Which Community Should You Visit? 7 Differences Between Lancaster County & Holmes County

Molly asks a good question on the recent Lancaster farm stay post:

Eric, would you tell us the differences between Lancaster county & Holmes county? We have visited Holmes county, but would like to know the differences.

As the two largest and most-visited Amish communities, people often wonder which one of Holmes County and Lancaster County is best to visit, and how they are different. So here are some of my observations on some of the main differences – I came up with seven total – between the two.

Photo: Don Burke

It should be noted that the Holmes County community has a much more diverse Amish population (addressed below) so when I’m making comparisons here, unless noted otherwise, the default is comparing the Lancaster Amish with the main Old Order group in Holmes County.

1. Rural Holmes vs. More-developed Lancaster – First off, both communities are located in beautiful areas. We could say both are hilly, but in different ways. How would I describe it? Lancaster has more smoothly “rolling” hills while in Holmes County the terrain can get a bit more rugged with nooks crannies and holler-like terrain (though it of course varies across the hundreds of square miles of each settlement). Most roads in Lancaster County are paved, while many in Holmes County are not.

Photo: Frank

In Holmes County, you’ll notice the roads are less busy and the area feels more rural. While Lancaster County has some very rural areas (particularly in the southern part), it is more built-up and has a higher overall population, which means a lot more English people (and car traffic). You’re more apt to travel on a dirt road when visiting the Amish of Holmes County. The average visitor to Lancaster County would have to hunt to find dirt roads.

2. Visual “lifestyle” differences – Let’s look at the obvious visual differences in the way the Amish live. These are things you’ll notice within short time of arriving in one or the other place. You’ll probably first spot the buggies, which will be a gray in Lancaster County and black in Holmes County. Bicycles – and even e-bikes – are common in Holmes County, while Lancaster Amish mostly use scooters.

Another commonly-noticed thing is probably the style of kapp the women wear – the heart-shaped kapp, or prayer covering, in Lancaster vs. the “lampshade” style in Holmes County. Women’s hairstyles also differ, with Lancaster women tending to twist the hair on the sides of the head when they pin it up. In Lancaster County, men tend to have longer hair, and also worn in a different style than your average Holmes County Amishman. A discerning eye will catch some other differences as well in dress, hats, and so on.

There are differences in the Amish homes and farms as well. In Lancaster County you’ll see many stone barns and old farmhouses. Some are more than two centuries old. Overall it’s very spic-and-span with neat gardens and everything in order. In Holmes County you have the very neat places as well, but there are also many of the rustic and “authentic” looking Swartzentruber farmsteads giving the architecture and residential landscape more diversity. The classic white wood farmhouse is common in Holmes County.

Photo: Don Shenk

The names you’ll see on businesses in Lancaster County include Stoltzfus, Lapp, King, Fisher, and Zook. Those names are especially rare or unseen among Holmes County’s Amish, where Miller, Troyer, Hershberger, Schrock, and Hostetler are among the most common. A few names appear to a degree in both places (such as Yoder).

3. Diverse Holmes vs. mostly-uniform Lancaster – The Lancaster County community is considered essentially one affiliation (not counting a small New Order group which I believe is probably gone by now, or close to it). This means they are more-or-less uniform in their church practice, though the Amish in the northern end of the settlement tend to be more progressive than those in the southern end.

In contrast, Holmes County has in the neighborhood of 11 different affiliations, with 4 main groups – the “mainline” Old Order churches, the more conservative Andy Weaver or “Dan gmay”, the even more conservative Swartzentruber community, and finally the various New Order churches. This creates a much more diverse community and much contrast within the Amish themselves. In some areas of northern Holmes County and southern Wayne County might have a very low-tech Swartzentruber farming family living next to a materially progressive Amish household where the father is a contractor who travels by vehicle daily to build homes in upper-middle-class English suburbs. You might find that in many ways, the way the most progressive Holmes County Amish live is closer to the way you live, than it is to the Swartzentruber families.

4. Holmes County is more “Amish” than Lancaster County – related to the above point, we can say Holmes County is “more Amish” than Lancaster County. If you look at just Holmes County itself, where the bulk of the settlement’s Amish live, they make up close to half the population.  In Lancaster County, the Amish are less than 10% of the county’s total population. Many more non-Amish live in Lancaster County than do in Holmes County.

