Nestled in southern Pennsylvania's sprawling countryside, Lancaster County is a wonderful destination to get away for a few days. In Lancaster City, wander through the historic downtown to discover eclectic art galleries, boutique shops, and street art. Then, drive through the picturesque farmland, stopping for fresh produce at farmers' markets and to admire historic covered bridges. Whether you're looking for a city or a country getaway, Lancaster County, PA is a great choice!
Background about Author: As you may know, I grew up in Lancaster County (from the ages of 5-18), so have a lot of childhood memories from Lancaster to share. Plus, despite meeting in college in DC, my husband's family is also from Lancaster County. As a result, we visit Lancaster often, even now that we live in Hong Kong.
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Little History of Lancaster, PA
Settled in the early 1700s by Europeans, Lancaster is one of the oldest inland towns in the United States. Although first known as "Hickory Town", it was later named "Lancaster" by a prominent citizen, John Wright. He named it after Lancaster, England where he had previously lived. Now, Lancaster is also known as the "Red Rose City", a reference to Lancaster, England.
Lancaster City is the seat of Pennsylvania's Lancaster County which is located along the Susquehanna River and is roughly 70 miles west of Philadelphia. Lancaster County has a diverse population with agricultural roots and a large Amish community. Because of this large Amish community, Lancaster is often referred to as "Pennsylvania Dutch Country".
Fun Historical Fact about Lancaster, PA
Did you know that Lancaster was once the capital of the United States? On September 27, 1777, Lancaster became the capital for one day.
After the British captured Philadelphia (during the American Revolution), the Continental Congress fled from Philadelphia to Lancaster. The next day, the revolutionary government moved further west to York, PA, which served as the U.S. capital until June 27, 1778.
How to Get to Lancaster, PA
Getting to Lancaster by Car
As with many smaller cities in the U.S., the easiest way to get to Lancaster is by car. Located in south central Pennsylvania along US Rt. 30, it's the perfect stop on a road trip through Pennsylvania or a longer East Coast road trip.
A visit to Lancaster could also be a good day trip or weekend getaway from several major East Coast cities, such as:
Getting to Lancaster by Train
If you're keen to avoid dealing with traffic and want to take public transportation, you can get to Lancaster by train on Amtrak's Keystone service. Once you've arrived in Lancaster, however, I highly recommend renting a car to get around the county.
Getting to Lancaster by Plane
Although Lancaster has an airport (Lancaster Airport (LNS)), it's quite small and I've never flown into or out of it. Usually, the best way to get to Lancaster by plane is to arrive in a nearby city's airport. Then, use one of the methods listed above to get to Lancaster.
Harrisburg International Airport (MDT) is the closest airport to Lancaster (33 miles). However, I recommend checking Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) or Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) for cheaper and direct flights to more destinations.
Places to Stay in Lancaster County
In Lancaster County, you'll find a wide variety of accommodations ranging from budget-friendly hotel chains to trendy, boutique hotels. Check out my curated list of unique places to stay in Lancaster, PA for ideas.
If you like to be within walking distance of restaurants, galleries, and markets, I highly recommend staying in downtown Lancaster. But if you enjoy a country getaway, you can also find a variety of hotels and vacation rentals around the county.
Lancaster Hotel Recommendations
Although we usually stay with family when visiting Lancaster, here are a few hotels that have received excellent reviews and in which I would consider staying:
Lancaster Vacation Rental
If you have a large family or a group traveling together, you might consider renting a house on VRBO instead. For example, this Whimsical Lancaster House with a Porch in Amish Country is a peaceful retreat in the countryside.
To see more accommodations, check out 14 Unique Places to Stay in Lancaster, PA!
Things to Do in Lancaster County
To help you start planning your Lancaster itinerary, I've compiled a list of amazing activities in Lancaster County. Some of these activities are quite touristy, but others are ones that I've enjoyed as a local. With the wide range of activities available, you could easily spend a weekend or longer exploring the area.
1) Buy Fresh Produce at a Farmer's Market
Driving around Lancaster County, beautiful farmland surrounds you for miles. So, it's no surprise that farmers' markets in the county are a big draw. Throughout the year, you can visit several large farmers' markets which offer everything from goodies such as fresh produce, local meats, delicious baked goods, and canned jams to handcrafted items and souvenirs.
During certain seasons, however, you can also find roadside stands scattered around the countryside where local farmers sell their produce (sometimes from the bottom of their farm's driveway). Stop at them to buy the freshest tomatoes, corn, berries, apples, etc. depending on the season.
Pro Tip: Have cash on hand, especially for the roadside stands. Some even operate on the honor system and have a container to leave your money when no one is working the stand.
