A Lancaster County Escape

Discover Pennsylvania Dutch Country

By Karen Jones | Photos Discover Lancaster.com

Imagine a winter getaway immersed in the pastoral Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, where Amish farmlands, historic covered bridges, festive small towns, antiques, boutiques, and myriad culinary choices converge. In that case, it may be time to visit Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County.

About a 3-hour drive from Manhattan, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is best known for its thriving Pennsylvania Dutch Amish community, a religious sect that forgoes electricity and most—but not all—modern conveniences. Fans of the Harrison Ford movie Witness will recognize the scenic expanses of storybook farmlands, horse-drawn buggies, and simple dress of the Amish families whose way of life has changed little in 300 years. But this is not the only story in Lancaster, which also offers vibrant small towns and trendy cityscapes ready to roll out the holiday cheer.

For a peak behind the Amish curtain and one that mixes deep regional history with the reality of today’s working farms, try the “Unique Amish Immersive Experience.” Led by guides with close ties to the community, you’ll visit a dairy farm creamery, and movie buffs take note of the original house and barn used in the movie Witness. Your guide will also introduce Amish family members who greet the tour. You’ll note that the Amish are very reserved. So, ask first what can be photographed. You will also notice the lack of overt holiday decorating. Amish families celebrate the holidays more privately but share their bounty of delicious “old-fashioned” sugar cookies and other baked delights with the local shops. 

Be sure to include lunch at Millers Smorgasbord in Ronks. Food purist alert: No visit to Pennsylvania Dutch country is complete without indulging in this guilty pleasure, especially with children. Serving regional favorites like fried chicken, mac & cheese, and shoo-fly pie since 1929, Millers has plenty of stick-to-the-ribs fare. Ask for a window table with views of the adjacent farmland.

Amish country’s winding two-lane back roads are shared with horse-drawn buggies, and it’s easy to slowly slip back in time while driving past one-room schoolhouses, silos, barns, and the county’s historic wooden covered bridges. These lovingly preserved denizens of a quieter era each have their history and are a delight to explore. Sometimes referred to as “kissing bridges” where couples might sneak a kiss inside, there is an undeniable romance in traversing the sturdy wooden floors of these 19th-century structures built to join communities, which they still do. For a half-day exploration, try the “Lititz & Its Countryside” tour, offering five classic bridges built between 1850-1890.

The “Lititz” bridge tour concludes near the surprisingly charming town of Lititz, packed with eateries, boutiques, and shops. Unlike the Amish farms, Lititz is resplendent in festive seasonal décor, with quaint historic streets made for holiday strolling. Make sure to visit Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery (circa 1861), whose tour includes a pretzel rolling lesson, or purchase one at the shop counter, baked fresh every 10 minutes. For lunch at a local favorite try the Bulls Head Public House.

Better-known Pennsylvania Dutch towns such as Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse feature more touristy attractions with plenty of kitsch, but hidden gems abound. Quilt enthusiasts should visit The Old Country Store in Intercourse, featuring exquisite local hand-made quilts. At the same time, Barry’s Car Barn is such an over-the-top labor of love it’s worth a visit, especially for fans of classic American “muscle cars.” The Car Barn showcases 50 vintage beauties courtesy of collector Barry Baldwin. Start your engines, please.  

On a quest for antiques? Stroll the historic town of Strasburg, where the Strasburg Antique Market is within walking distance of the Strasburg Railroad, an irresistible vintage steam train attraction. It’s hard to beat climbing aboard a vintage railroad car and settling in for a restful 45-minute ride through the Amish country especially with children in tow. Check the website for onboard dining options and special Christmas-themed trains. 

Lancaster City is a thriving small city with a big-city vibe, and your destination for more urban adventures. The “Mayors Holiday Tree Lighting” kicks off the season on Thanksgiving weekend. Still, you can peruse the art galleries along Gallery Walk and enjoy plenty of boutique shopping on Queens Street any time of year. You can also sample enough culinary diversity to satisfy discerning palettes. For fine dining that lives up to its hype, try LUCA an upscale Italian favorite with a casual vibe and superb food. Lancaster’s Central Market, billed as the oldest continuously operating farmer’s market in the U.S., has 60 vendors selling a profusion of locally sourced food and wares—and there is even a treat shop for Fido. For live entertainment, you might try The Fulton Theater (circa 1852), presenting the Webber/Rice musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat through December. 

For a posh country inn experience try The Inn at Leola Village, a former tobacco farm (circa 1867), with rustic-chic accommodations nestled in restored antique homes and cottages, plus a full-service spa. In Lancaster City, the Lancaster Arts Hotel is a trendy and well-appointed boutique hotel with easy accessibility to downtown venues. You can purchase any original art on the walls, including your room. 

Note: Check operating days for all venues and events you are visiting in Lancaster County. For more information on Lancaster County and holiday events, visit discoverlancaster.com; for The Inn at Leola Village, visit theinnatleola.com; for Lancaster Arts Hotel, visit lancasterartshotel.com 

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