For many, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, brings to mind farms on a gently rolling landscape, Amish driving along in horse and buggies, and small villages with entertaining names like Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse. Think Harrison Ford in Witness. The Amish communities have made Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Lancaster County nearly synonymous.
But in the heart of the county is Lancaster City, a young, hip urban center that has experienced a rebirth and gentrification in recent years. Today, Lancaster City is offering a thoroughly modern lifestyle with a melding of sites of historical importance with trendy restaurants and shops. I recently made a visit to Lancaster to get to know this up and coming city a little better.
Downtown Lancaster blends the old with the new. And Penn Square is the central plaza around which it all revolves.
It is hard not to notice the architecture on the Square. Today, a Marriott hotel occupies a prominent location on Penn Square. In fact, its building is the former Watt & Shand department store. Dating from 1898, the four storey building is in the Beaux Arts-style. It features fancy terra cotta and marble decorations.
In the center of the square is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument from 1874. Originally dedicated to Lancaster soldiers who fell in the line of duty, the memorial today honors fallen soldiers from across the country. On each of the monument’s four corners stands a statue paying tribute to a different branch of the military. In the center The Genius of Lancaster stands on a 43-foot tall granite column. The Genius of Lancaster holds a sword and shield while around her head is a crown of stars.
While those are the highlights of the square, you don’t have to go far to see more fantastic and historic architecture. The range of styles runs the gambit and makes for a really enjoyable stroll if you’re an architecture geek.
The streets of Lancaster are full of small restaurants offering seemingly every type of cuisine. You could likely spend months trying them all. It’s an enticing thought, come to think of it! But tucked away between office buildings on a somewhat hidden side street is Characters Pub.
Characters is a fairly standard American pub. A large bar runs the length of the restaurant and televisions hang on the wall behind it. Out front of the restaurant is a small plastic-enclosed patio space with enough room for a half dozen or so tables. While the patio isn’t air conditioned there are fans that tend to work well.
The menu is largely favorites: burgers, salads, sandwiches like BLTs and Reubens.
When I visited on a Friday for lunch I was surprised it wasn’t busier. Despite it being a rather hot and humid day, the patio was really pleasant. My husband had a cheeseburger which was perfectly cooked. I had the rather tasty crab cake sandwich. Characters has a great casual feel and food to bring you back.
It’s difficult to miss the rich red brick, the terra cotta roof and the towers shooting up to the sky of Lancaster Central Market. The historic market sits centrally in the city on Penn Square. Outside, it’s a busy intersection and plaza but inside it’s busy in a whole other way.
Today’s Lancaster Central Market was built in 1889 and designed by architect James H. Warner. Impressively, it took less than six months to put up the Romanesque Revival building. Lancaster City’s original marketplace was on the same spot. It was founded in 1730 by Andrew and James Hamilton. At the time it was only 120 square feet. Over the years there have, of course, been changes, additions and expansions.
There are currently about 60 stands inside Central Market. There is a great variety of products available from the stands. From fruit and veggies to meat and seafood to sweets and flowers. You can quite simply get it all at Central Market. As you might expect, there is also a noticeable Amish presence among the businesses. But there are also other international and ethnic cuisines, too.
In addition to groceries, you can also buy coffee, drinks and pre-prepared foods. Central Market is a popular lunch spot. You can drop in, pick something up quickly and go. And you can guarantee it’s fresh!
Just around the corner from Central Market is Passenger Coffee. With big windows letting in a ton of natural light, the shop has a hip, modern feel that is inviting. It beckons you in. But Passenger Coffee isn’t just another coffee shop.
Passenger Coffee has a conscience. The shop isn’t just selling coffee and tea. It’s creating close relationships with the farmers who grow it and making sure it’s high quality but also sustainable. They’re paying attention to everything large and small. From where the farms are, to the growing altitude, and the processing that takes place. And it pays off. The result is a quality product that you can take pleasure in enjoying.
The staff at Passenger are knowledgeable, helpful and friendly. Head barista Tyler guided my husband and I through the brews on offer the day of our visit. And his recommendations were spot on. The chilled nitrogen-infused Gaba Oolong looked more like a beer than an iced tea. But boy did it taste good, full of rich, complex flavors. My husband enjoyed the single origin Kohinoor AA from India. The coffee is light and smooth. It stands up on its own and doesn’t need anything to enhance it.
Sit at the window with a brew of your choice — and a pastry, of course (I recommend the lavender shortbread cookies) — and people watch or admire the architecture across the street. It’s a nice, relaxing place to hang out or catch up with friends.
In downtown Lancaster City, drivers can either opt for a parking lot or street parking. Street parking is metered with a two hour limit based on your license plate. For the places I’ve highlighted, if you are comfortable walking, park in a central location. All of the spots I highlighted are only a few blocks apart.
Thank you to Discover Lancaster for providing lunch at Characters. All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own.