Known as the “Gem City”, mostly because of its sparkling waters and brilliant sunsets, Erie is truly a hidden gem for wintertime fun. Erie, PA things to do in winter are numerous and loads of fun!
Most people know that Erie, Pennsylvania is a great recreational destination for summer fun. Every year landlocked folks from all over visit the shores of Lake Erie to soak up the sun From April to October nature lovers, beachgoers, bird watchers, Rvers – all flock to Erie’s shoreline, in particular, Presque Isle State Park.
But Presque Isle’s 4 million-plus visitors a year aren’t all sunseekers. Erie offers a diverse range of sporting and other activities even in the cold winter months.
A Perfect Day Experiencing the Wonders of Winter in Erie, Pennsylvania
With an average annual snowfall of over 100 inches, Erie is a winter lover’s wonderland. Once the water freezes and the sailboats are taken out of the bay, ice boats and ice-fishing tents take over. It’s a sight to see even if you aren’t actively participating, but participate you can and should.
Top Erie PA Things To Do In Winter
Winter adventure is plentiful in Erie. Here are my top picks for making the most of one winter day in Erie, PA.
A Hot and Hearty Breakfast to Start the Day
A perfect winter day in Erie begins with a hot breakfast at where else but…Gem City Dinor. Yes, dinor. (Only people in Erie spell it this way, and no, they don’t know why.) Gem City Dinor has a bright, inviting dining area. Soft yellows and greens make it warm and cozy while exposed ceiling beams offer a sense of openness. The decor is a blend of classic American diner meets maritime – which is a big part of Erie’s history.
The menu is basic comfort food with a local twist. Try the Gem City Omelette with Smashbrowns. Portions are plentiful while the prices are moderate. Locally roasted Millcreek Coffee is offered as soon as you are seated by friendly staff or even the owners who take pride in their establishment – and it shows.
After breakfast enjoy a morning of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. I particularly like both of these sports because they are low-impact and only require basic knowledge and sporting ability. For the more adventurous (and skilled) Erie offers extreme athletic sports like downhill skiing, ice and wind skating, and snowmobiling.
A favorite place for the whole family, Asbury Park offers 4.5 miles of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails in Asbury Woods with easy, moderate, and challenging terrain. You can rent cross-country skis and snowshoe equipment daily at Asbury Woods starting in early December through the end of February. Note: There must be at least 6 feet of snow for snowshoe or ski rentals.
On winter weekends visitors can also take part in these two winter activities at Presque Isle State Park where there are 13.5 miles of scenic trails, also great for hiking (in my case, strolling) o’er the snow-covered landscape. A concession in Shelter #1 near the Waterworks Ponds offers cross-country skis and snowshoes for rent, weekends only, beginning mid-November through March, dependent on snowfall and conditions.
Do keep in mind that all winter sports activities in Erie depend on weather and snow conditions. Be sure to check ahead of time.
NOTE: Weather and water/ice/snow conditions can change dramatically in a short period of time. It’s always best before heading out to check with the local authorities for conditions. One source is buoyweather.com/map/lake-erie for real-time weather information. The Winter Report provides snow depth information for state parks.
Winter was Made for Hot Chocolate
Be sure to stop in at Romolos Chocolates for a steaming cup of creamy, robust hot chocolate “brewed” in a beautiful copper and brass Venus Bar espresso machine hand-crafted in and imported from Italy. A scrumptious way to warm up after a morning playing in the snow.
Lunch is a must at nearby Lavery Brewing Co. located in the heart of Erie’s vibrant downtown district. Housed in the old, red-brick Standard building on 12th Street, Lavery’s is like walking into a good friend’s home, warm and inviting. Wood paneling, an open fireplace, even a fun, brightly-colored chalkboard beer menu above the bar.
It is family-friendly with a kids’ play area in one corner and a stack of games you can bring to your table. Even when there’s a crowd you’ll always find a place to sit. In addition to their innovative, small batched craft beers, Lavery’s nontraditional “bar food” is off the hook. I guarantee you’ll be hard-pressed to find better tacos, sandwiches, and pizza anywhere.
Another warm and cozy place for lunch downtown is Molly Brannigans Irish Pub. An Erie legend for over 20 years, Molly Brannigans is traditional Irish with elegance. The atmosphere takes you to another place, a different time.
