Decades ago, Lake Erie was dying a slow death due to pollution. Partly for that reason, the city of Erie was also suffering economic issues. However, once officials stepped in to clean up Erie’s waterfront, industry leaders and tourists put Erie back on the map. Today, what used to be Dreary Erie is now a favorite Great Lakes coastal vacation destination. Now, Erie is a bright beacon welcoming visitors to experience all the cool waterfront attractions and fun things to do on the Presque Isle peninsula!
Cover photo by: Visit Erie
About Erie, Pennsylvania
Located along the shores of one the world’s best-protected harbors, Erie is Pennsylvania’s only commercial lake port. It’s the region’s import and export link to the world through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Port of Erie proudly boasts efficient links to rail and Interstates 79 and 90 allowing quick, easy access to destinations in every direction.
While Erie is an important commercial shipping and transportation hub, its’ maritime history dates back even before the pivotal War of 1812.
The city is also referred to as the Gem City because of the sparkling Lake Erie water. But Erie also known as Flagship City because of its’ status as the homeport of Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship U.S. Brig Niagara.
The City of Erie boasts its’ proud culture, heritage and history as well as recreation opportunities. And, all of those are because of where the city is situated. It sits right on the coast of Lake Erie; literally halfway between Buffalo, New York to the east and Cleveland, Ohio to the west.
Erie is a mecca for maritime commerce. Oftentimes, ships from countries afar make the port of Erie their stop. And, of course, coming from its’ maritime heritage ourselves, visiting this Great Lakes port city was a given.
Today, the Port of Erie’s historic waterfront also invites visitors to learn, explore and experience the many great things to do in Erie!
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Having grown up in the city of Erie and a nearby lakeshore town, we used to jokingly chant “dreary Erie, mistake on the lake” because of Lake Erie’s water pollution. It’s a vision I’ll never forget as a child; dead fish, ugly oily foam and murk. It was hard to even see 6″ below the water’s surface.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it became polluted as a result of the quantity of heavy industry situated in cities on its shores with reports of bacteria-laden beaches and fish contaminated by industrial waste.
Through years of scientific and biological magic, Lake Erie is now clean, thriving and full of life; onshore and in its’ depths!
The funny thing is, the place I couldn’t wait to leave as a kid now lures me back in as an adult. And, 30some years later, we made our way up to the shores of Lake Erie where I grew up. Oddly enough, the area I was so eager to leave has brought me back ‘home’.
So, let’s see why I actually fell in love with Erie’s waterfront!
10 Fun Things to Do on the Erie Waterfront & Presque Isle Peninsula
Erie Land Lighthouse
I still have fond memories of Erie Land Light. My family used to visit the lighthouse when I was a young girl with my 3 brothers.
Recollecting, the light was extinguished and in disrepair. It did not serve as a lighthouse. As kids that didn’t understand its’ significance, all we cared about was beaning each other with the thousands of chestnuts strewn all over the property.
Also known as the Old Presque Isle Light, Erie Land Light stands only 48′ tall on the shore of Lake Erie’s waterfront in Pennsylvania.
It’s is one of the three lighthouses in Erie, in addition to the North Pier Light and the Presque Isle Light. Overlooking Lake Erie, the lighthouse sits upon a bluff in downtown Erie in Lighthouse Park.
Erie Land Light was actually one of the first lighthouses built on the Great Lakes in 1818. Forty-some years later, the foundations sank; requiring it to be rebuilt in 1867. It remained in service until 1880 when the light was decommissioned.
However, it was relit in 1884 and stayed lit for 5 short years. And again, in 1899, it was decommissioned. The lantern and lenses were then both removed.
Sadly, the lighthouse stood darkened and lonely. And that’s how I saw the lonely little lighthouse that meant nothing to me as a youngster.
But then in the mid 1930’s, Erie Land Lighthouse was sold to the city of Erie. And, it took until 1978 to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places of Erie County, Pennsylvania.
Today, the Erie Land Light is fully restored; standing prominent as one of Erie’s three lighthouses for visitors to gaze at and to help lead lake maritimers back to port. Its’ property serves as a small park for families to take in the view and enjoy the enchanted maritime ambiance.
And when my brother took me back to see it in 2020, my eyes lit up just as bright as the spotlight on the light itself. By the way, it’s one of the best places on the Erie waterfront to view the sunrise.
Dobbin’s Landing and Bicentennial Tower
Back when I was a kid, Erie’s Dobbin’s Landing, formerly called the Public Dock, was just a long concrete pier where visiting ships would temporarily moor. I remember watching local fisherman sit for hours with their line in the water hoping to take home some fresh catch.
On Friday and Saturday nights, the Public Dock would come alive with lines of cars with local teens driving up and down the pier until the morning light.
Today, its much different because of it’s reconstruction and design. Instead of being the local hangout, it’s now Erie’s iconic waterfront attraction to get a bird’s eye view of Erie and Presque Isle Bay and Presque Isle State Park.
