If you spend any amount of time wandering downtown Lancaster, it’s no secret that locals love Lancaster. And it seems like the love just keeps spreading! Lancaster County saw 8 million visitors in 2014 and has only seen growth since. But what makes our little slice of Amish country so special? And what made the New York Post call Lancaster, “the new Brooklyn”?
I believe it’s the way this county blends its roots of simple country living and a strong love of your neighbor with a celebration of all things art. And it doesn’t hurt that the Amish were way ahead of trends!
Farm-to-table is much more than a marketing slogan in Lancaster, it’s a way of life. And old school, traditional furniture is an Amish specialty. Though many wouldn’t think of it, the Amish even have a flair for the artistic. One look at a handmade quilt will tell you that much. Not to mention, a trip to New York and a love of the arts helped to spur the tourism industry in Lancaster County in the first place.
The genesis of tourism in Lancaster County is traditionally considered to be 1955. The Amish Farm & House opened, and the musical Plain and Fancy hit Broadway.
In 1954, Lancastrian Marion Bucher Weaver served as consultant tot he cast of “Plain and Fancy” in Manhattan. And she wasn’t happy with some of the changes being made. She suggested that her friends the Zook’s, real Amish family, critique the show.
Aaron Zook (and his twin brother Abner) is famous nationwide for his artistic genius. A 3D artist, he created hundreds of beautiful carvings depicting farmlands and Amish life. He was excommunicated from the Old Order Amish church for creating these “graven images.” And this would not be the last time he faced excommunication for art.
Knowing the Amish Mennonite church would disapprove of the family seeing the play in a theatre, the cast moved the rehearsal to a nearby warehouse. But unfortunately, this would not prevent the church from excommunicating Aaron. But as they say, the show must go on! The Zook’s invited 2 bus loads of New Yorkers to visit Lancaster in January of 1955. They toured Bird-In-Hand and Intercourse and talked with many local Amish. These trips were essential culture sharing moments between the two destinations, and we have been linked ever since.
Creating a Cultural Mecca
Today, Amish culture and farmland is still a main draw for visitors. But over the course of the last generations, downtown Lancaster has been cultivating its own unique culture that keeps people from all over coming back for more. As the New York Post said in their 2016 article, “downtown Lancaster doesn’t resemble its Amish surroundings so much as it does a mini-Brooklyn: teeming with art galleries, indie boutiques and restaurants, without the pretensions of the Big Apple.”
Prince Street features Gallery Row, a 4-block stretch that houses more than 40 independent art purveyors. Queen Street is “bursting with antique and vintage boutiques,” like Scarlet Willow, Space and Building Character. Local crafts are on display at Art & Glassworks including pottery, jewelry, leather products, wooden signs, and of course handmade glass pieces.
The hub of downtown, Central Market, is the perfect place to get a look at the blend of rustic and modern that makes Lancaster unique. The longest continuously running farmer’s market in America, Central Market houses Amish farmers, quilters and crafters alongside modern artisan coffee makers, gourmet sweets and even young farmers with their own love of
organic produce. Which benefits locals and local restaurants alike.
Alex Wenger is a young farmer in Lititz who specializes in organic farming and heirloom produce “that you don’t find in Lancaster County very often.” His passion for sustainable and diverse agriculture has made him the perfect partner for chef Taylor Mason of Ma(i)son and LUCA. Their partnership has provided Mason with an opportunity to experiment and create incredible dishes with local, seasonal produce. As Mason says, “You can’t start with mediocre ingredients and make a great dish. You can start with great ingredients, treat them simply and make a great dish.”
The ingredients are local, and the philosophy is simple, but the food is far from the Amish All-You-Can-Eat Smorgasbords synonymous with this area. Downtown Lancaster houses a world of cuisine options from Mexican and Italian to French, Ethiopian and Trinidadian. And there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian options as well, including specialty restaurants like Root and Upohar.
Food Network’s Alton Brown seems to have made visits to Lancaster, PA a yearly tradition. He named Ma(i)son one of his top two restaurants anywhere in 2016 and has made several return trips to the restaurant and their sister restaurant, LUCA. And he says LUCA has “the best salad in the world.”