Fifty miles west of Philadelphia is a beautiful region of rolling hills, neatly cultivated farms, covered bridges, and towns with picturesque names like Paradise and Bird-in-Hand. This is the gorgeous Amish Country, also known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country, an area of 7,100 square miles centered in Lancaster County, which is an easy day trip or overnight excursion from Center City Philadelphia. Made even more famous in the Harrison Ford film Witness, the Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren of Dutch Country represent over 75,000 of Lancaster County's 500,000 residents. It's a small group that continues to live a gentle life centered on family cohesiveness and religious worship.
The preservation of the world of the Pennsylvania Dutch evokes feelings of nostalgia, respect, and curiosity. The word Dutch is derived from the word Deutsch, meaning German, as the community is of mostly German descent, though that description isn't restricted to "Plain People." The Old Order Amish offer a rare yardstick for measuring the distance that our own "outside" world has progressed over the past few centuries.
Pennsylvania Dutch Country offers agreeably varied pleasures to visitors. The verdant countryside is laced with rural roads for tranquil driving or cycling. You'll find opportunities to meet Amish and Mennonites on farms that have opened their quaint doors for commerce. Tourism trade has actually promoted continued excellence in quilt and furniture making, and crafts. There are historical sites, pretzel and chocolate factories, covered bridges, and bustling farmers' markets, plus modern diversions like movie theaters, amusement parks, and great outlet-mall shopping. And, of course, Pennsylvania Dutch smorgasbord and family-style restaurants are unique, all-you-can-eat experiences.
The heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country centers on wedges of land to the east and slightly west of Lancaster. The Susquehanna River to the west and the Maryland border and Mason-Dixon line to the south form the area's borders.
Lancaster County is 57 miles or 90 minutes west of Philadelphia, directly on Route 30. From the northeast, the easiest route is to take I-95 south from New York City onto the New Jersey Turnpike, then take exit 6 onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76), continuing to exit 266 or 286 on either side of Lancaster. You'll still be about 10 miles north of the town: From exit 286, follow Route 222 into the city; from exit 266, Route 72. Travel time is 2 1/4 hours, and tolls amount to roughly $9 from New York City. From the south, follow I-83 north for 90 minutes from Baltimore, then take exit 9 and go east on Route 30 from York into the county. Brandywine Valley sites are only minutes from Amish farms in Gap, via Route 41 and Route 741.
By train, Amtrak (tel. 800/872-7245) takes about 70 minutes from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to the great old Lancaster Station, 53 McGovern Ave. (tel. 717/291-5080), 10 blocks from Penn Square. The adult fare is $15 to $22 one-way, and 14 trains run daily. Four Bieber Tourways buses run Monday through Friday from the Greyhound Terminal at 10th and Filbert streets in Philadelphia ($27 one-way; $53 round-trip), taking 2 to 3 hours (with a change in Norristown) to arrive at the train station in Lancaster (tel. 800/444-2877 or 717/397-4861).
Before you set out, get in touch with the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau, 501 Greenfield Rd., Lancaster, PA 17601 (tel. 800/PA-DUTCH [723-8824] or 717/299-8901; www.padutchcountry.com). Its website offers a variety of printable coupons and package deals. The office is off the Route 30 bypass east of Lancaster, Greenfield Road exit. Staff can provide an excellent map and visitors' guide to the region, answers to specific questions or help with special interests, and a wealth of brochures. A film provides a good overview of the county. The office hours are Monday to Saturday 9am to 6pm and Sunday 9am to 4pm Memorial Day weekend through October 31, and daily from 10am to 4pm, November 1 through Memorial Day weekend.
Near the Tanger Outlet Center the Mennonite Information Center, 2209 Millstream Rd., Lancaster, PA 17602 (tel. 800/858-8320 or 717/299-0954; www.mennoniteinfoctr.com), has a lot of the same information but specializes in linking you with Mennonite guesthouses and church worship, and arranging personal tours. Every hour, on the hour, the half-hour film, Who Are the Amish? is shown and there is a guided, 45-minute tabernacle tour given on-site. The center is open Monday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm April through October, and Monday through Saturday from 8:30am to 4:30pm November through March.
