Lancaster played a pivotal role in American history, and today, the homes and gathering places of those who shaped the country exist alongside modern shops and restaurants, breathing new life into one of America’s oldest cities. Today, the homes and gathering places of those who shaped this country exist alongside modern-day shops and restaurants, breathing new life into one of America’s oldest cities.
On a warm, humid Sunday evening in downtown Lancaster, as fresh rain begins to evaporate off the stone pavement, a woman in dark denim cutoffs and white midriffs makes her way down King Street toward one of the only pubs still open. It’s still early, not even 8 p.m., but most of the shops and restaurants in town are closed. Many of them have been closed all day. This corner of southeastern Pennsylvania is perhaps best known for its Amish, who have a strict no-work, no-shop policy on Sundays. In her haste, the woman checked for oncoming traffic – there wasn’t much – and crossed the street to stare at a small group of people on a haunted history walk. A quick glance at her smartphone flicks her long blonde hair away from her face, revealing black eyeliner and multiple piercings that contrast sharply with the town’s traditional reputation.
Traces of Lancaster’s downtown heritage are everywhere, from its buildings and monuments to the shape and configuration of its streets. Lancaster was founded during the American War of Independence and was frequented by various dignitaries, including those who would later become presidents. But mixed in with that history are traces of generational change. Vegetarian eateries sit among locations named after famous former residents such as James Buchanan and Thaddeus Stevens. Horse-drawn carriages still ply these roads and alleys alongside hybrids and Uber drivers.
Here in Lancaster, multiple worlds converge. Yet there seems to be room for everyone.
Strolling the streets.
In the center of Pennsylvania Square, the towering granite Soldiers and Sailors Memorial honors Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. From there, the streets of Lancaster spread out like a grid (Philadelphia was the first American city to use the grid design system, setting a precedent for other colonial towns), with each block having its own blend of old and new.
The focal point of downtown Lancaster may be the Central Market (23 North Market Street) in Penn Square, a large Romanesque Revival-style brick building where Amish farmers and their families still deliver fresh vegetables and handmade goods three days a week (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday). This market has been going on since the 1700s, when King George officially designated Lancaster as a market town – meaning it could legally operate as a trading center.
While the Amish are allowed to ride in cars, they are not allowed to own them. So on market day, you’ll find wagons with huge wagon wheels parked all around the building, with horses patiently awaiting the return of their owners. The market itself is hot and crowded, with shoppers moving through shelves of blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, peaches, apple dumplings, doughnuts, jams, pickles and more. There are more than 60 vendors, including bakers, butchers, brewers, artisans and quilters – all happy to chat or offer free samples. As for local delicacies, there are two to try: whoopie pies, chocolate cake-like cookies with a cream filling, and shoofly pies made with brown sugar and molasses.In addition to traditional dishes, there are some unexpected treats in the Central Market, including crispy coconut cakes, spanakopita and fresh Thai spring rolls.
North Queen Street boasts an array of funky shops, art galleries, and consignment shops, all independently owned and operated.Dwelling (356 N. Queen St.) sells rustic and sophisticated home decor, including charming reclaimed barnwood signs indoors and out.
Building Character (342 N. Queen St.) has about 10,000 square feet of warehouse space filled with vintage clothes and toys, furniture, jewelry and salvage. In this neighborhood, shopping is more like a treasure hunt. Visitors should leave plenty of time for discovery.
Lancaster, which has undergone a culinary renaissance in recent years, has plenty of food options. Even the local cuisine is a mix of classic and modern.
For breakfast or lunch, the Prince Street Café (151 N. Prince St.) is known for its strong coffee and twists on traditional comfort food. In addition to spicy breakfast burritos, the menu includes rice bowls with grilled chicken and avocado, cream cheese BLTs, homemade baked oatmeal, and a variety of juices, including mango, green tea, and teas. With free wifi, the cafe attracts college students and local writers alike. The tables fill up quickly.
For non-traditional fare, there’s Aussie and the Fox (38 W. King St.), which combines American and Australian cuisine. The menu changes often, but one thing that never changes is the Aussie burger, which comes with a fried egg, red beet ketchup and pineapple mustard. The Mr. Fox cocktail represents another Australian tradition: mixing coffee with alcohol. This drink combines cold-brewed coffee with vodka, simple syrup and lavender bitters.
Issei Noodle (44 N. Queen St.) makes a traditional Vietnamese dish. One popular dish is pho (pronounced “fuh”), a rich, salty broth of rice noodles, cilantro, bean sprouts, lime and your choice of chicken, shrimp or beef. Keep an eye out for discount days.
Lately, locals have been raving about Sprout (58 N. Prince St.), which features bánh mì – a Vietnamese sandwich with ham, chicken or pork, along with shredded carrots, radishes, cucumbers and jalapenos. Another popular treat is their macarons – French protein cookies made with almond flour and egg white. The surprise on the menu may be a tribute to the owners’ former life in New Orleans, where the family lived after Hurricane Katrina until they evacuated to central Pennsylvania.