The Bicentennial Tower stands firm during every November gale and snow squall that Mother Nature throws at it. This tower takes you to new heights of Dobbins Landing.
The Tower is open to the public, allowing visitors to catch a great view north of the city. On a clear day, you can even see Canada!
The tower stands a total of 187′ to the top of the flagpole; height of first observation deck of 17′ and second higher observation deck of 138′.
But, be aware there are 210 stairs from the first observation deck to the second so your legs are sure to get a little workout. That’s just 47 steps shy of what it takes to climb Cape Hatteras on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
There is limited free parking at the Dobbins Landing. We suggest visiting the Bicentennial Tower and Public Dock on a weekday to avoid traffic congestion and crowds.
Also, Port of Erie’s Bicentennial Tower only opens when weather permits. Under the tower where you pay your admissions, there’s a concessions and gift shop.
Erie Maritime Museum
Though the Erie Maritime Museum didn’t even exist before I started my Coast Guard career, it’s now one of Erie’s most prominent must-sees; especially if you’re into maritime history.
It also includes an exhibit showing the reconstruction and sailing of today’s U.S.S. Niagara. And, the U.S. Navy’s first iron-hulled ship, U.S.S. Michigan/Wolverine, is the subject of the museum’s newest exhibit.
The museum is ADA-compliant and offers bus parking. (I’m assuming RV’s may be welcome. To be sure, call first.), gift shop, guided tours, handicapped access, and vending machines. And, being a military family, we learned that the Erie Maritime Museum is a proud member of the Blue Star Museums!
U.S. Brig Niagara
Visiting Niagara was one of my most cherished memories of visiting the Erie waterfront as a kid. Whenever we had out of town company visit, the Flagship Niagara (replica) was one of the places my mother took them.
As a kid, I remember the old wooden brig literally rotting. I’d flick away paint chips and touch the moldy lines. And it smelled like an old moldy sea chest. Even as a preteen, it had obviously seen better days.
U.S.S. Niagara, commonly called the U.S. Brig Niagara or Flagship Niagara, is a wooden-hulled snow-brig that served as the relief flagship for Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
However, it’s different from those days I remember. Today, a replica of the Niagara is so majestic under full sail. And she tells the story of so many years ago of the arduous water battles in the War of 1812.
The Niagara now berths near the Erie Maritime Museum. And, it’s within walking distance from Dobbins Landing and Bicentennial Tower on Front Street.
The Niagara operates a Sailing School aboard her with an active sail training program during the summer months. When she’s in port, the ship is open for tours, so you’ll need to call ahead to check visitation schedule.
Visitors can tour and learn about her amazing history and what she is used for today. Be aware that because the historic construction of the Niagara, the ship is not ADA compliant. There are steep ladders, lines on the decks and obstructions.
Tom Ridge Environmental Center
I highly recommend visiting the Tom Ridge Environmental Center before exploring Presque Isle State Park.
Though not located directly on Erie’s waterfront, it is located on the grounds of Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania. Opening in May 2006, it’s named after former Pennsylvania Governor and former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.
According to Discover PI,
“The Tom Ridge Environmental Center and Erie Visitor Center is an educational center dedicated to teaching visitors about the unique 3,200 acres of Presque Isle and the many different forms of life that inhabit the peninsula.”
It serves as a research center to educate and promote environmental awareness of the region and help preserve Pennsylvania’s only seashore; Presque Isle.
The Tom Ridge Environmental Center offers free admission and is open all year. It’s a great place to unwind and enjoy learning about Erie’s lakeshore.
There’s lots to do for solos, couples and families of all ages! Experience their interactive exhibits, climb the 75′ glass-enclosed tower, watch the orientation movie, enjoy some vittles at the Sunset Café and of course, browse the Presque Isle Gallery and Gift Shop. They also host a wide range of fun events throughout the year such as scavenger huts, concerts and educational programs.
Presque Isle State Park
Presque Isle State Park, also known as the Peninsula, has some of the best freshwater beaches in the country! It’s no wonder it’s been named as a top attraction in the state of Pennsylvania.
This 3200 acre peninsula offers many recreational activities from boating and waterskiing, swimming and fishing to hiking, beach strolling, bicycling and even climbing a lighthouse! And having grown up on Lake Erie, they don’t close for a little snow (or a lot!). There’s even plenty to do in the winter!
There are lots of beaches where you can swim at Presque Isle. However, the beaches are open specific hours and seasons.
Worth noting, in the late Spring and Summer, because of the sudden water temperature increases, algae blooms present unsafe levels of toxins. So, you may want to check the Presque Isle State Park website for information on beach closings.
And though the beaches at Presque Isle hardly compare to Waikiki, it does lay claim to having the only surfing beach in Pennsylvania. Visitors who wish to surf or scuba dive though, will need proper certifications though.
Presque Isle State Park is also registered as a National Natural Landmark. With hundreds of dunes, marshes and wooded habitats, over 300 species of birds either take residence on the peninsula permanently, for Spring, Summer and Fall seasons, or use it for their overnight accommodations during their migration period.