Lancaster County Farmers' Markets
Especially if you're visiting in spring through fall, I recommend stopping by any of these Lancaster County farmers' markets.
Pro Tip: Be sure to check the markets' hours before your visit as most are open only on certain days and some are not open during the evening.
2) Walking Tour of Historic Center and Mural Hunting
Since Lancaster is one of the older towns in the United States, it has a rich history and many historic buildings in the city center. Stroll around the downtown core to admire the architecture and beautiful brick buildings.
As you wander through the historic center, you'll also spot some impressive murals. If you want to make sure you don't miss any, check out the mural map on the Discover Lancaster website which has the murals' locations pinned.
Several years ago, my mom and I spent an afternoon wandering through the city, admiring the architecture and searching for murals. It's a great activity which can easily fill an hour or an entire afternoon, depending on your schedule and how many stops in shops and cafés you make along the way.
3) Tour Amish Farm & House
If you're new to Pennsylvania Dutch Country and want to learn more about the Amish, I recommend a visit to the Amish Farm & House. Here, you'll learn more about the Amish people, their culture and beliefs, as well as how their lives have evolved in modern times.
In the first few years after moving to Lancaster, my parents took everyone who visited us to the Amish Farm & House. I'd heard that tour so many times that I could have recited it at 6 years old! Admittedly, the farm feels slightly less authentic now that they've built a Target right next door, but the information should be just as relevant.
Learn More about the Amish
If you're interested in learning even more about the Amish, you might enjoy one of these tours or immersive experiences.
4) Shopping at Boutique Stores or Outlets
Whether you're a boutique shopper or are looking for a bargain, Lancaster County has you covered. Before the time of online shopping and Amazon where you could get everything delivered to your door, the allure of the outlet stores drew people to Lancaster County in droves.
Today, the outlets have lost a bit of their shine, but you can still find great bargains at Tanger Outlets and the Shops at Rockvale. Last year, we found great deals (including 50% off bargains) at stores like J. Crew and Banana Republic.
If you're looking for a more local experience, then you may appreciate the boutique shops in Lancaster City instead. From trendy clothing stores and handcrafted jewelry to antiques and glasswork, you'll find an interesting array of shops to explore in downtown Lancaster.
5) Catch a Performance at the Theater
For those of you that enjoy a live performance at a local theater, Lancaster County has several options that might appeal to you. Check online for the production line-up and book your tickets ahead of time to ensure you don't miss out.
6) Drive (or Cycle) to Historic Covered Bridges
For a fun, self-paced activity, drive through the beautiful Lancaster countryside to admire the undulating landscape and see the historic covered bridges. Along the way, you'll also discover some of the county's smaller towns which are quite charming as well. Since these bridges are on back country roads, you could cycle to them instead for an outdoor workout.
What are Covered Bridges?
Built primarily in the 1800s, these timber truss bridges have a roof, a deck, and siding and are almost completely enclosed, thus protecting the bridges from heavy snowfall. Although the bridges were covered for practical reasons, they are also quite beautiful and are a great example of the craftmanship of the time.
For more information on how to find these covered bridges, check out my post Beautiful Drive to Historic Covered Bridges in Lancaster County, PA.
7) Ride the Strasburg Rail Road
Another unique way to enjoy the beauty of the Lancaster County countryside is on the historic Strasburg Rail Road. Railway enthusiasts especially will appreciate a ride on America's oldest continuously operating railroad for an authentic steam railroad experience.
Strasburg Rail Road - America's oldest continuously operating railroad
Founded in 1832, the Strasburg Rail Road was first used for freight and passengers. By the mid-1950s, the railroad was nearing the end of its usefulness and needed repairs. Although the owners did not want to invest in the repairs, two enthusiastic railfans saved the Strasburg Rail Road. Since 1958, the Strasburg Rail Road has operated as a tourist railroad.
Strasburg Rail Road Experience
Choose your seating preference when you book your ticket then enjoy this 45-minute roundtrip scenic journey from East Strasburg to Leaman Place Junction in southeastern Lancaster County.
You could also choose to book one of the special events on the railroad, such as the Wine & Cheese Train Ride or the Murder Mystery.
8) Play a Round of Mini-Golf
At this point, you're probably wondering, mini-golf? Yes, mini-golf. Growing up in Lancaster County, I loved playing a round of mini-golf at Village Greens, then going for ice cream at the Strasburg Creamery. And let's be honest, as an adult, I still enjoyed it last year!
So, if you're visiting Lancaster County with kids or are just looking for a fun outdoor activity, then I highly recommend checking out some of these mini-golf courses.
