Is Philadelphia The Capital of Pennsylvania?

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania skyline at dusk

As one of the most important states to the foundation of the US, Pennsylvania has a rich history behind it. Its cities have seen numerous Founding Fathers come and go while developing the constitutional framework we live under today, with Philadelphia being a particularly popular spot. Philadelphia’s historical importance may make it seem like the most obvious candidate to be the capital of Pennsylvania, but is it actually?

Although Philadelphia is Pennsylvania’s most populated city, it is not the state’s capital. Instead, that title goes to Harrisburg, which was chosen primarily due to its geographical position in the state. Philadelphia actually was the state capital for a brief period, but that ended in 1799.

While this gives you a brief overview of the current status of Pennsylvania’s capital, there’s a lot left to cover about the history and meaning behind it. So read on to discover the changes the capital has gone through over the years and the role Philadelphia has played in creating the United States.

Harrisburg – The Current Capital of Pennsylvania

It may come as a surprise to some people that Philadelphia is not actually the capital of Pennsylvania: it’s Harrisburg. Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania and often comes to mind when people think of the state, but it hasn’t been the capital since 1799. To gain a stronger understanding of the city’s relationship with the role of state capital, we need to go back to its foundation.

In 1682, an English Quaker by the name of William Penn founded Philadelphia with the express interest that it would become Pennsylvania’s capital. His vision was a success for the following century, with Philadelphia occupying the state capital role the entire time the US was under British colonialism.

The Founding Fathers would meet here to discuss official affairs, making Philadelphia the primary source of American progress in the 18th century. However, even its vitality to the fabric of our democracy would not be enough for Philadelphia to remain Pennsylvania’s capital forever.

272 foot dome on the State Capitol Building dome

Harrisburg is now the capital of Pennsylvania, and this is almost entirely due to geography. You see, a few hundred years ago it was challenging for politicians to move quickly between cities. It could take weeks just to cross a state without the methods of transportation we have today, so the location of a city was an essential factor in deciding whether or not it would become the state capital.

Harrisburg happened to be right in the middle of Pennsylvania, and the accessibility that this location presented gave the state enough reason to declare Harrisburg as the new state capital.

Not only is Harrisburg in a central position in Pennsylvania, but it’s also right next to the Susquehanna River, a convenient water source that allowed travelers to reach Harrisburg quickly by ship. These geographic advantages were enticing to state leaders, and no other factors could sway them from choosing Harrisburg as the capital. To this day, it’s the 15th largest city in Pennsylvania, so popularity certainly wasn’t part of their decision.

Birdseye view of the Harrisburg State Capital Building

Besides remaining the state capital, Harrisburg has also been ranked the 2nd best place in the United States to start a family. The town has seen major corruption scandals in the last few decades that led to a bankruptcy filing in 2011. However, it has mostly recovered and is still considered a safe place to live and work.

Some even consider Harrisburg a haven to protect your financial health during a recession due to the variety of government positions available for employment. Those considering a move to Harrisburg will want to research the tumultuous events that have arisen in recent history to make sure they’re comfortable, but most will likely find the city to be a place of opportunity.

Keystone Answers Fun Fact: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has the oldest Amish community in the United States and draws millions of tourists to the county each year.

Why Did Pennsylvania Change its Capital?

When we compare the location of Philadelphia to Harrisburg, it becomes much clearer why state leaders made the switch. Even though Philadelphia is the largest Pennsylvanian city, it’s nowhere near the state’s center. Its location is all the way down in the southeastern region of the state, causing the Founding Fathers to spend weeks traveling to and from the city by carriage. Comparatively, Harrisburg could be reached in no time.

Geography was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of Philadelphia being removed as the state capital, but it wasn’t the only issue. The city was also the capital of the US for a while (we’ll dive more into that later), and it appeared to be a conflict of interest for it to be both capitals at once. 

Overcrowding became a problem as Philadelphia was the heart of so many governmental affairs, and the confusion pushed leaders to change the state capital’s location.

