Day Tripper: Go Castle-Hopping in Doylestown

I know what you’re thinking: A getaway? To Doylestown?

It sounds absurd, like I’m advising you take a Caribbean vacation to Haiti. But I promise there’s substance here—particularly in the Bucks County enclave’s collection of out-of-Philly museums you might actually care about, and some faux-medieval castles and forts.

Michener Art Museum is the crown jewel of Doylestown’s tourism, and it’s home to a host of ultra-fab exhibits, like the recent “Grace Kelly: Beyond the Icon,” which Michener Museum Deputy Director Candace Clarke says brought in 90,000 visitors during its run. It also houses an impressive lineup of impressionist paintings that are, to boot, local. Right now you can check out Philadelphia painter Barbara Schaff’s “True Grit,” a colorful collection of drawings and large-scale canvases that evoke the arts of Chinese watercoloring and calligraphy.

Placed side by side with the comparatively contemporary and methodically laid out Michener is the gritty Mercer Museum and Castle, which currently features the Route 66 exhibit of collectible cars. Concocted in 1916 as the Land of Misfit Crafts, in a time period when machine manufacturing was just finding its grip, Henry Mercer (a guy so rich he “could buy wine during Prohibition,” says cutesy tour guide Gayle Shupack) erected the six-story castle as a means of preserving tools in danger of being lost to emerging technology.

Fonthill Castle. Photo by Jared Kofsky.

Fonthill Castle. Photo by Jared Kofsky.

But the castle itself, in addition to the astonishing co-castle Fonthill, has been equally well-preserved. Standing in its open-air, non-temperature-controlled, spiraling atrium (whisper and you’ll still echo), you’re encapsulated in its rich history, overwhelmed by the authentic etchings in the concrete flooring and the atmosphere’s all-around dankness. Flanking you on all sides is a fleet of old-world vehicles (a carriage, a whale boat, etc.) hanging from the ceiling, and case upon case of manufacturing tools and crafts of years’ past. Canoes, hand axes, wine presses, corn shellers, sausage stuffers—all the fixings are here. It’s best summarized as a collection of ordinary relics made precious by time gone by, and the hard work of Bucks County natives who gave something tangible to the world—like fingerprints of the craft-adroit. And the patina-crusted, Addams Family-chic exterior certainly complements what already feels like an entrancing sense of history.

In sum: You do want to come to Doylestown for a day trip. And Mercer is why. But don’t plan a multi-day vacation around it; you’ll likely be reminded that outside of the trees and homely bed and breakfasts, everything a place like Doylestown offers can be found two-fold in the boundaries of city limits. But Mercer Museum—more so than Michener, I’d argue—is a reminder (a cheap one, at that: it’s only $12) of what you can’t find in Philadelphia: a rustic charm and remarkably well-preserved, bucolic, storied turf that will fulfill all your Downton Abbey between-season cravings.