Lancaster County was founded in 1729. It is named after Lancashire, England and located in southeastern Pennsylvania. More than a half-million residents reside in the county, making it the sixth most populous in Pennsylvania (12th in terms of size). Lancaster is the county seat and only city.

Although the Amish have a relatively insular lifestyle, they are the main tourist attraction in the county, which is home to the oldest and second largest Amish settlement in the United States. Lancaster County is considered part of “Pennsylvania Dutch” country and like neighboring Berks County, it has a heavy German influence.

Lancaster Central Market

James Buchanan's Wheatland

Miller's Smorgasborg

Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum

Amish Farm & House

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery

National Watch and Clock Museum

African American History

African American Heritage Walking Tours run on the first Saturday of the month from June to October. They start at the visitor center on Penn Square, which in the heart of Lancaster. Prior to the American Civil War, there were several black-owned businesses in and around the square. Many of the owners were active in public affairs. Black farmers were able to sell their produce at the Lancaster Central Market.

On Queen Street, the Elite Hotel was the only accommodation option for visiting African Americans in the early 20th century. The property that is now the Lancaster County Convention Center once served as an Underground Railroad safe house, circa 1850. The old Lancaster train station took runaway slaves to Philadelphia and points north in box cars fitted with false ends.

African Americans worshiped at Trinity Lutheran and Saint James Episcopal churches as far back as 1744. In 1817, some left Saint James Episcopal to form Bethel AME. From 1841-1883, there was an African American free school in the rear of the property. The Shreiner-Concord Cemetery was the only public cemetery open to all races and religions. Former Radical Republican congressman, Thaddeus Stevens is buried there along with many black troops from the Civil War era. It was Stevens who made a speech from the Lancaster County Courthouse in 1865 calling for “40 acres and a mule” for liberated black families in the southern states.

Amish Farm & House

“Amish” is way of life brought over from Switzerland around 1690. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a religion. The oldest (and second largest) Amish settlement in the United States is in Lancaster County, where there are an estimated 30,000 living in a 30 mile radius.

At the Amish Farm and House, you can see how the Amish have lived for more than 300 years. The Amish kitchen is of particular interest. Although many outsiders see Amish life as isolated and restrictive, they have no dietary restrictions. Since they shun electricity, propane is used for cooking and lighting. Most Amish in Lancaster County have indoor plumbing.

Their clothing is rather uniform (strictly solid colors) and there is plenty on display in the upstairs bedrooms. Perhaps the most striking difference between the Amish home and most American homes is the lack of pictures. Like Muslims, the Amish forbid photos of sentient beings. Highlights of the outside exhibits include old farming equipment, a vacuum milker, blacksmith shop as well as a schoolhouse. The Amish are only educated up to 8th grade, as that’s all they deem necessary for their way of living.

The only thing missing from the museum are actual Amish people. For those who want to see Amish life in the 21st century, 90-minute bus tours leave from the museum seven days a week. They wind through the back roads of Lancaster County, where the Amish live and work. They are generally friendly people as long as you don’t try to take their picture!

Lancaster Central Market

Decades before there was a United States of America, there was the Lancaster Central Market. It claims to be America’s longest running farmers’ market (since 1730). Sorry, Broad Street Market! The market does a superb job of blending Victorian charm, agricultural heritage and multiculturalism. Take advantage of the opportunity to try local (Amish) specialties like sticky bun and whoopie pies. It’s convenient downtown location makes the market an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the city.

Julius Sturgis Pretzel Factory Tour

Julius Sturgis was born and raised in Lititz, Pennsylvania. While apprenticing at a pretzel bakery, he accidentally left soft pretzels in the oven overnight. When everyone came in the next morning, the pretzels were hard. This gave Julius a new idea, which his boss did not appreciate. Unable to convince his boss to sell hard pretzels, he struck out on his own in 1861.

Sturgis purchased the current Main Street location for $2,450 and started the first hard pretzel company in America. Tours are available Monday through Saturday for just $3.50 ($2.50 for children). Their guide explains the pretzel’s religious origin as well as the story of the Sturgis family. Everyone gets to roll his or her own pretzel. No matter how poorly it comes out, you walk away with a certificate. Although the pretzels are now baked in nearby Reading, at Tom Sturgis (Julius’ grandson), visitors still get to take a small bag home.

Fun fact: the original pretziola (Latin for “little reward”) was topped with sugar rather than salt!

Landis Valley Village & Farm

With more than 20 buildings open to the public, Landis Valley is the largest “museum” dedicated to preserving Pennsylvania Dutch history. An estimated one-third of early Pennsylvania settlers were from Germany and “Pennsylvania Dutch” refers to those German settlers.

George and Henry Landis collected artifacts from early German settlers and established a museum in 1925. Today the museum is spread out over 100 acres and boasts more than 100,000 artifacts. Highlights of the more than 25 buildings on the property include the collections gallery, an exhibit explaining the difference between Amish and Mennonites as well as the demonstrators. The museum blacksmith (Frank Gillespie) is a true artist and puts on an impressive demonstration on how to make a wall hook.

Guided tours are available. It’s worth trying to plan your visit to coincide with their plethora of special events.

Miller’s Smorgasbord

Their slogan is “if you miss Miller’s, you miss Lancaster County.” While that certainly raises expectations, being around since 1929 means that they are doing something right. Like other smorgasbords in the area, there’s more than just food. There is also a winery, bible history exhibit and quilt shop on the property.

The traditional smorgasbord has more than 40 items, but there is also an a la carte menu. Drinks are not included in the smorgasbord price, but their homemade shoofly liqueur is an essential part of the Pennsylvania Dutch experience.

National Watch and Clock Museum

What started with less than 1,000 items in 1977 has since grown into the largest horological collection in North America with over 12,000 items. Their slogan is “America’s largest time keeping collection.” Artifacts at the National Watch and Clock Museum include sundials, astrolabes, nocturnal dials, sandglasses and more. They have over 500 Hamilton wristwatches in their collection.

As you tour the museum, sounds of clocks (not the Coldplay song) echo in the background via the museum’s ambient system. Weekly workshops are available from March to November and it’s worth planning your visit to coincide with one of them.

Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania

More than 100 historic locomotives and vintage railroad cars are on display at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. From old woodburners and steam engines to diesel-powered and electric engines, their collection stretches back from the mid-19th to the 20th century.

Strasburg Railroad

Across the street from the railroad museum you can take a ride on a vintage steam locomotive. Be prepared for spectacular scenery through the Amish farmlands of Lancaster County. Rides are approximately 45 minutes and fully narrated. Perhaps the biggest surprise for visitors is the fact that the train goes to Paradise. Literally! The downside is you have to turn around once you get there. Only a lucky 1,000 or so residents get to call Paradise home.

James Buchanan’s Wheatland

In the 240 years since the United States declared its independence, only one of the 44 Presidents has been from Pennsylvania. You know, the state where the constitution was written and the declaration of independence was signed! Even some historians can be forgiven for forgetting his name since it’s been a LONG time.

James Buchanan was the last president before the start of the American Civil War. He was followed by Abraham Lincoln from Illinois and as of 2008, Illinois has produced more United States Presidents than Pennsylvania. Oh well, the good news is that Buchanan’s Lancaster home is well preserved and has one of the coolest bathtubs. Perhaps cool because nobody actually has to use it and there’s an interesting looking bidet next to it. In addition to being the only president from Pennsylvania, Buchanan was also the only bachelor to occupy the White House for a full term.

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