The community sprawls into several neighboring counties in the case of Holmes County, and into two or three in the case of Lancaster. When I am in Holmes County, I feel like I am in an “Amish ecosystem”. The Amish dominate the area and you don’t have, say, the large suburban developments, industrial areas, or sizeable towns and cities as you do in Lancaster County, or at least not to the same degree. That said, there are certainly pockets of the county which are much more “Amish” and southern Lancaster County is less-developed.

5. Where are the Amish friendlier? – Several years back I did a post on the 5 friendliest Amish communities. I included Holmes County in that list of five. One reason (but not the only one) is for the presence of the New Order Amish, who tend to be very welcoming of outsiders. What about Lancaster County? Here’s what I wrote about that community, which I think holds up today:

Well, I didn’t put Lancaster County up there, but not because it’s not full of nice people–some of my best Amish friends (maybe I should just say “best friends” and leave out the “Amish” bit) live there.

But, I believe on account of all the tourists and being under the spotlight, the average Amish person you meet in the community is not quite as outgoing to outsiders as compared to other places. Some certainly are, especially if you meet them in a tourist context (I’m thinking buggy ride guides or waitresses).

However, Lancaster Amish are spoken about for their hospitality by other Amish. One of my Holmes County friends says they do hospitality to a level not seen in his own community–really rolling out the red carpet for visitors. I would agree, at least on the Lancaster part.

Bottom line is I think you’ll find people friendly towards outsiders, but for me it’s a bit easier to “click” with the average Amish person in Holmes County than in Lancaster.

Image: Don Burke

At the same time I would agree with my Holmes County Amish friend’s observation above – I’d say that the hospitality (something different than “friendliness”) I’ve experienced in Lancaster County is off the charts. For example – not only being welcome to stay with Amish friends there for extended periods, but also having my own friends and family welcomed to stay by those same families.

6. Lancaster County has a richer history – Lancaster County is the oldest Amish community (founded way back around vs. 1809 for Holmes County). You can notice a different type of architecture and more historic sites in the area. There are many historic covered bridges in Lancaster, over two dozen in fact (Holmes County has just one – the Stutzman’s Crossing bridge…a nice bridge, but built in 2009).

Though Holmes County’s Amish community is much more diverse, you also have a more prominent Plain Anabaptist presence beyond the Amish in Lancaster County when you include the large Old Order Mennonite population. You can see one of their black buggies parked outside a cornerball game in the photo above.

7. Which is most visitor-friendly? – If I were to look at one or the other from a visitor or tourist perspective, I’d say either place is great to visit. If I could only choose one – leaving out other factors like people I know and would visit in each place, etc. and judging just by the place itself – I’d go to Holmes County over Lancaster County.

One main reason is that it is just a bit more laid-back in terms of the area, with less traffic and a more relaxed “vibe”. Both places have ample restaurants, lodging, activities, and businesses for tourists. Even when you’re in the heart of Holmes County in Berlin, it still just feels like a small town. Holmes County definitely has tourist attractions, but Lancaster County has a bigger tourist infrastructure.

I like little towns like Mt. Hope in Holmes County, where the auction, heavily attended by Amish, is right there in the middle of town. Lancaster County probably has more beautiful Amish farms and sights in general. Towns like Strasburg and Churchtown in Lancaster County are more historic and impressive than just about any in Holmes County. But I think I just enjoy driving around Holmes County more than Lancaster County. That’s not to say Lancaster County doesn’t have a lot of positives as well. Holmes County just edges it out in my case, and I think is a bit more visitor-friendly than Lancaster County.

So those are seven differences more-or-less off the top of my head. I could probably go on with more if I thought about it longer, and you might have others that I left out. If you’re thinking of visiting one or the other, you won’t go wrong with either. And if you’ve only been to one, I recommend visiting the other as well.

