Pennsylvania’s Amish Country—which encompasses Lancaster County and its hub city by the same name just a little more than an hour’s drive west of Philadelphia—is earmarked by cultural and religious history that stretches back more than 200 years. It’s a history that sparks the interest of thousands of people every year to visit, including tour groups.

German immigrants, known as the Pennsylvania Dutch—thus, “Dutch Country,” one of the area’s nicknames—were the first to settle in what is known today as Lancaster, which was called “Hickory Town” in 1709. Later, British colonist William Penn embarked on his “holy experiment” to establish a religiously tolerant community here, a place where people of faith could worship as they pleased while also participating in government—what for many during the ensuing decades became the American ideal. Penn, a Quaker, set the model and soon those of other faiths arrived, principally, the Amish and Mennonites, both offshoots, like the Quakers, of the Anabaptists. As a new century approached, Lancaster served as a munitions center during the Revolutionary War, National Capital of the American colonies for a period in 1777, and was the capital of Pennsylvania from 1799 to 1812.

Known for their simpler way of life by shunning—at least to a degree—modern conveniences and technology, the Amish have left a legacy that put Pennsylvania on the map. People from across the country and around the globe come here every year—all year long—to catch a glimpse of their unique way of living in the modern world. These trips allow visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in living history, letting them experience, at least for a time, that simpler way of life.

But don’t be fooled. As lowkey as Lancaster might sound, there’s another side to it. There is plenty to experience here for tour groups—a vibrant arts scene, living history, modern shopping, and breathtaking views. In fact, according to Joel Cliff, director of communications and advocacy for Discover Lancaster, people might be surprised to learn just how much there is to experience in Lancaster. “There are numerous group experiences in Lancaster County, and the variety is tremendous in terms of both subject matter and activity level,” he says. “And our traditions of warm hospitality and good value make our area a natural choice for new and returning groups alike.”

Living History

One of the best ways to experience Amish life is to forgo the modern vehicle and try riding by horse and buggy. Several businesses in Lancaster offer horse and buggy rides, such as Abe’s Buggy Rides, which has 2-, 4- and 5-mile ride options from spring through the holiday season, weather permitting. The ride takes visitors through Amish farmland, including stops at a real homestead, an Amish schoolhouse, and other sites dating back to the 1700s. Additional ride options include AAA Buggy Rides and Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides.

At the center of The Amish Village, located in Ronks about 9 miles east of Lancaster City, is an authentic Amish farmhouse that dates to 1840. Here, groups can explore the farmland, spend time with the animals, and visit the site’s one-room schoolhouse.

According to Cliff, the Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum, which reopened its 1815 Jacob Landis Farmhouse for self-guided tours, is a good stop, adding to its living history interpretations of Pennsylvania German life. Last year, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania unveiled the 1838 “Rocket”—the oldest surviving Reading Railroad steam locomotive—in its world-class collection in the Rolling Stock Hall.

“Our three main Amish interpretive attractions—The Amish Experience, The Amish Farm & House, and The Amish Village—all do a very nice job of introducing guests to the customs and culture of our Plain community,” Cliff says. Two additional heritage attractions in Lancaster City are Wheatland—the home of 15th U.S. President James Buchanan—and Historic Rock Ford, the home of George Washington’s adjutant general, Edward Hand.

The Amish Village, Ronks, Pennsylvania;
Credit: Discover Lancaster
Modern Experiences

Of course, even in Amish Country there is the “air of modernity. Lancaster is a place that juxtaposes its rich past with contemporary offerings, creating opportunities for people of various ages to experience the area and all it has to offer. Visitors will find a slice of present-day living in many places such as Lancaster’s thriving art scene, which, among all its varieties, includes paint galleries, live plays, pottery shops, and opportunities for hands-on quilting.

“Lancaster County features group offerings all year ‘round,” Cliff says. “Our robust theater scene and historic attractions are great wintertime options, while our Amish tours and outdoor recreation activities are particularly inviting in the summer.” His favorite stops: “I love the Fulton Theatre for the amazing Broadway-level quality of its in-house productions, the beautifully restored heritage of the property itself, and the creative vibrancy it contributes to our community.”

Visitors also will find modernity at the area’s inns and motels, some of which include swimming pools, while other places, such as the Beacon Hollow Farm Amish Guest House, offer all the amenities of staying on a working dairy farm. Overall, Lancaster has plenty of places to stay the night or for several nights on end. There also is no dearth of places to eat, some that offer a taste of the past as well as contemporary cuisines.

“The beloved Hershey Farm Restaurant is slated to return in May, following a complete rebuild that features a central lobby with retail and bakery, a 300-seat smorgasbord space, and a section that connects to the hotel and offers a 100-seat family-style dining area and 50-seat cafe,” Cliff says. He notes that equally worth celebrating this year is the 95th anniversary of Miller’s Smorgasbord—“the oldest one in the county.”

The residents of Pennsylvania’s Amish Country are an industrious group, and visitors can see some of that industry at the Lancaster Central Market. At Penn Square in the heart of Lancaster City is where the area’s farmers still bring their foodstuffs and other home goods to market—something they’ve been doing for a long time. The Central Market, which dates to the 1730s, is in America’s oldest farmers market building. Here for nearly two centuries, farmers have been bringing their products, such as meat and vegetables, to sell to residents. Today, the market is open year-round, and visitors will find fresh baked bread and desserts, cheeses, flowers, and an assortment of crafts.

There is yet another way to experience Lancaster County. Among the rich and varied sites to see and explore, visitors not afraid of heights might like the opportunity to view Lancaster from a bird’s perspective. Lancaster Balloon Rides, located in Bird-in-Hand about 7 miles directly east of Lancaster City, offers visitors just that—an elevated view of the county and its wide-open spaces. In short, it’s picture perfect.

Whether viewing this neck of Pennsylvania by hot-air balloon or horse and buggy, don’t forget to bring your camera. “Our area is filled with fantastic vistas for picture-taking,”Cliff says, “from sweeping Amish farmlands to historic architecture in Lancaster City to varied topography along our western border—the mighty Susquehanna River.”

By Andrew Weeks

Main Image: Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Credit: Discover Lancaster