by Art Petrosemolo
Sure, it’s touristy, but there is something for everyone in Lancaster County, Pa., and it’s only little more than two hours away.
During late spring, summer and early fall, the Amish country is crowded with families but off-season, take it from someone who has lived there, it is quiet and easier to see everything.
The direct route to Lancaster and Berks counties is the Pennsylvania Turnpike accessed via route 276 from exit 6A of the New Jersey Turnpike. Drive west to exit 286 and take route 222 south about 14 miles to Lancaster.
Lancaster County is home to the Pennsylvania Dutch, referred to by many as the “Plain People.” They are descendants from 17th -18th century immigrants from Southwestern Germany and Switzerland. The Amish are known for their simple way of life, plain dress and reluctance to use much of modern technology. Their homes are not wired to the electrical power grid. They power much of their home and farm equipment with wind or gasoline generators, sometimes connected to air compressors that can run sewing machines, vacuum cleaners and the like. The Amish mode of transportation is still the horse drawn buggy and they can be seen on all the secondary roads in the county and sometimes, but rarely now on the main highways.
With the burgeoning price of land for residential use in the late 20th century, many of the Amish could no longer afford to expand their farms and moved to rural Ohio and Missouri to set up agricultural communities where farmland prices are still reasonable.
But, don’t worry; there are still plenty of Amish sights to see and interesting places to visit on a trip to this central Pennsylvania community. Route 30 is “tourist alley” in Lancaster and runs east-west from Lancaster city all the way to Philadelphia. The further east you get on Route 30 and the roads that parallel or bisect it, the more likely you are to see working Amish farms with horse drawn farm vehicles and buggies. An Amish home is easy to spot…. Look for a L O N G clothesline usually filled with plain clothing mostly in black, white or dark purple coloring, and no electrical wires running from the street to the house. However, don’t be surprised if the home itself can look as modern from the outside as any suburban New Jersey dwelling.
What can you do in Lancaster County? Lots!
For youngsters, Dutch Wonderland is a must visit. The small amusement park is a great stop during spring, summer and into late fall.
There are a number of places to take buggy rides just off of Route 30.
The Strasburg Railroad, a few miles from Route 30, appeals to all ages, offering a steam train ride through the county on authentically restored passenger cars. There also is a dining car for lunch or dinner rides.
Lancaster County has a number of colleges and universities and it never is a bad time, if you have teenage children, to visit campuses. Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster is a competitive liberal arts college with a 225-year-old history. It has a compact, historical campus with state of the art, including academic and athletic, facilities.
Millersville State University and Elizabethtown College are a few miles outside the city.
For adults, outlet shopping is a draw. For the past several decades Lancaster has been one of the outlet capitals of the East. Two very large centers – Tanger and Rockville – are on the south side of Route 30 and have hundreds of name brand stores between them. They are surrounded by nearly every national motel chain and fast food outlet for a quick bite or a quick overnight.
But if you give in to what you are comfortable with on your trip to Lancaster County, you aren’t getting the most out of the visit. There are dozens of small bed and breakfasts just off the main tourist roads – many back up to bucolic farmland – and they are easy to find through the main tourist web site: www.PaDutchCountry.com.
Also, there are a number of area hotel complexes that offer indoor swimming as well as outdoor pools in season. A little research goes a long way in finding accommodations off-season that suit your needs. On a recent trip in December, I saw rates as low as $45 a night for budget motels right on Route 30.
A trip to Lancaster County is not complete without sampling Pennsylvania Dutch fare such as Shoo Fly Pie, Dutch cooking like chicken corn soup and chicken pot (called bot) pie, and pretzels.
Pretzels in Lancaster County are hard and break with a snap. Each brand has a dedicated following. For years, most of the pretzel baking was done in small, family-owned establishments. The pretzels are small – about three to four inches long – and were brought to the area by the German settlers who had a long history of pretzel baking.
Today, there are very few family-owned operations remaining and the best, in my opinion, is Hammond’s on S. West End Avenue at the edge of the city. Lancaster County residents all have a favorite pretzel and are loyal to them usually for life. Hammond’s, nearly 100 years old, is still family owned and the Nicklaus family – father, mother, son and daughter – can still be found at the shop every day. It is worth a visit to sample your favorite (salted, unsalted or other varieties), and watch as workers – many of whom have been there for decades – tie the pretzels and place them on wooden board ready for the oven.
As for Dutch food, the options are endless. Dutch buffets abound and Miller’s (Route 30 East) and Bird-In-Hand Restaurant (Route 340 east of Lancaster) are two of the best. Good and Plenty, on Eastbrook Road (Route 896), just off Route 30, offers a Dutch family sit-down meal experience with more food than you can eat in a day. These restaurants all have websites for you to check before you decide, and many restaurants offer special menus or pricing for children.
Lancaster offers historical and fine dining as well including the historic Revere Tavern (Route 30 east of the city), and Stockyards Inn (Lititz Pike), the Pressroom (downtown) and John Jeffries (Harrisburg Pike) among others.
For dinner theatre, there is the Dutch Apple on Centerville Road plus a number of other non-dining venues like the American Music Theatre, Amish Experience Theatre, and the Bird-in-Hand Stage all in and off the Route 30 corridor. The Fulton Theatre is a National Historic Landmark in downtown Lancaster that offers professional Broadway quality musicals, comedies and dramas.
And no visit to Lancaster County is complete without walking through, sampling and purchasing produce and the like from a farmers’ market. Sadly, there are a lot fewer markets today than when I lived in the county, but Central Market in downtown Lancaster is the oldest continuously run farmers’ market in the country. It is open Friday and Saturday year-round. You have to see and experience it.
If you are in the County on a Friday, my favorite spot – and I go there at least twice a year – is Green Dragon Farmers Market, just off of Route 272 in Ephrata. It has a unique, carnival atmosphere with indoor and outdoor shopping on 20 acres. There are seven large buildings and smaller shops and seasonally, local Amish farmers bring their fruits, produce, meats, breads and jellies to sell. Try the homemade Amish root beer… it is unique and I pack at least a gallon to bring home to my son every visit.
If you have the space, bring a cooler and stock up on some truly unique Lancaster meats, bacon, chicken and pork, all raised and prepared for market by local Amish. The prices are nearly half of what you’d spend for the same – if you could find it – in New Jersey.
With an extra day, a visit to Reading in Berks County (25 miles north up Rt. 222 from Lancaster) is a good stop. Green Dragon market is midway between Lancaster and Reading.
Reading is the home of Albright College. It also is the home of the Reading Phillies, a minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. The Reading Phillies stadium is a family-friendly jewel with promotions and fun between every inning. Naturally, the team plays from spring through early September.
Another Reading stop is the Vanity Fair outlet in West Reading. It is VF’s home and has lots of clothing for men, women and children. I love it as they sell authentic NFL and MLB clothing from every team at big discount prices. Your teens will love it.
To do some Berks County research, check www.readingberkspa.com.
One great thing about Lancaster County is that the area is nearby, so you don’t have to see it all on one visit. You can return again and again and again, as I do, to enjoy the food, the shopping and a truly different way of life.