It took Adam and I about three hours to make the drive from our home in the Washington, DC area to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A three-hour drive is just short enough that we don’t usually break up the ride with a stop, but it’s long enough that we’re always anxious to park the car and stretch our legs at our destination. As I planted my feet on the pavement and stretched through my torso when we arrived at our first stop, I locked my gaze on a pair of women wearing dark dresses and aprons carrying vegetables into nearby building. Beyond them, a buggy pulled by two horses crossed the road.“Do you feel like we somehow drove back in time?” I asked Adam, who from the other side of the car was watching the same scene. He shrugged. “Welcome to Amish Country,” he laughed.
Amish County, or Pennsylvania Dutch Country, is the oldest Amish settlement in the United States. Visiting the picturesque countryside is, indeed, like stepping back into a world that existed a century or two ago. In between modern conveniences like grocery stores and restaurants, huge working farms serve as the economic backbone for the families residing there. Drivers of modern cars are careful as they pass horses and buggies as well as children on bicycles and scooters. Men in straw hats tend to their fields and animals, and women in long dresses sew, bake, and care for children.
Our visit was a lot of fun. We learned a lot about the history, culture, and beliefs of the Amish people, and after a great tour and some time exploring the area we both developed a genuine appreciation for the steadfast, devout community we encountered. If you have never heard of the Amish before—or if you are wondering if a trip to Pennsylvania Dutch Country would be worthwhile—here’s what you need to make the most of your visit!
Who Are the Amish?
Although they are called the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Amish originally came to the USA after being forced out of Switzerland. The group takes their name from Jakob Ammann, recognized as their leader. They share many similarities with the Mennonites, who also left Europe for the USA; however, a primary difference between the two groups is that the Amish are more conservative and will excommunicate, or shun, any member of their community who does not abide by their societal norms. The Mennonites do not promote such extremes in their own communities.
The Amish arrived in Philadelphia in the 18th century and eventually settled in Lancaster County, with groups moving to other locations throughout the country. They chose Pennsylvania because the state promised religious freedom, a welcome change from the persecution they faced in Europe. Today, there are close to 308,000 Amish—or Plain People, as they call themselves—in North America, making their homes in 31 states and four Canadian provinces. The largest communities are in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, with Lancaster County housing 35,000 Amish people.
The Amish are Anabaptists, which means they practice adult baptism. They believe adults should make a conscious choice to be baptized, something they cannot do of free will as children. Children are raised as part of families and communities with shared values, and as they approach adulthood they are given the choice to be baptized into the church or to become “English,” the Amish term a non-Anabaptist. This period, called rumspringa, describes the period of time between when a child turns 16 and their baptism. While movies like Kingpin and TV shows like Breaking Amish have characterized this time as one where Amish children run wild and break the rules, that’s not typical of the experience. It’s more often a time of increased socialization, where children are allowed to attend more events and may begin dating. While they may gain more exposure to technology and the English way of life, most Amish children decide to be baptized into the church instead of leaving the community behind.
If a child does not decide to be baptized, he or she is not shunned by the family. While most parents certainly hope their children decide to become baptized, children who do not can continue to maintain close relationships with their family and friends. However, if someone who is baptized breaks their commitment to the church or fails to adhere to the church’s regulations, they may be excommunicated, or shunned. While they are forgiving and will hear a confession of sin and apology, church leaders can vote to shun one of their own, which means a loss of status in the community. Shunned people cannot even have a meal with Amish family; the consequences of violating the church’s rules are severe.
The Amish do not worship in churches; instead, church is held in individual homes, and a family may host their entire community for a service once or twice a year. With 200-250 people attending, most people have a large room in their home reserved just for big gatherings. The church community supplies long benches to the host family, and the benches are delivered via a horse and buggy for the community to sit on during the service. Services are held every other Sunday, which means only twice each month. On alternate Sundays, they visit friends around the area, which is the single day of rest they enjoy during a two week period. The services are not conducted in English; instead, they are given in Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a German dialect that is also taught in schools.
► Family and Home Life
Next to religion, family is the most important part of the Amish experience. Amish families are large—most have seven or more children. They place more emphasis on a family’s identity than individuality.
Traditionally, most women marry in their late teens or early twenties, and men are a bit older than that. Weddings are most often held on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the late fall, which avoids any interruptions to the summer harvest season. Upon their marriage, men are permitted to grow a beard, which they never cut—the length of a man’s beard can shed some insight into how long he has been married! Typically, they have large families, and children are formally educated in one-room schoolhouses until the eighth grade, when they shift away from the classroom and begin to learn their role as part of the family.
Amish homes are, in a word, efficient. Because they do not use or rely on electricity, typically their lives unfold in the home’s kitchen, which is often the only heated room in any house. Without electricity, their appliances run off propane—in fact, some appliance manufactures have developed special models specifically for the Amish community, including washing machines sold by Maytag that run off propane.
The Amish follow a concept called Ordnung, which is the German word for order. They do not use electricity, they do not own televisions or have the Internet in their homes, and while communities do have access to telephones, the phones are not inside a residence—they are kept outside in phone booths. Even though they avoid technology to some degree they don’t view technology is evil; however, they do believe it can corrupt family values and pull apart the threads that weave a community together.
