If you need a day out and you’re willing to travel a little bit right now, Pennsylvania has plenty to offer. And among the most interesting and popular areas is good old Pennsylvania Dutch County — a.k.a. Lancaster County.
Sure, everyone knows that there’s a strong, expansive Amish community in Lancaster, and there’s plenty of ways to explore it. But there’s so much more to Lancaster than that. Here are a few spots in Lancaster to make up a great day trip from Philly.
History of Lancaster
Nestled in the rolling hills and farm land of Pennsylvania’s Amish Country is the city of Lancaster, a roughly 7-square-mile tract of land that today is home to a strong arts scene, rich history, and vibrant downtown area.
Originally home to Natives Americans such as the Susquehannocks, Lancaster was settled by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the early 1700s. Then known as Hickory Town, the area became known as Lancaster in 1729 thanks to a prominent Quaker settler named John Wright, who named it after an English city of the same moniker that he once called home.
During the Revolutionary War, Lancaster served as a the capital of the country for a single day, after the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia when the city was captured by British forces. It was later the capital of Pennsylvania from 1799 to 1812.
Following the end of the War of 1812, the area became a hotspot for various manufacturing and agricultural industries. But today, it’s a tourism hub in Pennsylvania, with Lancaster County overall attracting about 8 million visitors annually.
Roughly 70 miles west of Philadelphia, Lancaster is easily accessible by car. The trip generally takes between 90 minutes and two hours using I-95 south, US-322 west, and US-1 south (alternately you can use I-76 west, US-202 south, and US-30 west). It is also accessible via rail using the Amtrak Keystone Service train from 30th Street Station to Lancaster station, which is an approximately 90-minute ride.
Things to do in Lancaster
There’s plenty to learn at this museum, which has exhibits on everything from dinosaurs to arthropods. Plus, you can even go off-planet with a trip to their planetarium — which the museum says is the largest in South Central PA.
Go for something a little more spooky from this outfit, which has offered candlelight walking tours of the city with a paranormal twist since 1995. Their stories about curses, vigils, and other ethereal phenomena cover 300 years of history.
For locomotive-obsessed kids (and big kids), it’s tough to beat Strasburg’s Choo Choo Barn. Open since 1961, this spot is a classic, and it features a 1,700-square-foot model train layout with more than 150 animated figures and 22 trains. Just remember to wear your mask and social distance. And if your tykes are itching for an actual train ride, head on over to Strasburg Rail Road, where you can book an authentic steam train ride through Amish country.
For a full-on amusement park experience, this classic Lancaster County family destination has been open since 1963. Today, it features more than 35 rides and attractions, plus a water play area known as Duke’s Lagoon, and a campground.
Get outdoors and up in the air with the United States Hot Air Balloon Team, which offers hot air balloon flights overlooking the Lancaster Country side. And if you want something more romantic, you can even book a private flight with your sweetie — if you’ve got a spare $895 to burn.
At 544 acres, Lancaster County Central Park is the area’s largest park, and it has everything from multi-use trails and historical covered bridges to attractions like the Garden of Five Senses and a 10-acre, tent-only camping area. But if you’ve got a little shredder in tow, make sure you check out the quarter-acre skate park.
Get a better look at Pennsylvania Dutch Country at the Amish Village, a 12-acre property complete with an authentic farmhouse that was built in 1840. Options include a tour of the farmhouse and village, and a “Backroads Bus Tour” that takes you on a 90-minute journey through Amish country.
Where to eat (and drink)
Established in 1730, this spot is considered the country’s oldest, continuously running public farmers’ market. Home to more than 60 local vendors, you’ll be able to find everything from fresh produce and locally sourced meats and cheeses to baked goods and candies.
Yep, the same folks who offer the best donuts in Reading Terminal Market are slinging treats in Lancaster, too. This spot serves as their main headquarters, so grab a quick dozen (or three) and indulge your sweet tooth at the source.
