Things To Do In Lancaster
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is one of the older cities in the United States. It started out as “Hickory Town”, but the name was later changed to Lancaster in 1681. It was named after the city in Great Britain. Lancaster became a borough (county) in 1742, but did not become a city until 1818. It was, at one point, the largest (non-coastal) villages in the US. But whether you call it a village, town, borough or city, Lancaster has been around for long time – at least by American standards. Many of the historical building from Lancaster’s past have been persevered in the main downtown area, especially around Penn Square.
Lancaster is famous for having the first paved road in the United States (the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike) for being the home of James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States, for being the place that Peeps were invented, and for the Amish People who live in the area.
When to Visit:
While this area of Pennsylvania is not generally subject to the weather extremes of most of the East Coast experience, winters (December, January, February and early March) can be cold and snowy. Summer, on the other hand, can be hot (average temperatures in June, July and August are in the 80’s) and humid. So, spring (end of March, April, May, beginning of June) are very good months to visit. On the other hand, Autumn (September, October and November) is probably the most aesthetically pleasing time to visit this area of Pennsylvania.
The harvest is ready, all the leaves on the trees are changing into a rainbow of colors, and the days are warm, with the nights cool and crisp. If you want to see crops being harvested by horse-driven teams, and you want your pick of the best homemade products – like fresh-from-the kitchen jams and freshly smoked meats – then come to Lancaster in the fall. You’ll be glad you did.
Here’s a list of things to do in Lancaster...
Lancaster Historic Walking Tour
One of the best ways to get acquainted with Lancaster is to take the Lancaster Historic Walking Tour. The tour starts at the Visitor Center at Penn Square. You can easily recognize your tour guides: they are the ones dressed in 18th and 19th century costumes. And if you think recognize a famous former president or a historic general, you will be right. Tours are available every day from April through October. Adult tickets cost $7, and children, $1.
The tour takes you through 250 years of Lancaster history, and visits 50 historic locations. The tour takes about an hour and a half, but it passes lots of places to grab a quick snack if you get hungry along the way. And, you end up right back where you started – where all the restaurants are – so it’s all good. It’s a walking tour, so wear the right shoes. You don’t want to be hiking over uneven pavement and up and down stairs in high heels!
Lancaster Central Market
The Market is the “longest continuously operating public market” in the United States. It was started in 1730 and is still located at the same place, in Penn Square, in the middle of downtown Lancaster. The Market opens early at 6 AM, so you can get your fresh bread or bakery goods first thing. Then you can spend the rest of the day if you want. There is so much to see. And buy. And eat.
The Lancaster Central Market began basically as a Farmer’s Market, with the first venders (farmers) bringing their farm produce and meats to the area of the City’s central square to sell to local townspeople. And that tradition has continued right through to the present. These days you can get fresh produce, cheese, meats, local crafts, flowers – and fresh baked goodies at the Market.
It is open every Tuesday and Friday, from 6 am to 4 pm, and Saturday from 6 am to 2 pm (unless those days are holidays). So, if you are visiting Lancaster, be sure you plan at least one day at the Market. You will be taking part in a tradition that has going on for almost 300 years. Make sure that you bring your comfortable walking shoes and your appetite along with you. It has been Nationally recognized as one of the “Great Public Places” in America, so you really need to put this on your list of things to do in Lancaster.
North Museum of Natural History and Science
This is a great place for families, or just folks who are interested in technology, natural history or science. Known locally as the North Museum, the facility is close to the downtown area. It has great collections, a Planetarium, and the famous “Technology Theater” where you can see images from the Hubble telescope. You can see exhibits on the local Native American tribes, and there are dinosaurs to amaze and enthrall the kids. Outer space is also a big theme at the museum.
