April 4, 2014
Head south from Cleveland to Holmes County and watch as the rural landscape transforms in a process that feels more like time-travel than driving. Flat farmland gives way to rolling hills covered in a patchwork of fields and pastures and white wooden fences. Neat white farmhouses butt up against them and horse-drawn buggies and bicycles dot the quiet lanes.
Holmes County (nearly half of the county’s residents are Amish) and its neighbours are home to the world’s largest Amish population, and the area is the second-most popular tourist destination in Ohio. It may seem counterintuitive, even downright strange, that a religious community that seems to hold itself completely separate from modern life can become such a popular tourist attraction, but the Amish lifestyle is exactly what curious visitors come here hoping to experience.
So besides taking in the bucolic landscape and marvelling at what life might entail without cars and cell phones (and washing machines, and tumble dryers, and fridges, and overhead lights), what exactly is there to do in Amish Country?
In fact, Amish Country offers visitors everything from tours and (almost)-immersion experiences, to shopping (high-quality, handmade crafts are a huge part of the Amish economy), and eating and drinking. There’s even a winery or two in the area.
Several companies offer group tours of the area, and you can book yourself onto an Amish Country Tour and Bus Trip that stops at a local restaurant, some shopping outlets, and an Amish home. Many tours start at central locations within the area but a few also depart from Cleveland. Amish Heartland Tours offer a more intimate experience, taking smaller groups by van to lesser-known and visited locations. Daily and weekly tours range from $25 to $90 and include itineraries like Bakeries, Buggies, Brunch & Back Roads or the All About Amish Dinner Tour.
If you’re game, try a bespoke back roads experience and take a do-it-yourself approach. You’ll need at least a day to explore the area; most visitors find that two and one overnight is long enough. Firstly, pick up an area map (local businesses often operate without websites and mobile phone reception is unreliable) and book your hire car. Driving in Amish Country takes special attention; roads can be narrower and not as well marked. Buggies travel at just four to five miles per hour while cars go ten times that speed. Slow down at the top of hills to check for buggies and bicycles and stay away from your horn, honking will spook the horses.
Start your itinerary with a little background research at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin, Ohio. Behalt, a 265-foot long cyclorama (round mural), traces the history of the Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist origins in 16th century Switzerland to the present. You’ll learn that Mennonites share religious origins and beliefs with the Amish and also live in the area. You’ll also learn why the language most Amish speak is called Pennsylvania Dutch. Walnut Creek’s German Culture Museum will also give you a good dose of area history.
Once you get a feel for the Amish culture, visit an Amish home to see how they live. At Yoders Amish Home in Millersburg, a local guide (a family friend) will take you through each room of the family’s farmhouse and explain the rituals and customs that make up Amish life. Outside, explore the Yoder’s mid-19th century barn and take a buggy tour of the farmstead. For a look at the business of Amish life, swing by the Kidron Auction; the livestock auction is held on Thursdays.
If you’re looking for more of an immersion experience, book a night at Willis and Kathy Miller’s family home, The Farmstead Lodging. You’ll sleep in a private-entrance “Amish” (gas lights replace electricity) suite and spend your day helping with chores on the Miller’s dairy farm.
For most visitors, especially day-trippers, a visit to Amish Country is all about the food. There are plenty of sit-down restaurants serving hearty, home-style foods heavy on meet, potatoes and bread, such as Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen in Millersburg (Mrs. Yoder may or may not be related to the Yoders from above, it’s a common Amish surname). Rebecca’s Bistro in Walnut Creek puts a more creative twist on the Amish basics. You can also just snack your way through your visit. Specialty stores sell everything from locally made cheeses and cured meats to freshly-baked bread and pastries. Don’t go home without trying trail bologna (Amish smoked sausage) or a fry pie (a handheld warm fruit pasty). Some of the best places to pick these up include: Millers Bakery in Charm, Heini’s Cheese Chalet in Millersburg, Hershbergers Farm and Bakery in Millersburg and the Kidron Town and Country Store in Kidron.
In between bites shift your focus to shopping. Many Amish families supplement their farming income with cottage industry crafts like quilting, candle making and basket weaving. Try these spots for crafts: Swartzentruber Quilts in Millersburg, Baskets and Bloomsin Millersburg, and Farmerstown Furniture in Baltic. Amish Country is also known as Antique Country. Flea Markets and Antique Malls are everywhere; Starlight Antiques in Millersburg is a great starting point.
Most people come to Amish Country for its simple, down-home feel, but there are also some more luxurious options for both dining and lodging in the area. The Inn at Honey Run in Millersburg offers high-end accommodation and an award-winning dining room. In Wooster, the South Market Bistro serves inventive, locally sourced dishes. And just across the street, City Square Steakhouse serves some of the best steaks in the state.
No matter what you plan to do in Amish Country, just make sure it isn’t on a Sunday when Amish businesses close to observe the day of rest.
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Written by Sarah Routh