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"Return Visit," a statue depicting Abraham Lincoln greeting a modern visitor in front of the Wills House, where the president put the final touches on the Gettysburg Address (Photograph by Leslie Trew Magraw)

A Local’s Guide to Gettysburg

Nov. 19, 1863—A hatless Abraham Lincoln steps onto a rough-hewn dais amidst a crush of onlookers to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” to consecrate America’s bloodiest battlefield and the still-fresh graves of those who gave their lives so that nation might live. Seven score and 11 years later that two-minute utterance endures as a symbol of the promise of American democracy.

“The nation was not suddenly transformed by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and all its ills magically lifted. But his speech gradually became a North Star for the country; a direction to aspire to and work toward,” said D. Scott Hartwig, retired supervisory historian at Gettysburg National Military Park. “It continues to inspire us.”

From July 1-3, 1863, Gettysburg was a place of division and conflict. But, in the decades following the epic battle, the town became an emblem of healing and reconciliation. Standing on the battlefield today, despite the death and destruction that occurred there (51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or went missing in just three days), a palpable serenity can be felt—especially in the off-season, when fewer visitors crowd the experience.

But where the battle sites and national cemetery stand as august tributes to men and ideals, the “most famous small town in America” is far from a shadow box filled with costumes and cannons. The Gettysburg of today thrives on a folksy combination of winsome landscapes and rural panache.

In the heart of Pennsylvania’s Fruit Belt and on the northern cusp of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Gettysburg is as much defined by geology as it is by history. That so much of its natural contours have been preserved is a bright byproduct of efforts to maintain the battlefield as a living classroom on hallowed ground.

But this isn’t a classroom. An eclectic community flourishes here, and that’s a part of the experience, too. “My wife and I have lived all over the country, but Gettysburg has it all as far as we’re concerned,” says Bob Kirby, longtime superintendent of the military park and its sister attraction, the Eisenhower National Historic site (America’s 34th president retired to Gettysburg). “Most of all, we like the people.”

Beyond the 6,000-acre national military park–a microcosm of Adams County with its peach and apple orchards, craggy tors, flashing streams, and boundless fields–a downtown historic district brims with bistros, shops, and galleries.

“I think you’re seeing more countervailing forces as time progresses,” says Marc Jalbert, the artisan bread-maker behind Gettysburg Baking Company. “The 150th [anniversary in July of 2013] intensified interest in the battle, but it also raised the bar for others to say, ‘Here’s what we do; we grow fruit and make music and have farm markets and wineries.'”

Get a feel for the local art scene at Gallery 30 and Bluebrick, an all-women co-op comprised of area artist-educators, stroll around antebellum Gettysburg College with an espresso from Ragged Edge, and visit the Wills House, where Lincoln polished his powerful prose in a room overlooking the town square.

When hunger strikes, sample the harvest at the Round Barn farmers market, or have it served up in locally sourced delights at Fidler & Co. Craft Kitchen, a cozy farm-to-table café featuring Jalbert’s rustic creations in nearby Biglerville. Then head west on Lincoln Highway to sip a pint of Jack’s Hard Cider on the Hauser Estate Winery patio as the sun melts into the mountains just miles from the Appalachian Trail 

Gettysburg is a town where a yellow light still means slow down, not speed up. The locals like it that way, and you will, too.

Celebrate the Gettysburg Address: 

Pay homage to the Gettysburg Address and the great man who delivered the now-famous speech on Dedication Day (held every year on November 19) at Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

The town also plays host to a Remembrance Day parade and a “Remembrance Illumination,” where volunteers and visitors place a lit candle on each Civil War soldier’s grave to honor the sacrifices made on the battlefield.

Other Civil War Must-Dos:

The Visitor Center provides a great starting point for any Gettysburg adventure. Make sure to see the impressive Cyclorama, a 360-degree painting depicting Pickett’s Charge, the climactic—and devastating—infantry assault that confirmed a Confederate defeat on the battle’s third and final day.

Seminary Ridge, where the first day of battle took place, is certainly worth touring. New in 2013, the Seminary Ridge Museum is housed in a former field hospital where 600 soldiers from both sides convalesced. Visitors can walk on wooden floors that held the wounded, look at pocket Bibles of the fallen, and take in the wide view from the cupola where Union General John Buford first spied Confederate brigades streaming his way.

The Eternal Light Peace Memorial was dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 to commemorate the moving 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg of 1913, which was attended by more than 50,000 veterans from both sides of the conflict. Cross the Mummasburg Road to climb the Oak Ridge observation tower and take in sweeping views of first-day battle sites and downtown Gettysburg.

West Confederate Avenue, which, as you might expect from the name, commemorates only “rebel” states—including a striking equestrian statue of General Robert E. Lee, who suffered defeat at Gettysburg. When you come to Millerstown Road on the one-way byway, hang a left to continue your battlefield tour or take a right to access the Eisenhower National Historic site and a lovely covered bridge used by Confederate and Union troops during and after the battle. Another observation tower—the tallest in town—can be found at this intersection as well, and may afford the loveliest view of all.

The monuments along Hancock Avenue, named for General Winfield Scott Hancock, pay homage to the war efforts of the Union states, with the Pennsylvania Monument (climb the stairs for the view) and the High Water Mark of the Rebellion, where Pickett’s Charge was halted in savage hand-to-hand fighting, serving as principal highlights.

The Devil’s Den and Little Round Top area, which saw strategic victories for the North on July 2, 1863, remains one of the battlefield’s most popular attractions—especially with younger visitors, who go ape over the climbable boulders strewn about at Devil’s Den, but one reminder of Gettysburg’s interesting geological history.

Forested Culp’s Hill, scene of decisive yet under-sung action on the second and third days of fighting, seems to attract fewer tourists, offering a more intimate experience for visitors seeking respite from crowds. An observation tower here also provides an excellent overview of the town in relation to the different battle sites.

Best Ways to See the Sights:

Visitors can explore the battlefield by car, bike (Gettys Bike gets good reviews), or “scoot coupe,” among other options. Several self-guided audio tours are available for purchase or to rent, but “The Gettysburg Story” (produced by Jake Boritt, who debuted a companion documentary in 2013) is a stand-out. Civil War buffs looking for a more in-depth tour can hire a licensed park guide to ride along with them in their cars.

Sign up for the Grave Digger Tour, a nonfiction alternative to the standard—and ubiquitous—ghost tour (Gettysburg has long maintained a reputation as one of the most haunted places in the world), to learn how the small Pennsylvania community dealt with the thousands of dead and dying in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles in world history. For insight into what the locals experienced during the battle, download “Witness to History,” a free walking-tour app produced by Gettysburg College.

Learn more about the important role Gettysburg played in the Underground Railroad and the experiences of black townspeople and soldiers before, during, and after the battle by booking a tour with local company For the Cause.

Leslie Trew Magraw is the editor and producer of the Intelligent Travel blog network at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter @leslietrew.