A Side of Amish Country You've Never Seen
Lancaster County has long been the place to rub black-suited shoulders with the Amish. Thanks to a growing arts scene, it’s starting to cut loose (a little).
So this is what it would look like if a J.Crew ad came to life: It's a Saturday afternoon in the Prince Street Café, a coffee-and-sandwich spot in Lancaster, Pa. A couple in their 20s canoodle on a plush leather couch by the fireplace. A 30-something in thick, black-framed glasses punches away on a laptop between bites of a green salad topped with quinoa, and a college-age girl with a brunette pixie doodles in her sketchpad. It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, when you wander upstairs to artist Julia Swartz's gallery and find a series of portraits depicting local Amish men—straw hats, serious-looking black suits, and all. Here at the Prince Street Café, it's easy to forget you're in Amish Country.
You may think you've heard of Lancaster, but chances are you're thinking of the county, not the city. It's rural Lancaster County, an hour-and-a-half drive west of Philadelphia, that's famous for its large population of Amish families—and their horses and buggies. The city of Lancaster sits in the middle of this slice of the past, but traditionally visitors haven't exactly flocked here. And why would they? For years, there wasn't much city to see, aside from some old cork, cigar, and clock factories.
That's changing, thanks to folks like Swartz. "There have always been creative people here," says Swartz, 59, a lifelong county resident. "But nobody did much about it, until one guy set up a gallery. And then, just like that, a whole bunch of us did." Swartz opened her space on Prince Street four years ago, after winning a series of regional painting competitions (17 N. Prince St., 8" x 10" canvas prints from $55). Now the small city is home to 32 galleries.
Of course, the Amish community is still the main draw in Lancaster County. Yet the rise of a modern subculture has layered some spicy mustard on top of what had always been a plain-pretzel kind of place. The two worlds don't often mix, but when they do—say, at a traditional Amish mud sale—the combination is delicious.
PHILADELPHIA TO LANCASTER
It's a wonder that Lancaster can feel young at all considering how old its bones are. It was founded in 1730 and is the oldest city in the U.S. not set on a coastline. Many of its original 18th-century red-brick sidewalks and stone Colonial homes still stand, now renovated into hip cafés, bars, and galleries. "It used to be that artists moved here because Lancaster was a lot cheaper than New York, Philly, or Baltimore," says Elizabeth Todd Lambert, president of LancasterARTS, a local nonprofit that promotes the galleries, symphony, and six museums in town. "But now successful artists are coming because they want to be a part of the scene here. It's a draw in itself."
Starting at the Prince Street Café (15 N. Prince St., sandwiches from $6.50), there's a three-block chain of studios and exhibit spaces called Gallery Row. You could stroll the whole strip in 20 minutes, but it's so densely packed with galleries that it takes a full afternoon to do it justice. I ended up at Building Character, a former warehouse whose wide stalls now house 37 jewelry, crafts, vintage-clothing, and furniture booths (342 N. Queen St., vintage dresses from $20). I scored a handmade, 1950s floral silk dress for $90. I'm sure it would have run $200 or more in a similar shop in New York or Philly.
I found a similar high-end, low-cost deal across town, at the Cork Factory Hotel (480 New Holland Ave., doubles from $129, including breakfast). The 77-room boutique inn, opened in 2010 by a local family, is housed in a red-brick foundry once used to manufacture cork and glass. On the ground floor, the black-leather booths in the Cork & Cap Restaurant were packed by a boisterous crowd of suits celebrating happy hour. Meanwhile, in my fourth-floor room—which had huge, glass-paned windows and soaring ceilings with exposed wooden beams—it was as peaceful as a church.
LANCASTER TO RAWLINSVILLE TO INTERCOURSE TO MANHEIM
Lancaster County welcomes more than 11 million tourists every year, and most make a beeline for one of two places: the (oddly named) towns of Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. I made quick visits to both, and they're charming, for sure—the buttered brown noodles at Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant alone merit a visit to Intercourse (3716 E. Newport Rd., family-style meal $17 a person). But by and large, they come off more like Epcot Center attractions than authentic slices of Amish daily life.