The State Park also contains several endangered, threatened, and rare species of wildlife and an abundance of native plants and trees.
The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. Day-use areas close at dusk. The best part is it costs nothing to drive onto Presque Isle, unload your bikes or throw on our daypack to explore every inch of the peninsula.
Before driving out to the peninsula, we highly recommend you visit Presque Isle State Park website.
The historic Perry Monument, marking the point leading into Misery Bay, has stood its test of time for as long as I can remember.
Located on the southeast side of the Presque Isle peninsula, the 101 foot tall Perry Monument standing next to Misery Bay honors and commemorates Oliver Hazard Perry’s courageous victory from the Battle of Lake Erie during War of 1812.
It’s named by the men of Perry’s naval squadron, who wintered here 1813-1814 after the crucial Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813.
We highly recommend visiting this outdoor monument to get the best views of Erie’s waterfront, Public Dock and Bicentennial Tower.
Presque Isle Light
Presque Isle Lighthouse is located on the north shore of Presque Isle State Park at Lighthouse Beach.
It was built in 1872 and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Until 1944, it was home to nine U.S. Lighthouse service Keepers and their families.
Each night, the Keeper would fuel the lamp to light that reflected through a Fresnel lens. The light was visible 13 nautical miles.
Today, the light is automated; meaning it no longer requires a 24-hour Keeper.
To tour Presque Isle Light, know that there are 78 steps inside the tower to get to the top. Once you get up to the last step, amazing view of Lake Erie await you! That being, you may want to save this adventure for a sunny, blue sky day.
The lighthouse is open for tours 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from mid May through Labor Day, weather permitting.
Tours of the Lighthouse take place every 20 minutes and start at 10 a.m. and end at 4:40 p.m. Visitors can purchase tickets to climb the lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters on the day of your visit or in advance.
But, there is no fee to stroll the grounds and going to the gift shop are free and open to the public.
Outdoor Activities at Presque Isle
If you’re looking to get some outside time and exercise, Presque Isle State Park offers more than 15 miles of flat paved and natural surface hiking trails. You’ll definitely want to check out the Dead Pond Trail, Gull Point Trail and Graveyard Pond Trail. One of the best places to get a great view of the water is the North Pier Trail that leads you to the old breakwater light (below).
But, the ADA compliant Karl Boyes Multipurpose National Recreation Trail is an amazing outdoor venue where you can stretch your legs, get some exercise and take in the beautiful wildlife habitats of the park.
The 13.5 mile paved circuit starts at the park entrance. It follows the Presque Isle Bay shoreline, passes Perry Monument. The trail then, bends around the eastern end of the park, back along the Lake Erie side of the park and ties back into the trail again near Duck Pond area. The paved trail offers great surface for walking, bicycling, and inline skating.
If you don’t have your own equipment, you can rent everything to enjoy the Erie waterfront at Waterworks Beach/Rotary Pavilion and at Graveyard Pond across from Misery Bay.
They have small motorboats and pontoon boats, kayak, canoe and paddle board rentals to navigate the waters. You can also rent bicycles and surreys to explore by land!
In the winter months, the park plows the trail from the entrance to the park office for day hikers. But, from the park office to Perry Monument is remains for those who enjoy snowshoeing and cross country skiing.
Winter visitors can also enjoy activities such as ice skating, ice fishing and ice boating. You can also rent winter activity equipment near Waterworks Ponds.
Restroom facilities are located throughout the Park; 3 of which are open year-round: Public Safety Building, Rotary Pavilion and the Perry Monument.
Let’s Play Pirate! Scallywags Pirate Adventure
Since 2013, the Scallywags Pirates has been terrorizing Presque Isle Bay and Erie’s waterfront with entertaining and interactive cruises for all ages.
If you’re a kid at heart, climb aboard and play pirate on their interactive pirate voyages! The crew of steadfast pirates are professionally trained and ready to take you on an adventure like no other!
PRO TIP: Looking for more fun places to visit with your family, we highly recommend checking out Visit Erie.
Where to Stay in Erie
We parked our RV only for a few nights at Presque Isle Downs Casino. If you do stay overnight there, we do recommend not leaving anything out and to lock your RV.
And, please reciprocate their hospitality in allowing RV parking by purchasing meals, horse betting and/or gambling. Presque Isle Downs & Casino is located just south of I-90 Exit 27.
Where to Stay or Camp in Erie
There are several campgrounds in Erie that are for tent campers and RVs alike:
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If you’re not coming by RV but are looking for other lodging, check out Visit Erie’s Places to Stay in Erie.
Wrapping up our things to do on the Port of Erie Waterfront
There are many other cool destinations and tours throughout the city of Erie, but these are our favorites located along the waterfront. Visiting them brought back memories of my childhood.
Of course, much has changed due to Erie’s commerce, economic and tourism growth through the decades since I left ‘dreary Erie’ in the very early 80’s. This lakeshore city has a newfound allure with lots of fun things to do on Erie’s waterfront! In fact, I can’t wait to go back to visit! And, I hope you get to experience it too!
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