Original wood floors, exposed brick walls, a rock fireplace that fills one whole wall all accented by deep, rich wood and Irish décor, complete with a bar brought over straight from Ireland. The food is authentic Irish. Bangers and Mash, Shepherd’s Pie, Guinness Stew, and Corned Beef and Cabbage. Step inside and experience Molly’s – you’ll be glad you did.
Stay Warm in the Afternoon
If a nap is not on the schedule after lunch, there are many warm (and inexpensive) ways to explore Erie in the winter. Stay warm by visiting museums. The Bayfront Maritime Museum – home of the tall ship U.S. Brig Niagara – and the Children’s Museum downtown are two of my favorites. Take advantage of Pennsylvania’s clothing tax exemption by shopping downtown or at Mill Creek Mall, or visit Splash Lagoon, Erie’s only indoor water park.
Stay warm in the car – take a driving tour along West 6th Street. Known as Millionaires Row, an amazing collection of 19th-century Victorian mansions line the street. Or, if you didn’t make it out to Presque Isle earlier to play in the snow, an afternoon drive is perfect. Watch the ice-fishermen and multi-colored ice-wind sailboats zip around the bay as you drive along the scenic shoreline.
There are two lighthouses and Perry Monument to visit as well. And if you plan to visit in December you still might catch the end of the waterfowl winter migration (birds flying south for the winter). Located on the Atlantic Flyway, Presque Isle State Park is one of the top birding spots in the country.
Something Rarely Seen
One of the most spectacular winter experiences in Erie is not a recreational activity at all. Few people can say that they’ve witnessed the natural wonder of ice dunes in person. Ice dunes are formed by the combination of lake ice, waves, and freezing water spray – basically, the waves crashing into the lakeshore freeze in mid-roll. It’s an amazing sight.
Winter Fun in the Evening
With so many exhilarating winter activities in Erie, locals have a secret spot that you won’t want to miss. Just a 30-minute drive through the snow-filled countryside is Peek’n Peak Ski Resort and Spa. It’s actually just across the border in New York state but don’t let on as Erie locals tend to claim it as their own. Take the I-90 most of the way or drive the scenic, countryside back roads. However you get there, you’ll be glad you did.
A winter setting like no other. Like a scene out of an 18th-century book. A Swiss chalet set in a tall pine forest, bright green ivy climbs the brick walls reaching upwards to the tops of the turrets, lights shine bright and inviting through the many wood-framed windows, smoke billows skyward in the frosty winter air from the tall chimney, as a fire blazes warmly in the main lobby fireplace.
A two-horse open carriage sits just outside the stone-covered main entrance on the circular drive. The driver dressed in a black top hat and cloak patiently waits to take the next fare on a ride through the idyllic woodland.
The resort is a favorite daytime skiing destination but at night an altogether different winter experience awaits visitors. Have you heard of cosmic bowling? The all-new Lunar Lights Tubing is cosmic snow tubing. Tubers fly downhill through the snow in a thrilling and mesmerizing atmosphere.
An ever-changing light show is produced by thousands of LED and projection lights. The lights pulse, fade, and change in coordination with the music amplified through an immersive sound system.
As mentioned before, I am all for “low-impact” winter sports. The best part about tubing at Peek’n Peak is the Magic Carpet Lift. Between runs, tubers are carried to the top of the hill by a conveyor belt. No need to struggle to haul your tube up to the top of the hill on foot.
And of course, winter snow tubing wouldn’t be complete without warming up with hot cocoa – served right at the base of the Snow Tubing Hill.
Dinner Amidst the Tall Pines
There are several dining options to choose from in Peek’n Peak village. The main lodge restaurant, Gazebo Grill, or nearby Retreat Building are all great choices. My suggestion for an exceptional dining experience is just five miles from Peek’n Peak.
Pine Junction Tavern is tucked away amidst the tall pine trees on the New York snowmobile trail. A unique log and rock cabin and a large barn both with tall pitched red roofs. It looks like someone’s home. You wonder if you are in the right place. You are.
