With a population of under 20,000 the borough of Carlisle was ranked the 16th best small town in the United States by livability.com in 2015. It’s located in south-central Pennsylvania bordered to the north the PA Turnpike (I-76) and to the south and by Interstate 81. Known to many outsiders as the home to the United States Army War College and Dickinson College, Carlisle also has a variety of restaurants that rival nearby Harrisburg.
A good place to start your day in Carlisle is the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. If you are driving south on Interstate 81, you will see the Army Heritage Trail’s cabins and tanks off to your right. The visitor center has ample parking and is located right off exit 49. They open at 10 and close at 4:30 except for Sundays, when they open at noon. You will likely spend most of your time in the visitor center since they have exhibits which date back from the Civil War to the present. The Army Heritage Trail (bordered to the west by Interstate 81) is open from dawn to dusk and covers the same period as the museum itself.
From there you can head west to downtown Carlisle. The most interesting cafes and restaurants are west of the junction of Hanover and High Streets. Although you cannot get French macarons in nearby Harrisburg, you can get macarons, hand-made chocolates, gelato, crepes and other desserts at Helena’s Chocolate Café & Creperie (located next to the Carlisle Theater). They are open 7 days and they can have anywhere between 5 and 12 different macaron flavors depending on when you visit. The combination of all the foot traffic and no other places that sell French macarons nearby means the flavors can sell out fast. In fact, they have flavors that I rarely see in Manhattan such as cinnamon and oreo. They have various to-go boxes, which can hold anywhere from 2 to 10 macarons and their crepes, desserts and gelato are worth sitting down for.
If you make a left out of Helena’s and cross High Street at Pitt Street, you’ll arrive at the Cumberland County Historical Society (closed Sundays). Upstairs, they have exhibits which explain how Cumberland County got to where it is today. Of particular interest are the exhibits on the building of the Pennsylvania Turnpike as well as the Native Americans that occupied the area before European settlers arrived.
From the visitor center, you could walk to History on High (across from Helena’s), which houses the Cumberland Valley Visitors Center (closed Sundays & Mondays). Once inside, you can get info on other local attractions as well as purchase books and other souvenirs. It’s possible to arrange walking tours from the visitor center, but with a map, you can locate 13 of the 18 historical markers in Carlisle without going more than a couple blocks from the junction of Hanover and High Streets. At the corner of High and West Street you can see where George Washington stood in October of 1794. You can also explore the grounds of Dickinson College, which is the Alma mater of the only United States President from Pennsylvania (James Buchanan, who graduated in 1809).
There are several options for dinner. Café Bruges (Belgian), Andalusia (Spanish & Moroccan tapas) and Trattoria Piatto (Italian) are affiliates of Helena’s. There’s also Issei Noodle, which is an interesting combination of Japanese ramen and Vietnamese Pho and also the only place in Carlisle which serves bubble tea.
I chose White Elephant Thai Cuisine for dinner and I’m glad I did! In addition to a standard Thai menu of nearly 70 items, they have specials every weekend. It’s BYOB, but they have some very interesting non-alcoholic drinks. Like some of the other restaurants on High Street, there is parking in the back. I ordered the coconut soup for an appetizer and the garlic scallops (weekend only) for my entrée. For dessert, I had my eyes on the tapioca coco, but at the last minute, I decided on the sea salt caramel gelato. The owner is always experimenting with new options, so it’s a good idea to stop back frequently. When I do, I’ll save room for the tapioca coco.
Although I consider myself a city person, I enjoyed my day in Carlisle just as much as I enjoyed my last trip to Harrisburg, which is more than double the size and the state capitol. Although the Susquehanna River does not run through Carlisle and they don’t offer as many options for museums, I enjoyed my dining experience much more than during any trip to Harrisburg. In summary, Carlisle has things that people travel to the big city for, but is laid back and manageable like a small town.