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Pick Berks County over Lancaster for a more peaceful tour of Pennsylvania Dutch countryside

LEFT: The Sunday Barn in Berks County, Pa. RIGHT: The Lancaster Central Market. (Left: Patrick J. Donmoyer/Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center/Kutztown University; right: Daniel Slim/AFP/Getty Images)

Lancaster’s growth crowds its country roads

“Witness,” Peter Weir’s paean to rural Pennsylvania, put Amish country on the map. But in the process, it almost killed it. Since the 1985 film, Lancaster County’s population has grown by about 40 percent to approximately half a million. In the ensuing decades, it has struggled to protect its Amish and Mennonite residents and its achingly beautiful landscape. Surrounded today by its own mini-Beltway, the town that welcomed German dissenters in 1729, served briefly as the U.S. capital and put shoofly pie on the map is a bustling small city. Yes, stroll the well-kept town center. Shop at the Central Market, a tradition since 1730; it’s the place where the cliche “farm-fresh” could have originated. Visit the Fulton Theatre, an 1852 gem that roared back from the early pandemic with a new live season. But for a taste of Pennsylvania Dutch tranquility, head north this spring.

Location: Lancaster County is about 65 miles west of Philadelphia.

In Berks County, barn art and a heritage center

Rural Berks County, about 50 miles northeast of Lancaster, also celebrates its Old World traditions, visible in the barn art found on local farms. You’ll see disks of crayon-bright colors, stars and stylized birds (called distelfinks, for the European finch) brightening farm buildings, as they have since the first German-speaking settlers arrived here around 1700. (The “Dutch” in Pennsylvania Dutch refers to “Deitsch,” a widely used dialect.)

Think of barn art as a kind of 18th-century graffiti. (Later in the 19th century, farmers added rectangular murals of well-fed cattle and blue skies.) Patrick Donmoyer, director of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, estimates that there are more than 500 restored and new artworks on county farms. Although all are on private property, dozens are visible from secluded local roads.

You can learn about barn art at the heritage center, which is a good starting point for exploring Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Scheduled to open a new building in April, it showcases traditional gardens and a schoolhouse, as well as an outdoor primer about barn art symbols. New indoor exhibits will include historic crafts and fraktur, a type of folk art that features an illustrated German calligraphy style.

After the heritage center, download step-by-step driving instructions from to set off on a barn art road tour. It’s difficult to imagine a more pastoral landscape: rolling hills that shade from blue green to bright red, covered bridges and some of the most fertile farmland in the world. If farmers painted the stars usually called “hex signs” to bring luck and protection here, as superstition suggested, it seems to have worked. A horse-drawn buggy climbing the hill ahead is just another excuse to slow down, keep your distance and enjoy the ride to a few landmarks.

For more about Pennsylvania German history, stop by the smart little museum at the Conrad Weiser Homestead in Womelsdorf, which recounts the life of an intrepid German who grew up with local Mohawks, became fluent in half a dozen Indian languages and English, and ended up negotiating peace between local tribes and Europeans. It reopens for the season March 13.

In other attractions: Crystal Cave is a massive limestone formation about 150 feet under Virginville. It’s a kid-friendly kitschy wonder — a nearly 150-year-old roadside treat that’s still in business (open again March 1). Reading’s Public Museum, open daily year-round, bests Lancaster with a well-curated fine arts collection and science exhibits. (“Dinosaur Explorer” opens Feb. 19.) Blue Rocks is a mile-long river of boulders shoved aside by a passing glacier approximately 20,000 years ago, and at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, raptors and eagles ride thermals over the broad valleys below.

Toast the end of your tour at Kutztown’s Saucony Creek brewery. Or sample traditional fare at Lenhartsville’s Deitsch Eck, chef Steve Stetzler’s weighty tribute to Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. The menu stars favorites such as scrapple (a savory fried mystery meat), sauerkraut, pig stomach and red beet eggs. They’re all served in a dining room decorated with hex signs painted by a previous owner. Check hours online.

Location: Berks County is about 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

O’Toole is a writer based in Pittsburgh. Her website is Find her on Twitter: @christineotoole.

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Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.