Walkthrough the front doors and all five senses begin to react. The warmth on your skin, the amazing smells of pine wood along with delicious foods wafting through the air. Beautiful country décor catches your eye as you are greeted by friendly staff. People of all ages are seated at the spacious family-style wood tables and benches. The atmosphere is lively and you sense that folks are having fun.
The menu has a wide assortment of dishes to suit any appetite. Share an appetizer of fried pickles or Blazin’ Brussel Sprouts. The Tavern is especially known for its fresh Black Angus burgers, steaks, ribs, pork chops, and half chickens – all cooked on an open charcoal pit. The grilled Black Angus steak salad is a meal in itself. For dessert you’ll find scrumptious pies, cheesecakes, and Mooseballs – all made on-site from scratch.
After dinner head back to Erie via I-90. Take in a show or ballet downtown at the historic Warner Theater, a concert at Erie Arena. And if you still want more winter sports thrills you might be able to catch the home-game action of the Erie Otters hockey team or Erie BayHawks Basketball.
Before heading back to your hotel, go for a nightcap at one of the nearby craft breweries downtown, Cloud 9 Wine Bar, or for an exquisite craft-cocktail visit Room 33, Erie’s prohibition-inspired speakeasy complete with a hidden door, Buster Keaton movies, and “proper bourbon”.
Where To Stay: Erie Hotel Recommendations
There are many affordable hotels within a few miles of downtown. Several Marriott and Hilton hotels are on Interstate 79 near Millcreek Mall. Best Western, Microtel, Comfort Inn, and others are on Interstate 90 near Splash Lagoon Indoor Water Park and more on I-90 near Presque Isle Downs and Casino. If you want to be right on the water, you can spend a little more to stay at the Sheraton or Courtyard by Marriott on Bayfront Parkway, near downtown.
What To Bring:
Winter in Erie is cold no doubt about it. Make sure you bring plenty of cold-weather gear including hats, coats, gloves, etc. – dress in layers when outdoors. Remember to bring lip-balm and sunscreen. Even when it’s cold the sun may be shining and could cause skin damage if not protected. Renting sporting equipment may be an option but if you have your own, bring it. Oh, and don’t forget Splash Lagoon – swimsuits are a must-have item when visiting in Erie, even in the wintertime.
Erie Fun Facts:
Erie is home to dozens of giant frogs and fish. Statues that is. The Go Fish and Leap Frog art projects started in 2000 as a campaign to raise money for the general scholarship fund at Gannon University and the Erie Art Museum. It’s great fun to drive around the city trying spot one on a street corner or in front of a building. Keep your eyes open, they are everywhere!
Bessie, also known as South Lake Bessie, is Lake Erie’s very own “Loch Ness-type monster”. She has been spotted and reported many times since the first sighting in 1793.
The Presque Isle Bay was once a shipbuilding mecca. Six of the nine ships that fought in (and were decisive in winning) the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie were built in Erie’s bay now called Misery Bay.
Misery Bay got its name because of the harsh winter of 1813-14. Many sailors had suffered from smallpox and were quarantined on ships in the bay. That winter the weather was extremely bad. The lake and bay froze trapping the ships were they were. Conditions on the ships worsened and many sailors died that winter.
U.S. Brig Niagara was sunk (on purpose) in Misery Bay in 1820 to preserve her. She was raised in March 1913 and restored, was neglected, and in 1929 reconstruction began again but with a lack of funds, the work was stopped in1934. Niagara’s reconstruction was finally finished in 1963. She is now on the National Register of Historic Places and makes her home in the bay at the foot of State Street in Erie.
When you think of chocolate in the United States most people think of Hershey. Few people know that Erie’s rich chocolate history dates back just as far — 1903 — when Greek immigrant and chocolatier, George P. Palakos, opened his first candy shop. Shortly after, Romolo Stefanelli, a young immigrant from Italy, started making chocolates in Erie. Today, three chocolate shops continue to make delectable chocolates in Erie, a hit with locals and visitors alike at any time of year.
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Loretta Berry is a freelance travel writer and photographer. She loves discovering new places, soaking up the culture and experiencing the local food and drink. She has traveled extensively throughout the United States. She is a wife, mother of four, and grandmother of five. She loves traveling with her kids and grandkids, sharing with them her passion for fun and adventure. She is a member of ITWPA. You can find her on both Facebook and Instagram to follow her travels.