Photo Courtesy of The Amish Experience/Harry Palmer
There’s no shortage of festive, twinkling lights-laden destinations to celebrate the holidays in the Mid-Atlantic, home to a myriad of seasonally mirthful metropolises. Of course, that makes more pastoral, off-the-beaten-path places such as Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Philadelphia and Baltimore—not likely to be among the top destinations that pop to mind when you think about celebrating the holidays. But it should be, for here, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, you’ll find all the makings of holiday merriment, from inspiring shows and special feasts, to unique shops and vintage trains, to postcard-perfect scenery and fascinating cultural traditions—and more. In fact, there’s so much more that it’d be impossible to do it all in just two days and one night, though it’s always fun to try.
Day One: In Plain Views
Lancaster County is home to the oldest Amish settlement in the country, and the “Plain” life—which, particularly among Old Order Amish, eschews modern amenities such as electricity, telephones and automobiles for religious reasons—is among the most fascinating aspects of the area. East of downtown Lancaster, with easy access to Route 30, in towns with peculiar names such as Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse and Paradise, it’s common to see Old Order Amish (as well as Old Order Mennonites) tending to their pretty patchworks of farmland using horse- or mule-drawn plows and traveling the back roads by horse and buggy.
Options abound for “English” (non-Plain people) visitors interested in learning about the Plain life and in touring Amish homesteads, from guided auto tours (in your vehicle), bus tours and walking tours, to bicycle tours, scooter tours and even helicopter tours. (When touring, please respect the Plain peoples’ privacy, and do not take photographs of them without their permission. When scheduling your visit, also note their faithful observance of the Sabbath on Sundays.) For an authentically Amish experience, consider one of the many horse-and-buggy tours with stops at working farms, led by Amish or Mennonite tour guides. Most tours operate year-round, and if it snows, you may be treated to a sleigh ride instead.
You can also delve into the Amish culture at a wealth of area attractions. In Ronks, learn how the Amish work, play and learn during a tour of the Amish Village, a 12-acre village complete with an 1840’s Amish farmhouse, a barn with farm animals, a blacksmith shop, a smokehouse market, a village store, a windmill and waterwheel, and a one-room schoolhouse decorated in Amish tradition at Christmastime.
In Lancaster, you can learn more about the Old Order Amish at the Amish Farm and House, which claims the title of the county’s longest-running Amish farmhouse tour, debuting in 1955. Here, you can tour an 1805 farmhouse, explore a 15-acre farm that was part of a 1715 land grant from William Penn, visit with farm animals, stop by a blacksmith shop, see an 1855 covered bridge, ride an Amish scooter, check out a one-room schoolhouse and ogle local art. Buggy rides and bus tours departing from the farm are also available.
An Amish farmer retires the horses for the day at The Amish Experience's country homestead.
Photo Courtesy of The Amish Experience/Tom Taylor
Another favorite within the area is The Amish Experience at Plain & Fancy Farm in Bird-in-Hand. This high-tech theater presents Jacob’s Choice, a 35- to 40-minute multimedia show (playing April through October) that tells the story of what it means to be Amish through the perspective of the Fisher family. The theater also presents Magic-Lantern Shows, a late-1800’s (non-Amish) form of entertainment that uses lanterns to project stories, making it the only permanent Magic Lantern theater in the world. Playing soon (select dates from the day after Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve) is A Christmas Journey, the story of a Victorian family’s Christmas Eve celebration told with the help of an 1890 lantern (tickets are required). Also on-site are the Amish Country Homestead & One-Room School, where guides share the cultural traditions of the Amish, from education to Plain dress and more; the new Smokehouse BBQ and Brews restaurant; a country store; farm-to-table gardens; a farm animal exhibit; the AmishView Inn & Suites, with 50 well-appointed guestrooms; and Aaron & Jessica’s Buggy Rides through the countryside.
