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Rolling green hills and patchworks of farmland, pocket woods, and bubbling streams—it’s hard to imagine such an idyllic place exists anywhere near the nation’s capital. But that it does, in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, less than two hours away. We have the Amish to thank for much of that, who have tilled these fields since they first arrived in the 1700s, using age-old methods apart from the modern world. It’s also prime territory for long bike rides, scenic drives, kayaking, wine-tasting, and hot-air ballooning.
The anchor is Lancaster, a vibrant city with a fabulous weekend market and a walkable downtown. And if that hasn’t convinced you of the merits of this supreme weekend getaway, you’ll also find here Hershey’s legacy, a whole town built on chocolate. Checkmate.
You will need a car for this getaway. Lancaster is about 90 miles or two-and-a-half hours from Washington, D.C. You can go the quick route, via I-83 from Baltimore. Or go the bucolic route, following I-270 to U.S. 15 to U.S. 30, which adds on about half an hour—but quickly gets you in the mood for a quiet weekend getaway. U.S. 30 is the main artery through Amish country—which can become clogged with cars, especially in summer. It’s best to stay off of it as much as possible. Get more info here.
If you’ve opted for the slow route to Lancaster County, the drive from D.C. wanders through gorgeous rolling hills, setting the mood for the weekend ahead. Head for Strasburg, a historic little town with a quintessential Main Street lined with hip boutiques and antique shops. It’s also ground zero for train lovers, starting off with Strasburg Rail Road, the nation’s oldest short line. Hop aboard a vintage steam train for a chug through farm country. Here, too, are the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, the Choo-Choo Barn (a 1,700-square-foot custom model train display), and the National Toy Train Museum.
Get lunch at the Speckled Hen on Main Street, which partners with local farmers and purveyors to ensure the freshest ingredients. This is the place for gourmet sandwiches, scratch-made soups, seasonal salads, and more.
Then, explore some of the surrounding pastoral back roads, by bike or car. Aiming for the town of Intercourse, delve into the Amish farmlands on country byways, where stunning country-scapes unfold around every bend. Feel free to venture down any of the Amish farm driveways that have signs for homemade root beer, handmade quilts, fresh baked goods, and more.
Intercourse, named for the colonial term for intersection, is a hub of Amish life. It’s fun just to stroll its streets, peeking into shops and seeing what’s going on. Don’t miss the landmark Old Country Store, where you’ll find handcrafted quilts, folk art, and other items made by local Amish and Mennonites. At Kitchen Kettle Village, you’ll see local Amish women in the Canning Kitchen making the iconic KKV jams, jellies, and sauces that have been a staple of the region’s hand-crafted foodie scene for 60 years.
Meander your way to Leola, where dinner at the Log Cabin is sublime. Originally a log cabin dating from 1929, it operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Today, the restaurant specializes in local farm-to-table fare amid the log-cabin ambiance. House specialties include two-day marinated fried chicken, duck à l’orange, meatloaf, and the cabin burger, which contains candied apple smoked bacon and Roquefort cheese. On a nice evening, enjoy romantic dining on the patio.
Today you need to set the alarm clock, but it’ll be worth it because you’re going on a hot-air balloon ride with U.S. Hot Air Balloon Team. Drift with the wind as you look down on the patchwork of farms in the morning’s early light. On clear days, you can see as far as the Chesapeake. Takeoff is an excruciating 6 a.m. from Bird-in-Hand.
Then head for the Romanesque Central Market in Lancaster, where you can gather breakfast items fresh from the farm. Starting in the 1730s as open-air stalls, the market was granted permanent status in 1742 by none other than King George II. Today, more than 60 market stands purvey locally grown fruits and vegetables, homemade breads, cheeses, meats, flowers, and coffee. Note it’s open only on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Lancaster’s historic downtown is emerging as a hip sort of place, making it well-worth a saunter. There are art galleries on the 100 and 200 blocks of N. Prince Street, and funky shopping on the 300 block of N. Queen Street. It’s also home to several breweries, including Lancaster Brewing, producing heavy stouts.
Before leaving Lancaster, find lunch at warm and friendly Prince Street Café, offering burritos, rice bowls, salads, and sandwiches. There’s also C’est La Vie, with its ever-changing menu of large and small plates made from the region’s freshest ingredients; choosing between the Tellstar Tune Poke or Boeuf Bourguignon or Crab Cake Sandwich may be the hardest thing you do today.
The Susquehanna River flows nearby, offering a restful afternoon floating on glittering waters. Chiques Rock Outfitters at the Columbia Crossing River Trails Center in Columbia, about 15 miles or 20 minutes from Lancaster, will hook you up with all you need. If you prefer biking or walking, the 14-mile Northwest Lancaster County River Trail kicks off from here as well, following the old route of the historic Pennsylvania Mainline Canal, alongside the Susquehanna River.
