GETTYSBURG may be the ultimate expression of the Pennsylvanian genius for hospitality. Although at first glance the town looks nearly as schlocky as Niagara Falls, Gettysburg has no crass. Even the lady who passes the Big Macs through the McDonald's drive-in window makes you believe she's glad you came by.
The reason the town hasn't become a hard-edged tourist trap such as, say, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is "our Pennsylvania Dutch Mafia," according to a resident whose roots reach back to colonial times.
"We run on the free-enterprise system here, you betcha," he told a visitor while stuffing him with lunch. "But nearly all the owners of our attractions are friends and neighbors from old local families. Nobody wants to do anything to hurt the town. Tourism has been our mainstay for generations, and over the years we've learned not to pluck too hard at the goose that lays our golden eggs."
He helped himself to some more breaded stewed tomatoes, then transfixed his listener at spoonpoint: "And besides, what happened here was serious. It was important. We have a responsibility to history."
If you get lost in Gettysburg, which isn't easy, perfect strangers will not only happily hand out advice and directions, they'll often hand-deliver you to the museum, shop or restaurant you're seeking, and may introduce you to the proprietor. Gettysburg has the most perfect strangers there are.
If you're looking for elegance, keep looking. But if you're looking for a pleasant place to spend a day or a weekend, with plenty to see and do and eat, Gettysburg is only a couple of hours and an era away.
The first thing you'll see when -- before -- you get to Gettysburg is the 400-foot spun-steel National Tower, which is privately owned in spite of the name and looms over the town and battlefield like the machines of the Martian invaders in War of the Worlds. The tower is an engineering marvel that would look great on the moon or in Houston. It looks horrid in Gettysburg, and it's so high that you lose perspective on the ridges and valleys that so heavily influenced the flow of the battle. But it's worth visiting once, assuming you've bought one of the tour package plans.
Which you must do. The five-attraction package costs $15 ($8 for children) and the 8-ticket package is $20 and $11; you can go all the way up to 10 tickets for $24 and $13. They're on sale at the Gettysburg Tour Center, 778 Baltimore Street.
For advance information and advice on accommodations, call the Gettysburg Travel Council (717/334-6274). Or drop by its office at 35 Carlisle Street, in the old railroad station where Lincoln arrived from Washington carrying some notes in his hat about a little speech he was planning to give.
It's also a good idea to call ahead if you intend to visit the Eisenhower Farm (717/334-1124). Only 1,100 visitors a day are admitted for the 90-minute tour, which is available only by a half-hourly shuttle bus from the National Park Service Visitor Center. There is a $1 fee (70 cents for children under 16), and bus tickets are sold first-come, first served. No picture-taking is permitted inside the 15-room Georgian home where Ike and Mamie spent the post-presidential years.
You can spend one heck of a long day going through the attractions the package plans entitle you to. All of them, however large and elaborate, have a certain homespun quality that is hard to resist even if you couldn't care less, for instance, for such things as the wax dummies of former chief executives and their ladies on display in the Hall of Presidents, or good ol' Charley Weaver's hand-carved miniature soldiers in what's now called the Soldier's National Museum. The latter also houses A. Lincoln's Place Theatre, where James A. Getty (no relation to either the town's founding father or to the oil tycoon, so far as he knows) re-creates Old Abe in a 40-minute, one-man show that has been running for seven years and plays seven days a week from April through October. His Lincoln is both noble and refreshingly homely, as well as more than a little idiosyncratic.
Even the hardiest enthusiasts may grow a tad tired of the Gettysburg Address by the time they've visited the Lincoln Room Museum in the Wills House, where a dummy Father Abraham ruminates on the Republic as he polishes The Speech, and have finished tramping through the National Civil War Wax Museum, where another dummy Lincoln delivers it endlessly, and have sat in the Lincoln Train Museum, which re- creates the Great Emancipator's journey by special train to dedicate the national cemetery at Gettysburg.
The walls talk to you at the Jennie Wade House, but you don't have to just stand there and take it. We have it on the authority of Jacob M. Sheads, dean of Gettysburg historians, that Jennie -- who had been known as Virginia until the newspapers got ahold of the story -- was not the only civilian killed in the battle; an unidentified woman was found dead in Chambersburg Street. But Jennie, who was struck down by a stray bullet while baking bread, made better copy.
The remaining stop on the 10-ticket package is the Gettysburg Battle Theatre, featuring an electronic battle map and a sound-and-light show. You should hit this one about lunchtime, to take advantage of the surprisingly good cafeteria.
Which brings us to the subject of what besides the war brings a lot of people to Gettysburg: eats. While it is possible to find unappetizing food, you have to be pretty persistent or unlucky.
One stern test of a town is what sort of breakfast an early riser can find there, and Gettysburg musters up. Elby's, next to the wax museum, doesn't look all that inviting from the outside, but is run by nice folks and has a fine breakfast buffet that makes it the perfect place to graze a herd of children. But the jewel in the town is the Lincoln Diner at 32 Carlisle St., which is open 24 hours and has talented short-order cooks like you don't hardly see anymore. They serve up pretty darn decent lunch and supper also, but it's the traveler's duty to spread his custom.
For Civil War verisimilitude you can't beat the Farnsworth House at 401 Baltimore St. (717/334-8838), a handsome brick structure whose south wall is peppered with the marks of more than a hundred bullets (the shot that killed poor Miss Wade may have come from Confederate sharpshooters posted here). The restaurant is decorated in period, the staff is in costume; don't be offput by the cutesy menu, because the kitchen delivers first-rate fare. The Farnsworth features period game dishes, some claiming to be old family recipes, and the daily specials usually are excellent bargains.
Older yet is the 1776 Dobbin House Tavern at 89 Steinwehr Ave. (717/334-2100), which serves up just-baked bread and butter seemingly fresh from the firkin as part of its painstakingly maintained colonial atmosphere. The Sunday buffet brunch is not for calorie-counters.
Only a very strong recommendation from an enthusiastic townswoman persuaded us to try The Gettysburg A'dress Garden Restaurant at 1885 Baltimore Pike (717/337-1819). We're glad she talked us into it, because this outrageously yclept and too-too preciously presented fern barn has upright food at downright prices, with imaginative presentation and excellent service. Fortunately, whoever installed all that fussy stuff out front is just as fussy about what comes from the kitchen. Look out for the strawberry butter: Before you know it you'll be asking for another loaf of bread, and then you'll need another dish of butter . . . .
At first blush the Lamp Post Restaurant at 301 Carlisle St. (717/334-3315) looks like a tea room, but there's nothing dainty about the portions that come steaming to table. The menu aims at Middle American, and hits more often than not; and if you're in the company of a person whose idea of dining out is steak, steak or steak, this is the place. The restaurant's right across the street from Gettysburg College, whose delightful campus is a fine place for a postprandial stroll.
We asked half a dozen knowledgeable townspeople what restaurant they'd pick if they had to choose just one and stick to it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day after day. All of them waffled, but when pressed, four named the Dutch Cupboard at 523 Baltimore St. (717/334-6227). So would we. Authentic Pennsylvania Dutch dishes are subtle, substantial and satisfying, and this kitchen has been serving up the real thing with utter consistency for more years than we care to admit to. In fact it's very representative of Gettysburg as a whole: a little garish on the outsid, a little klutzy on the inside, but sound and solid throughout.
GETTING THERE -- From the Beltway take I-270 north to Frederick and U.S. 15 north to Gettysburg; about two hours.