A little factoid for those interested in the details of the decision to make Harrisburg the state capital is that a paltry four acres of land next to the Susquehanna River became a major influence that tipped the edge to Harrisburg’s favor.

John Harris, Jr. donated this piece of land in 1785 and declared that Harrisburg would be an excellent spot for the state capital, eventually seeing this land be used for two state office buildings.

Was Lancaster Ever the Capital of Pennsylvania?

It may seem like Harrisburg immediately became Pennsylvania’s capital after Philadelphia was ousted, but there was actually a brief period of time in between where neither city was the capital. Instead, a town called Lancaster got the honor of being the state capital for about a decade after Philadelphia stopped holding that spot in 1799.

Birdseye view of Lancaster Pennsylvania

Officials wanted to stop cluttering Philadelphia by giving it the position of the state capital and capital of the US, so they shifted the state capital position over to Lancaster instead due to its sizable population. Lancaster is the 11th most populated Pennsylvanian city, placing it a few spots above Harrisburg, which is the 15th most populated.

Population size couldn’t maintain Lancaster’s title as the state capital for very long, though. So finally, in 1812, Harrisburg was officially chosen as the new capital for its geographic convenience and has remained the capital ever since.

Is the PA State Capitol Open to the Public?

The Pennsylvania State Capitol Building is still used to govern the state and enact new public policy to this day, but that’s not all. It’s also open for visitors! Anyone can schedule a visit and walk around the historic Pennsylvania Capitol Building as they see fit. There’s even an Interactive Welcome Center where you can get a first-hand look at how legislation is formed and a Capitol Gift Shop to purchase souvenirs.

A trip to the Capitol Building is a must if you ever find yourself in or near Harrisburg. There’s hardly a better way to immerse yourself in not only Pennsylvania’s history, but also the history of the United States. However, keep in mind that tours are limited to 40 people, so if you’re going with a large group, you might have to do some careful planning.

Was Philadelphia ever the Capital of the US?

In addition to being the state capital of Pennsylvania for over a hundred years, Philadelphia was also the capital of the US for a while. In fact, Philadelphia was the very first capital of the United States! Beginning in 1775, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital until December of 1776, regaining the position four different times through 1800. Its longest stretch as the US capital was from 1790 to 1800, while Washington DC was still in the process of being built.

Assembly room in Independence Hall Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A city that, for a time, simultaneously served as its state’s and nation’s capital must have some historical significance, right? Philadelphia wasn’t just a convenient place for the Founding Fathers to meet up and talk shop; it was the home of major developments in US history, especially during and after the American Revolution.

In just a few decades, Philadelphia saw the formation of the First Continental Congress, the Second Continental Congress (where the Declaration of Independence was signed), and the preservation of the Liberty Bell. As if this wasn’t enough to permanently carve Philadelphia’s name in history, the US Constitution itself was ratified at the Philadelphia Convention.

Since its construction was completed in 1800, Washington, DC has permanently been the US capital. Even so, as brief as Philadelphia’s time as the nation’s capital was in comparison, it can’t be overlooked. Those periods saw a significant change come to the United States as the country gained its independence, and Philadelphia was at the center of it all.

Philadelphia – A Cornerstone of America

Although Philadelphia isn’t the capital of Pennsylvania today, the century in which it was, brought tremendous progress to Pennsylvania and helped inspire the formation of the United States as we know it today. Harrisburg may be the state capital now, but it’s difficult to think of Pennsylvania without thinking of Philadelphia too. So if you’d like to see the birthplace of much of American democracy, the Liberty Bell, and a plethora of other historical artifacts, you might just want to plan an extended trip to the prosperous city of Philadelphia.

Photo of author


Pennsylvania is my home state; I reside on the original homestead settled by my forefathers in the early 1800s. Surrounded by thousands of acres of state land, I enjoy the serenity and quiet of rural Pennsylvania. I like ATVing, observing wildlife, sitting around the campfire, photography, and hiking.