When I was growing up in Central New Jersey, a common weekend day trip consisted of a ride out to Lancaster, PA, better known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country; so named for its large Amish population. In those days, a trip to Lancaster meant a peaceful drive through the rolling farmlands past farms and Amish locals traveling by horse and buggy, topped off with a slice of shoofly pie.
Flash forward thirty years and PA Dutch Country has become quite a family travel destination, with countless things to do in Lancaster PA with kids. It makes a perfect weekend getaway destination from Philadelphia, Baltimore, NYC, or Washington D.C.
Lancaster was the first stop on one of our spring break road trips to Gettysburg, Ocean City, and Chincoteague. If you are visiting Lancaster, PA with kids, I’d recommend at least a weekend stay, especially if you have toddlers or young kids.
10 Things to do in Lancaster with Kids
I would like to thank the PA Dutch Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for hosting our trip, Plain and Fancy Farm for the delicious all-you-can-eat feast, and Aaron and Jessica’s for the complimentary buggy ride. All opinions are my own.
Take a scenic drive
Lancaster, Pennsylvania is known for its picturesque landscapes, rolling hills, and sprawling farmlands, making it an ideal destination for a scenic drive. When we were starting out our trip, I worried that all the development that has gone on in Lancaster in recent years would make it hard to get away from the tourist traps and enjoy the countryside with its farms and beautiful landscapes.
I needn’t have worried. Once you get off of Route 30 into some of the back roads you will have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the scenery and start a tally of the number of horse and buggies you see along the way.
One of the most popular scenic drives is the Lancaster County Covered Bridge route, which covers a distance of 50 miles and features 29 historic covered bridges. To start, head to the town of Intercourse and follow the signs. Along the way, you can admire the stunning scenery and stop at several points of interest, including the Cherry Crest Adventure Farm and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
Another scenic route in Lancaster is the Welsh Mountain Loop, which covers 25 miles and offers beautiful views of the countryside. Start in the town of Gap and follow Route 772 to Route 897 North, and then follow Route 23 West back to Gap. Along the way, you can enjoy the breathtaking vistas of the Welsh Mountains and pass through charming Amish communities.
If you’re looking for a longer drive, the Lancaster County Heritage Trail is a 27-mile route that takes you through some of the region’s most beautiful landscapes. Starting in Columbia, follow Route 462 East to Route 722, and then continue on to Route 23 East to Route 772. Along the way, you’ll pass through quaint towns, rolling hills, and scenic farmland. Don’t miss the opportunity to stop at the Conestoga Area Historical Society Museum and the Susquehanna Riverlands Visitor Center, both of which offer fascinating insights into the region’s history and natural beauty.
Stop at the Hans Herr House for some history
The Hans Herr House is the oldest homestead in Lancaster County, dating back to 1719, and a good place to get acquainted with the settlers of the area and their search for religious freedom. The house was built by Hans Herr, one of the earliest Swiss Mennonite settlers in the area, and is a testament to the region’s rich cultural heritage.
The house is furnished with period furniture and artifacts, giving visitors a glimpse into what life was like in the early 18th century. In addition to the house, there is a reconstructed barn, smokehouse, and outdoor bake oven. We had fun watching demonstrations of traditional crafts such as blacksmithing and spinning.
A visit to the Hans Herr House offers a unique opportunity to step back in time and experience life as it was centuries ago.
Ride the Strasburg Rail Road
If your little ones are at all into trains, they will enjoy a ride on the Strasburg Railroad, which transports you back in time to the golden age of steam railroading. The railroad, which dates back to 1832, offers scenic 45-minute round-trip rides through the picturesque countryside. You can pick to either ride in a historic steam locomotive or a vintage diesel locomotive.
In addition to the train ride, the Strasburg Rail Road Station offers a gift shop, a working signal tower, and a museum featuring historic railroad artifacts and exhibits. Train rides run daily from April through December and on weekends during the winter months. Check the website for up-to-date information on schedules and events.
