Although Pennsylvania Dutch Country is only 150 miles from New York City, once you arrive you feel like you're worlds (and centuries) away. There are bucolic fields full of corn, alfalfa and tobacco, and Amish farmers on horse-drawn buggies sharing the streets with cars. The area's home to big tourist attractions such as Dutch Wonderland and the Strasburg Railroad, which is why we started visiting a few years ago when my son was in his train phase. But there are also less well-known yet equally cool places to visit, like the Choo Choo Barn, the National Toy Train Museum and the Amish Village.
Pennsylvania Dutch Country is a wonderful summer getaway, and although the season is drawing to a close there's always Labor Day weekend. It's beautiful in fall, too: My family and I visited last year over Columbus Day break and plan on going again this year.
Since we go annually, I could have written a book about the place, but don't worry, I resisted the temptation. Instead, here are our favorite things to do in Pennsylvania Dutch Country as a family, along with suggestions about where to stay.
Things to Do
The Amish Village
199 Hartman Bridge Road, Ronks
Learn all about the Amish at this living history museum. You can't miss it: Just look for the white barn painted with "This is the Amish Village" on its side. This working Amish farm dispels many misconceptions about the hard-working religious people. Although it's true they don't use electricity, they still have their own versions of modern appliances. Their kitchen mixers are powered by air compression, their lights have batteries and their washing machines run on lawnmower engines. Visitors start out by touring the farmhouse and then stroll the pastoral grounds which house chickens, goats, cows, a peacock and a garden. There are also other buildings to explore like a one-room schoolhouse and a smokehouse that's been turned into a general store. Since this is a museum, it's the place to talk to the Amish staff and ask them questions about their culture. (It's certainly better than your kids gawking at locals in the street!) On Saturdays, an Amish school teacher even drops by to lead lessons.
Admission: $8.25 for adults, $5 for children ages 5-12, free for kids under 5.
National Toy Train Museum
300 Paradise Lane, Ronks
One of the world's largest toy train collections is housed at this little museum, which resembles a Victorian train station. There are five displays featuring different gages that kids can operate by pushing buttons, as well as hundreds of model locomotives, some dating back to the 1840s!
Admission: $6 for adults, $3 for children ages 6-12, free for kids under 6. There's also a family rate of $15 for two adults and three or more children.
301 Gap Road, Ronks
A trip on the Strasburg Railroad will be the highlight of any train-obsessed kid's trip. The U.S.'s first short-line railroad has been lovingly restored with period details, and offers a nine-mile steam-train ride through the scenic countryside, narrated by the conductor. Every time we go, we also grab lunch in the Lee E Brenner Dining Car to enhance our old-time experience. Back at the station, kids can power the hand-crank Cranky Cars and cruise on the Cagney mini-steam locomotive.
The Strasburg Railroad also has a Thomas the Tank Engine locomotive, and periodically hosts amazing Day Out with Thomas events. We've been to a half dozen of them, and they're really wonderful for fans of the show. The next one is scheduled in September. Bonus: Kids who've seen the live-action Thomas and the Magic Railroad will recognize the 177-year-old Strasburg Railroad Station from the film (it stood in for Shining Time Station).
Tickets: $14-$25 for adults, $2-$25 for kids, depending on activity. Special events vary.
Choo Choo Barn
Traintown U.S.A., 226 Gap Road, Ronks
This detailed miniature rendering of Lancaster County includes numerous running trains and every notable attraction, including an Amish barn raising, the Red Caboose motel, Dutch Wonderland and Strasburg Railroad. Stick around at least 15 minutes so you can see the simulated nightfall. To my son, this place is more magical than Disneyland!
Admission: $7 for adults, $4 for children ages 3-11, free for kids under 3.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania
300 Gap Road, Ronks
Right across the street from the Strasburg Railroad is this enormous museum dedicated to Pennsylvania's locomotive history. It's not for everyone (once would have been enough for me), but my husband and son adore this place, so we visit whenever we're in town. This cavernous shed houses historic locomotives, dining cars and cabooses. Kids particularly love the enormous Stewart Junction Railway Education Center, which has all sorts of toy trains, a reading nook, cool demos and interactive games.
Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for children 3-11 and free for kids under 2.
2249 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster
Although Hershey Park is the area's big draw for thrill-seekers, don’t overlook this gem. Opened in 1963, this 48-acre, Medieval-themed amusement park's slogan is "A Kingdom for Kids," and we totally agree! It features more than 30 rides, including the Kingdom Coaster, which went a little too fast for me and the husband, as well as very tame attractions. There's also mini golf and a water park. Dutch Wonderland is impeccably clean, beautifully landscaped, well maintained and, in my experience, rarely crowded.
Admission: $33.99, free for children under 2.
Cherry Crest Adventure Farm
150 Cherry Hill Road, Ronks
Eco-tainment at its very best. Your family will have old-fashioned fun on this farm, which features more than 50 activities and a 5-acre corn maze (open July-November). Read our extended review here.
Admission: $15, free for children under 2.
Where to Stay
DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel Lancaster
2400 Willow Street Pike, Lancaster
Located just a few miles away from the downtown area, this resort-style hotel is fairly close to all the attractions. It's got lots of family-friendly amenities, luxurious and large rooms, three pools, an indoor water playground area with slides and sprinklers, a golf course, tennis and basketball courts, a duck pond, wagon rides, two restaurants and an old-school bakery. There's also a children’s center, which offers craft projects, bonfires and outdoor movie screenings on the lawn. You can imagine how much fun my family had staying here. The hotel also offers a free, three-hour bus tour that hits local sights like the Kitchen Kettle Village.
Red Caboose Motel
312 Paradise Lane, Ronks
Definitely a unique experience, real caboose cars have been bolted to the tracks and converted into sleeping quarters. The motel also has a dining-car restaurant, petting zoo and playground, and hosts alfresco film screenings during the summer. For locomotive fans, it's a real treat, and it's located in the middle of all the train attractions. That said, I've met other families who didn't enjoy staying here: The rooms are clean but cramped and not at all swanky, but that's kind of the point.
Clarion Inn Historic Strasburg Inn
1400 Historic Drive, Strasburg
This hotel has 100 nicely appointed rooms plus an outdoor pool, playground, bike rentals and complimentary breakfast in a lovely sunny glassed in atrium.
Editor's note: This post was not paid for, and isn't related to any paid endorsement or advertising. All opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. Free or discounted lodging and admission fees were accepted while researching this post.