Or, go wine-tasting. Grapevines thrive in Lancaster County, producing a variety of different wines. See for yourself at a couple of wineries west of Lancaster, toward the river: Waltz in Manheim and Grandview in Mount Joy.
Find dinner tonight in Lancaster, at Horse Inn, featuring innovative dishes based on the seasonal fare from local farms. The chalkboard menu changes daily, depending on what’s available. Possibilities might include, Horse fries (with housemade sausage, parmesan, provolone, and garlic heavy cream), asparagus and Carolina gold rice salad, and a hot chicken sandwich (with Nashville-style rub, blue cheese coleslaw, and a sesame potato roll).
Take a morning walk at Lancaster County Central Park, just south of Lancaster. Its network of trails moseys through fields and woods, across quiet creeks. There’s also the Garden of Five Senses here, overlooking the Conestoga River.
Linger over brunch at nearby Max’s Eatery, a modern diner determined to “entertain your belly” with such creative (and stomach punching) delights as sweet potato hash; a burrito jefe with hot sausage, eggs, and crispy tots; and what they call “the Buford Van Stomm Sando”—an ensemble of breakfast sausage, smash burger, and American cheese omelet, topped with an onion ring and bacon mayo, served between two slices of grilled wheat toast (oh my).
And while you’re on the indulgent theme, head north to Hershey, aka Chocolate Town USA. Milton S. Hershey established his company in Hershey in 1903, surrounding it with a model town for his employees, including homes, a public transportation system, and recreational and cultural activities. The town still thrives on his legacy, and it’s a pleasant place to spend a few hours—even if you’re not a chocolate lover.
Today, streetlights are shaped like foil-wrapped candies, and avenues are named things like Chocolate and Cocoa. There are two main sites here: Hersheypark, a theme park with rides; and Hershey’s Chocolate World, where you can learn how chocolate is made and test chocolate-centric drinks and treats. And if those are not your thing, perhaps a chocolate spa might be. MeltSpa by Hershey offers treatments such as dark chocolate sugar scrubs and body wraps, and cocoa massages and facials.
Part of Hershey’s plan was to build an elegant hotel on a hill overlooking his chocolate factory. Today, the Hotel Hershey is a magnificent historic resort—and, if you’re not otherwise engaged at Hersheypark, the perfect place for lunch. It has several restaurants, but Harvest is a standout for its devotion to salads, sandwiches, and entrées using local ingredients. The Hershey’s cocoa barbecue ribs go as far as to use Hershey chocolate in its recipe. When you’re ready, ramble your way back to D.C.
WHERE TO STAY
Lancaster County offers a plethora of bed and breakfasts, working farms, plush resorts, and stately hotels. Lancaster Arts Hotel, occupying a former tobacco warehouse in Lancaster, has an art gallery and organic fine-dining restaurant. North of the city in Lititz, Hotel Rock Lititz captures the local art and technology scene with decor repurposed from concert tours. West of the city in Mount Joy, Rocky Acre Farm Bed and Breakfast is located on a dairy farm, including a creek where guests can kayak. Bird-in-Hand Family Inn, east of Lancaster, is a great spot for families, with three pools, a game room, and an on-site smorgasbord.
WHEN TO GO
Lancaster County is a four-season destination. Midsummer to September can be crowded, but it’s a great time to explore the back roads and enjoy freshly harvested produce, jams, and homemade baked goods. Fall brings spectacular foliage and more crowds. In both of these seasons, you should aim to get off the beaten path as soon as possible. Winter is quiet, and picturesque when snow falls. Spring is beautiful, with blooming flowers and the Amish mud sales—auctions where everything from horses to quilts are sold. Lodging is least expensive in winter and spring.
After driving about an hour and a half southwest of Lancaster on U.S. 30, you’ll come to the town of Gettysburg. It’s ironic that Pennsylvania’s pastoral landscape hosted one of the nation’s bloodiest battles, when in July 1863 the North and South clashed here, in what would become one of the Civil War’s most important events. Today, it’s a peaceful place again, with monuments and markers remembering what unfolded on those fateful summer days. You can take a self-guided driving tour around the battlefield and peruse interpretive exhibits at the visitor center. And even if you’re not into history, Gettysburg is a charming historic town with plenty of shops, restaurants, and museums to explore. From here, Washington, D.C. is about another hour-and-a-half drive.
WHAT TO LISTEN TO
As you near the picture-perfect Amish lands, put on the Witness soundtrack, from the movie, by talented composer Maurice Jarre. The electric ensemble of synthesizers flows like a waterfall of beautiful notes, embodying amazement and reverance. Most powerful is the album’s main theme, “Building the Barn,” conveying the light-hearted, classical air of a task that most people would consider arduous but is not, thanks to the Amish’s loyalty to community.