In March 2021, after retiring in Cuenca, Ecuador, for over 10 years, we stored our furnishings and began traveling full time in search of the ”next place.” Our journey thus far has taken us to popular expat destinations in Mexico, Latin America, and Europe.
But we’re also open to the possibility of locations back in the States. When we read that Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had been ranked among the top five places to retire in the United States last fall by U.S. News & World Report, we decided to spend a month there and check it out. Here’s what we found.
(Oh, and by the way, this year, Lancaster rose to number one on the list.)
Lancaster’s location appealed to us for personal reasons. It’s midway between where our son and his family live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and our daughter’s residence in New Jersey. In fact, we arrived in Lancaster from her home via an Amtrak ride to the downtown area where we stayed.
Having an Amtrak station right in town is a wonderful amenity. You can pop over to New York, Washington, D.C., or Baltimore for an easy weekend getaway. During our visit, we decided to take a quick trip to Philadelphia since the train trip was just over an hour.
International airports in both nearby Harrisburg and Philadelphia give you options for finding flight bargains and generally make air travel a breeze.
Let’s talk about our daily mode of transportation. We haven’t owned a vehicle since we left the States 12 years ago, so we gravitate to places that support our pedestrian lifestyle. Lancaster’s historic downtown area was a delight to explore on foot.
Being outside in Lancaster during the brisk weather and colorful foliage of October was perfect. Although our Airbnb was in a neighborhood a bit outside the city’s center, everything we needed for daily life was less than a half hour away.
If you’re not an avid walker like us, good friends we met for lunch told us something you’ll be interested to know: Pennsylvania residents over 65 get to ride all fixed-route buses in the state for free!
3. Amazing Architecture
We found the architecture in Lancaster to be stunning. On our strolls around town, we made it a point to take different routes just to ooh and aah at the gorgeous buildings we came across.
The city is steeped in history (Fun fact: did you know Lancaster was our nation’s capital for one whole day?). Shortly after arriving in town, we scheduled a walking tour with Historic Lancaster Walking Tour, Corp. led by a guide decked out in Revolutionary War finery. We highly recommend it.
4. Great Local Food
Lancaster Central Market has been in operation since 1730 and is the oldest continuously operated farmer’s market in the country. More than 60 local vendors offer farm-to-table fare at surprisingly reasonable prices. We stocked up on fresh produce and then prepared food weekly during our stay.
The first weekend after we arrived coincided with the annual Harvest Breakfast at the market. The turnout for the event was huge, and the food was so delicious we dug into our pretzel bread cinnamon toast before we remembered to take a pic!
5. Amish Culture
“Clop-clop-clop-clop” is not a sound you expect to hear in everyday life. Unless you live in Lancaster, where Amish horses and buggies regularly pass through the neighborhoods.
The Amish presence in and around Lancaster adds a unique element to the city and surrounding countryside. How can you not admire these humble people who willingly shun modern conveniences, like cars, TVs, and cell phones? Our interactions with them were always delightful.
6. Friendly Locals
Could the Amish be slipping something into Lancaster’s water supply? We were caught off guard by how friendly the locals we encountered were. Total strangers make eye contact and greet you when passing on the sidewalks. Made us feel like we were back in Latin America.
7. Innovative Retirement Communities
Award-winning senior communities are scattered around the outskirts of Lancaster, with amenities that include aquatic centers, 500-seat movie theaters, day spas, and even a bowling alley! Some offer estate preservation plans that refund 90 percent of your original investment to your estate.
City officials seem to have gotten the message about Lancaster’s desirability for retirees and are gearing up in a big way to welcome future older residents. A luxury 20-story residential tower for the 55+ group is in development and set to be completed by 2026. Wow!
8. Quality Healthcare
Lancaster scored an impressive 8.3 out of 10 in U.S. News & World Report’s healthcare category. Not only does the city have its own hospital downtown, but it also has access to the facilities in nearby major cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore (including Johns Hopkins, the number 5 best hospital in the country).