This is an interactive museum, and children (and adults) are encouraged to participate in many of the hands on exhibits. You can even make a tornado if you want to! You can see how tidal waves work, or gaze at the stars. Plus there are special programs offered throughout the year, along with a variety of special weekend events. Check with their website, or with the local visitor’s center to see what’s going on before you stop on by the North Museum of Natural History and Science
Even though it sounds as though this might be some kind of agricultural museum devoted to grains, Wheatland is actually the name of the former home of President James Buchanan (15th President of the United States). After a brief film at the Visitor Center, costumed guides will conduct you on a tour of this beautiful home. Set in 22 acres, the site is owed partially by the National Parks Service and partially by the LancasterHistory.org, - an organization dedicated to preserving the historical places and history of Lancaster.
The brick Federal style home is full of personal artifacts belonging to President Buchanan. He is best known for being the only bachelor President, and for being in office when the Union began to fall apart at the beginning of the Civil War. A smokehouse, carriage house and privy are also on the grounds. It is open to the public Monday through Saturday from February through mid-November (when it starts snowing). Tours start hourly.
Amazingly enough, despite sometimes inclement weather, the Lancaster First Friday events happen religiously, year ‘round. It is an “arts extravaganza” that is held between 5 pm and 9 pm, no matter what.
There are often concerts, or other types of performances, and, of course, all the galleries, restaurants studios, museums and restaurants are open for your entertainment and dining pleasure. So, bundle up or grab your sunscreen – depending on the time of year, and wander around to the downtown area to see what you can find in the bustling Lancaster Arts community.
Dutch Wonderland Family Amusement Park
The main activity of the 48 acre Dutch Wonderland Family Amusement Park takes place from May through the end of August, but it is still open on weekends in September and October, and has special events in October (Halloween) and November and December (Winter Wonderland). This family-oriented park has over 30 rides, a water “play park” (which includes a resident dragon) and live entertainment.
There is also a campground (Old Mill Steam Campground) adjacent to the Amusement Park. Not only does the campground have camping spaces and RV sites, but it also has cabins and even Tipi's that can be rented. Wouldn't the kids love to sleep out in a tipi? Between the park and the camping, you cannot ask for a better total family vacation! You can buy a season ticket, or a day ticket. Both will allow you to ride all rides and participate in all the attractions at the park.
Hands-On House Children’s Museum of Lancaster
In keeping with the theme of family fun, the Hands-On House Children’s Museum of Lancaster has a very long name and is long on fun as well. It is the only museum in the area where playing is required, and adults must be accompanied by a child.
It is geared towards interactive and learning play for children aged two to ten. Children will have a great time participating in exhibits and events like “Marty's Machine Shop”, “Where do you hide a Dinosaur?” and “Clowning Around.” There is a Play Garden and a (small) picnic facility on site. So, come and play.
Hungry visitors to Lancaster will be happy to know that they will find plenty to eat and plenty of variety in the city. Not only are there a variety of great restaurants in the Downtown Penn Square areas, but there are also some very nice Pennsylvania Dutch inspired eating establishments close by.
Family Style Dinning and Smorgasbord restaurants are very popular in the Lancaster area, both inspired by the Amish/Mennonite colonial settlers. Family Style dining means that you sit together with friends (or strangers) and eat as you would at home – with food brought to your table in bowls or on platters. Lots and lots of food. Because of the abundance of farm-fresh ingredients supplied by the local farms, portions tend to be large and just plain yummy. You can eat until you can’t move – and then they bring desert!
A Smorgasbord is a restaurant that lays out all kinds of delicious food buffet-style, and you help yourself. Once again, these eating establishments are going to have a Dutch influence, with wholesome, fresh food, and plenty of it.! Even though the Dutch did not invent the Smorgasbord, it seems to have been perfected in Lancaster. Bring the whole family, and a good appetite. And make sure you go back for seconds!
Amish Farm & House and Amish Culture
Before looking at the opportunities to learn about the Amish venues that can be visited, it would be prudent to learn a little about the Amish people.
