Bucks County is the kind of place that gives “suburbs” a good name. Nestled along the west bank of the Delaware River just north of Philadelphia, the county is home to more than 600,000 people, many of whom commute to the big city to work. But instead of serving up the usual sprawl-and-mall, Bucks County gives you historic towns, bucolic vistas and interesting museums. It is a weekend visitor’s dream.
The county is perhaps best known for its history. George Washington really did sleep here. In fact, he was headquartered in Bucks County for a frigid three weeks in December 1776, before crossing the Delaware near what is now the small town of Yardley. His subsequent defeat of the Hessian soldiers on the opposite bank, at Trenton, turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. Each year, an intrepid group of passionate re-enactors recreates the event here on Christmas Day.
But that’s not the only historical attraction in Bucks County. In fact, the region has 151 sites on the National Register of Historic Places. Besides a fine collection of houses, farmsteads, inns and covered bridges, the list includes several Quaker meeting houses, a convent, a carpet mill, a particularly bucolic stretch of rural roadway, and a cigar factory.
Quaint bed-and-breakfasts abound on the narrow, hilly, winding (and occasionally treacherous) back roads of the county. Good food is served up almost everywhere, and fine dining can be found in some of the larger towns like New Hope and Doylestown. There are celebrities to look for (Christie Brinkley, Art Garfunkel, Sally Jesse Raphael), bass to catch, local wines to sample – even ghost tours to scare you. In fact, there is so much to do and see in Bucks County that a weekend jaunt can’t do it justice. This weekend, let’s look at central Bucks County and the areas surrounding New Hope and Doylestown.
Where to go
The town of New Hope is a must-see. Lying at the intersection of U.S. Route 202 and state Route 32, right on the Delaware River, it has the charm of a long-settled village well acquainted with historical events. In fact, New Hope contains two National Historic Districts within its boundaries.
Your fist stop should be the visitors center on Mechanic Street. Get a walking map of the town, have a seat on a bench and plan your day. You will find, quite literally, something for everyone in your party, including antique and novelty stores, art galleries, restaurants, nightlife, historical tours, train rides and innumerable boat rides.
Try the mule-drawn barge ride on the Delaware Canal, or take a ride on the vintage New Hope & Ivyland Railroad, which follows the route filmed for the 1914 movie serial “The Perils of Pauline.” Both forms of yesteryear transport are within steps of the visitors center.
Several art shows and festivals are scheduled for New Hope in October, and there will be an antiques show in November. For the gadget guru in your house, be sure to check out the store Toys for Men on South Main Street, which has good inventories of tavern puzzles and model airplanes.
A drive west on Route 202 will take you through Lahaska, where you can see the fine Quaker meetinghouse on Lower York Road. Built in 1768 to accommodate a growing congregation of peace-loving Friends, it found itself serving, eight years later, as a Revolutionary War hospital. A little farther down Route 202 you’ll come upon the town of Holicong. Here, at the intersection of Holicong Road, is Longland, a lovely old farmstead that was, improbably, the childhood home of globetrotting anthropologist Margaret Mead (next stop, Samoa!).
Another five miles takes you to Doylestown, the county seat. Doylestown has many attractions from fine dining and boutiques to historical sites and a major art museum Because of its central location, Doylestown is a perfect place to explore either as your home base, or on a day trip from another base in Bucks County.
For the art lover, the must-see attraction is the James A. Michener Art Museum. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Poland” and “Hawaii” was raised in Doylestown and was a major donor to the museum that bears his name. The collection features 20th-century American art and sculpture, with an emphasis on Pennsylvania Impressionists and the cultural heritage of Bucks County.
Another fascinating museum is the Mercer Museum. This seven-story museum was built by Henry Chapman Mercer with the assistance of only eight laborers and a horse. Keep that thought in mind as you tour. The museum features what can be best described as tools and knickknacks from early America, including 3,000 woodworking tools, numerous Quaker hats and britches, several speaking trumpets, and a Conestoga wagon. You could spend hours here contemplating the ingenuity and hard work that folks needed before the Industrial Revolution.