There are also many seasonal events and activities to enjoy at the Strasburg Railroad. During the summer months, you can take part in special events like the Day Out with Thomas, where kids can meet the famous blue engine and take a ride on a train pulled by Thomas. In the fall, the railroad offers scenic rides through the autumn foliage, and during the holiday season, visitors can take a ride on the Santa Express train.
For true train fanatics, the quaint town of Strasburg also offers a railroad museum and the Choo Choo Barn at Traintown USA, featuring a 1700 square-foot model train display. The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania has over 100 locomotives and railcars on display. After spending time with the trains, the rest of your family members might enjoy a stroll through the charming town of Strasburg.
Take a buggy ride
After seeing countless buggies along the byways of Lancaster, your kids will be clamoring for a ride of their own. There are many different options for buggy rides and you might want to research ahead of time to understand your options for the type of tour and buggy experience you desire.
For example, we took a ride with Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides, conveniently located at the Plain and Fancy Farm. They offer a number of tour options of 25-50 minutes in duration that visit a farm, stop in town, or take a “cookie run.” Keep in mind that these are not private buggy tours (although private tours are available), and some buggies are more like carriages that hold up to 15 people.
If you can’t make a reservation in advance, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to wait your turn and put your name on the list as soon as you arrive. Another thing to keep in mind is that with some tours, like Aaron and Jessica’s, you can ask questions of your Amish guide and learn more about the community and customs.
Visit an Amish Farm
On our visit, we decided to combine the buggy ride with a farm visit so that we could see the workings of an authentic Amish farm. At the farm, we stopped in at the barn, where we saw the cows that the farmer spends about four hours a day milking.
After a quick visit with the horses and the most adorable calves, we climbed back into the buggy for our ride back. If you are looking to spend more time at a farm and learn about the Amish lifestyle, you could also visit The Amish Village or the Amish Farm and House.
You could also spend an afternoon at the Cherry Crest Adventure Farm for some “agritainment” like corn mazes, wagon rides, visits with baby animals and more.
Ride the rides at Dutch Wonderland
They weren’t open for the season during our stay but Dutch Wonderland is perfect for little kids covering an area of 48 acres with over 35 rides, attractions, and shows. It is designed for families with young children, making it a popular destination for families with kids between the ages of 2 and 12.
Dutch Wonderland features a variety of rides, including roller coasters, water rides, and classic carnival rides like bumper cars and a Ferris wheel. Some of the most popular attractions include the Duke’s Lagoon water play area, the Sky Ride, and the Kingdom Coaster. There are also several live shows and entertainment options, such as the Storytime with Princess Brooke show and the High Dive and Dolphin Show.
Dutch Wonderland is open from late April through early October, with varying hours depending on the season. You can also enjoy seasonal events including Happy Hauntings (select weekends in October) and Dutch Winter Wonderland (select days in November and December). Tickets can be purchased online or at the Park entrance.
Shop til you drop
As with any touristy area, you can find the ubiquitous outlet shopping malls. There are two main outlet malls in Lancaster: the Tanger Outlets and the Rockvale Outlets.
The Tanger Outlets is located on Stanley K. Tanger Boulevard and features over 65 outlet stores. Some of the flagship stores at the Tanger Outlets include Nike, Coach, J.Crew, and Tommy Hilfiger. The outlet mall also offers a variety of dining options, including fast food chains and sit-down restaurants.
The Rockvale Outlets, located on Lincoln Highway East, features over 70 outlet stores, including brands like Gap, Levi’s, and Under Armour. The outlet mall is designed to look like a traditional Lancaster County village, with quaint storefronts and charming landscaping. Visitors to the Rockvale Outlets can also enjoy a variety of dining options, including several locally-owned restaurants.
If you would rather try something more authentic, stop at the Kitchen Kettle Village with over 40 shops with authentic PA Dutch merchandise and locally-made products.
If you are in town on a Tuesday, Friday, or Saturday, you can also check out the Central Market Lancaster, the country’s oldest continuously operating farmer’s market, with local PA Dutch specialties; or visit the Bird-in-Hand Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays – Saturdays.