I was surprised to learn they don’t avoid all modern conveniences. They do not own cars, but they can be passengers in them; they are also able to use buses and trains. Flying is out of the question, though; they believe they should be on the ground at all times. Although they are predominantly farmers who grow crops, sell them, and can them, they also shop at grocery stores and eat in restaurants. One thing they do avoid are cameras. Pictures are out of the question for the Amish, as they do not allow graven images (which can lead to vanity). Some also believe that if you look into a camera when a photo is taken it can steal your soul.
A Daytrip to Amish Country
While you can spend far more than a single day in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country, one day is enough time to explore and learn about their culture!
► Take an Amish Country Tour
There are a few different companies that offer tours of Amish country, and many of them operate similar itineraries. We visited the Amish Village (based on pricing and scheduling), and we had a terrific afternoon with them! We enjoyed a great tour of a former Amish home now owned by the Amish Village but preserved in such a way that it’s still reflective of what a traditional home would look like today. The tour walked us through the room used for church services and large gatherings, the kitchen, and the bedrooms. We also took a 90-minute bus ride through some of Amish Country’s back roads, and our driver Paul provided an incredible amount of insight into the homes and farms we passed. My favorite was a small house owned by a woman in her late 80s; Paul pointed out her modest flower garden, and as the bus passed the house he noted she also maintained an enormous field of crops!
Our tour stopped twice, each time at an Amish-run farm stand, and we had a chance to sample pretzels and purchase goods made by the families. We couldn’t pass up a jar of spicy pickles, and I had to stifle a laugh when a brother and sister behind the counter fought over who would wrap it in newspaper and place it in a bag for me. No matter where you are or what your family background or beliefs may be, siblings arguing are something to which everyone can relate!
The Amish Village also had a nice area with farm animals, a replica of a one-room schoolhouse, and a few shops, which really rounded out our experience. I especially enjoyed seeing the animals, specifically the peacocks. I was surprised that Amish families would keep what I considered to be an exotic animal as a pet. As it turns out, peacocks make a loud, unmistakable screaming noise when they are startled, so they are wonderful alarm systems!
More Information: AmishVillage.com
► Enjoy the Food
You will not go hungry in Amish Country. We were stuffed by the end of the afternoon! If you are planning a visit, don’t miss these favorites:
Amish cuisine is basically hearty comfort food; expect fried chicken, beef, mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables, and bread. We had lunch at Dienner’s, an Amish-style restaurant with a buffet that allowed us to sample a few different dishes. Amish food is not big on spices but has plenty of flavor, so be sure to have a meal at a local restaurant while you are there. Katie’s Kitchen is another great Amish owned and operated family restaurant to try during your visit.
My mom’s side of my family is from Maine, and when it comes to Whoopie Pies, Maine and Pennsylvania have a friendly argument over where the dessert was first created. I have to side with Maine in that battle, but I can attest to the fact Whoopie Pies in Amish Country are very tasty. For the uninitiated, Whoopie Pies are two circular cake slices with cream filling in the middle. We tried a classic chocolate cake as well as an oatmeal Whoopie Pie, and both were soft, flavorful, and creamy. Almost every bakery had Whoopie Pies, and often they are only $1.00!
Shoofly Pie is basically a molasses crumb pie: a delicious molasses filling topped with sugary crumbs. There are two versions, including the dry-bottomed pie that is baked longer for a more cake-like consistency, and the wet-bottomed version that has a stickier crust. We tried the wet-bottomed version at both Dutch Haven and Bird-In-Hand Bakery. Dutch Haven is a touristy stop that specializes in souvenirs and furniture, but visitors get a free sample of Shoofly Pie for stopping in to shop. Bird-In-Hand Bakery has dozens of tasty baked goods for sale, not the least of which is Shoofly Pie and Whoopie Pie.
► Get Lost and Explore
Some of the most fun we had was just driving around Lancaster County. After our bus tour, we could easily tell the difference between Amish homes and English homes, and we had a great time exploring and enjoying the picturesque countryside. Knowing that they are community-focused, we had a great time driving away from the tourist destinations and observing the homes and farms that are so central to their lives and livelihood.
Hotels in Amish Country
Planning a trip to Amish County, or Pennsylvania Dutch Country? There are plenty of hotels in the area, but Harrisburg is the largest city close to Amish Country and it’s a great place to start your adventure! Here are some deals to consider.
Visit Amish Country
A visit to Amish Country may feel like a trip back in time at first, but very quickly you’ll start to understand that just because they live and dress more simply than we’re accustomed to doing does not make them more primitive. I found their commitment to their families and communities refreshing and inspiring. Although I won’t be giving up my cell phone or TV anytime soon, I did find a number of practices and traits I would like to incorporate into my own life after witnessing the impact simplicity has on their lives. A good travel experience should encourage you to discover and embrace new ideas, and we learned a lot from our visit to Amish Country!
Have you spent time exploring Amish Country? Leave a comment below and let us know about your experience!
Ready to visit Pennsylvania? Here are a few more places to check out as you plan your itinerary.
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. This post includes our candid review of our experience at various shops and locations. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.