Amish Country, PA
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Amish Country, PA

Travel back to the future in the land of the Amish.

Life in the Slow Lane

A visit to Pennsylvania Dutch country is like taking a step back in time. Way back. Horse-drawn buggies are common. Everyone -- even kids -- wears somber, old-fashioned clothes circa the 1800s. And women churn butter.

Lancaster County, PA, copyright Roger Berger/PA Dutch CVB

No, this isn't a cute restoration village staffed by actors. It's the real thing.

This stuck-in-time culture has become a curiosity for today's modern visitor. Thousands flock to the patchwork-quilt farmlands of Lancaster County, PA each year, to peer into the lives of the Pennsylvania Dutch (aka Amish), tour their unique barns, and feast on their delicious food.

Plan on spending a day here. It's a fun way to teach children about history, hard work and family values.

Museums of the People

Before starting your tour, know this: Most Amish attractions are located along Route 340 (in the towns of Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand), not in Lancaster proper.

Hit the museums first, while the kids still have attention spans. Among the must-see exhibits:

Lancaster County, PA
copyright PA Dutch CVB

  • The People's Place. For an authentic portrayal of Amish life, make this your first stop. Here, kids can sit in a buggy, try on Amish clothes, play with a wooden barn and animals, and take quizzes set up throughout the museum. The Quilt Museum next door displays some of the best samples of that art form anywhere.
  • Plain & Fancy Farm. Don't be fooled by the tacky signs and tour buses parked out front of this Bird-in-Hand attraction. Plain & Fancy is not your typical tourist trap. Most come for the special-effects film about an Amish boy who contemplates leaving the fold. But don't zip to the next attraction without seeing the lesser-trafficked Amish Country Homestead, a building recognized by Lancaster County for its genuine portrayal of Amish family life.

Amish Up Close

Covered Bridge, copyright PA
Dutch CVB

The best way to see the Amish? Look out the car window. Just driving around will give you a quick glimpse into their lives.

Better yet, let a local be your guide. The Mennonite Information Center can set you up with a real Mennonite (Amish are one order of Mennonites), who'll ride in your car and take you on a two-hour tour.

Or take a horse-and-buggy tour. Ed's and Aaron & Jessica's Buggy Rides are some of the most popular. And trotting along these country roads will revive a squirming brood.

If you're lucky, you may be able to visit a real working farm. The Gardens of Eden, a B&B, sometimes arranges Saturday dinner with an Amish family for its guests. Or, you can stay over: the Visitor's Bureau lists some 18 farms that rent rooms for $50 to $75 a night. Whether viewing Amish life by buggy or hands-on tour, keep your camera in the bag -- the Amish consider it a religious infringement to have their pictures taken.

Pretzels and Shoofly Pies

Central Market, Lancaster, PA,
copyright PA Dutch CVB

If your kids are losing patience with quaint exhibits -- and each other -- bribe 'em with food. What little boy wouldn't stop tormenting his younger sister when presented with famous Amish freshly baked apple dumplings, shoofly pies (made of molasses, sugar, and flour), whoopie pies, (giant, soft, chocolate and cream sandwich-cookies) and funnel cakes?

The downside: You'll be talking them down from sugar highs the rest of the day. To skip the sugar, go watch pretzels being made at the Intercourse Pretzel Factory, stop at a roadside stand for just-picked produce, or head to Central Market in downtown Lancaster, the country's oldest farmers' market.


Type of trip: Educational

Best ages: All ages

Ideal trip length: One day

Distance: Philadelphia (64 miles); Baltimore (67 miles); New York (160 miles)

Best time to go: Summer and early fall, when more Amish are outdoors. Avoid Sundays, when most attractions and restaurants are closed

Weather: Humid 90-degree highs in summer; 30-degree highs in winter

Lodging: From $100/night (B&Bs) to $130 to $150/night (chain hotels)

Squirm factor: Some to a lot, if the kids are very young

If You Go...

Lancaster County,
PA, copyright PA
Dutch CVB

The People's Place 3513 Old Philadelphia Pike Phone: 800-390-8436

The People's Place Quilt Museum 3510 Old Philadelphia Pike Phone: 800-828-8218

Aaron & Jessica's Buggy Rides Route 340 between Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand Phone: 717-768-8828 Note: Sleigh rides in winter.

Ed's Buggy Rides Route 896 South Phone: 717-687-0360 Note: Closed Sunday.

Gardens of Eden 1894 Eden Road, Lancaster Phone: 717-393-5179

The Amish Farm & House 2395 Route 30 East, Lancaster Phone: 717-394-6185 Note: Closed Christmas Day.

Plain & Fancy Farm/The Amish Country Homestead 3121 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bird-in-Hand Phone: 717-768-8400

Intercourse Pretzel Factory 3614 Old Philadelphia Pike Phone: 717-768-3432 Note: Free 15-minute tours. Call to be sure they're making pretzels.

Lancaster County, PA,
Don Shenk/PA Dutch CVB

Stoltzfus Farms Route 772, Intercourse Phone: 717-768-8156 Note: Closed December to March.

Good 'n Plenty Route 896, Smoketown Phone: 717-394-7111 Note: Closed mid-December to first Friday in February.

Mennonite Information Center 2209 Millstream Rd. Lancaster Phone: 717-299-0954

Miller's Smorgasbord 2811 Lincoln Highway East Phone: 717-687-6621 Note: Call for hours.

Lancaster Dispensing Company 33 N. Market St. Phone: 717-299-4602

Jethro's 659 First St. Phone: 717-299-1700

The Loft 201 W. Orange St. Phone: 717-299-0661

More Information:

Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau Phone: 1-800-PADUTCH for lodging and upcoming events. Phone: 717-299-8901 for information on attractions.


Side Trips

Strasburg Rail Road

Kids ages 2 to 7 love riding on Strasburg Rail Road's "big black engine," a huge, coal-burning locomotive drawing restored wooden cars. Tip: Skip the toy train museums; they're not a "wow" and way too expensive. On Route 741, 20 minutes south of Lancaster, 717-687-7522.


The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spot: Central Market for fresh local produce. Queen and King Streets, Lancaster. Open Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Best souvenir: Anything with a hex sign, a design put on Pennsylvania Dutch barns to ward off evil spirits. For adults, a quilt, but know the difference between handmade and machine-made quilts before you buy.

Traffic alert: Delays on Route 30 due to construction. If you're coming from the East, North, or South, use Route 340 off Route 10 -- it's not much of a highway, but it moves.