Erie is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the state of Pennsylvania. However, in terms of size and stature, there is a clear gulf between the first and second cities (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) and the second-tier cities, like Erie, Allentown, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and Harrisburg. Erie is roughly in the center of Pennsylvania's only coastline, bordering Lake Erie. The city itself sits on Presque Isle Bay, which is formed by a long, narrow peninsula known as Presque Isle that reaches from the west around the north of the city.
Erie was founded in 1795 after the purchase of the surrounding territory from New York. It made its mark on history during the early 19th century, when Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's small fleet of warships used the bay (then known as Misery Bay) to regroup and repair between skirmishes with the British fleet on Lake Erie. (A reconstruction of the Brig "Niagara" can be found at the Erie Maritime Museum.)
The late nineteenth century brought industrial development, primarily heavy equipment and the locomotive industry. Like many other cities in the so-called rust belt, this development has slowly withered away to outside competition, with the notable exception being General Electric, which maintains a large and active presence in the rail industry (GE Rail).
Erie's climate is similar to most of the Northern United States, but with a big winter twist known as lake effect snow. Snowfall amounts vary wildly within a 40 mile zone south of the lake. Most of the time the immediate vicinity of the lake receives light snowfall, and the range from three to fifteen miles receives a whollop. Snowfalls are also generally heavier as you go east. The NY/PA border region typically receives the most snow until you move far enough away from the lake for the effects to diminish. The roads are well maintained, but some snow squalls come on so suddenly, it is impossible to keep up. If you are driving in the winter, be prepared with emergency gear. The good news is that by January, it is often cold enough for Lake Erie to freeze over, greatly diminishing the lake effect.
Erie is within a two hour drive of Buffalo-Niagara, Cleveland-Hopkins and Pittsburgh International Airports. Erie International Airport (ERI) is a medium airport that is worth considering. The airport is served by four major airlines: Continental (via Cleveland), Delta (via Cincinnati and new service to Atlanta), Northwest (via Detroit), and US Airways (via Pittsburgh or Philadelphia). Bargains can be had and the airport itself is a breeze to navigate, get in and out of, and also has a full compliment of car rental agencies on-site. Parking is easy, but it is also fairly pricey. (Erie's airport is not large enough to justify a competitive parking market like most larger airports have - park on-site, get a friend to drive, or take a cab/bus.)
Amtrak serves the downtown Union Station, although this is not a common method of transportation, as most, if not all trains arrive or depart between midnight and 6:00 AM.
Erie is easily accessible via Interstate 90 and 79. The recently completed Bayfront Highway links the northern terminus of I-79 through the city along the bayfront and then through the industrial East side and newer housing and office developments around Knowledge Park and Penn State University (Behrend College). The new highway (completed Summer 2005) is 3-4 lanes, but has few buildings or side streets that connect directly with the road, making traffic relatively smooth and making it much easier to get in and out of the downtown. The completed highway is a scenic detour away from the traffic and strip malls of I-90 south of Erie.
Erie is laid out in an easy to understand grid pattern paralleling the Lake Erie coastline. Numbered streets starting with the northern most 2nd Street run roughly east-west. (The bayfront highway loops around this grid, taking the place of what would be a "1st Street". Major E/W thoroughfares are 6th, 12th, 26th and 38th Street. The center of town is split north-south by State Street. N/S streets on the west side of town are typically named after trees (Peach, Poplar, Chestnut) and on the east side after countries (French, German, Holland). The two major north-south routes through the center of town are State and Peach (Peach diverges to the southwest after 26th street.) Major N/S streets listed from west to east are Pittsburgh, Greengarden, Liberty, Chestnut, Peach, State, French, Parade, East. As you can see, this naming convention is not hard and fast, and breaks down in all directions the further you get from the city center. The suburbs of Fairview, Millcreek, Harborcreek, Lawrence Park and Wesleyville also stick to this rough grid pattern to some degree as you move away from the city.
Bus (EMTA) service primarily stretches from Fairview in the west to Harborcreek in the east, and south to the I-90/Peach Street shopping district. Regional shuttles connect the outlying communities of Edinboro, Waterford, Corry, Union City, Girard and Albion. EMTA is available by phone at (814) 452-3515.
Taxis are rare in Erie - apart from the airport and perhaps the very center of town, calling ahead is a must.
The main shopping area in Erie is centered around Peach Street, south of the city to its junction with I-90. Many of the typical national chains can be found, many of which are contained in Millcreek Mall, a sprawling single-story mall/strip complex.
Smaller niche shopping is available on the west side of the city in plazas on West 8th, 12th, and 26th Streets. The downtown also has a few stores, but has not been a large retail draw since the late 1970's.
Erie is a popular shopping destination because of Pennsylvania's waiver of sales tax on clothing. Many people from the surrounding states and Ontario make special trips to Erie for this reason.
Hotels are concentrated along the heavily travelled Interstate 90 corridor, primarily at the Peach and State St. exits. There are also a number of chain and locally based hotels and motels along Interstate 79 north of I-90 and to the west on 12th and 26th streets towards Presque Isle. Finally, the downtown offers a third option, offering anything from barebones motel to full-service hotel to bed and breakfast.