Rolling hills, winding creeks, neatly cultivated farms, covered bridges -- Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has a bucolic beauty that would attract visitors anyway. But most tourists come here to see the Amish, dressed in their old-fashioned black clothes and driving buggies at a slow clip-clop along country roads. Yet these folks are not actors, they are real working people, and their strict customs are meant to separate them from the modern world, not to draw attention from it. The challenge of coming here with children is to discover the essence of the Amish community without falling into the tourist trap.
Begin in quaintly named Intercourse, Pennsylvania, at The People's Place, 3513 Old Philadelphia Pike (tel. 800/390-8436; closed Sun), an interpretive center that will teach kids the subtle distinctions between three local sects: the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Brethren, who settled here in the early 18th century, drawn by William Penn's promise of religious tolerance. The children will learn, for example, not to take photos of the Amish, why Amish children attend school in one-room schoolhouses, and why the Amish paint hex designs on their barns. Avoiding Intercourse's gaggle of Pennsylvania-Dutch-themed shops, head west to Bird-in-Hand (another quirky name) for a 20-minute jaunt in a horse-drawn buggy at Abe's Buggy Ride, 2596 Old Philadelphia Pike (tel. 717/392-1794; www.abesbuggyrides.com; closed Sun) -- maybe this will help youngsters appreciate the slow pace of Amish life. Stop east of Lancaster for a guided tour of the 10-room Amish Farm and House, 2395 Lincoln Hwy. E. (U.S.30; tel. 717/394-6185; www.amishfarmandhouse.com). Wind up at the Central Market downtown, at 23 N. Market St. (just off Penn Sq.; tel. 717/291-4723; www.centralmarketlancaster.com; Tues and Fri–Sat only), the oldest farmers' market in the U.S., with its swirling fans, 1860-vintage tiles, and hitching posts.
In summer, tourists clog the main roads around Lancaster, and horse-drawn vehicles can cause bottlenecks; get a good area map so you can venture onto quiet back roads, where you have a better chance of seeing Amish farmers in their daily rounds. Stop at local farm stands to buy their excellent produce, and you'll have a natural opportunity to exchange a few words. Perhaps the best way to get the flavor of Amish life is to stay with a farm family: Contact the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau (see below) for a list of working farms that take guests. Expect simple lodgings, hall bathrooms, and filling family-style breakfasts.
Nearest Airport: Philadelphia International, 57 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Country Inn of Lancaster, 2133 Lincoln Hwy. E. (U.S. 30; tel. 877/393-3413 or 717/393-3413; www.countryinnoflancaster.com). $$$ Willow Valley Inn & Suites, 2416 Willow St. Pike (tel. 800/444-1714; www.willowvalley.com).
Best Time: Monday to Saturday, as many Amish attractions are closed Sunday.