Art is at the heart of downtown Lancaster

This weekend, I was not going to go Dutch.

Yes, we were in the "Dutch Country." Lancaster County, Pa., to be exact.

But I was not going to stuff my face at Kitchen Kettle Village, gawk at Amish buggies or get sidetracked by the QVC or Pottery Barn outlets.

No. The goal of this two-day getaway was to discover the other Lancaster — the one that sits downtown within a compact 7 square miles and offers an artsy and hip vibe. Theater. Architecture. Galleries. Farm-to-table eateries.

But could it hurt to make a quick stop for some pumpkin butter?

My husband, Todd, continued navigating toward our destination, smartly ignoring any whining from the passenger's seat.

From Baltimore, Lancaster is a pleasant and short drive, less than two hours. Before we knew it, we were rolling into the picturesque downtown lined with shops, cafes and galleries.

Lancaster is successfully cultivating a reputation as a fine-arts destination in the middle of an area that is better known for its farms than its flair.

With the historic Fulton Theatre, the well-regarded Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, a number of galleries, craftspeople and emerging artists, and a commitment to farm-to-table dining, the city is more than just an Amish staging area. (The town square even had its own Occupy Lancaster encampment.)

We stayed only one night, barely enough time to scratch the surface of what Lancaster has to offer. Having arrived on a Saturday, we missed out on the city's First Friday event, which lists more than 50 venues. The popular monthly arts showcase draws thousands of visitors to the downtown and is sponsored by LancasterARTS, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the city's arts community.

Nonetheless, there was no shortage of things to do. And I never did get that pumpkin butter. After an afternoon stop at a downtown bakery, I forgot all about it.

Below are 10 highlights from our weekend visit to Lancaster.

Lancaster Museum of Art 135 N. Lime St., 717-394-3497, lmapa.org. The museum, inside a historic mansion next to a park, is an intimate experience. The galleries are on two floors in an exhibition space that feels like a peek inside a wealthy friend's tasteful art collection. The current exhibition is "Lancaster Lens," a display of local photography.

Central Market 23 N. Market St., 717-735-6890, centralmarketlancaster.com. This collection of goods inside a 120-year-old red brick building bills itself as the nation's oldest continuously operated farmers' market. I don't know about that, but I do know it has a treasure-trove of fresh vegetables, meats, seafood, herbs, baked goods, flowers and much more. Sample the goat's milk fudge from Linden Dale Farms or pick up a prosciutto and mozzarella panini from Delgiorno's Italian Specialties. The market is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

CityFolk 146 N. Prince St., 717-393-8807, cityfolkonprince.com. Located on Gallery Row, this shop has such an eclectic mix of arts-inspired merchandise, including furniture, textiles, jewelry, wall hangings and antiques. It's a joy to browse and to seek out a unique piece of art.

Annex 24 24 W. Walnut St., 717-341-0028, annex24gallery.com. This tiny space is run by a cooperative of artists who curate and share in the gallery's proceeds. On our visit, we met artist Kenny Reisig , who was working on a commissioned painting in the middle of the sales floor. The art here is fun, quirky and affordable.

Simplicity Art Gallery 150 N. Prince St., 717-390-9011, simplicitygallery.com. This peaceful gallery is memorable not only for its global-inspired artwork but also for our guide: Max, a vivacious corgi mix who loves visitors.

Red Raven Art Co. 138 N. Prince St., 717-299-4400, redravenartcompany.com. This gallery features quality fine arts, including pieces by some of Lancaster's best-known artists. That being said, the owners also want to give space to artists who are less prominent. Each month, the gallery hosts an emerging artist show, offering space and a place to grow.

La Dolce Vita Courthouse Bakery 9 N. Duke St., 717-239-5101, ladolcevitalancaster.com. I really wanted to keep this place a secret, but that would be selfish. If baking is an art form — and we know it is — the owners here are rare artists. Some of the best Italian pastries and cookies can be had here, along with a selection of fresh salads, Italian breads, sandwiches and coffees.

Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum 37 N. Market St., 717-299-6440, quiltandtextilemuseum.com. The display includes a collection of Amish quilts once owned by one of the founders of the Esprit clothing line. A recent exhibit showed similarities between fashions and quilts. The entire quilts collection is valued at about $1 million. As of Jan. 1, financial difficulties have forced the quilt museum to close, but tours are available by reservation for groups. The museum will also be open to the public March 14-18 for the American Quilters Society Convention.

John J. Jeffries 300 Harrisburg Ave., 717-431-3307, johnjjeffries.com. This farm-to-table restaurant offers a menu based on local ingredients, much of it organic and hormone-free. The menu includes small and large plates, and changes often based on season and availability. On our visit, we enjoyed curry butternut bisque, grass-fed beef and pork chili, and pumpkin-spice creme brulee. Reservations are a good idea, especially on weekends.

Fulton Theatre 12 N. Prince St., 717-397-7425, thefulton.org. The theater, a National Historic Landmark, produces its own shows, including most recently "Hairspray." Coming productions include "God of Carnage," "Sunset Boulevard" and "Miss Saigon." The venue also offers a series of plays and shows for families. Check the website for performance schedule and ticket prices.

michelle.deal@baltsun.com

If you goGetting there

Lancaster is about 75 miles from Baltimore. Take Interstate 83 north into Pennsylvania. Take Exit 18 onto Route 124 East. Turn left onto Haines Road and follow to merge onto U.S. 30. Take the Harrisburg Pike exit. The Harrisburg Pike becomes West James Street and leads directly into downtown.

Lodging

Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square, 25 South Queen St., 800-940-4627, marriott.com. Modern hotel in a historic building. Rates start at $149 for weekends in January. Additional fee for garage parking.

Lancaster Arts Hotel, 300 Harrisburg Ave., 717-299-3000, lancasterartshotel.com. The hotel has lots of art on display and is also home to the restaurant John J. Jeffries. Rates start at around $165 per night on weekends.

Cork Factory Hotel, 480 New Holland Ave., 717-735-2075, corkfactoryhotel.com. This boutique hotel is located in a once-abandoned building that was the site of a 19th-century cork factory. Lots of character, and there's a spa next door. Rates start at around $137 per night.

Dining

Lancaster Brewing Company, 302 N. Plum St., 717-391-6258, lancasterbrewing.com. Come for the plethora of beer, stay for the food. Try the Adirondack Chicken Salad with champagne vinaigrette. The beer is brewed on site.

Spyro Gyros, 241 N. Queen St., 717-797-3939, spyrogyros.com. When I asked a local student where to eat, she directed me to this small restaurant offering tasty and authentic Greek food with several vegetarian options. (Unfortunately, she had never heard of the band Spyro Gyra from the 1970s.)

Square One Coffee, 145 N. Duke St., 717-392-3354, squareonecoffee.com. Delicious fair-trade coffee roasted on site.

Information

James Street Improvement District, downtownlancaster.com

Lancaster CITY Arts, lancasterarts.com

Lancaster County, padutchcountry.com

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