With its rolling hills, historic landmarks, and 19th-century atmosphere, the city of Gettysburg is like no other place in the United States. As the site of the most significant battle in the Civil War, the city draws millions of visitors each year who long to walk in the steps of figures like Abraham Lincoln and George G. Meade. While the region is indelibly tied to the Battle of Gettysburg, there’s more to explore in this picturesque town, from the rustic pubs on Steinwehr Avenue to the antique inns on Baltimore Street. Whether you’re staying in Gettysburg or taking a day trip from D.C., there’s plenty to do and see in this real-life slice of American history.
The Gettysburg Battlefield may cover 6,000 acres (2,428 ha), but the city itself is less than two square miles (5 sq km). Though incredibly small, the downtown area hosts an array of restaurants, hotels, and retail options, while the battlefield is home to more than 1,300 monuments and memorials.
Downtown Gettysburg is a charming hub of history, boasting brick sidewalks, wrought-iron street lamps, and centuries-old architecture. Here, you’ll find plenty of hotels, dozens of speciality shops, and a wide selection of restaurant options including colonial taverns and historic inns. Downtown also offers a host of cultural, educational, and entertainment attractions like the Majestic Theater, the Gettysburg Museum of History, and the David Wills House, where Abraham Lincoln finished writing his immortal Gettysburg Address. From the heart of the city, visitors can embark on a range of historical walking tours with a costumed guide or journey into the battlefield via horse, bike, or carriage.
There are tons of ways to explore the Gettysburg Battlefield, be it by bus, foot, Segway, or horse. For first-time visitors, traveling with a Licensed Battlefield Guide is a great way to bring this significant event to life. However, you can also dive into the history of these fields on your own with a self-guided car tour that covers 24 miles (39 km), tracing the three-day battle in chronological order.
The Battle of Gettysburg began here on the morning of July 1, 1863 as Union cavalry confronted Confederate soldiers advancing east. Fighting spread north and south along this ridgeline as additional forces arrived from both sides.
In the afternoon, Confederates under Major General Robert E. Rodes attacked from this hill, threatening Union forces on nearby Oak and McPherson ridges. In 1938, more than 1,800 Civil War veterans came together to dedicate this memorial to “Peace Eternal in a Nation United.”
In the afternoon on Day 2, Lieutenant General James Longstreet assembled his Confederate troops here on the ridge. Assaults began in the late afternoon against Union troops occupying Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and the Round Tops.
Thanks to quick action, Union Army regiments rushed to Little Round Top, where fighting ensued with Confederate soldiers for an hour and a half. A creative strategy by the Union’s Colonel Chamberlain culminated in a dramatic downhill bayonet charge that has become one of the most well-known actions in the Civil War.
Here, fighting raged on for hours until the evening, when Confederate attacks overran the position and Union soldiers retreated to Cemetery Ridge. Charge and countercharge occurred at the site now known as “Bloody Wheatfield” for the 4,000 dead and wounded that were left after the battle concluded.
At around 7 PM on Day 2, Confederates waged an assault on Union forces that reached the crest of this hill. Though both flanks of the Union Army had been attacked, General Meade decided his men would stay and fight. The Confederate forces were eventually driven off in the early morning after seven hours of fighting.
The climactic moment of the battle came in the afternoon on Day 3, when Confederate forces during Pickett’s Charge reached the “high-water mark” on Cemetery Ridge, where many believe they had the best chance of winning the war. Though outnumbered by nearly double, Union forces stood their ground, attacking back with bayonets, rocks, and even their bare hands. With as many as 28,000 casualties over the course of three days, Lee and the Confederate Army began their retreat in the evening of July 4.
The final resting place of more than 3,500 Union soldiers killed during the battle, the National Cemetery is also the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. At the cemetery’s dedication on November 19, 1863, the president gave this enduring speech to honor the fallen soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war.
Though millions come each year to tour the sacred grounds of the Gettysburg Battlefield, perhaps the most spectacular way to see the city is from high up in the air. Board a colorful hot air balloon for a flight over the region, which offers unforgettable views of the lush forests, emerald fields, historic landmarks, and Chesapeake Bay in the distance.
For an even more immersive experience, visit Gettysburg in early July when the most popular sight isn’t a landmark or monument but the annual Civil War Reenactment. See the smoke, hear the explosions, and smell the scent of black powder as you watch these famous battles unfold before your eyes. The event also includes a living history village with 19th-century music, stories, and demonstrations.
After you’ve explored the battlefield, head just outside the park for a stop at the Eisenhower National Historic Site. Tour the former home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used the site as both a weekend retreat from Washington and a meeting place for world leaders to discuss tensions during the Cold War. Enjoy a self-guided walk around the farm, or join a park ranger for a look back at World War II and an exploration of 1950s Secret Service operations.
There’s also more to do in Gettysburg outside its national landmarks. Once you’ve gotten your fill of wartime history, pay a visit to the Adams County Winery, a breathtaking 15-acre (6-ha) vineyard located just 10 miles (16 km) west from the heart of Gettysburg. Here, inside a Civil War-era barn, savor tastings of your choice of wines from their award-winning selection. Each September, the winery is joined by more than 20 other Pennsylvania wineries at the Annual Gettysburg Wine and Music Festival. Treat yourself to a weekend of fine wine and live music in the open fields outside the historic center of the city.