Lancaster County has a huge population of Amish, Mennonite, Brethren and other “Plain People” church groups. These religious based groups have been in Pennsylvania since the 1730’s and most of them have kept the lifestyle and ways of that time. That is to say that they do not use electricity or any modern conveniences and tend to keep the modern world from intruding into their homes or their lives. They dress in “plain clothes”, and mostly live lives that revolve around their religion and their farms. While Mennonites will allow electricity and will use engine powered farm equipment and transportation, strict Amish people will not.
The principal form of transportation for the Amish people is the horse-drawn carriages (buggies) which can be seen through the county – especially on Sundays (meeting day). Special care should be taken when sharing the road with one of these lovely black carriages. Please remember that they are pulled by horses. The carriage is not going to speed up. And the horse may get spooked if you honk or pass too close. Every year, in the United States and Canada, there are hundreds of accidents between vehicles and buggies. These accidents usually involve serious injuries, even death to the occupants of the buggies, and they almost always injure or kill the horse. There is never an excuse to drive aggressively or recklessly around a horse drawn conveyance. Please use cautions and remember that the “Plain People” were here first.
The Amish and “Plain People” are known for their wonderful farms and beautiful craftsmanship when it comes to building furniture and houses, or making quilts. But they are a very private people who speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home and only wish to be left to themselves. While they understand that they twill be interacting with the “English” (Englischers) of the world, they are not a “tourist attraction”.
They are just people living their lives, and you are in their homes. They do not believe that they should have their picture taken, so please ask before you pull out your camera. Do not just arrive at someone’s house and ask if you can look around or take photos. If you are going to take pictures at a public place, try to be respectful and discreet.
Amish people dress in plain colored clothes. Men have beards and wear hats. Women wear dresses and pinafore-like aprons, or just aprons. A married woman will always wear a prayer bonnet on her head. An unmarried young lady will wear white or black cap or bonnet. Women also wear capes in public. Their clothing, like most things in their lives, is meant show humility and to encourage separation from the world. A good visitor to an Amish community will not gawk or stare. It is just the way they dress, and it should be respected.
One of the best ways to learn about the Amish people and their way of life is to visit the Amish Farm and House. It is a 15-acre farm complex, complete with farm animals, local artists and a one-room Amish schoolhouse. Established in 1955 to help the rest of the world better understand the Amish beliefs and way of life, knowledgeable guides will conduct you through this 200 year old house. It is an informative, room-by-room tour that helps the visitor understand and experience daily Amish life.
The one-room Amish school is always a fun place to visit with your children, so they can see how schooling has (and has not) changed over the past 300 years. And, of course, there are all the farm animals to see and feed and learn about. Local products and beautiful Amish quilts can be purchased at the Amish Farm gift shop.
Mennonite Information Center
Located close to Lancaster, on Route 30, the Mennonite Information Center is a very good place to learn more about the Pennsylvania Dutch people and Lancaster County. There is a media presentation (remember: the Mennonites use technology) and an information center where the staff are glad to answer all of your questions.
You can also find tours of the area, motor coach tours, and even arrange horse-drawn buggy tours. The small van tours are a very good way to see the country side and visit Amish and Mennonite Farms and stores. Your guides will direct you to places where you can interact with the locals without offending anyone. You can purchase items at the gift shop, or arrange to stay at a Mennonite Bed-and-Breakfast, Guest Home or working farm. (Note: as these are Mennonite facilities, they will have electricity).
Downtown Lancaster has a number of small shops and boutiques. The Lancaster Central Market offers a variety of local foods and wares on “market” days. Unlike most urbanized areas that have their Outlet Stores way the heck out in the middle of nowhere, Lancaster has the Tanger Outlets Mall right there in town. Yay!
People seeking Amish furniture, crafts, foods and quilts will generally have to go outside of the city – but not very far. Farmer’s markets abound in the nearby towns. Just check with the Visitor’s center for days and times.
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