Mention Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and for many, it conjures up images of the Amish people and their legendary Old World culture.
Yet beyond that community's time-honored heritage, Lancaster County offers more. Visitors will find a vibrant and increasingly diverse population and a downtown bustling with urban appeal.
"There are a lot of progressive things happening in the city," says Elizabeth Todd Lambert, a former Baltimore resident who relocated in 2006 and now heads LancasterARTS, a local arts advocacy organization. "There's sophistication, fine dining, attractive architecture. …It's a walkable city, and there's charm around every corner."
One key factor in Lancaster's downtown renaissance is its pulsing arts community.
Besides individual artists, about 125 arts-related organizations exist citywide, and more than 1,000 jobs are directly linked to arts and cultural groups.
The array of arts organizations runs the gamut from trendy studios, fine art galleries and museums to a symphony and a major regional theater. Educational institutions include the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, a private four-year college downtown, which has nearly 300 full-time students.
"We have spent decades cultivating the arts in Lancaster, and it's helped with the growth of our urban center," says Mary Stadden, a college spokeswoman. "It's been organic, it's been authentic. The commitment has come from artists, many entrepreneurs, nonprofits and others."
Lancaster's artsy vibe is now attracting visitors from other parts of Pennsylvania, and well as the rest of the East Coast. They're spending money (a 2009 local report noted economic benefits between $36 million and $73 million dollars) and enjoying a range of artistic events.
Among the most popular is First Fridays, when dozens of galleries, museums and other venues open their doors.
"It's become a big deal," says Lambert of LancasterARTS, whose group spearheads the monthly event. "We often have 60-70 [groups] participating. So many people are out and about."
Other arts functions draw big crowds here, too. Each spring, for example, the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design holds its annual gallery event, a one-day attraction featuring displays of senior thesis projects.
Envision some 60,000 square feet of space filled with top-quality art, live music and refreshments. "About 1,000 people came out last year," said Stadden. This year's Senior Show & Celebration is slated for April 30.
Meanwhile, artisans from around the country and world are in town this weekend for the American Quilter's Society show and contest at the Lancaster County Convention Center.
The gathering will feature quilting exhibits, workshops, lectures and special events. About 230 vendors will show off the latest quilting-related equipment, materials and designs.
Displays will include a showcase of quilts from Botswana and a collection highlighting the use of rust-dyed fabrics in contemporary quilts.
Considered one of America's top quilting shows, the event has found a natural home in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It's expected to draw upwards of 20,000 attendees.
"There's a high level of interest," says Wendy Nagle, executive director of the Museums at Market Square, which include the Heritage Center Museum and the Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum.
In conjunction with the event, the Quilt & Textile Museum will host activities and also spotlight its new exhibit, "The Grid: Amish Quilts, Esprit Clothing & Postmodern Design."
"We came into these 82 Amish quilts, hand-stitched, from the mid-1800s to 1940, around 2002," says Nagle, who says the items came from the collection of the visionary behind Esprit clothing. "The quilts hung in their offices and influenced their design aesthetic over the years."
The exhibit, which will run through December, melds the past with modern sensibilities, she said. Much like Lancaster.
If you go
The American Quilter's Society show and contest is 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 5p.m. Saturday at the Lancaster County Convention Center. Admission is $11 per day; a multi-day pass will also be available at the show. Go to paduthcountry.com/quilters.
Marriott Lancaster at Penn Square, 25 S. Queen St., Lancaster, 717-239-1600, marriottlancaster.com. A new, landmark hotel featuring remarkable architecture and historic elements, integrated with the convention center.
Lancaster Galleries, 34 N. Water St., Lancaster, 717-397-5552, lancastergalleries.com. Showcases the work of local and regional artists, with painting, sculpture and photography.
Fulton Theatre, 12 N. Prince St., Lancaster, 717-397-7425, thefulton.org. A professional regional theater and a National Historic Landmark offering Broadway caliber musicals, dramas and comedies. The theater offers free, guided backstage tours.
Lancaster Museum of Art, 135 N. Lime St., Lancaster, 717-394-3497, lmapa.org. Since 1965, the Lancaster Museum of Art has been a leading source for culture and education for this region. Free admission.
Prince Street Cafe, 15 N. Prince St., 717-397-1505, princestreetcafe.com. A gourmet coffee shop with baked goods, fresh local fare and fair-trade coffee.
Lancaster Central Market, 23 N. Market St., 717-735-6890, centralmarketlancaster.com. The country's oldest continuously operating farmers' market (since the 1730s) offers Amish and other regional food specialties.
To plan a visit to Lancaster, go to discoverlancasterpa.com. For information on First Fridays arts events, go to http://www.lancasterarts.com/firstfridays.