More “visit” posts from each community:

Lancaster County

A First Visit To Amish Pennsylvania (23 Photos)
Lancaster County: From Snow to Thaw (44 Photos)
A Beautiful Morning in Lancaster County (16 Photos)
Mud Season in Lancaster County (15 Photos)
8 Snapshots From My Lancaster County Visit
10 Favorite Photos From My Last Visit To Lancaster County
Highlights from Lancaster County

Holmes County

A First Visit To Amish Ohio (24 Photos)
A Summer Visit To The Holmes County Amish Community (21 Photos)
A Winter Visit to the Amish of Holmes County, Ohio (39 Photos)
20 Snapshots From My Holmes County Visit
Amish Farms of Holmes County (18 Photos)
Holmes County In December (14 Photos)
Views From Around The Holmes County Amish Community (28 Photos)

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    1. Ron Wilson


      One of the aspects of Lancaster is not only is it as older area but it has also been long exposed to the visitors/ tourists from the large population centers like New Yor,k, Philadelphia and Baltimore. I think that is the reason that more roads are paved including driveways right up to Amish homes. I remember seeing Tour buses parked in front of homes and the Amish having tents and tables in front of their homes to sell goods to the tourists. It seems that the Amish of Lancaster have become more commercial and have accepted/ tolerated doing business with tourists.

      1. Lancaster

        A good point, it is closest to the most heavily-populated region of the country (Philadelphia and Baltimore both within an hour to 90 min drive, DC and NYC just 2-3 hours away), and has the longest history of tourist interest. Holmes County is relatively isolated by comparison.

    2. Holmes it is

      Having been to each county several times, I also would give the edge to Holmes. It’s the only one where I’ve had an Amish person start a conversation with me. And once some Amish girls on bicycles waved at me coming in the opposite direction.

      1. Yes I think the Amish living around places like Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse would wear out their arms quickly if they waved to every passing visitor. I seem to remember someone Amish making a comment like that in an Amish publication though I can’t recall exactly which.

    3. Great and interesting article, as always, Eric. My exposure to the two locations are must more limited than yours (2 times to Lancaster Co., 3 to Holmes Co.), but my evaluation would be much the same. Lancaster probably slightly edges out Holmes from a scenic / photography perspective for me. Both have elements where tourism seems to have overly re-shaped “real” Amish life. (I’m not a fan of Berlin — told my wife it was little more than an Amish-flavored theme park lol.) But overall not the Amish as individuals, but the overall tone of Amish-ism, it seems more authentic in what I’ve seen in Holmes Co. over Lancaster. And Mt. Hope is one of my favorite spots in Holmes Co.

      Besides, Holmes Co. boasts Hershberger’s and Guggisberg Cheese — and Lancaster just can’t touch that (although Bird-in-Hand Farmer’s Market does come close!)!!

      1. Interesting to get your photographer’s perspective Don. I actually kind of like the feel of Berlin, walking down the main street and especially a place like Boyd & Wurthmann restaurant where you’ll often see Amish patrons and waitresses, though I get what you mean about the more touristy aspect. Mt. Hope is much more like a “real” Amish town (similar for me to Topeka, Indiana), even though most Amish of course don’t live in towns. They have added at least one business that seems to be tourist-oriented – a hotel – but hopefully that doesn’t herald an influx of tourist mall type construction like you see some of around Berlin.

        1. Erik, after making my last post I got to pondering what I had said comparing the two locations, photographically. I would say the main (but not only) difference is really at root a terrain difference. As you mentioned the topography is considerably different between the two, with Holmes a bit more like the more prnounced terrain of the Ozarks where I live, and Lancaster being much more gently rolling. Photographically both have their appeal, but one big thing is that the more level gently rolling topography allows a person (or a lens) to see hundreds if not thousands of acres at once — and in Amish country, that translates into numerous farms and home-places cascading across the landscape in a single viewing (or picture). And that is a very pleasant view.

          I don’t know how wide-spread this is, or if you’ve run into this, but it plays into the experience as well. Among at least some of the non-PA Amish there seems to be the idea that Lancaster Co. is a bit more up-town / “high-brow” (my word, not theirs — and I’m not sure it’s exactly the best word) / well-keep (with an slight intended negative tone to it) than other Amish places. And I found that to be true. Seems to be a bit more spit-and-polish going on in what I saw of Lancaster. Farm places seem to be cleaner/fresher, and possibly gets a new coat of paint quicker than many other places (including Holmes). Fewer gravel roads (as you pointed out) with less dust and mud comes partly into play on this; but even with less dirt they seem to wash their buggies more often. I’ve seen Amish clothes in all kinds of colors in various places, but something about Lancaster that it seems the colors were more “vivid” (if that is the right word). And now that I think of it, there is a sense that the same could be said of the feel the Amish people (as a whole) too — maybe more “bright and cheerful” at the trade-off of a little of the stoic and conservative? I’m not sure that I’m conveying well what I’m feeling — and fear that the more I work to describe it the muddier I make the water. lol

          1. That was a great explanation of how topography affects views. I hadn’t thought of it the way you describe. I’m going to look at hill scenery photos differently now, having read that.

