosts 30+ wing vendors!
Bellefonte. This adorable victorian town is the capital of Centre County. (It’s pronounced like BELL FONT, not the French way.) During Christmas, there’s a victorian themed Christmas celebration for those with families. If you’re into dive bars, you need to visit Omar’s for $1 Draft Beers. It’s one of those places where the bartender unironically wears the shirt with the 3 wolves and there’s a lot of hunting camo. Accessible by CATA bus.
Go to the Centre County Grange Fair, which is an amazing Pennsylvania tradition. If you're about Americana, the grange fair is perfect for experiencing this unique event that has been held in August since 1874. People camp here and there's family feuds about the lots.
Centralia. This infamous town is condemned as it was the center of mining for many years--and a fire started. The fire is still going and you can still see the smoke rising from the pavement of this nearly abandoned town. There's also lots of graffiti for Pennsylvania urbanex lovers. Car needed.
Hike up Indian Steps. This hike includes a scramble up some step-like rocks, however it’s a relaxing hike perfect for a day out of State College 2-4 hours. Car needed.
Penn’s Cave. This underground cave is a day trip from Penn State. A good day trip for families.
There’s so many great parks with hiking nearby, however Rothrock State Forest is the nearest one. As a general note, be very careful while hiking during hunting season. Wear bright colors while hunting, announce yourself, and use caution as deer hunting is legal (with a permit) in PA.
Anyone who has seen Groundhog Day might want want to visit Punxsutawney on its most famous day when the groundhog decides to come out to see his shadow...or not.
Hershey Park is a fun day trip for those with a car. You can get discount admission vouchers from the area supermarkets.
If you’re craving a big city, Pittsburgh is the perfect weekend trip from State College and New York City is only 5 hours away.. (Check this Pittsburgh local’s guide to Pittsburgh.and this New Yorker's guide to NYC).
How to get to State College
Fly into State College: There’s a small regional airport that you can fly into, but be advised that the connections from other airports (including Dulles/Philly) can be delayed/canceled, so be aware of that when booking something with tight timing.
Take the bus to Penn State: You can take a couple buses (including Megabus, Fullington Bus, and some other buses that you catch from Chinatown in Manhattan (NYC)) from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City. The easiest way to get to Penn state in my opinion is by bus.
You can take the train to Altoona, however you’ll need to take a taxi from Altoona to Penn State.
How to get around State College
It's really great for walking if you're in downtown State College, but it's easy with a car. You can easily park in downtown State College, however parking on campus is very tough and expect tickets if you do. If you're staying outside of downtown, I recommend taking the bus into downtown with leaving your car by your hotel.
The CATA bus system is really good although some buses are less frequent (especially on Sundays). There’s a free loop bus around the campus, however you’ll have to pay per ride (or buy a day pass) if you want to take it to the surrounding areas.
Download your map!
Have you visited State College? Anything I missed?
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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