Tourists traveling to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, should expect a problem upon arrival. There is almost too much to do and see in the cluster of picturesque farming communities spread throughout the county, 75 miles west of Philadelphia.
The Amish may have started it when they began migrating to the area as early as 1730 to escape persecution in Europe for their Anabaptist beliefs. Today, the religious colony numbers over 30,000, and because of the public’s fascination with their culture, scores of visitors steadily arrive throughout the year, and myriad attractions cater to every category of visitor.
For the Amish enthusiasts, there are commercial businesses offering buggy rides, Amish farm tours and Amish products for sale. But the most rewarding experience is to interact one-on-one with this reclusive culture by initiating a conversation on your own with a member of the community. Because almost every tidy Amish farm has a roadside stand, there are endless opportunities along the scenic backroads to stop and strike up a conversation.
People are also reading…
Mention you are visiting from Missouri, and they invariably will ask how much farm land sells for, since farming is the way most make their living.
The farm stand may be selling anything from baskets of homegrown green beans to duck eggs to honey. Or the farm may offer fields of pick-your-own apples, pears, plums, peaches, tomatoes, strawberries or flowers.
Lucky visitors may happen upon a purely Amish experience, like Amish children at recess in front of a one-room schoolhouse, an Amish auction where a retiring farmer is selling his cattle, or a cluster of buggies at a farm house signifying a wedding, religious service or funeral.
One of the many facets in Lancaster County not connected to the Amish involves an important piece of presidential history. The county was the home of James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States. His residence, known as Wheatland, ($17; lancasterhistory.org) is a beautifully preserved and unaltered Federal style mansion dating to 1828. He was living there from 1848 until his death in his bedchamber at Wheatland on June 1, 1868. He had served as president from 1857 until 1861, when Abraham Lincoln succeeded him.
Today the estate has been decorated to reflect the appearance of the house during Buchanan’s 1856 campaign for the presidency and contains many of the home’s original furnishings. Tours are led by costumed guides, adding to the authenticity of a visit.
Based on the seating options, even Buchanan’s privy would seem to have some type of historical significance. It is divided into two rooms, one with five seats positioned at varying heights, while the second section features three seats, each less than two feet apart.
Buchanan’s grave is not far from Wheatland in the 1849-era Woodward Hill Cemetery (free; woodwardhillcemetery.com). His final resting place on the highest hill in the burial ground is well maintained, appearing like a green oasis in the somewhat unkempt 32-acre graveyard.
Those interested in presidential trivia will find the Historic Rock Ford home of Edward Hand ($15; historicrockford.org) worth a stop. Hand was an Irish-American general in the Revolutionary war, and as Washington’s adjutant is included in the quintessentially American oil painting of general George Washington crossing the Delaware River in a rowboat in 1776. Hand is seated fourth from the right wearing a bicorn hat.
Another unusual historical attraction in Lancaster Country is America’s first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz. At the tiny Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery (juliussturgis.com) bakers twist and bake soft pretzels while demonstrating how pretzel baking has changed since they were first made in the building in 1861.
Built in 1784, the sturdy stone house where the Sturgis family lived and baked is one of the original structures in Lititz and features “musket windows” in the cellar used to ward off attacks from Native Americans.
In 1832, almost a hundred years after the Amish arrived, and covered wagons were still commonplace, the Strasberg Rail Road began operation. Today, 193 years later, it continues as America’s oldest operating railroad and is known locally as the “the Methuselah of railroads.” (from $22; strasburgrailroad.com).
The line offers a 45-minute narrated trip through the countryside past Amish farms on an antique 1890 carriage car pulled by one of the six steam engines alternately puffing black and white smoke.
The short line railroad also connects to the mainline cross-country track five miles away at the Pennsylvania Railroad junction in Paradise. Sometimes the Strasberg’s collection of historic late 1800-era steam engines hook up to modern-day box cars, and tow them back to Lancaster to unload supplies. The sight of the antique engines billowing smoke as their large wheels churn pulling a line of modern-day rail cars is a sight that is difficult to process.