Pennsylvania Dutch Delights
Hungry for more Pennsylvania Dutch goodness? Make your way to Intercourse to Kitchen Kettle Village, an outdoor village of more than 40 shops (closed on Sundays), including the famous Jam & Relish Kitchen, where you can sample a variety of some 100 homemade Pennsylvania Dutch comestibles before you buy. There are also shops selling leather goods, pottery, specialty yarns, candles, furniture and, of course, Amish quilts—a souvenir staple. You’ll also find stores serving up sweets (you must try the shoofly pie and whoopie pies—two iconic Lancaster County treats), hand-twisted soft pretzels (another must-try, for America’s first commercial pretzel bakery, the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, was born in Lancaster County, in nearby Lititz), kettle corn, smoked meats and more. Two restaurants are also tucked within the village: The Kling House Restaurant, open for breakfast and lunch, and the Kettle Café, a cafeteria-style luncheonette that’s home to the 25-cent cup of coffee. At Christmastime, the village is adorned in old-fashioned decorations and features special activities on select days, including caroling, brass-band performances and s’mores-making stations. You can also overnight in the village at the on-site inn, offering a choice of 17 accommodations in 7 houses and apartments. And did we mention the AAA (Amish All Around) Buggy Rides that depart here?
And all that was just during the day. Later, make time for dinner and a show.
S'mores-making stations are a holiday highlight at Kitchen Kettle Village.
Photo Courtesy of Kitchen Kettle Village
Eat, See and Be Merry
The word for dining around this county is “smorgasbord” (think carved meats, chicken pot pie, rotisserie chicken, Amish stuffing, fresh vegetables, homemade mashed potatoes, hand-rolled soft pretzels, shoofly pie and more), and you can’t go wrong with the hearty buffet of Pennsylvania Dutch delights at dozens of local establishments, including Miller’s Smorgasbord Restaurant in Ronks, which has been serving diners since 1929 and is also home to a quilt shop; the Hershey Farm Restaurant and Inn, also in Ronks, featuring a gift shop, a general store, an outdoor market, a bakery, and an inn with lodging options that include farmhouse and carriage house rooms (oh, and in September, it’s home to the annual Whoopie Pie Festival); and Good ‘N Plenty Restaurant in Smoketown, famous for its family-style pass-the-platter dining and housing a bakery, gift shop, petting zoo and children’s play area. Providing a feast for the senses, the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant & Smorgasbord serves up delicious fare along with musical theater and magic shows on the banquet level of the restaurant. Showing this holiday season: Our Christmas Dinner, November 7 through December 30, a musical that takes a comedic look at this holiday tradition.
Whoopie pies are an iconic Lancaster County treat.
Photo Courtesy of Kitchen Kettle Village
For the ultimate holiday show, head to Strasburg to the Sight & Sound Theatre. Here, in a 2,000-seat auditorium with a panoramic 300-foot stage, stories of the Bible are brought to life, complete with spectacular sets, professional actors, original music and more. Come Christmastime, audiences will be treated to the heartfelt Miracle of Christmas show, November 3 through December 30, and from March 10, 2018, through January 5, 2019, the story Jesus will be presented (advance tickets are highly recommended for both shows).
Another popular show venue in Lancaster is the 1,600-seat American Music Theatre, with more than 300 live performances each year, from comedy to country music to Christmas shows. This November and December, get your tickets for the live musical performance Home for the Holidays, which explores this special time of year spent with loved ones.
Tired yet? You’ll find plenty of places to rest in the area, from national chains, boutique hotels and country inns, to farm stays, bed-and-breakfasts and private vacation homes. But for a unique stay, check in to the Fulton Steamboat Inn, featuring nautical- and Victorian-themed guest rooms and located just across the street from the Rockvale Outlets (and about two miles from Tanger Outlets); The Inn at Leola Village in Leola, a AAA Four Diamond property that boasts the AAA Five Diamond restaurant Té; or The Red Caboose Motel & Restaurant in Ronks, where your accommodations are any of 38 retired cabooses converted into guest rooms. In fact, a stay here in a caboose is not only apropos but also only about a half-mile away from tomorrow’s adventure: riding the rails.