Lancaster County Mini-Golf Courses
9) Visit Art Galleries
Though Lancaster is a small town, the eclectic range of galleries and studios in the city make it a great destination for art lovers. Most galleries are concentrated in the downtown core around North Prince Street so it's easy to reach them on foot.
Check out the Lancaster City Arts website for more info on the galleries, plus a map.
Pro Tip: Plan your trip to include the First Friday of the month. Every First Friday from 5pm to 9pm, Lancaster city hosts an arts extravaganza when galleries stay open later and the streets buzz with live performances.
10) Grab a Local Craft Beer (& Play Trivia)
While you're in Lancaster, be sure to stop by some of the local breweries for a pint. Although Lancaster Brewing Company has been around for 20+ years, I've been excited on recent visits to see new craft breweries opening.
These breweries have a welcoming vibe, a community feel, and are great places to hang out with a pint. Plus, some even offer trivia nights and live music.
Lancaster County Breweries
Here are a few of my favorite Lancaster County breweries that I recommend you try if you love craft beer:
11) Meet the Packs at the Wolf Sanctuary of PA
If you're an animal lover like me, then a visit to the Wolf Sanctuary of PA is a unique experience you won't want to miss. This sanctuary is located in northern Lancaster County on 80+ acres of natural woodland. For the past 40 years, the Darlington Family has been offering refuge to gray wolves and wolf-dogs.
The Wolf Sanctuary offers guided tours of the facility which you can book online. On the tour, you'll learn about how the sanctuary began, plus get to meet some of the packs (through several fences). Throughout the tour, the guide will share some of the wolves' stories and how they came to be at the sanctuary.
12) Stuff Yourself at a Smorgasbord
If you want to get the full Pennsylvania Dutch Country culinary experience, then put on your stretchy pants and head to one of the many smorgasbords in Lancaster, PA. These smorgasbords are all-you-can-eat buffets which showcase PA Dutch cooking using local farm-fresh ingredients.
Here are a few smorgasbords that I'd recommend:
Vlog about the Lancaster Smorgasbord Experience
Growing up in Lancaster means I've eaten at most of these smorgasbords, either on school field trips, family gatherings, etc. And no matter what I said before I went, I always ate too much. Trust me, they're an overwhelming experience and you cannot try everything!
My favorite food vlogger, Mark Wiens, visited Lancaster County this past year. I recommend watching the vlog on his feast at Shady Maple Smorgasbord below to prepare yourself!
13) Enjoy Fine Dining
Even if you're not in the mood to stuff yourself at a smorgasbord, then perhaps you'd enjoy the fine dining scene Lancaster has to offer instead. Taking advantage of the plentiful local produce and locally-sourced meats, chefs are putting their own spin on classic dishes, including some Lancaster County favorites.
14) Experience Kitchen Kettle Village
What started as an idea from Bob Burnley to create a jelly business in his family's garage in 1954 sprouted into a village of 42 shops, 2 restaurants, and an inn. The heart of Kitchen Kettle Village is still the family-run kitchen where locals are cooking up delicious jelly, jam, butter, and baked goods. Be sure to stop in for free samples of interesting concoctions, such as Balsamic Fig Jam and Habanero Mango Jam.
After you've tasted all the jellies you can handle, explore the other shops which showcase other local Lancaster County goods. Delicious treats such as kettle corn, pretzels, and homemade fudge will be hard to resist. Stop and appreciate the handmade quilts which make wonderful (though pricey) souvenirs from Lancaster County.
Pro Tip: Kitchen Kettle Village gets quite crowded on Saturdays (closed on Sundays) and during the summer. Visiting mid-week during an off-peak season is much more enjoyable.
15) Relax at an Outdoor Concert at Long's Park
If you're looking for a truly local experience, attending a summer concert at Long's Park is the event for you. From June to August, each Sunday night at 7:30pm, Long's Park hosts a concert or performance in its amphitheater as part of its Summer Music Series.
Locals show up with lawn chairs, blankets, and food to hang out with friends and family and enjoy the concert. It's a great activity for families as older kids can play on the playgrounds around the park while parents enjoy the concert.
Pro Tip: Performances usually last ~2 hours, but you'll want to show up early to park and claim your spot. Afterwards, it usually takes ~20 minutes or so for the park to empty, depending on how crowded it is. The park hires people to direct traffic and help empty the park.
As you've seen, Lancaster County offers a wide range of activities for the entire family and you could easily spend a weekend or longer exploring the area. Hopefully you have some ideas of things to add to your Lancaster County trip itinerary!
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