Mix up some fun at the Turkey Hill Experience
Turkey Hill’s chocolate peanut butter is my favorite ice cream flavor and it makes me long for my pre-lactose intolerance days. A visit to the Turkey Hill Experience lets you try many of their famous flavors of ice cream, iced tea, and lemonade while mixing up some flavor fun.
But don’t get confused, the Turkey Hill Experience is not an ice cream factory tour. In fact, it is located in an old silk mill, not a dairy at all. But the building has character and the Experience offers so much more than a factory tour.
There are a couple of ways to do the Turkey Hill Experience. The standard experience covers plenty of ground including samples galore and the ability to create your own virtual flavor, packaging and commercial and it takes about 60-90 minutes to get to do it all.
The other option is to add the Taste Lab, which lets you bring your virtual flavor to life with a hands-on experience mixing flavors and add ins to create the ideal flavor profile. If you want to do the Taste Lab, be sure to plan ahead and make a reservation because seating is limited and the last Taste Lab of the day starts at 4:15pm.
On our visit we arrived a little after 4pm and couldn’t get into the Taste Lab, but we still had plenty to do. We started out with samples…why not, that was the main reason we were there right? After swigging down some Turkey Hill Lemonade and Peach Tea, we sauntered over to the ice cream counter to take our time making our selections.
After hanging out on the “porch” in some rocking chairs, we moseyed over into the exhibits. We skipped the play area for the little kids with a ball pit, slide and old fashioned truck, and went right into learning about how ice cream is made from a short film (narrated by the cows.)
We then we moved onto the main attraction. We pulled out our tickets with a unique Create Your Own (CYO) code for building your own flavor. First stop, a modern scratch and sniff — more of a press and sniff. By pressing down on a scent stamp you get an olfactory preview of the flavors you have to work with.
The next step was to create your virtual flavor. Using the touch screens you enter your code and contact information, then get mixing. You can choose to start with a chocolate or vanilla base, then add fruit and other add ins to create the combination of your imagination and give your masterpiece a name. My little one named hers Mango Chocolate Delight.
After you create your flavor you move on to packaging. Using the touchscreen to select a background, choose a font, and drag and drop sticker style decorations, you don’t need to have any design skills to create a unique package for your ice cream.
Then comes the final stage, stepping through the blast freezer to film and edit your own commercial. Standing in front of a green screen, you can choose what type of commercial you want to do (my daughter picked the in the field interview…with a cow). You can follow the teleprompter or create your own script, then head over to the editing station to add music and produce your final commercial. At each stop along the way, you can have your creations emailed to you or post them on Facebook.
It was a great experience and one of our favorite things to do in Lancaster with kids.
See a show
The Amish Experience theater at Plain and Fancy Farm tells the story of “Jacob’s Choice,” which helps explain what it means to be Amish. For something more dramatic (and religious) the Sight and Sound Theater is a Christian theater that “brings the Bible to life” with shows like Moses and Jonah, if you are into that kind of thing.
EAT (A Lot!)
One thing that PA Dutch Country is famous for is its smorgasbords or all-you-can-eat buffets. These are not just a way to stuff your gullet, but also one approach to sampling all the local foods and PA Dutch specialties (see my post about the must-try PA Dutch foods.)
On our visit, we didn’t do a traditional smorgasbord but we did get to try many PA Dutch foods from the Amish Farm Feast at the Plain and Fancy restaurant. Made famous on the Travel Channel’s Man v Food with Adam Richman, the Amish Farm Feast offered up more than we could eat of salad, cinnamon raisin bread, chicken pot pie, fried chicken, chow chow (pickled vegetables), corn, roast beef, buttered noodles, mashed potatoes and so much more including shoofly pie!
Other popular smorgasbord buffets include Miller’s or Shady Maple.
Where to Stay in Lancaster with Kids
There are many fun spots to stay in Lancaster with kids and one of the best is the Cartoon Network Hotel. They offer family-friendly rooms with bunk beds, an indoor pool with a waterslide, and an outdoor seasonal pool and splash pad play area. The hotel also has an on-site restaurant and an arcade/game room.