Museums and Tours
Take a step back in time and explore Bethlehem’s 20 historic sites and 18th-century architecture. A National Historic Landmark District, Bethlehem boasts a history rich in culture and tradition.
In 1741, a small group of Moravians settled on the banks of the Lehigh River near the Monocacy Creek. They represented what is now recognized as the oldest organized Protestant denomination in the world, the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of the Brethren, founded in 1457 by followers of John Hus, a Roman Catholic priest who had tried to reform the Catholic Church. Hus was burned at the stake for his beliefs a full 100 years before Martin Luther’s Reformation. His followers called themselves Moravians because many of the original founders came from the provinces of Moravia and Bohemia in central Europe, in what is now the Czech Republic.
On Christmas Eve of that first year, the Moravians’ patron, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Saxony, Germany, visited the new settlement. In a two-room log home that housed both man and beast, the Count christened the community “Bethlehem.”
By 1747, thirty-six different trades and industries exported their wares from Bethlehem throughout the colonies. In the days of the American Revolution, our nation’s leaders, including George Washington, Samuel Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette, met, ate and slept in Bethlehem. By 1845, the more than 1,000 inhabitants voted to incorporate the village into a free borough in the County of Northampton.
In 1937, the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, mindful of Bethlehem’s first Christmas in 1741, declared – “Why not make Bethlehem, named at Christmas, the Christmas City for the entire country.” Thus, since 1937, Bethlehem of Pennsylvania has been known throughout the world as Christmas City USA.
From its humble beginnings as a Moravian settlement to its modern status as the heart of the thriving Lehigh Valley, Bethlehem has carefully preserved its past. It is a city that shines as brightly as its huge electrical star atop South Mountain. The Moravian influence remains strong, but many more traditions from many lands have joined in making the city a “melting pot” of cultures.
Across the Lehigh River, a short distance from Downtown Bethlehem, is the remains of the once vibrant Bethlehem Steel plant. For more than a century, Bethlehem Steel was the city’s economic lifeblood, employing tens of thousands of people. The plant produced the steel that built America’s skyscrapers, bridges and warships. It provided the steel needed to help the U.S. and its allies win two World Wars.
In 1995, Bethlehem Steel closed its doors in Bethlehem, leaving the region with a void that seemed impossible to fill. Rather than demolish the historic mill, community leaders worked to repurpose the steel plant facilities into an entertainment district unlike any other.
Through partnership with the City of Bethlehem, the nonprofit ArtsQuest, the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, local PBS TV Station WLVT-39 and Sands BethWorks Retail LLC, the site was transformed into an arts and entertainment destination that showcases music, art, festivals (including Musikfest), educational providing and community events. More than $70 million was invested into what is now the SteelStacks project through state and federal grants and corporate and private donors. Today, the former steel plant buzzes with activity, including guided tours of the history of Bethlehem Steel on the Hoover Mason Trestle, which rises above the mill.
To learn more about Historic Bethlehem, call 1-800-360-8687 or stop at the Bethlehem Visitor Center at 505 Main Street is recommended. There, you can learn about current exhibits, museum sites and Historic District tours.
Bethlehem also has a Visitor Center at SteelStacks, located at 711 E. First Street on Bethlehem Southside.