Retired cabooses are guiest rooms at The Red Caboose Motel & Restaurant
Photo Courtesy of The Red Caboose Motel
Day Two: Making Tracks Through Town
No visit to Lancaster County would be complete without a ride on the Strasburg Railroad, America’s oldest-operating short-line railroad, dating to 1832. This authentic steam railroad—with 5 working locomotives and 19 passenger cars—takes travelers on a 45-minute roundtrip ride through the Amish countryside to Paradise. Along the way, an audio soundtrack provides information about the surroundings, and you can disembark midway at a picnic spot. Daily lunch is served in the dining car on select departures, and themed dining is presented on select rides throughout the year (think murder-mystery dinners, Amish feasts and Christmas banquets). Little ones will especially love the Day Out With Thomas (the Tank Engine), November 17 to 19, and the Fun Extras at the station, including hand-propelled cars, miniature steam trains and vintage pump cars.
The holidays are perhaps the best time to ride the rails here. During select weekends in November and December, special event trains include Santa’s Paradise Express, with Santa visiting onboard, and The Night Before Christmas Train, which rekindles the excitement of Christmas Eve with a reading of The Night Before Christmas, milk and cookies, and more. On December 2, hop aboard for a ride on the Christmas Tree Train, during which you can choose a tree at a stop at Leaman Place Grove and have it delivered to the station via train.
Santa hops aboard the Strasburg Railroad for special event rides.
Photo Courtesy of Discover Lancaster
Railroad enthusiasts will also want to track it to the neighboring Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, which showcases the history of railroading in the state through world-class collections of steam locomotives, track tools, station signs, dining car china, artwork and photographs. Visitors can see more than 100 locomotives and rolling stock dating from the mid-19th and 20th centuries, and interactive exhibits for children include a re-created freight station with a 110-foot G-scale model railroad switching layout, a working telegraph and an HO-scale model railroad diorama.
Also in the immediate area are two additional train lover’s favorites. The Choo Choo Barn – Traintown U.S.A. houses one of the country’s largest model train displays—complete with scenes of the Strasburg Railroad, an Amish barn raising and the theme park Dutch Wonderland (which is about five miles away and opens as Dutch Winter Wonderland November 18–December 30)—in 1,700 square feet of space (note that the attraction closes mid-January to early March for renovations). And the National Toy Train Museum, reminiscent of a Victorian-era California train station, features five interactive train layouts in G, Standard, O, S and HO gauges; toy trains dating from the mid-1800s to the present; and special exhibits such as “Harry’s Hardware Store Window” and a “Lionel 1928 Dealer’s Display.”
If you didn’t fuel up for lunch on the Strasburg Railroad dining car, no worries: You can grab a bite to eat in a caboose at Casey Jones’ Restaurant at The Red Caboose Motel; ask for a window seat to watch the trains chug by on the Strasburg Railroad. Or stop by one of the area’s many casual eateries or country roadside stands selling made-from-scratch Pennsylvania Dutch fare. You’ll need energy for one more stop on your itinerary if you’re visiting this holiday season: the National Christmas Center.
Beautiful Christmas scenes unfold at the National Christmas Center in Paradise. Here, 15 galleries in 20,000 square feet of space showcase life-sized displays that tell stories of Christmas throughout history and from around the world. Among them is The First Christmas, The Art of the Nativity, a TudorTowne Animated Storybook Village, a 1950’s Woolworth’s 5 & 10, and Santa’s North Pole Workshop and Reindeer Barn. But see it now before it’s gone; unfortunately, the center will be closing its doors permanently on January 7, 2018.
What better way to conclude your visit to Lancaster County than at an attraction that celebrates the story of Christmas in a town called Paradise?
For more information, visit discoverlancaster.com.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of AAA World.