Lancaster County's principal artery is Route 30, which runs from Philadelphia to York and Gettysburg. But beware: Major roads like Route 30 and Route 222 at Lancaster, and Route 340 from Intercourse to Lancaster, are crowded, especially in the summer with the onslaught of bus tours. The 25,000 horse-drawn vehicles in the county tend to stick to quieter back roads, but some highways cannot be avoided. And please be careful; the past few years have seen several horrible rear-end crashes in which tourists killed Amish families in buggies. AAA members who are in a jam can call tel. 717/397-6135 for emergency road service.
Red Rose Transit Authority, 45 Erick Rd. (tel. 717/397-4246; www.redrosetransit.com), serves Lancaster County, with fares ranging from $1.60 to $2.80. An all-day, all-zone pass costs $5. There's also a Historic Downtown Trolley Bus that loops Lancaster city. An information center is located at 225 N. Queen St.
The Amish Experience, on Route 340 in Intercourse (tel. 717/768-3600; www.amishexperience.com), offers three attractions that provide an authentic illustration of Amish life, past and present. Tickets for a 40-minute multimedia show, an interpretive tour of a contemporary-style Amish home, and a guided back-road bus tour may be purchased separately, though a combination package is the best deal ($40 for adults, $21 for children). The show runs hourly between 9am and 5pm; house tours are conducted between 9:45am and 4:15pm; and bus tours during high season are offered at least twice daily in high season. They last 2 hours and include stops at Amish farms selling crafts or foods (though not on Sun) and pass by one-room schoolhouses. Reservations are recommended, and tickets may be purchased online (check the website for coupons) or at some local hotels. The exclusive Amish V.I.P. (Visit In Person) Tour escorts small groups of guests to three Amish farms for friendly, interactive personal experiences. The tour departs at 5pm Monday through Friday and costs $46 per person; it's not recommended for small children. Reservations are recommended for tours, which take place mid-June through late October, Monday through Friday and depart from the theater's box office. The Plain and Fancy Farm Restaurant and Aaron and Jessica's Buggy Rides are on the same premises.
Brunswick Tours (tel. 717/361-7541; www.brunswicktours.com) can lead you on tours throughout Lancaster County and into Hershey and Gettsyburg, but your best bet for an intimate view of Amish Country is an in-car tour guide. The Mennonite Information Center has a group of friendly Mennonite guides on call who will ride with you in your car throughout Intercourse, Strasburg, and Bird-in-Hand, stopping in the towns or touring through the farmland. They personalize the tour to your interests -- they'll make stops at Amish farm shops, or take you shopping for quilts or freshly made root beer. Call ahead or drop by to book 2-hour tours priced at $49 per car, for up to seven people.
A Note on Etiquette
There aren't too many settings in the world where an entire native population is a tourist attraction. Pennsylvania Dutch country is one of them, but that doesn't mean that the Amish are there as theme-park characters. They are hardworking people leading busy lives. Your courtesy and respect are especially vital because their lifestyle is designed to remove them as much as possible from your fast-paced 21st-century focus.
First, do not trespass onto Amish farms or especially onto school grounds. We've listed several settings where you can visit a working farm, take a carriage ride, or even stay on a farm. Although these are not operated by the most orthodox Amish, you will certainly get a taste of the Amish lifestyle.
Second, if you're dealing with Amish directly, don't even think of photographing them, and always ask before taking any photographs at all. The Amish have a strongly held belief that photographic images violate the biblical injunction against graven images and promote the sins of personal vanity and pride. Taking pictures of their land and animals is permissible (though it's still polite to ask first); taking pictures of them is not.
Third, watch the road. What passes for moderate suburban speed in a car can be life-threatening in this area. Roads in Lancaster County have especially wide shoulders to accommodate horses, carriages, and farm tractors, and these are marked with red reflective triangles and lights at night. It's preferable, if only to better see the sights, to slow down to Amish paces. And honking disturbs the horses. If you have the time, this is superb country for bicycling, punctuated by farm stands for refreshment and quiet conversations with Amish families -- though expect some territorial farm dogs to run out and greet you.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.