            As to your second point I don’t know that I have a strong opinion on all of it but you might be onto something. The Lancaster County folks are among the wealthiest Amish (though a lot of that wealth for some is tied up in land) and there is an emphasis on spit-and-polish appearances that maybe runs a bit stronger than what is typical in Holmes (and certainly so if you include the plainer affiliations like the Swartzentrubers). Ira Wagler has some nice writing on the Amish of Lancaster – as a former Amish person who spent time in several other communities before coming to live in Lancaster County, he has an eye for it (he often refers to the Lancaster people as “blue-bloods”). A snippet from one of his posts:

            “Off onto a small gravel side road, then, to pick up Kenny. The Daviess Amish keep their places neat. Not freakishly clean, like the blue bloods of Lancaster do. But nice and kept up.” http://www.irawagler.com/?p=14513

        2. amish museums

          Your mention of Indiana reminded me of a very good Amish-Mennonite museum I visited in Shipshewana a few years back–Menno-Hof. It has a good history of the anabaptist movement, progressing chronologically to today’s Amish and Mennonite culture. I recommend it.

          I believe Lancaster County also has a museum, but I’ve never gone in. From the outside it seemed rather more commercial.

          So Erik, perhaps you could do a piece comparing Amish museums, covering these two and perhaps others that you know about.

    4. An

      Lancaster county is a better option if you’re going as a first time tourist and looking for an all-in-one Amish experience minus the more orthodox groups in Holmes. My view is that Lancaster and surroundings areas have more culture… You see it in the architecture, such as the homes and barns made of brick, the classical scooters, the kids wearing those cut off hats at an early age, a more uniformed dress and way of life that seems to be followed by almost all Amish/Mennonites in the area. I also think Lancaster has the best Amish markets and farmers markets. Food is also better in Lancaster and there are many original PA Dutch recipes in Lancaster. I also like the contrast. In Lancaster, the Amish aren’t the majority, but that is fine. Being the minority makes their culture stand out more, especially compared to the suburbs and city areas. In Holmes, everything feels rural and laid back, but you miss a lot of the contrast.

      1. I can’t comment on the restaurant food comparison – I’ve rarely eaten it in Lancaster County but more often in Holmes – but you bring out some good points. By cut off hats do you mean the ones with the brims fully cut off, which are easier to wear when milking?

    5. Robert Strikwerda

      What about Indiana?

      Eric, you can’t stop now! Start thinking about the comparison of these settlements with Indiana Amish settlements. I very much enjoyed this, never having been to Holmes County.

      1. Nice idea Robert! I’ll put that one on my list. I am already spinning some comparisons with northern Indiana. Or maybe, comparing two completely different settlements.

        Doing this post actually inspired another topic – “ways in which the most progressive Amish people are more like English, than like the plainest Amish (Swartzentruber)”. Something like that, but with a better title of course. Would look at things like day to day conveniences such as bathrooms in homes, use of technology like smartphones, and frequency of riding in cars – all areas which progressive Amish are arguably more similar to English people than Swartzentruber Amish. So that one should be coming soon.

    6. Ron Wilson


      Another difference that I am aware of the use of mules in Lancaster. The farm equipment is almost always drawn by mules. I’ve seen as many as 6 at a time.
      There are no mules in Holmes County. The use predominantly Belgian draft hoses. I asked an Amishman in Holmes why there were no mules. He said they probably can’t take the hills.

      1. No mules in Holmes County

        One explanation I’d heard is that some object to the cross-breeding involved in creating a mule, as unnatural. I’m not sure how valid that is or how widely held that belief, if that’s the case. The explanation you heard may very well be the reason or at least part of it. I guess I don’t know enough about mules to say much more:)

