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Why Bethlehem, PA, Is a Top 100 Place To Live in America

Affordability, history and opportunity abound in the Lehigh Valley.

By Rebecca Treon on March 9, 2022

Moravian University, Bethlehem, PA
Courtesy of Moravian University

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, may date back to the colonial era, but its attractions and amenities are thoroughly modern. It was founded in 1741 and several original buildings dating from that period are still in use today. Its historic downtown area has all the charm you’d expect from a hamlet nicknamed “Christmas City,” coupled with affordable housing and career opportunities, making Bethlehem a great place to live.

Local resident Kaitie Burger, who went to college in the area, once thought she’d move to a bigger city, but after weighing her options, decided Bethlehem was the place to make her home. Three years ago, she and her boyfriend bought a 102-year-old home and decided to put down roots in a community they love.

“We like knowing that we’re close to cities like New York and Philadelphia, but the cost of living is a lot better here and there are so many things to do,” says Burger. “We bought a home here because the community really shares our values. I have found a couple of organizations I volunteer with, I’m on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, there is a group of neighbors that’s breaking ground on a community-owned grocery store, and there’s an awareness about giving back to schools and other needs locals have.”

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Courtesy of Moravian University

History and Hot ZIP Codes

Bethlehem is just 90 minutes from New York City and an hour from Philadelphia, yet it offers ample housing options for its 75,000 residents. Sixty-six percent of Bethlehem residents are homeowners, and the median home price is $275,000. In 2019, the National Association of Realtors named Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley one of the Top 10 markets in the U.S. for homebuyers ages 18-35, and last year, Bethlehem’s 18018 ZIP code was No. 12 on Realtor.com’s list of “Hottest ZIP Codes of 2021.”

Bethlehem is home to public and private primary and secondary schools and colleges like Lehigh University (founded in 1845, it was No. 44 in U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 ratings of America’s best colleges) and Moravian University (founded in 1742, it’s the sixth oldest college in the country). Neighboring Allentown is headquarters for the Lehigh Valley’s workforce development programs.

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SteelStacks, Bethlehem, PA / Jeff Adkins

The Lehigh Valley is a hub of industry, dating back from the days of steel through the modern age, where it is home to manufacturing, transportation, logistics, health care, and even food and beverage processing, each of which provide thousands of jobs for area locals. The area continues to attract top tech companies and other innovators across industries.

Burger is just one of the many young professionals who have decided to make Bethlehem a permanent home.

“The city is attracting younger people as work habits have changed over the last couple of years, there are some apartment complexes popping up, people have decided to stay here after college or they’re working remotely or don’t need to be in a city anymore,” says Burger, who is director of destination strategy for Arizona-based Madden Media. “As a full-time remote worker myself, I sometimes utilize a local co-working space when I want to be around other people.”

Bethlehem can’t deny the importance of its history, though — it’s in the process of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only 25 in the U.S. on a list that includes The Alamo and the Liberty Bell. The city has more intact colonial buildings than Colonial Williamsburg, where many have been reconstructed.

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Jeff Auger

Food, Festivals and Natural Beauty

The arts are thriving in Bethlehem, whose First Fridays offer live music, entertainment and food at the South Side shopping district, which is filled with boutiques and galleries. The Bach Choir of Bethlehem has performed for thousands of listeners since 1898, while the Banana Factory, an artist studio collective, opens to visitors monthly. Touchstone Theatre and Lehigh University’s Zollner Arts Center offer a variety of musical and dramatic and theatrical performances year-round. Bethlehem’s main event, Musikfest, attracts over a million visitors to the city each year for a free 10-day music festival.

“Musikfest is our favorite event every year — we’re pretty aggressive with our attendance and we go to see live music every day during the festival,” says Burger. “There are like 17 stages, food and drink vendors. We have our friends come visit then and the city just comes alive.”

Bethlehem is surrounded by natural beauty, too, with over 500 acres of public parks, including a popular aquatics playground, Dutch Springs. At the Lehigh Canal, hiking, biking and fishing opportunities abound, the perfect start to a day rounded out with a visit to a few of the more than 30 regional wineries, like Black River Farms.

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Courtesy of Black River Farms

“I’m a big self-proclaimed foodie, and people don’t think the food is going to be so outstanding, but we have an incredible independent restaurant and beverage scene that’s on par with any of the bigger cities,” says Burger. “We’re big fans of going out to eat at any of our locally owned and staffed places, where your servers will know your names and your order. It’s great to have that connection because everyone is so community-minded.”

“Christmas City” comes to life in the weeks leading up to the holidays. It has a Christkindl market, decorated trees throughout town, and horse-drawn carriage rides.

“It’s really like a Hallmark movie, with all the shops decorated and lights in all the windows,” says Burger. “I love that it’s so centralized, with a goal of community in mind, and everyone cares about supporting local small businesses.”

Visitors may want to stick around past Christmas to ring in New Year’s Eve, too: Bethlehem is home to Just Born Quality Confections, creators of popular sweets Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales, and Peeps, and the city drops a giant Peep when the clock strikes 12.

This article was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

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