It's easy to get caught up in the candy-coated sweetness of Hershey, Pa. Families can spend an entire spring break in the town known for its amusements and chocolate. At this time of year, the area is in full bloom, with more than 5,000 vibrant tulips at the Hershey Garden alone.
If you're making the trek to east central Pennsylvania, don't miss Lancaster, a 40-minute drive from Hershey. (Harrisburg International Airport is the closest major airport to Hershey and Lancaster.) In the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, experience the Amish culture by riding in a horse-drawn buggy, touring an Amish farm and tasting traditional Pennsylvania Dutch fare.
As an East Coast gal who just moved to Chicagoland, I grew up riding on Hershey Park's roller coasters and touring the Amish countryside. Before our move, my husband and I also took a quick trip to the area with our two children (6 and 3).
Here are our top picks for a Hershey/Lancaster vacation your family won't soon forget:
To truly experience Hershey, a visit to Hershey's Chocolate World (adjacent to Hershey Park) is a must. Hop aboard the chocolate train (free) and learn how Hershey's chocolate is made. You will be treated to a miniature candy bar at the end. There are a plethora of other chocolate-centric activities, like concocting your own candy bar recipes or personalizing candy bar wrappers with your photo. We opted for the dessert creation studio where we dipped strawberries, bananas and pretzels into chocolate fondue. (At least the kids got in a fruit serving amidst the chocolate immersion.)
Hershey Park has enough rides to keep your family busy for at least one full day (if not two or more). If you hit the park in the summer, you might want to allot another full day for the water park. Hershey has plenty to entertain kids of all ages, but Lancaster also has an amusement park worth visiting.
Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster caters to younger kids (ages 2-10). Resembling a fantasy land, Dutch Wonderland doesn't provide the thrills of looping roller coasters, but the park offers plenty of family rides and shows.
For a completely unique experience, climb aboard the Strasburg Railroad near Lancaster. The 45-minute ride winds through the Amish countryside. For your miniature train fanatics, reserve a spot on "Day out with Thomas" when families ride on Thomas the train. (Available June 15-23; Sept. 14-22; and Nov. 22-24)
Amish culture is truly intriguing (even to kids). It's worth renting a car from Hershey to Lancaster to experience this fascinating way of life. Most likely you won't be able to explore a real, working Amish farm, but there are plenty of opportunities to get a feel for Amish life. One of your first stops should be a tour of an Amish-themed farm.
The Amish Farm and House, an old farmhouse dating to the 1700s, offers tours of the farmhouse, one-room schoolhouse and farm with goats, chickens, sheep and cows. The Amish Village offers a similar experience with tours of the 12-acre property, farmhouse, one-room school house and barn with animals. Central Market is another must. Claiming to be the world's oldest working farmers market, Central Market in downtown Lancaster sells regional foods like chow chow (pickled vegetables in spicy mustard sauce) and Scrapple, along with plenty of baked goods and souvenirs. (My daughter just had to buy an Amish-style bonnet.)
For more Pennsylvania Dutch eats, dine at least once at a traditional family-style restaurant. Plain and Fancy or Good n' Plenty are good bets, but my family's personal favorite was Groff's Farm Restaurant. You will thank me once you try the sweet rolls and pies. It's important to note that Lancaster pretty much shuts down on Sundays, so restaurants and shopping will be slim pickings that day. Before you leave Amish country, don't forget the horse-and-buggy ride. Try Abe's Buggy Rides or Aaron and Jessica's Buggy Rides.