Mercer also built Doylestown’s Fonthill Museum; in fact, it was his home until his death in 1930. A famous tile maker and a leader of the American Arts and Crafts movement, Mercer lavished attention on the building, which has 44 rooms, 18 fireplaces, 32 stairwells, and more than 200 windows. (Mercer called it his “concrete castle for the New World.”) Almost every interior surface is decorated with handcrafted tile from Mercer’s factory, the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works. The museum also displays more than 900 prints and objects from Mercer’s own very interesting collection.
When you are all cultured out, stroll along Doylestown’s Main Street and visit some of its unusual shops, including Cyborg One, which sells comic books and anime, and the Dragon’s Den of Antiques, a co-op that spreads its wares over 4,000 square feet of space. After shopping, I suggest you just get lost. Take a drive around town without a map or agenda and admire the Victorian homes and the tree-lined streets. Don’t worry about finding your way back — Doylestown is one of the friendliest towns in America and everyone will be willing to point you in the right direction.
What to eat
With so many smaller pubs and restaurants to enjoy, choosing a few is difficult. Having lived in Bucks County for many years, I can recommend these fabulous old-timers. These are places you will remember for a long time.
Named after stage and screen semi-legend Odette Mytril Logan, Odette’s has been a New Hope landmark since it first opened as a tavern in 1794. It is a first-class French restaurant with a wonderful piano bar perched right on the Delaware River. The atmosphere is decidedly romantic. Reservations and proper attire are in order. (South River Road, New Hope; 215-862-2432)
For a taste of some more local flavor, don those jeans and t-shirts and head to the Eagle Diner. Diners don’t usually make a “must-eat” list, but this one is different (you won’t find the Eagle in a tourist brochure, either, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one.) The bread is always freshly baked, the salad bar is very good, and there is a full bar for drinks. Children are welcome, and the prices average $6 and $10 for lunch and dinner, respectively. In true diner tradition, the Eagle is open 24 hours a day. (Route 202, New Hope; 215-862-5575)
In Doylestown, you can get fabulous food — breakfast, lunch or dinner — at B. Maxwell’s Restaurant and Victorian Pub. (37 North Main Street, Doylestown; 215-348-1027)
If you are looking for some Oriental flavor, Chong’s Garden in Doylestown will answer the craving. The restaurant features both Cantonese and Hunan dishes, and all the food is MSG-free. The lunches, which are particularly good, attract many locals and a big legal crowd from the nearby courthouse. (22 North Main Street, Doylestown; 215-345-9444)
For other dining spots, don’t hesitate to ask a local. Good eating is appreciated in Bucks County, and folks keep good tabs on the new and the trendy.
Where to stay
For the bed-and-breakfast crowd, I recommend Porches on the Towpath. As the name suggests, this quaint B&B is situated right on the towpath for the Delaware Canal, just opposite the New Hope & Ivyland train station (don’t worry, that steam locomotive runs only during the day!). The inn was formerly the home of “Pop” and Ethel Reading, who ran a sandwich shop out of the house in the 1930s with the “help” of their five children. Some of the children’s “artwork” still “enhances” several walls. The porches are wide and inviting. No wi-fi connection here, but then again, who would want one? (20 Fisher’s Alley, New Hope; 215-862-3277)
If you absolutely must have that Internet access, head to The Golden Plough Inn. This full-featured luxury inn is located between New Hope and Doylestown in Peddler’s Village, a shopping mecca in the town of Lahaska. Graciously appointed rooms welcome weary shoppers and children alike. Private baths, refrigerators, cable TV and complimentary champagne are standard. For a winter’s night, request a room with a fireplace — it doesn’t get any cozier than that. (Intersection of Route 202 and state Route 263, Lahaska; 215-794-4004)
But my advice is to leave the laptop in the trunk and the Palm Pilot in the glove box. Let Bucks County lead you around. Drive without a plan. Smell the countryside. Take yourself back to a slower, more peaceful time. Fall is particularly beautiful in Bucks County as the trees change over the banks of the Delaware, but make your plans now. The secret of Bucks County is out!