A Gettysburg getaway brings Civil War history to life and offers beautiful nature and pleasant diversions that make an ideal road trip from Northern Virginia and the Washington DC region. The town preserves the site of the bloodiest battle ever fought on US soil, both in Gettysburg National Military Park and in town.
While it’s possible to visit as a day-trip, we recommend an overnight (or longer) to allow time to explore beyond the battlefield and enjoy the historic town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The Civil War Comes to Gettysburg
Over three days in July 1863, the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was overrun by 170,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Intense fighting here would mark the bloodiest battle of the US Civil War.
Once the fighting stopped, over 51,000 dead, wounded, and missing soldiers overwhelmed the town. Homes and businesses became makeshift hospitals, and the townspeople were left with the task of burying soldiers, horses, and mules in hastily dug, shallow graves.
Today the history of the battle, the town, and the aftermath, are all preserved and accessible to visitors through multiple parks and museums. This Gettysburg getaway itinerary focuses on Civil War history and some modern-day diversions. But we also recommend a visit to the Adams County area for a foodie getaway.
Get Oriented at the Gettysburg NMP Visitor Center
Most visitors to Gettysburg begin their trip at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center. It’s a great first stop to learn about the battle and get oriented to what you’ll see on the battlefield. The Visitor Center, which opened in 2008, was carefully designed to look like a period farm with round barn. The site was chosen so that the new building is screened from battlefield views.
Access to the Visitor Center and the battlefield is free, but you’ll need a ticket for the film, Cyclorama, and museum. The 20-minute film, produced by the History Channel and narrated by Morgan Freeman, is an excellent overview of the battle and its significance in the ongoing Civil War. Immediately following the film, visitors experience a narrated presentation in the historic Cyclorama.
The Gettysburg Cyclorama features the largest oil painting in North America. The 42′ by 370′ circular painting shows the famous Confederate attack on the third day of fighting, commonly known as Pickett’s Charge. A narrator describes the intense fighting as lights illuminate portions of the giant painting. The battle left 5,000 Confederate dead and wounded in only one hour.
The Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War includes several galleries which explain the broader Civil War. Displays also highlight people who played important roles throughout the conflict. Interactive exhibits explain the life of soldiers, officers, and civilians. And there are numerous displays of Civil War relics and the stories behind the artifacts.
A combined ticket for the film, Cyclorama, and museum is $15.00 for adults, $14.00 for seniors, and $10.00 for youth. Active duty US military and children 6 and under are free. We recommend purchasing a ticket for anyone with an interest in understanding both the Battle of Gettysburg and the broader US Civil War.
The detailed displays in the museum can be overwhelming, but there are several videos that make the material more accessible. While the museum makes a good effort to offer engaging exhibits, younger children or bored teens may want to skip the ticket and head out to the battlefield.
Tour the Battlefield
The Gettysburg NMP Visitor Center is the hub for many tour options for your battlefield visit. You can pick up a map and head out on a self-driving tour of all the major battle sites. The free Self-guiding Auto Tour map is well marked, and there are excellent informational signs at every major site.
Bus tours are available for those who prefer a guided drive. Your licensed Civil War guide will provide excellent narration over convenient headsets as your bus does the navigating. Bus tour tickets are $35 for ages 13 and up, $21 for ages 6 to 12.
If you have two or more visitors in your party, we highly recommend hiring one of the licensed guides for your battlefield tour. The expert guide will lead you to each site and provide a more personal tour. A two-hour tour for up to 6 people in your vehicle is only a little more than two tour bus tickets.
Our guide, Jim, pointed out memorials and shared extra details about regiments from each of our home states. Guides bring a deeper level of understanding and offer interesting details at popular stops like Little Round Top. If we had arranged it in advance, we could even have asked for a tour focusing on a particular regiment that our ancestors fought in.
Battlefield tours are also available by bicycle, Segway, horseback, and on foot.
Once you finish touring the battlefield, learn more of the Gettsyburg battle story at the following nearby historic sites.
Learn the Resident’s Story at the Shriver House Museum
Imagine yourself as one of the 2400 residents of Gettysburg Pennsylvania in late June 1863. From your windows, you nervously watch as a small band of Confederate soldiers passes through the town. A few days later, on the morning of July 1st, the Battle of Gettysburg begins, your small town is changed forever.
The privately-owned Shriver House Museum tells the story of the battle from the perspective of the residents of Gettysburg. The Shriver family owned a home, saloon, and bowling alley in town.
The house is meticulously restored to its condition at the time of the battle. At least two Confederate sharpshooters died in the attic, and post-battle surgeries were performed in the basement.
Docents in period dress offer guided tours through the house daily ($9.50 adults; $7.50 ages 7 to 12). Special events offer a reenactment of the Confederates occupying the house (July) and candlelight Christmas tours (late November and December).
After the Gettysburg Battle: Seminary Ridge Museum
Four floors of interactive displays at the Seminary Ridge Museum tell the story of the building’s use during the battle. on the first day of fighting, Union General John Buford set up an observation outpost here. Later, the building became a hospital treating an overwhelming number of wounded soldiers.
