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Lancaster, Pennsylvania is one of America’s oldest inland cities. During the American Revolution it was the capital of the colonies for just one day on Sept 27, 1777, when the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia, which had been captured by the British. The city also boasts our nation’s oldest continuously running farmers market founded in 1730.
Beneath the facades of Lancaster’s many historic buildings, a progressive hipster vibe resonates. Between the city’s deep historic roots, a vibrant downtown, and the Amish Country’s bucolic back roads, visitors can experience the best of both worlds — a fusion of hip and historic. It’s like getting two vacations rolled into one destination.
Discerning foodies can indulge their palates at downtown’s diverse ethnic eateries, and sample hearty Amish comfort food in nearby towns. Art buffs will love Lancaster’s thriving art scene while architecture aficionados will appreciate its beautifully restored historic buildings. The city lovingly embraces its heritage buildings, especially the Fulton Theatre, an architectural gem and the nation’s oldest continuously active theatre. The Fulton’s performers were some of the biggest American stage legends of the time including the Barrymore Family, Al Jolson and Mark Twain.
A 10-15 minute drive from downtown Lancaster takes you to the heart of Amish country, where tall tassel-topped corn fields line the narrow winding roads.
As you drive though the rolling countryside, you’ll catch glimpses of apple orchards, lush emerald green patchwork fields, crisp manicured lawns, pristine vegetable gardens, white farmhouses and weathered red barns.
Instead of wandering around on your own in a maze of back roads and corn fields, take a 90-minute narrated tour with one of the three attractions offering interactive Amish experiences. Another option is a tour with Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides with an Amish guide. As you go clip-clopping along country roads at a leisurely pace, your guide will fill you in on the inside scoop of Amish lifestyle.
While Amish Farm and House, Amish Village, and The Amish Experience offer similar experiences, each one is slightly different. They are all excellent and provide insight into Amish culture, customs, and religion by enabling visitors to experience cultural immersion first hand.
A visit to the Amish Experience starts with “Jacob’s Choice,” an emotional film about an Amish family and the resilience of Amish culture through the ages. At Amish Village, a creek runs through the 12-acre recreated village with a blacksmith and butcher shop. At Amish Farm and House’s one-room schoolhouse, a retired teacher explained that the Amish don’t believe in higher education and are only schooled through the 8th grade.
For a deeper grasp of the culture, I recommend the Amish Experience’s Visit-In-Person (VIP) tour package. The three-hour tour stops at several businesses and a farm and culminates in a visit with an Amish family in their home. The Amish Farm and House’s Taste of Amish Country Dinner Tour is another behind the scenes opportunity to meet Amish families ending with a hearty dinner in Hometown Kitchen, a popular Amish restaurant, with a menu including homemade meat loaf, chicken pot pie, pepper slaw, brown buttered noodles and whoopie pies for dessert.
On my back road tours we stopped at farm-stands, quilt and craft shops, a woodworking shop and a dairy farm just in time to watch the milking.
Lancaster offers a variety of accommodations ranging from motels, B&B’s, RV parks and even farm stays to suit everyone’s budget and preference.
Particularly worth noting are downtown Lancaster’s historically significant hotels — The Cork Factory, with its prominent smokestack and the Lancaster Arts Hotel, a former tobacco warehouse with rustic exposed bricks and wooden beams. Both properties are housed in historic buildings that have been converted into boutique hotels.
The Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, an upscale department store for over 100 years, was converted into a hotel and convention center.
The innovative design team made a dramatic statement throughout the hotel’s unique lobby. They retained the original Beaux Arts facade and maintained the structure’s architectural integrity.They also incorporated the beautifully preserved Montgomery House, an 1804 Federal style mansion, by embedding it into the hotel’s lobby. The mansion is now used for event venues. In another part of the hotel, a glass encased area showcases an excavation site believed to have been a hiding place on the Underground Railroad.
Bright and cheerful, Rachel’s Cafe and Creperie offers a variety of crepes ranging from traditional to exotic. You’ll be tempted by Thai chicken curry and scrumptious dessert crepes offered at reasonable prices.
Annie Bailey’s, an old fashioned Irish pub serves traditional fish and chips, Shepherd’s pie and other typical pub fare.
You can’t beat Good ‘N Plenty for home style cooking and Amish favorites. Overflowing, endless platters of golden fried chicken, pork roast, mountains of fresh, homemade mashed potatoes smothered with gravy. But save some room for their mouthwatering desserts like shoofly pie and homemade vanilla ice cream.
Lancaster Central Market, a local landmark and institution, has sold fresh farm produce, meats and baked goods for over 287 years. Many of the family owned stands have been in business for generations. CNN ranks it as one of the world’s top 10 fresh markets.
Plan your visit around market hours on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. With more than 80 vendors, local goodies are offered to sample. Don’t miss the whoopie pies, Long Johns (donuts), hand crafted Amish pretzels, local cheeses, smoked meats and sausage. Be sure to stop by Long’s Horseradish booth to watch fresh horseradish being made.
Visit the friendly folks at Kauffman’s Fruit Farm & Market. At this classic country farm stand you’ll find apple schnitz, (dried apples), perfect peaches from their orchards, apple butter, fresh apple cider, local Amish cheeses, homemade noodles, jams and more.
The best place to get your retail therapy fix on is North Queen Street’s cluster of cool hipster shops. Here you’ll find quirky boutiques, cafes, antique and retro shops, and a terrific cookware store.
Building Character, an eclectic co-op treasure trove, with more than 60 vendors ranks as my favorite shopping spot. Shopping here is like going on a treasure hunt sifting though booths filled with everything from vintage clothing, collectibles, hand-dyed yarns, jewelry and handcrafts.
The 100 block of North Prince Street is chock-full of galleries. Browse Gallery Row’s concentration of hip galleries featuring contemporary photography, hand-blown glassworks and paintings.
Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsman, a gallery representing over 100 artists showcases a variety of fine handcrafts including wearable art, handwovens, jewelry, glass, wooden objects, ceramics and mixed media.
You’ll also find local crafts and quilt shops scattered along the back roads of Amish country. Riehl’s, located on a dairy farm, is a good one-stop shop for Amish cookbooks, crafts, quilts, whoopie pies, handmade rag dolls and more. As a bonus, if you happen to be there at milking time (around 5 p.m.) you might be able to watch the family working in the dairy barn.