The River Towns: Marietta, Columbia & Wrightsville

John Wright Restaurant 

What began as a popular Wrightsville sandwich shop has grown into a complex that includes a beautiful glass-enclosed restaurant, a pizza patio, a small gourmet market and a special events venue. As a bonus, John Wright offers an unrivaled view of the Susquehanna River. “We’re now the only restaurant with a view of the river,” says Jim Switzenberg, who has been the restaurant’s director of operations since 2010, of the area between Harrisburg and the lower Susquehanna. In Jim’s opinion, the location has enabled John Wright to become “a destination restaurant” that literally sits on the edge of Lancaster County. “The river is part of Lancaster County, so we’re right on the border of Lancaster and York counties,” he notes. 

From John Wright Restaurant: Shrimp and Grits is comprised of Gulf shrimp, pepperjack grits and Cajun seasoning. It’s paired with a white wine from the restaurant’s extensive wine list.

Freshness is a mantra of the restaurant in more ways than one. The menu emphasizes fresh, organic, sustainable, local and naturally raised/made food products. Jim even likes to introduce local curiosities such as ramps and pawpaws to the seasonal menus. Farther afield, tuna from areas such as the Outer Banks and shrimp from the Gulf Coast make their way to John Wright in just a day’s time. 

John Wright’s friendly bar is now being overseen by a new mixologist, who, according to Jim, has created a menu with “a whole new vibe.” As for the Pizza Patio, a portion of it is now undercover, which will allow for it to be used even when the weather is a concern.  

To learn more, visit jwrpa.com. 

A Little History 

All three towns saw European settlement during the same time period: Columbia in 1726, Marietta in 1727 and Wrightsville in 1732. John Wright, an English Quaker missionary who went on to become a ferry operator and judge, founded Columbia. His grandson, Samuel, is credited with laying out the town and naming it (1788) Columbia. 

John Wright’s ferry business led to the development of Wrightsville, which became a major stopping point for travelers heading west. Marietta is named in honor of Mary Cook and Etta Anderson, the wives of the town’s earliest settlers. All three towns prospered during the 19th century due to industries such as smelting and commerce that grew around river transport and railroading. 

The area will always be connected to the Civil War. Most notable are the events of June 28, 1863. Southern forces arrived in the Wrightsville area with plans to cross the Susquehanna River into Lancaster County and make their way to Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Union soldiers and townspeople in Columbia thwarted those plans by purposely burning the bridge that spanned the Susquehanna, thus eliminating the threat. The Battle of Gettysburg was waged a week later. The area was also a major route of the Underground Railroad. 

Out and About 

You can’t mention the River Towns area without pointing out that the area has become a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The Northwest Lancaster County River Trail stretches from Columbia north to the Dauphin County line and is perfect for hiking and biking. South of Columbia, you’ll find the Enola Low Grade Rail Trail that now stretches to Chester County. Parks, trails and conservation areas also abound on the west banks of the river. Kayaking is also popular. 

The Susquehanna National Heritage Area, which pays homage to the historical significance and natural beauty of the river valley, is headquartered on the York side (Long Level) of the river at the Zimmerman Center for Heritage, and on the Lancaster side at Columbia Crossing River Trails Center (susqnha.org).    

The Susquehanna River is now part of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area. Parks, natural areas and trails can be found on both sides of the river, making it a magnet for those who love to paddle, bike and hike. Photo by Jordan Bush.

If you’re an architecture buff, both Columbia and Marietta represent prime examples of preservation and restoration. Wright’s Ferry Mansion in Columbia is a must-see for those interested in period furnishings. Columbia is also known for its antiques and collectibles shops and venues. Time “travelers” will want to visit the National Watch & Clock Museum (nawcc.org). 

Marietta is home to the Old Town Hall Museum (mariettarestoration.org), as well as art venues and unique shops. Both Columbia and Marietta host summer garden tours. Columbia also hosts Halloween and Fourth Friday events, while Marietta is home to one of the state’s oldest holiday tour of homes, as well as a cherry blossom festival and an en plein air painting event. 

Other Dining Suggestions 


Hinkle’s Restaurant 

A Columbia tradition – 131 years – where 120-plus items define the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. The selection ranges from long-time local favorites to what’s trending. Plus, there’s an ice cream parlor and a mercantile shop. Hinklesrestaurant.com. 

The Columbia Market House is once again filled with vendors.

Columbia Market House 

Dating to 1869, the market house underwent extensive renovations in 2021 and now hosts vendors specializing in an array of items (fresh produce, baked goods and more), as well as prepared food and drinks that can be enjoyed in the dining area. Saturdays only. Columbiamarkethouse.org. 


Located in a building dating to 1903, the interior décor is reflective of that time period. The menu, however, is thoroughly modern, offering selections from land and sea. Bully’s is famous for its Beer Bible, an extensive guide to all-things beer. Bullys-restaurant.com. 

Prince Street Café 

A Lancaster favorite, the café opened another location in Columbia in 2023. The menu offers a wide selection of breakfast and lunch fare, hot and cold beverages and desserts. Gluten-free and vegan are a specialty. Princestreetcafe.com. 

Union Station Grill 

An extensive menu, a wide selection of beer and cocktails, live music and special events such as St. Practice Day make Union Station a fun stop. Unionstationgrill.com. 

Griddles Malt Shop 

Step back in time to the 1950s courtesy of classic diner décor and local memorabilia. The breakfast and lunch menus are also reminiscent of the good old days. Ice cream desserts are made with Basset’s products. Griddlescolumbia.com. 


Molly’s Courtyard Café 

Breakfast is served all day! Lunch items include grain bowls, salads and sandwiches. Coffee and espresso drinks are made with Zeke’s products. Don’t miss the patio. Mollyscourtyardcafe.com. 

Extensive renovations at the Railroad House resulted in new venues such as this private dining room that is located in what was once the summer kitchen. Photo by Ben McMillan.

Railroad House Inn 

Last year the Railroad House celebrated its 200th birthday. Here, you’ll find something for everyone. The dining rooms offer upscale dining in refined steampunk surroundings. Perry Street Cellar offers a a pub menu and ambiance from fall to early spring. Outdoors, the patio is surrounded by gardens. The menus focus on seasonal cuisine, with local ingredients utilized as much as possible. Railroadhouseinn.com. 

McCleary’s Pub 

While the pub’s menu has a bit of an Irish accent, you’ll also find burgers, pasta, seafood and salads. Of course, with a name like McCleary’s, you’ll find an impressive selection of beer, whiskey, spirits and more. Entertainment is also on the menu. Mcclearyspub.com. 

River Trail Brewing offers an expansive dog-friendly outdoor dining area.

River Trail Brewing 

If you’re looking for casual dining in the great outdoors, River Trail is the place to go. The food and drink menus are expansive. Plus, you can bring your four-legged friend; there’s a canine-cuisine menu for them to enjoy. Rivertrailbrewing.com.

Shanks’s Tavern 

Built by a retired riverboat captain in 1814, today Shank’s is owned by Bob Shank, whose grandparents bought the building from a brewer in the 1930s. Honoring the brewing tradition, Shank’s offers eight taps that constantly rotate to offer new selections. The food menu offers homemade soups, salads, flatbread pizza and more. Don’t miss the plaques on the building’s exterior that detail high-water marks from flooding. Shankstavern.com. 

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