The third-floor exhibits tell a particularly powerful and gruesome tale. of the men who were horribly wounded, and the surgeons and nurses working valiantly to save them. Fans of PBS’s Mercy Street will learn new details about the challenges and triumphs of Civil War-time hospitals.
Admission to the museum is $12 for 13 and older; $10 for youth and seniors.
Union Burials and the Gettysburg Address: Gettysburg National Cemetery
Just months after the battle’s end, land was purchased to create a burial place for the Union casualties. More than 3,500 dead were reinterred in the newly created Gettysburg National Cemetery. On November 19, 1863, the new cemetery was dedicated, and President Abraham Lincoln delivered his now-famous Gettysburg Address.
A few Confederate soldiers are buried in the Gettysburg cemetery, 3,200 of the dead were moved to cemeteries in the south including the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
Dine at the Dobbin House Tavern
After a day immersed in Civil War sites, shift to Colonial history with a delicious dinner at the Dobbin House Tavern.
Gettysburg’s oldest building, the Dobbin House was built “four score and seven years” before the battle, in 1776. Servers in authentic period clothing deliver dishes from an extensive menu, in cozy rooms, on reproduction period china.
We enjoyed a candlelit dinner in the upstairs Alexander Dobbins Dining Room. Downstairs, the Springhouse Tavern offers more casual meals in a cozy pub setting. Our tasty cream of crab soup lived up to its amusing menu listing:
Porridge of the Day: Freshly homemade soup prepared by carefully boiling over coals with no smoke or dirt therein from stirring the fire. Served up steaming hot and heartily herb’d in a pipkin.
We also recommend the perfectly cooked Broiled Filet Mignon, hearty Pork Tenderloin, and rich pecan pie. The seafood also comes highly recommended.
Where to Stay in Gettysburg PA
Gettysburg is a fascinating destination for an overnight or weekend getaway. With so much to see, it is worth spending a night or two in town. There are many places to stay in Gettsyburg, including several that continue the historic theme.
UPDATE: The Gettysburg Hotel is closed until summer 2021.
Stay in the heart of the walkable downtown at the Gettysburg Hotel. The central location in Lincoln Square is ideal for shopping and dining after your day exploring history. There are 119 rooms and suites, a friendly bar, and an on-site restaurant, One Lincoln.
Visit in December and you’ll be surrounded by festive decorations and a lovely tree in the lobby. It’s a perfect base for a Gettysburg Christmas getaway.
The Inn at Lincoln Square
Enjoy a luxurious suite at the Inn at Lincoln Square, in the heart of downtown Gettysburg.
The Inn is next door to the David Wills House, where Abraham Lincoln stayed the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address. There are three suites with a sitting room, full kitchen, and bedroom with a comfy four-poster bed.
Two townhouses are also available, each accommodating 6 guests—a perfect option for families or groups. Another bonus of the Inn at Lincoln Square is a reserved, free parking space just outside the Inn’s courtyard.
Battlefield Bed & Breakfast Inn, Gettysburg
A short drive from downtown, the Battlefield Bed & Breakfast Inn. This is one of several lovely B&Bs in the area, and it offers 10 rooms in an historic home, plus a cottage room and a room in the lovely barn. The inn is a popular wedding destination featuring 2 event venues. On many days, interesting Civil War history programs accompany the delicious breakfast.
Explore Downtown on a Gettysburg Getaway
The area around Lincoln Square is fun for walking and exploring. Down Carlisle Street you can visit the historic train station where Lincoln arrived the night before his speech.
Next door, the Majestic Theater offers live acts and classic films in an historic space. Shop for crafts at Gallery 30 on Racehorse Alley, or find quirky and elegant gifts at Lark on the square.
One Lincoln Square, right across from the Inn, is a good stop for breakfast or lunch. Closer to the battlefield, we had a yummy burger and sandwich at Gettysburg Eddies, named after baseball Hall-of-Famer Eddie Plank. The Pub & Restaurant and Garryowen Irish Pub are both good options if you want to relax with a pint.
A Scenic Drive to Gettysburg
If you’re visiting Gettysburg from Washington DC or much of Northern Virginia, maps will suggest 495 to 270 to Fredericksburg, where you’ll pick up route 15 north. If you have extra time, drive to Leesburg in Loudoun County and follow route 15 from there. This is a prettier drive than the beltway and will get you in the historic mood as you travel a portion of The Journey Through Hallowed Ground.
When to Visit Gettsyburg
A Gettysburg getaway is a good option year-round, as the battlefield is always open. The Destination Gettysburg website is an excellent resource for planning your visit.
The weather is nice in spring, but the historic sites are busy in April and May when school groups visit. In summer, the battlefield stays open until 10:00 pm so it’s a great time to visit if you don’t mind warm days. Fall foliage makes September and October especially beautiful. In December, Christmas festivities offer more fun things to do in downtown Gettysburg. Winter is less crowded, but some historic sites are closed or have reduced hours.
Destination Gettysburg hosted our visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. All text, photos, and opinions are our own.
This article was published in 2016 and updated in 2020.