As we’ve often discussed here on the Explore Retirement Living blog, the Lancaster, Pa. region is a treasure trove of culturally rich things to do and see. Today’s post focuses on a few of the best museums in Lancaster County, highlighting the impressive diversity and quality of these local institutions.
You’ll see that no matter your interests, the Lancaster area has a museum collection that will appeal to you! Additionally, for our friends who are always on the lookout for fun and educational activities to share with their younger family members, we have a number of museums in Lancaster that will delight kids—and kids at heart!
Lancaster-Area Museums for History Buffs
It’s a fact that Lancaster, Pa., is one of America’s oldest inland cities. Chartered as a borough way back in 1742—though a thriving market center from about 1730—Lancaster’s history is long. It’s also full of interesting characters and industries that shaped not only the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from its earliest days but significant aspects of our entire nation, too. Here are a few museums in Lancaster that give a glimpse into elements of the area’s past.
LancasterHistory and James Buchanan’s Wheatland
Formerly known as the Historical Society of Lancaster County, LancasterHistory rebranded about a decade ago to better express all that the organization is and does. (It had also acquired its next-door neighbor on Lancaster’s Marietta Avenue, Wheatland, at that time.) This vibrant research institution always has interesting changing exhibits on display in its state-of-the-art modern main building—Lancaster in the ‘60s is on now—and it is also a research library with a lovingly cared-for arboretum on the grounds.
Of course, many people experience LancasterHistory today through its role as custodian and operator of President James Buchanan’s home, Wheatland. The mansion is open for tours during much of the year, and it hosts many living history demonstrations—including a series of popular “yuletide” events around the holidays, complete with costumed actors.
The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania
In our recent post about why you should check out the Strasburg Rail Road, we mentioned this train attraction’s neighboring museum, The Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. This museum is a Smithsonian-affiliated organization operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The Railroad Museum, located outside of Lancaster near the small town of Strasburg, is unique in its sheer size and scale. With over 100 historically important real locomotives on display, the exhibit hall is a jaw-dropping 100,000 square feet in size. And, there are even more trains located around the Train Yard outdoor grounds! You can find many interactive exhibits throughout the museum that encourage kids and families to enjoy their visit together.
National Toy Train Museum
While you’re in Strasburg and indulging your inner railroad enthusiast, you won’t want to miss the nearby National Toy Train Museum, located at 300 Paradise Lane, in Paradise Township.
Home to “one of the most extensive toy train collections in the world,” the museum features all varieties of toy trains from the 1800s through the present-day. Of course, a visitor-favorite activity is interacting with the museum’s five fully-operational train layouts, which feature different track gauges and train styles.
The Ephrata Cloister
Enjoy living history displays and tours? The Historic Ephrata Cloister features a unique campus of restored buildings that interprets the lives of an 18th-century religious order that founded and maintained the site until the 1930s in the town of Ephrata.
Early Pennsylvania was established as a land of religious freedom. Although the Cloister residents—known as Householders—were a fringe religion that no longer exists, their story is significant to that of our Commonwealth during the colonial period and beyond. Additionally, the Householders created meaningful music, art, and literature on the site, which is prized by scholars and collectors alike.
National Watch & Clock Museum
Located in the historic Susquehanna River town of Columbia, Pa., the National Watch and Clock Museum is something of a “best-kept secret” to people outside the world of horology (the study of clocks and timepieces). But this impressive museum is a can’t-miss for anyone who appreciates beautiful, functional objects or well-executed exhibitions.
The National Watch and Clock Museum advertises itself as “America’s Largest Timekeeping Collection,” and that’s not an exaggeration. The collection includes about 12,000 watches, clocks, and other timepieces from around the world, some of which you can also check out in this unique virtual tour.
Museums in Lancaster to Visit With the Grandkids
While you’ve probably noticed that most of the museums we’ve reviewed already are family-friendly, Lancaster also has a few museums that are more specifically geared toward kids!
Lancaster Science Factory
A relatively new museum in Lancaster, the Science Factory seeks to inspire creativity, curiosity, and confidence in kids as they learn about science, technology, engineering, and so much more.
The way they engage children is by making learning fun through hands-on exhibits that kids ages 7-13 love—often with help from an adult. Even the younger and older kids appreciate the lessons they’re able to learn about acoustics, fluid dynamics, and other science-related topics through a variety of playful activities at this museum.
North Museum of Nature and Science
While the Science Factory focuses more on the STEM aspects of scientific exploration, Lancaster also has an excellent natural history museum just across town at the North Museum of Nature and Science. If your grandkids love space or go crazy for dinosaurs—or their real-life reptilian relatives like snakes and lizards—the North Museum will delight them.
Check out the wide variety of planetarium shows, which teach exciting lessons on astronomy as well as the Earth Sciences. And, don’t forget to visit the cool live animal room to mingle with toads, turtles, lizards, and even degus (aka bush-tailed rats)! The North Museum is also home to an amazing collection of 1,000+ taxidermied birds, more than 16,000 mounted butterflies, and lots of other fantastic artifacts to examine on display.
Hands-on House Children’s Museum
With a stated mission of “creating landmark learning experiences for children and their families through play,” Hands-on House is a traditional children’s museum designed for kids ages 2-10. Exhibits are fully interactive and encourage children to play make-believe in a variety of fun environments, like a grocery store setting and a post office.
There’s even a Face Painting Porch where young artists can hone their skills on live subjects and a farm exhibit with a real tractor. (After all, Hands-On House is just up the street from Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum, a great place to visit with the whole family to learn about Lancaster’s history of farming!)
Museums for Art Lovers
Lancaster has long been a folk art mecca of sorts. In fact, early German settlers—not unlike those you can learn about at the Ephrata Cloister—established one of America’s first folk art forms, called Fraktur.
In the centuries since those colonial days, Lancaster has also developed a well-deserved reputation as a fine arts hub. Nowhere is this more obvious than when you stroll down Gallery Row in Lancaster City. Also downtown are two art museums (now run as one) that promote the best of the best.
Lancaster Museum of Art & The Demuth Museum
Originally on the campus of Franklin & Marshall College (which is now home to the equally spectacular Phillips Museum of Art), the Lancaster Museum of Art (LMA) has made its mission to provide the local community with access to the “best available art.” This includes putting up several shows per year that highlight work from talented local artists and art students, as well as bringing select traveling art exhibits to town.
Now aligned with LMA after years as a separate entity, The Demuth Museum, which we covered in our previous post on things that make Lancaster unique, is a specialized art museum dedicated to famed American modernist Charles Demuth. Lancaster just so happens to be Demuth’s hometown, and you can find the museum at his family’s former house and cigar store on King Street.
With more Demuth works in its collection than any other institution, The Demuth Museum is invaluable to modern art scholars, as well as a wonderful place to spend an afternoon for those who simply love the beauty of American art. The museum also has a lovely garden that’s open to visitors during the warmer months.
Want to Discover Even More Galleries and Museums in Lancaster?
In addition to the museums we highlighted in today’s post, there are so many more collections and cultural attractions located in and around Lancaster County that you absolutely need to visit. Here at Explore Retirement Living, we think you just may fall in love with our unique culture and want to call Lancaster your home in retirement.