With the recent closure of Seeds, a local vegan hangout at Roots (223 W. Walnut St.), a former brewery that specializes in animal-free foods. The menu includes comfort food like spicy gumbo with okra, tomatoes and oyster mushrooms, as well as fusion dishes like Korean barbecue Jackfruit tacos. Even wine and beer are vegan-friendly options, as many types of alcohol use animal protein to reduce astringency.
Dinner and drinks
The Pressroom (26-28 W. King St.) is a casual bistro in an 18th-century building, newly renovated with an outdoor bar with patio seating. The shop’s printer theme pays homage to the media conglomerate that owns the restaurant and publishes the local newspaper. If the weather permits, sit outside near the waterfall and order a pizza and a bunch of small plates like beef tacos, risotto balls with pesto sauce or fries with duck fat and gravy.
For something meaty and comforting, head to Annie Bailey’s Irish Pub & Restaurant (28 E. King St.), where the shepherd’s pie is loaded with beef and lamb and topped with cheesy potatoes. Fair warning: the generous size is enough for three people. In the summer, the bar offers alcoholic popsicles. In the winter, Bloody Mary’s made with home-made vodka are popular.
The Lancaster Dispensing Co. (35 N. Market St.) is still a working restaurant. (35 N. Market St.), known locally as the “dipco,” was once a hotel and tavern that was occasionally frequented by George Washington’s Continental soldiers on their way to Philadelphia (Washington himself is said to have visited Lancaster five times). Now, the authentic Victorian tavern hosts live music and offers a large, affordable menu – from sandwiches and burgers to large entrees like apple chicken and Cajun cream pasta. dipco is known for its beer selection, but one cocktail you won’t find anywhere else is the Tall, Dark and Handsome, a cocktail made with vanilla Vodka, buttered gin and dark cocoa powder-infused martinis.
The center of Lancaster’s nightlife is Tellus 360 (25 N. King St.), a complex that includes a whiskey bar with more than 200 spirits, a basement underground bar and a rooftop club with a DJ spinning dance music on the weekends. You’ll also find performances by local musicians, storytelling sessions and traditional Irish jam sessions.
A Taste of History.
Lancaster is steeped in American history.It was once the capital of the United States when the Continental Congress fled the British invasion of Philadelphia in 1777. It was also home to the original signer of the Declaration of Independence, George Ross, and uncle of Betsy Ross, creator of the first American flag. The clerk who actually wrote the Declaration – Timothy Matlack, known for his perfect handwriting – also lived here, on East Orange Street. A visit to Lancaster would not be complete without digging into this rich history.
For some interesting old trivia, Ghost Tours of Lancaster (25 S. Queen St.) takes evening excursions to some of the weirdest spots in town, like the Fulton Opera House, where Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth was an actor. But it wasn’t Booth who was said to be causing trouble at the opera house. According to local lore, theater patrons reported seeing a white-clad apparition near the stage. Some say the apparition is Mary Cahill, an actress known for her diva-like attitude and penchant for wearing white dresses. Another stop on the tour was Dipko. On particularly cold winter nights, some people claim they can hear bells, hoofbeats and the sound of wagon wheels moving down the brick street. These sounds carry over to the Central Market, which was once home to the town’s fire department.
Whether or not these spooky stories are true, the 90-minute walk is more educational than frightening, as a knowledgeable guide with a lantern leads the group through the streets of Lancaster, from the former Town Hall building to the old jail to St. James Episcopal Cemetery on Duke Street. The guide works from a memorized script, but she can’t be stubborn. Her knowledge of local history is extensive, ranging from the antics of bachelor president James Buchanan to the massacre of the Conestoga Indians in 1763.
Another exploration of American history takes place just outside of Lancaster, where the landscape is dotted with church steeples, farms, silos and Amish buggies. Seven minutes from downtown Lancaster is Wheatland (1120 Marietta Ave.), the federal-style home of former President James Buchanan, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and open to visitors, Wheatland offers a glimpse into the private life of a man who is not remembered by history. Buchanan presided over a deeply divided nation as tensions between the North and South led to the outbreak of the Civil War. Buchanan sided with the South on the issue of slavery, saying it was a moral issue that should be decided by the states, not the federal government. He left office in 1861, did not seek re-election, and was replaced by Abraham Lincoln. Soon after, the country was plunged into war.
Inside the Buchanan mansion, the table settings and desk are the same as they were in 1860, as if the president had only stepped out for a moment. The property has never been significantly remodeled, which means that many of the features in the house – including the carpeting and the bell system that beckons servants – are original. From the green shutters and crescent windows to the door knocker bearing the president’s surname, Wheatland is a relentless description of what Lancaster used to be like in the late 19th century, before progressivism and millennials began to leave their mark.