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Favorite Places and Spaces: Downtown Lancaster Pennsylvania

I grew up in Lancaster Pennsylvania.  For much of the country that means Amish Country.  But most tourists, who hang out on the eastern end of the county shopping at the outlets, ogling the Amish buggies, and visiting places with names like, “the Amish Farm and House” (it’s not Amish, and it’s not on a farm – it’s next to a Target, but I suppose there’s a house, so 1 out of 3 ain’t bad…) and driving over covered bridges (Lancaster has more than the famous Madison County) never actually get into Lancaster City, and miss the delights of this little artsy urban center.

First-Friday-LancasterLancaster is one of the oldest towns in the country, dating from early 18th century, and when I was a kid growing up on the eastern end of the county there really wasn’t much to do “in town” as we called it.  There was a large department store, and people would “cruise the loop,” and there was the Chameleon Club (where the band Live got their start), but it wasn’t really a place where you could park and wander.

lankyMy dad and stepmom live “in town” and so when I come home I get to explore this vibrant city through the eyes of both an adult who grew up here, and as a newcomer.  And since it’s our plan to move back here after Spain, I also get to look forward to raising Hannah in this amazing town.

Let’s get one thing out there to start with:  I love Lancaster.  Like seriously, I love this place.  It’s the perfect size of small town (it’s pretty common to bump into someone you know on the street or at events like the First Friday art walk) with the artsiness of a larger city.  There are the obvious places that a tourist absolutely should go, like Central Market, which is one of my favorite places in the world.  The oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in the country, farmers have been bringing their produce here for three hundred years.  Now it’s open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, and you can buy everything from whoopie pies to veggies to meat to premade sandwiches to iced coffee to fruit smoothies to greek pastries.  This place pretty much has stands for everything.  It gets crazy crowded on Saturday mornings, but if you go during a quiet time  you can talk to the vendors, find out about the produce, and even find a quiet place to sit and eat your yummies.

central marketBut there are so many other places in downtown Lancaster to wander.  You can wander over to the east side and visit Musser Park, where there’s an art gallery and a street market on Sundays.  Back towards the library you can walk on the cobblestone streets and pass the St. James Episcopal church and visit the open graveyard where there are graves from parishioners dating back to pre-Revolutionary War.   Go north three blocks and then over to Queen street and there is a block known affectionately as the 300 Block, with loads of boutiquey stores, antique shops, cafes, and crafty places.  Mosey over to Prince Street and Gallery Row, where you can peek in and out of dozens of small galleries, a great used book shop where you can putter for hours, or grab coffee in one of the cafes like the Prince Street Cafe.  Across the street from the Fulton Opera House, one of the oldest theaters in the country, it tends to be an urban oasis for hipsters with beards and skinny jeans.  If you plan your visit at the beginning of the month you can experience First Friday where the city opens up all the galleries and musical venues, and the cafes are packed with people.

fultonRight now Lancaster has such a great energy, and I love being around it.  It’s full of creative people who are making their art, and revitalizing the city in such a way that I think it’s what all urban planners mean when they talk about revitalizing inner cities.  Someone should do a case study of this place.  I hope it continues for a long long time, because it’s such a joy to experience, and I can’t wait to live here again and raise my daughter around all of this creative bustle.