    7. J.O.B.

      It seems many Amish in Lancaster know they are the center of attention. That so many travel just to see them.
      This could explain why so many of them have more colorful dresses, lawns manicured, homes/barns well maintained. They know they draw photographers. They don’t want to disappoint. It helps keep the tourism dollars coming in. It may also be why there are soooo many places to eat in Lancaster. Tourists need to eat. And that is big money for the Amish AND non-Amish who capitalize off of the tourists.
      A younger Amish woman did seem to get annoyed when someone thought she lived on a farm. She does not. I guess she gets that alot since so many think all Amish farm.
      On a down-side. The pure innocent feel that Lancaster once had has been fading away. So much traffic. So many businesses moving in to take advantage of the tourists. Lots of people have been moving in to live in ‘Amish Country.’ But in doing so, the environment has changed so much.
      It’s a double edge sword. I understand why people want to come here. But in doing so, they are changing the fabric of the community. Big box stores are there. Right in Amish country.
      It’s just not the same anymore. Even some of the younger Amish often laugh and think it’s silly that people look at them in such a way.
      I guess I take a ‘glass is half empty’ view. I miss the ‘old days.’

    8. Paula

      Lancaster vs Holmes

      I agree that Lancaster feels rushed, crowded & at times inauthentic. I once walked into a shop through a back door accidently & was astonished to see a large sewing room of Asians making quilts. I realized that the tags said “Made in Lancaster County” & not “Made by the Amish in Lancaster County”. I felt duped. And disgusted. I never went back again.

      In Holmes County, the descriptions were on point, & for that I was glad. They put up no pretenses & we, the English, were not ignored. I loved the lovely quaintness & it just felt more organic. I met an Amish family & later they came up to my furniture store to promote their line & we had a quilting bee, bake shop, quilt shop all set up. It was an extraordinary time. Mattie even said I have “an Amish Heart”…my greatest compliment ever. She asked me to join the Amish church, & through my tears I said “oh Mattie….I’m too much of this world…I need my hair dryer & I hate to cook”.

      I can’t wait to see how you feel about Granger & surrounding towns in Indiana. I’ll be back for that one & chime in.

      1. J.O.B.


        100% true.
        There are signs that say “made in lancaster” or “locally made. They are often non-Amish businesses trying to manipulate and take advantage of tourists.
        It’s not limited to quilts. But woodworking and food are often sold as locally/Lancaster made. But no Amish or mennonites are involved.
        What I have noticed is, Many times, if you want something that is made by Amish, usually you order in advance and wait a month or longer for it to be made(quilts,woodworking).
        It’s tough. Some Amish do make things for stores to sell. But it can be tough to know which is really made by Amish and which is not.

        Also: A very popular eating place(buffet) in Lancaster has a large gift shop. There was a sign pointing to Amish made products…and directly next to it was a sign saying locally made. This was done to confuse customers/tourists by having the Amish made directly next to the locally made(non-amish). The business is run by a mennonite family so I was surprised they act this way. They know exactly what they are doing. So please pay attention.

    9. Bert

      what about wisconsin

      just returned from wood county wisconsin where they have at least 2 communities

    10. T.Ruth

      Amish in Gilman WI.

      We live in Central WI. and have soo many Amish coming into our area. We have Swartzentruber & Old order. I think they are coming to the area because it’s out of busy areas and it’s much cheaper($800+ an acre). We have about 100 within 5 miles from us. We have had them work/built for us on our farm(their slower then Groffdale Menonite) & a go into their home 2+ a wk(Swartzentruber)…

    11. Terry Ball

      WI Amish

      Hi T.Ruth,
      My hometown is in Trempealeau Co, WI, and the Amish came to the area around 1961ish. There isn’t a whole lot of banter about on this site about the WI Amish, which I find sad. I’ve been working on Erik for the longest time to come and visit, haven’t I Erik? But, I’m still waiting for a yes answer from him!

      When I see pic’s of the pristine way of life that the PA Amish have, in my opinion, they don’t look Amish! This is due to only knowing, for the most part, the conservative Amish that lived around my hometown. As I have visited other settlements, farms are neater, lifestyles were better, more modern homes with running hot and cold water, and a bathroom inside! 🙂

      When the Amish first came to Blair/Whitehall area many of the farms that were top notch ended up in sad shape after being purchased by the Amish. That didn’t sit well with the local Englisch, and the tongues were wagging in disgust of what they’d done! Once the communities got to know the Amish personally, things settled down.

      Many of the farms in the olden days did not have electricity or running water. As times changed the houses and barns were wired and plumbed, and then the Amish came and tore it all out! Why in the world would they do that? What is wrong with a bathroom inside in favor of an outhouse? I’m here to tell you, that in those early years communities got an education on how the Amish live!

      So, Erik, the bed and breakfast offer still stands!

      Brightest blessings,