Baker Julius Sturgis opened this spot in 1861, making the first commercial pretzel bakery in the country. And now, you can learn from the masters on a tour of the original facility, where you’ll get a lesson in pretzel twisting with a playdough mixture (call ahead for reservations).
Lancaster’s craft beer scene is worth a tipple Start with Lancaster Brewing Co. — arguably the city’s best-known brewery. Everything from milk stout to pilsner is on tap, and there’s a full menu that includes thin crust pizza, crab cakes, and pierogis, too (indoor and outdoor seating available).
It’s not just beer that’s pouring in Lancaster — there’s some great craft mead, too. Meduseld, which opened in 2017, has more than a dozen taps and offers options like orange creamsicle and snickerdoodle-inspired meads, as well as house-made hard seltzers and beer. Or you can just show up for their axe throwing range.
📍252 Harrisburg Pike, 📞 717-208-6144, 🌐 meduseldmeadery.com, 📷 @meduseldmeadery, 🕑 open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Spring House is among Lancaster’s newer breweries, having opened its new home in the city in 2015. It is, however, a must-try, thanks to its excellent hazy IPAs, sours, and stouts — as well as a menu that includes brisket, pulled pork, and wings. There’s even a dog-friendly patio during the warmer months.
For something a little stronger, head to Stoll and Wolfe’s Lititz headquarters, where you can get a taste (and take home a bottle) of their Pennsylvania rye whiskey and bourbon. Outdoor seating on the patio is available, and you can even get cocktails like a whiskey sour with Thai basil, or a pineapple-infused rock and rye.
📍35 North Cedar St., Lititz, 📞 717-799-4499, 🌐 stollandwolfe.com, 📷 @stollandwolfewhiskey, 🕑 open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesay and Thursday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Oenophiles in need of a glass can head to Nissley Vineyards, which produces 30 varieties of wine from 14 varieties of grapes grown on their 30-acre plot of vines. Self-guided tours are currently on hold, but you can head out to the vineyard for a tasting or bottle, and picnics are encouraged.
Lancaster has a strong local art scene, and you can get a taste of it (and maybe even take home a piece) on Gallery Row. Located in downtown Lancaster, it has spots like the Liz Hess Gallery and CityFolk Gallery, which have everything from paintings and sculptures to photography and jewelry.
Like Gallery Row, the 300 block is a collective of downtown shops that have banded together to promote their collective of small businesses — and they’ve got a little big of everything. Head to Madcap & Co. for a wide selection of local, US-made, and fair trade goods, The Scarlet Willow for two floors of all things vintage, or Black Bear Leather for high-quality, handmade leather goods.
This children’s boutique is the place to go for all the best kids and baby gear in downtown Lancaster. At it since 2006, BellaBoo is known for its high-quality selection of fashionable kids clothing, cool toys, and baby gear, and nursery essentials.
It’s not just antiques and chic boutiques — Lancaster is punk rock, too. This shop has been running out of the city since 1995, and they’ve got all the punk and metal band t-shirts, merch, spiked and studded belts, and bondage pants that you could ever need.
Where to stay
Housed in a former tobacco warehouse built in the late 19th century, this is the place to stay for visiting aesthetes. Now a luxury boutique hotel, the building is home to a $300,000 art collection from 36 artists spread across 63 rooms, all outfitted with artisan-made furniture and original artwork.
Among the most unique places to stay around Lancaster — especially if you consider yourself a railfan — is this spot just outside of the city proper. Here, you’ll find 38 vintage train cabooses converted to sleep two to six guests, depending on the car. Plus, there’s also an onsite movie night in the train barn, a petting zoo, and even a restaurant to check out while you’re there.
It’s hard to imagine lodging that kids and animation buffs would love more than Cartoon Network’s very own hotel. Set next to Dutch Wonderland, it features 165 rooms — six of which are themed after shows like Adventure Time, The Powerpuff Girls, and Steven Universe — plus a Cartoon Kitchen that serves show-inspired foods, as well as a Ben 10-inspired arcade.
This story has been updated since it first published.