The city of Lancaster is famous as the center of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where the countryside is laced with rural roads for tranquil driving or cycling between hamlets and small towns where locals still follow a more traditional way of life. Of course, the Amish take center stage here, and there are many opportunities to meet Amish and Mennonites on farms that have opened their doors for commerce. Yet Lancaster itself is an appealing city of row houses with a thriving arts and cultural scene that’s worth exploring in its own right. Dating back to 1710, Lancaster is one of the nation’s oldest inland cities. And traveling families will enjoy the more modern diversions of amusement parks and great outlet-mall shopping.
It’s not Dutch
There are no people from The Netherlands in Pennsylvania Dutch country. “Dutch” is a derivation of the word “Deutsch,” which means “German.” German culture though, comes in barrels and bales.
Lancaster County comprises some of the most productive farmland in the country; farms and dairies line the rural roads. In the small towns of Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand, you’ll find markets, outlet shops, and sights that interpret Amish life. Nearby is Strasburg, where visitors can learn all about the history of railroads and go for a scenic ride on a restored train. Also in the vicinity are the historic villages of Ephrata, site of a religious community dating to the 18th century, and Lititz, where you can still twist your own at one of the region’s best-known pretzel makers.
Western Lancaster County is a quieter part of the area. Travel the winding lanes and sample local wines and authentic Mennonite cooking and explore small villages. Its history is rooted in the Colonial period, the residents are of Scottish and German descent, and the architecture varies from log cabins to stately Victorian homes.
A good way to get one’s bearings is by taking the Historic Lancaster Walking Tour, a two-hour stroll through the heart of this old city by costumed guides who impart anecdotes about notable points of interest. There are also theme tours. Tours of the area depart daily at 1 p.m. from the downtown visitor center; there’s an additional tour at 10 a.m. on market days (Tues., Fri. and Sat.).
The Amish continue to thrive around Lancaster despite the inroads made by contemporary society. It’s natural that the “English,” (their expression for non-Amish folks), retain an intense curiosity about the Amish and their rejection of most modern conveniences such as electric power and the internal combustion engine. Horsepower and candlelight are two hallmarks of Amish life. Several vendors offer tours and representations of Amish country in ways that don’t exploit their “differentness.”
The Amish Farm and House has 40-minute tours through a 10-room circa-1805 house furnished in the Old Order Amish style. A map guides you to a waterwheel, lime kiln and even a traditional covered bridge. This is one of the older attractions in the area dating from 1955. Countryside tours are also offered.
Plain & Fancy Farm
At Plain & Fancy Farm, the “Amish Experience” is a multimedia theatrical experience featuring three-dimensional sets and special effects. In Jacob’s Choice, the teenage main character struggles between traditional ways and the temptations of the modern world. A $43.95 package includes the show, the Amish Country Homestead, and Amish Country Tours, a bus tour of the farmlands, and a buggy ride.
Central Market is Lancaster’s place to see and be seen in the heart of downtown. It is the oldest farmers market in the country, active for 275 years, and not visiting it will render anyone’s Lancaster experience incomplete. It opens at 6 a.m. every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.
If outlet-mall shopping wasn’t invented around Lancaster, the area has embraced it fully with dozens of opportunities for discounted name-brand products. One of the more homegrown is the downtown Building Character facility at 342 N. Queen St. More than 50 shops and stands occupy this restored warehouse building purveying antiques, collectibles, hand-made jewelry, crafts and unique gift items.
Quilts are a major form of expression here and some of the best can be found at Hannah’s Quilts & Crafts, 216 Witmer Rd., outside of town on a working farm. 717-517-0835
If you have the sudden urge to purchase come contemporary clothing, Pappagallo, at 28 W. Orange St., probably has what you need with lines from Seven for All Mankind, Christopher Fischer Cashmere, and Nicole Miller to name a few.
The little girl in you will be excited at Aimee and Daria’s Doll Outlet, 2628 Lincoln Hwy., Ronks, Penn. They offer more than 5,000 porcelain and vinyl dolls, the largest selection in Lancaster County. 717-687-8118
Lancaster is more than about the Amish. In recent years Lancaster has become a true arts destination boasting a wide variety of world-class galleries. Gallery Row is the center of the art scene and is concentrated on the first and second blocks of North Prince Street. At least 90 galleries abound in the historic storefronts that line the streets and all are open evenings on the first Friday of every month as well as regular business hours.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Lancaster
This modern hotel occupies a nine-story building downtown, a five-minute walk to Lancaster Central Market and a seven-minute walk from the Lancaster County Convention Center and the historic Fulton Opera House. Rooms from $119/night.
Lancaster Arts Hotel
Set in a 19th-century tobacco warehouse, the industrial-chic rooms feature exposed-brick walls and rustic beams, and have coffeemakers, flat-screen TVs, iPod docks and free Wi-Fi. The art is everywhere. Rooms from $157/night.
Lovelace Manor B&B
Why not stay in a grand red-brick Victorian mansion just a three-mile drive from the city center in the heart of Amish country. Rooms from $140/night.
Marriott Hotel at Penn Square
An imposing presence in the center of Lancaster’s downtown area. The lobby is breathtaking and the hotel invites visitors to peer into the restored home of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens next door, a stop on the Underground Railroad. Rooms from $124/night.
Pheasant Run Farm
Cozy rooms with rustic flair in a renovated historic stone barn on a working corn and alfalfa farm. Rooms from $139/night.
200 Marticville Rd.
Where to Dine
Aussie and the Fox
Contemporary cuisine served by a transplanted Australian and a person named Fox. The preserved space offers a mix of American and Australian dishes using fresh local ingredients.
The Belvedere Inn
Locals flock here for the new American cuisine and attentive service.
John J. Jeffries
Many people celebrate special occasions at this gem. The menu changes with the seasons and consists of American favorites with steaks as the headliners.
Lancaster Brewing Co.
This is the place for a hearty lunch of savory sandwiches, wood-fired pizzas and the like, as well as an excellent selection of Pennsylvania craft beers. All produce and meats are sourced locally for the freshest ingredients.
A buffet-style eatery that is a local institution, with views looking out onto Amish farm fields. The spread is lavish, with a good selection of Pennsylvania Dutch foods every day.