Vintage locomotive repair is also part of the rail yard complex. Visitors can peer into a large rail car barn as experts in railroad restoration work repairing derelict steam engines transported to the railyard from around the nation.
If that is not enough for railroad enthusiasts to experience, nearby the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania displays over 100 steam engines, modern electric and diesel locomotives, and various freight and maintenance equipment.
For tourists who enjoy taking a family photo in front of town or state welcome signs, Lancaster County offers enough unusual sign opportunities to fill an album, and the towns are lovely and historical. Town names include Bird-in-Hand, Mount Joy, Gap, Paradise, East Earl, Blue Ball, Fivepointville, Smoketown, Reamstown, and the not-to-be-missed Salunga-Landisville. And then there is Intercourse, in this instance named after an intersection of several roadways.
One way to explore the villages is to follow the newly established Lancaster Coffee Trail (discover lancaster.com/coffee-trail/) on a caffeine-infused journey leading to 21 independently owned coffee shops throughout the county.
“We’re always looking for new ways to enhance the visitor experience,” says Ed Harris, the president and CEO of Discover Lancaster. “The opportunity to provide a trail that will ultimately help guests discover new areas of our county was something we wanted to pursue.”
Here is a list of just some areas and attractions waiting to be found along the coffee trail, or by any adventurous traveler.
• The Amish Experience offers several tour options, which include visits to an Amish working farm, home and one-room school. (From $15; amish experience.com)
• Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides offer a leisurely 8-mph horse-drawn journey to an Amish farm inside an authentic Amish carriage, with an Amish farmer as the guide and driver. ($18; amishbuggyrides.com)
• Lantz Homestead and Quilt Barn sells authentic hand-made Amish quilts inside a barn in a field in the countryside. (Free admission; Lantzhomestead quiltbarn.com)
• The Ephrata Cloister is one of America’s earliest religious communities, having been founded in 1732 by German settlers seeking spiritual goals rather than earthly reward. The monastic society lived a life of work, study and prayer. They ate one meal a day of grains, fruits and vegetables and encouraged celibacy with the last member passing in 1813. ($10; ephratacloister.org)
• Cherry Crest Adventure Farm features 50 creative activities for children and families set within a farm theme on 20 acres. The mammoth Cherry Crest corn maze was voted the best in the United States four years in a row and can take up to two hours to complete. (From $22; cherrycrestfarm.com)
• Central Market in the heart of Lancaster is the oldest continuously operating public farm market in the United States and dates to 1730. (Free; central marketlancaster.com)
• Fulton Theater is the nation’s oldest continuously operating theater and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964. Lovers of live entertainment are treated to shows of Broadway-caliber. For 2023 the playbill includes “Titanic,” “The Wiz” and “Grease.” (Thefulton.org)
• Sight and Sound Theatre brings the Bible to life with epic musical productions on a huge stage only duplicated in a sister theater in Branson, Missouri. (sight-sound.com)
• The Magic and Wonder Show is a combination of comedy, music, circus arts and magic. ($35; magicandwonder show.com)
Where to stay
Lancaster County offers hotels of every caliber. Included are 150 bed-and-breakfast inns and even farm stays.
• The Best Western Plus Intercourse Village is a family-owned inn centrally located to all Lancaster County attractions. The inn features suite-size rooms, an extensive, complimentary hot breakfast, the on-site Olde Mill Restaurant, and a spa, indoor pool and hot tub. ($250 and up midsummer; intercoursevillage inn.com)
• The Fulton Steamboat Inn, which mimics the design of a vintage steamboat. ($142 and up midsummer; fultonsteam boatinn.com)
• The Cartoon Network Hotel theme features network shows from the lobby to the rooms, from the food to the pools. ($200 and up midsummer; cartoonnetworkhotel.com)
• The Red Caboose Motel features 38 cabooses, each painted in a vivid palette of different colors, and all decorated in the schemes of America’s most famous railroads. ($119 and up midsummer; redcaboosemotel.com)