9. Affordable Real Estate
According to U.S. News & World Report, Lancaster’s median home price of $226,550 is a full 30 percent less than the national average of $315,743. The average rent is $1,050 per month.
In the downtown area, we observed numerous old homes for sale with great renovation (and appreciation) potential. The duplex we stayed in for a month was just such a property.
10. Low Taxes
Pennsylvania does not tax retirement income. It is one of only two states that exempt tax on pension income.
If you do have taxable income, Pennsylvania has the lowest flat tax rate in the country at only 3.07 percent.
The state’s sales tax is 6 percent, with no tax charged for food, clothing, and heating fuel.
But enough about the nuts and bolts. Let’s talk about having fun!
11. Things To Do
Beyond the usual suspects like malls, golf, and, yes, pickleball, Lancaster has a bonanza of things to do all year long. For instance, Lancaster City Restaurant Week. Or the Lancaster Balloon Festival and County Fair. And who could miss the annual Whoopie Pie Festival in nearby Ronks?
You can find these things and more as a resident of Lancaster.
The Lancaster ArtWalk is a twice-annual event that takes place each spring and fall. In addition to stumbling upon the Harvest Breakfast at the Central Market, we were fortunate to have timed our visit to participate in this self-guided tour of many downtown galleries.
Fulton Opera House
The Fulton Opera House, named for steamboat designer and county resident Robert Fulton, is reportedly the oldest working theater in the United States. Known by locals as simply The Fulton, the theater today offers live stage shows throughout the year.
Strasburg Rail Road
Get outside of town into the Amish area to participate in a wide variety of attractions and activities. Hop aboard the Strasburg Rail Road for a relaxing ride through the bucolic countryside.
Amish house tours, buggy rides, restaurants, dinner theaters, and even movies give curious outsiders a glimpse into the beliefs and daily lives of these unique and interesting people.
12. Nearby Attractions
If you somehow get bored hanging around Lancaster, within just a couple of hours there’s a wealth of interesting attractions to keep you busy and entertained.
After spending almost the entire month in Lancaster on foot, we rented a car for a few days to explore two very different places outside of town. We took a crash course about the founding of the United States in Philadelphia, then, heading west from Lancaster, we drove to Gettysburg to learn more about the Civil War.
We mentioned earlier taking a short trip to Philadelphia on Amtrak. If you haven’t been there, we highly recommend a visit to gain a better understanding of and appreciation for our nation’s history. We walked our legs off for 2 days. Our recommendation is to stay longer if you can.
Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center
Our day started at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center. After watching an informative film, touring the Cyclorama, and taking in all the artifacts and exhibits, we took a driving tour of the actual battlefield.
Over the 24-mile guided tour, we learned so much about the largest battle ever fought on North American soil. Viewing the tranquil pastureland, it was impossible to imagine the intensity of the 3-day conflict that resulted in over 50,000 casualties.
Hershey Park is the largest amusement park in Pennsylvania. If your roller coaster days are over, stay in the elegant accommodations of the historic Hotel Hershey and enjoy fine dining and a chocolate-inspired spa day. Yes, please!
Are you a horticulture fan? Longwood Gardens, an hour’s drive to the east, is incredible. The Conservatory, the fountains, and the gardens are simply exquisite. Our day trip there, with a stopover at Chaddsford Winery on the way back, was a total delight.
Lancaster opened our eyes to a retirement possibility in the States that we hadn’t considered. We loved spending a month there and have talked about making a return visit.
Could we live there? The proximity to our family is a big plus, as is the central location to easily visit so many other cities and explore the history of the area. And, on an intuitive level, we really felt comfortable with the general vibe of the city.
We are “Goldilocks people” when it comes to weather (not too hot and not too cold), so the winters in that part of the country would be intolerable for us. But we already make it a point to spend that time of year south of the equator. (see you soon, Buenos Aires.)
So, yes, Lancaster is a surprise addition to our list of potential “next places.”