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When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter traveled to The Vatican to visit Pope Francis, he presented the pontiff with a gift: a set of handcrafted Mercer tiles from Doylestown. The mayor is one of many who have discovered Doylestown through the legacy of Henry Mercer. The 19th-century archeologist and industrialist built the cheerful borough its three most striking landmarks: Fonthill, a sprawling 44-room concrete palace; the Mercer Museum, a six-story Gothic and Byzantine historical repository for pieces of early Americana that Mercer collected; and Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, where employees preserve fading methods of production.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation praised Doylestown for “rival(ing) many large cities … with its world-class cultural facilities, elegant Victorian architecture, and historic attractions.” The town’s history dates back to the Irish-born Doyle family, who settled in the area after family patriarch Edward Doyle received a land grant from William Penn in 1692. Today, buildings from that era remain, including the Fountain House tavern that now houses a Starbucks Coffee and several offices and apartments. George Washington and his troops camped near Doylestown, but it’s Civil War history that’s captured at the Bucks County Civil War Museum & Library, home to rare and one-of-a-kind artifacts.
The Bucks County Court House provides a strong orientation point to start a stroll around Doylestown. Sitting just above the intersection of Main and Court streets, it allows for a long look down several main streets. Thanks to a layout that crisscrosses several diagonal roads, a few V-shaped corners (West State, West Court and Clinton; Court and Main; State and Main) bustle with activity; though one hardly needs to stand on a corner to feel the commercial buzz. Oakland parallels State and is also busy, and many streets that identify as either north or south, east or west begin at State and Main Streets.
Artists of all sorts have long found inspiration in Doylestown, including Oscar Hammerstein II, lyricist and playwright; Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist; and James Michener, best-selling author. In fact, one of the finest public collections of Pennsylvania impressionist paintings lives in Doylestown at the James A. Michener Art Museum, which also hosts some extraordinary traveling exhibitions of broad scope and international interest. Film buffs can catch a first-run, foreign, local or classic flick or a guest lecture at the circa-1938 County Theater.
How to choose just one restaurant, one winery when so many beckon? Luckily, picking just one isn’t necessary when several cluster closely together. Just outside town lie Peace Valley Winery, where visitors can hand pick fruits and vegetables in season; Buckingham Valley Vineyards & Winery; Wycombe Vineyards and newcomer Alpha & Omega Winery, where a European husband-and-wife team stick as close to nature as possible when growing their vinifera grapes, producing and bottling them on-site and selling and sampling them (free, with chocolate and cheese included) out of a stone barn preserved from 1750.
Back in town, it’s time for a beer at Maxwell’s on Main (or MOM’s as it’s known), focused on craft food and beer. Here, an assortment of dining rooms, bars and patios invite patrons to choose their favorite ambiance to enjoy American food with a touch of Southern inspiration and a stellar line-up of craft beer in cans, on draught and from two British-style hand-pumps. At bring-your-own-bottle spot Hickory Kitchen, diners wash down a full complement of barbecued meats, cornbread, fried pickles and secret sauces with homemade lemonade or sweet tea.
That preservation ethic feels palpable in the shopping district centered at State and Main Streets. It’s evident on the sides of brick buildings that wear remnants of mural-sized painted ads, and it lingers in the Doylestown Inn, paying homage to its past as a circa 1871 hat shop and shoe store. But perhaps it can best be witnessed in the fact that Doylestown supports three independent bookstores. The Doylestown Bookshop welcomes guests with couch seating, coffee and more than 6,000 square feet of new books, gifts, greeting cards and kids’ nooks. Occupying both narrow sides and floors of a quaintly creaky downtown duplex are Central Books, which carries an assortment of used pop-culture titles starting at 35 cents, and Bucks County Bookshop, which focuses primarily on first editions and used literary finds.
For gifts and home décor, Daniel Francis programs an ever-changing rotation of gallery shows to showcase the etchings, vintage prints and paintings displayed in the fine-arts gallery. And just outside of town, the Peace Valley Lavender Farm gift shop sells scented bath and body products estate-made from the six varieties of lavender grown on the farm.
Henry Mercer’s castles and factory host some of the borough’s most cherished annual traditions, from May’s Moravian Pottery and Tile Works Festival that brings 50 artists, dealers and collectors of handmade tiles to the living history plant, to the old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration at Fonthill. Residents also know to visit the castles during the holiday season: The Mercer Museum’s annual exhibition Under the Tree: A Century of Holiday Trees and Toys captures children’s excitement of Christmas with historical toys and trees decorated as they would have been in earlier era.
The SEPTA Lansdale/Doylestown Line Regional Rail stops in downtown Doylestown and takes approximately 90 minutes from Center City stations. By car, the trip along I-76, I-476, I-276 and Route 611 takes less than 60 minutes. Metered parking and lots are available.
The Doylestown Inn, Hargrave House Bed & Breakfast and The Inn at Barley Sheaf Farm are local options as well as the Hampton Inn Doylestown and the Homewood Suites by Hilton Doylestown. Alternatively, head back to Philadelphia and save with the two-night Visit Philly Overnight Hotel Package, which includes FREE hotel parking.