With both urban and rural charms, Lancaster is a breath of fresh air and just a train ride away from Philadelphia’s big city atmosphere.
In the last five years, Lancaster City has grown in population by 10 percent, and has seen rising numbers of people in their 20s and 30s, said Joel Cliff, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitor’s Center. In Cliff’s words, “This isn’t your grandparent’s Lancaster anymore.”
College students can experience events downtown such as First Friday, much like those in Old City Philadelphia, and attend music festivals – all while in close proximity to scenic state parks in the surrounding countryside.
Students both with and without cars will find Lancaster easily accessible, Cliff said. With a car ride of less than two hours, driving to Lancaster won’t require several tanks of gas. For those at the mercy of public transportation, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station offers trains to Lancaster.
Lancaster’s train station is a mile and a half from its central downtown area.
From downtown, students can catch one of the Red Rose Buses to get around the city and surrounding area, including Amish country. The buses stop at locations such as the Amish Experience, Amish Farm and House and other Amish businesses, where local touring groups offer a glimpse of the Amish lifestyle that many associate with Lancaster County.
Amish communities are not the main attraction of Lancaster, despite the numerous options that make them available to tourists.
While there is an influence of the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage in Lancaster that locals and tourists alike call charming, shopping, dining, music and art are all in great abundance within the city’s boundaries.
Local dining favorites include the Prince Street Cafe, which freshman speech pathology major Kendra Baugus from Lancaster praised for its $2 “bottomless” coffee mugs.
Shady Maple Smorgasbord, a restaurant specializing in authentic Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, is something of a culinary legend amongst Lancaster locals, who rave about its extensive dessert menu and “all you can eat” specials.
Melanie Klinefelter, a freshman psychology major, said she goes about 10 times a year when she’s home in her native Lancaster.
“We’ve gotten more and more restaurants, and a diversity of restaurants,” Cliff said. “Different ethnic foods, and obviously [Pennsylvania] Dutch cooking.”
Satisfying the stomach can also mean fulfilling retail therapy needs in Lancaster, where the average farmers’ market is seriously outdone. Root’s Country Market just outside the city and Central Market in the downtown area bring crowds of locals and tourists for their charming environment and showcasing of local products, both food and goods. Bridget Boxleitner, a freshman kinesiology major from Lancaster called Central Market “a must” if you are visiting. Shoppers do not have to stop at the markets, however.
“We were recently ranked in the Top 25 cities for shopping in the country,” Cliff said.
The 300 block of North Queen Street is particularly known for its unique and fun shopping, he added.
Baugus said she enjoys antique shopping on Columbia Avenue. The well-known, large shopping mall Park City dwarves, but does not overshadow, downtown Lancaster’s selection of shops, which have what Cliff called a “funky” appeal.
Entertainment and Nightlife
Shopping, amongst other urban activities, takes to the streets on First Friday, when street vendors and musicians entertain exploring attendees. Galleries stay open later, and dining options are more plentiful due to extended hours and often specialty dishes for First Friday customers. In many ways similar to Philadelphia’s own First Friday events, the Lancaster version also focuses on showcasing local artisans and culture.
“I always thought that First Fridays were a Lancaster, or small town, thing,” Baugus said. “It’s really cool, everyone’s so friendly. You can go up and talk to the artists.”
As a Lancaster native, Baugus said she and her friends frequent First Friday events.
Jennifer Baker, director of the mayor’s office of special events in Lancaster, said that the event brings in as many as 3,000 people a month to attend the celebration of the arts. Franklin & Marshall College and Millersville University are amongst nearby schools that guarantee a college-age turnout.
“[First Fridays offer] innovative exhibitions, performance and perhaps a few surprises,” Baker said.
Theaters and art galleries are in great abundance making art easily accessible, including The American Music Theater, Sight and Sound Theater and the Fulton Theater, which will host productions “A Chorus Line,” “Dream Girls” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” this spring. Both modern and classic artwork is always on display in galleries such as the Demuth Museum and Christiane David Gallery.
The Ware Center, a part of Millersville University, is a local performing arts center that offers traveling students an alternative to Philadelphia’s Liacouras Center. It offers everything from opera and jazz to poetry slams and ballet.
“The director [of The Ware Center] Harvey Owen said there’s something here for everyone, every night. There’s always something cool and fun going on,” Cliff said.
Along with ongoing events at The Ware Center, music lovers who need a mental reprieve before the madness of finals may find solace in a specific event in Lancaster next month, from April 25-28.
“Launch Music Conference and Festival” will take place in historic downtown Lancaster, where aspiring musicians can attend panels and seminars to make connections within the industry along with parties and concerts. Nearly 200 artists of all musical styles from around the country will be performing.
Even with the urban appeals that Lancaster has to offer, visitors are still only a short drive from natural escapades. Scenic experiences are in abundance along the Susquehanna River and surrounding parks.
“[Lancaster] allows you to appreciate the countryside,” Klinefelter said.
“You can have a nice mix of countryside charm and Amish attractions, and mix that in with some nightlife and city experiences,” Cliff said.
A weekend getaway in Lancaster is not a trip into isolated country navigable by horse and buggy, but to a cultural expedition offering itself to students open to their neighboring area.
Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.