Lancaster County in Southeastern Pennsylvania is a bucolic tapestry of undulating hills and waterways dotted with charming towns. The handsome city of Lancaster forms the gateway for the region’s natural pleasures and cultural attractions, while the pretty towns of Lititz and Ephrata are among the state’s most alluring communities. Discover 19th-century German buildings, pretzel factories, quilt shops and traditional farmers’ markets. The area is known for the Amish communities who practice plain living, but there’s a lot more than buggies and barns in this stretch of the Keystone State.
A handsome community of many charms, Lancaster City’s history as a colonial town finds expression in its beautifully preserved historic district with architecture that spans four centuries, ranging from Federal to Victorian styles. The city’s cultural heart is Penn Square, famed for its central market, the oldest farmers’ market in the nation and a local tradition since the 1730s. Local restaurants serve tasty treats like shoo-fly pie, a desert with a crumb topping and sweet molasses interior.
Deep Religious Roots
One of the oldest inland cities in the nation with a rich colonial past, Lancaster was first settled by German immigrants, or Pennsylvania Dutch, as they are better known, in 1709. From its humble origins as “Hickory Town,” Lancaster City established itself as a heavy economic hitter during the colonial era to become the state capital from 1799 to 1812. It thrived as the region’s cultural and financial center during the early 20th century. A profusion of religious orders and cultures have left their imprint in the form of eclectic architecture, religious rituals and distinct social structures. The region is known as the cradle of America’s oldest and most conservative Amish settlement.
The history and traditions of the Pennsylvania Amish draw the lion’s share of tourist interest. Culturally sensitive tours of the Amish community can be arranged with local guides, providing rich insight into the history, customs and culture of the community. Learn why the so-called “plain folk” eschew modern technologies and how their simple and spiritual lifestyle has endured through the centuries. Tours include a visit to a traditional one-room schoolhouse, farm buildings and more.
Just six miles north of Lancaster, Lititz (the “Pretzel Town”) distills the essence of Lancaster County. Founded in 1756, the town’s 18th-century architectural heritage and Germanic roots have been admirably preserved; the Linden Hall Academy dates to 1794 and is the oldest girls’ school in the nation. Also in town, the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery has been baking pretzels following the same German recipe since 1861.
Ephrata is well worth a visit, with a captivating tableau of serene landscapes, historical attractions — including an 18th-century Moravian religious site — and a fantastic market/auction.
The home/studio of acclaimed American modernist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) is a must-see for art lovers, showcasing a rotating display of some 42 of the artist’s evocative watercolors. Within striking distance of Lancaster, former U.S. President James Buchanan’s exquisite Wheatland mansion, which served as the Democratic headquarters during Buchanan’s 1856 presidential campaign, can be visited on a guided tour. The Federal-style mansion was built in 1828 by a local lawyer named William Jenkins and is faithfully furnished in mid-19th-century period style with Victorian furniture, artifacts and artwork that belonged to Buchanan.
Biking Green and Pleasant Lands
Novice and experienced cyclists can explore Amish country’s bucolic countryside and lush farmlands along a series of back roads and scenic trails, including the Conestoga Greenway Trail (1.3 miles), Conewago Recreation Trail (5.1 miles) and epic Enola Low Grade Trail (27.6 miles), as well as take historic bike tours of the county’s 29 covered bridges. For walkers and hikers,v the 1.7-mile Farmingdale Trail winds along Little Conestoga Creek through pretty woodlands, a wildflower meadow and wetlands.
Nature by Foot
For more of a challenge, the Chestnut Grove Natural Area features five different trails that meander through wetlands, meadows and woods of the River Hills.
Running along Lancaster County’s western border, the Susquehanna River flows through the historic river towns of Columbia, Marietta and Wrightsville at the center of the Pennsylvania Heritage Area. This stretch of the river corridor consists of bucolic woodlands and pristine nature preserves, attracting visitors to sail, kayak, paddle and fish on the current.
Fishing and White Water
About 15 miles south of Lancaster, the Trout Run Nature Preserve boasts a trail system that traverses wooded areas and the picturesque Pequea Creek, which teems with smallmouth bass, catfish, walleye and trout. Looking for more water action? The Conestoga River runs through the country and is a popular canoeing and kayaking destination that flows for over 60 miles before emptying into the Susquehanna. Some stretches of the waterway churn with Class I rapids.
For More Information
Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development