As the leaves begin to change and the air turns crisp, you might be planning a weekend getaway to view fall foliage. You can combine historical sightseeing with fall fun and beautiful scenery in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This time of year is a perfect time to visit with your family!
Lancaster County is a popular tourist destination, mainly because of its Amish culture. German immigrants flocked to colonial Pennsylvania in the 18th century thanks to the religious freedoms promised by the colony’s leader, William Penn. These immigrants came to be called Pennsylvania Dutch (shortened from the word for German, Deutsch), and the area still has a strong Amish culture to this day.
The county played a vital role in several time periods in American history. In September, 1777, Lancaster actually served as the nation’s capital for one day as the Continental Congress fled the British occupation of Philadelphia. After the day in Lancaster, Congress moved to the nearby town of York, which served as capital from September 30, 1777 – June 27, 1778.
Lancaster County also played a big role in the politics leading up to the Civil War when its most famous citizen, James Buchanan, was elected the 15th President. The county also served as a vital link in the Underground Railroad as its representative in the U.S. House, Thaddeus Stevens, and other abolitionists helped escapees from nearby slave states.
We spent several days in Lancaster and fell in love with its quaint city streets and rolling hills in the countryside. It’s a place to get away from the hustle of the city while also having access to historical sites, shopping, and dining.
Lancaster is an easy drive from many east coast cities, including Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Baltimore. You’ll need a car to go between all of the sights but there is an Amtrak station and nearby airport (Harrisburg).
We stayed at the downtown Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, which I highly recommend for history enthusiasts. The location can’t be beat, and the hotel itself (a former department store) is built around a preserved historic home. In the lower lobby, you can view the outside of the Federal-style Montgomery house.
Also in the lower lobby, you can view a part of the Underground Railroad excavations taking place for the upcoming Thaddeus Stevens/Lydia Smith historical site. This site was part of the Underground Railroad walking tour we took (see below) and our guide told us some fascinating stories about the artifacts they’ve discovered so far at the site, including a cistern area thought to have served as a secret chamber for the enslaved escaping to freedom.
The hotel is located on the town square, which is quite lovely!
We visited several historical sites during our time in Lancaster. Check out more area historical sites here.
Read my review here about the guided tour of James Buchanan’s Wheatland, the home of our nation’s 15th President and his philanthropic niece, Harriet Lane. Before or after your tour, be sure to walk through the exhibits at the adjacent LancasterHistory Museum.
There’s even a special History Explorers track for the youngest visitors – pick up your History Hunt at the visitor’s desk!
The museum is small but chock full of fascinating history, including Civil War General John Reynolds’ gauntlet and sash.
The special exhibit about Lincoln, the Constitution, and the Civil War was excellent.
There are several nice nature walks you can do on the museum grounds, perfect for fall weather! Don’t miss the gift shop on your way out.
I recommend this museum for ages 6 and up. Museum entry is included in the Wheatland guided tour. Separately, its cost is $10/adults; $6/11-18; free/children under 6
I came across this tour about the Underground Railroad in Lancaster right before our trip and knew this was a definite must-do while there. Led by historian Randy Harris, the 2-hour guided walking tour was a perfect way to start our time in Lancaster. Randy is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, taking you through the many sites in Lancaster connected with the Underground Railroad. The moniker even comes from the activity here, with the escaped enslaved disappearing like on an “underground railroad” when they crossed the river in adjacent Columbia, PA.
We met his tour on the LancasterHistory grounds where he went into more historical detail about the Underground Railroad and its connections to Lancaster.
Then we followed him in our car to downtown Lancaster where the walking tour began.
The tour starts at the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery where Thaddeus Stevens is buried. He’s one of those names that tends to be overlooked in history so I was really interested in learning more about him. His fervent work for abolition culminated in the passage of the 13th amendment in January of 1865.
After the cemetery, the tour continues through the lovely downtown streets of Lancaster. We learned about prison escapes from the jail (now a theater) and “freedom spies” – people who were paid to thwart slave catchers.
The tour takes you through the Marriott (see above) and includes more information at the excavation site in the hotel lobby. The upcoming Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site plans to open in 2022/23 and will honor the legacy of abolitionists Stevens and Mrs. Smith. The tour continues outside to view the front of the home and the Smith house behind.
The tour continues through a nearby graveyard and ends near the old Lancaster rail station, which is commemorated with history panels. This is the site where Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train passed by on April 22, 1865.
I highly recommend this tour with middle and high schoolers (ages 10 and up). The history of the Underground Railroad will come alive as they walk in the footsteps of those they’ve studied in history class. Contact Randy for tour costs and availability through his website. The tour can also be booked through the Lancaster Visitor Center and proceeds go towards the historial signs placed around town.
Founded in 1832, America’s oldest continuously operating railroad is located in nearby Strasburg and a ride on the rails will delight train fans, young and old. We took a leisurely morning ride in the dining car and had a great time. It really felt like we were stepping back in time to the 19th century! The 45-minute ride winds through Amish country, with gorgeous scenery and interesting commentary along the way.
While we didn’t get a chance to visit the Amish historical sites on this trip, we did come across several carriages on the road (so be careful!).
Some of the best known Amish sites are The Amish Farm and House and The Amish Village where you can also take a bus tour into Amish country. We had planned to visit Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum but it was closed during our stay.
Other fun activities with kids:
As a treat, we visited the Turkey Hill Experience in nearby Columbia. It was a blast for all ages! Two levels of ice cream fun occupied us for hours. We learned every aspect of how ice cream is made, from how the ingredients get mixed to how they create commercials. My son’s favorite part was sampling the teas and ice creams as many times as he wanted! We also bought tickets for the ice cream taste lab where we each got to create our own special concoction. It was great fun!
As a historical side bonus, we visited the site on the river just downhill from the Turkey Hill building where a skirmish between the Union and Confederate forces occurred just prior to Gettysburg. If not for the defense and subsequent destruction of the bridge by Union forces, Confederate General Jubal Early may have been able to form an additional attack from the east. Read the story here.
We didn’t visit this theme park but we drove right by it. Looks fun!
Fun science museums with lots of hands-on activities for kids!
There’s so much historical fun in beautiful Lancaster County and fall is a perfect time to visit!
- I recommend a 2-3 night stay to fit in all of the historic sites and other fun sights with kids.
- There are many hotels in Lancaster (see my recommended hotel above). You can also stay on an actual Amish farm – very memorable! Check out the tourism bureau’s website for links and information.
- There are lots of cute restaurants downtown including one of our favorites, The Press Room. A historic place to grab a quick bite is the Central Market Lancaster, dating to the 1730s. Unfortunately it was closed when we were visiting so we had to make do with just seeing the outside! Be sure to check out the Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants in the countryside as well.
Books to Read:
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