Cool Day Trips From Washington DC For Kids and Adults
Residents of the capital of the USA know there's a wealth of natural and historical places to see in the surrounding region. Visitors won't have to drive more than three hours to find everything from national parks and wine trails in the hills, to interesting beaches next to charming towns. Sprinkle plenty of historical attractions into the mix and you'll have some of the best day trips from DC.
If you'd rather not drive, there are plenty of tour operators that can arrange an interesting itinerary for you and your group. Amtrak also provides regular train service to and from most of these locations.
Some of these destinations are so packed with interesting things to do, that you may want to extend your trip into a weekender or explore the areas further with a 2-3 day trip. Also keep in mind that driving in and out of DC can sometimes mean battling heavy traffic. Weekends can especially make a trip longer than expected, so make sure you plan your trips well to leave enough time for everyone to enjoy the attractions to the fullest.
George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
Include Old Town AlexandriaCredit: Troy, on Flickr
Discover how George Washington and his wife, Martha lived for over 40 years in America's most popular historical estate, Mt. Vernon. Situated on the banks of the Potomac River and just 16 miles south of the capital, the plantation's mansion, tomb and several original and reconstructed buildings, like the blacksmith shop, pioneer farm and slave quarters, do a great job of taking you back in time.
Several theaters and galleries are housed in a museum and education center that details the story of Washington's life. Even children will be thrilled to learn about him, especially through the special effects theater experience, and they will also love the working farm. You may be surprised to know that George Washington was not just a military man but a successful entrepreneur as well. A reconstructed and fully functional mill and distillery 3 miles away from the mansion is proof of that.
On the way back, stop in quaint Old Town Alexandria to see its colonial port and revitalized waterfront, or walk through cobblestone streets to explore eclectic shops and eateries. Visit Christ Church where George Washington worshiped and one or two historical museums.
City of Annapolis
Capital of MarylandCredit: Forsaken Fotos, on Flickr
Annapolis is the state capital of Maryland and is also a historical city. It is situated on the shores of Chesapeake Bay and is famous for sailing and colonial style maritime villages. Take a bay cruise or watch sailboats and expensive yachts glide past at the city docks. You can also wander through America's largest concentration of 18th century buildings here.
The other main attractions to tour are the US Naval Academy and the NSA's National Cryptological Museum - both equally exciting for kids as well as adults. The former is the training facility of the US Navy and Marine Corps and features a beautiful chapel, a gallery of ships and a museum that's home to a vast array of maritime artifacts.
The Maryland State House is the nation's oldest running capitol and you can take a tour of it starting at the Visitor's Center.
Washington DC's little sisterCredit: Mark Peters, on Flickr
Baltimore tends to fly under the radar because it's just 1 hour away from Washington DC, but it is packed with its own impressive things to see. The Inner Harbor is the focal point for most tourists. Here you'll find great shopping, restaurants and live entertainment, and the kids will take great delight in the National Aquarium, the Port Discovery Museum, Maryland Science Center and the USS Constellation - a historic single gun deck warship that was the last sail-only ship built by the US navy.
You don't have to stick to the Inner Harbor, though. Explore the rest of the city to see why many visitors find the city quirky. There's Fort McHenry that overlooks the outer harbor. Want to see art of a different kind? There's the small but mesmerizing American Visionary Art Museum that displays the work of untrained artists. Visit the charming Camden Yards, home to baseball's Baltimore Orioles.
Historic BattlefieldCredit: Soaptree, on Flickr
No where else in America were more civil wars fought than in the regions around Washington DC. If you want to get your kids more interested in their history books, taking them to relive the scenes of battle is a pretty good way. The most well known and bloodiest battleground is Gettysburg, scene of a 3 day battle in 1863 that many believe was the decider in the Civil War.
The Gettysburg National Military Park features a visitor center where you can watch a short film and see the Gettysburg Cyclorama - a painting depicting the Confederate attack on Union forces. The museum holds exhibit galleries of artifacts, maps and interactive displays. Once you've taken all that in, arrange for an audio guide or a certified ranger to take you through the park's trails on horseback, in a carriage ride, or by bus to see major landmarks of the battle for free. If all that isn't enough, take a walking tour through Gettysburg town.
Monticello Wine Trail
Birthplace of American WineCredit: Adam, on Flickr
Head towards Charlottesville to mix history with wine! Virginia is one of the wine world's best kept secrets, and the wine industry here is fast growing, with lots of wine trails to keep any oenophile happy. The largest is the Monticello Wine Trail - the birthplace of American wine and home to 22 vineyards.
Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent Monticello estate in Charlottesville sits atop a mountain and it was where he tried to fulfill his vision of a world class vineyard and winery competing with the best in Europe. Though he failed in his lifetime, the region eventually succeeded, albeit some 200 years later.
In addition to touring Jefferson's estate, select any of four sub-wine trails to do some wine tasting. There are plenty of restaurants serving amazing food with wine pairings. If you don't want to feel rushed, you can choose to stay in any of the region's lodges. The beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills will draw you further in.
Shenandoah National Park and Luray Caverns
Cruise along the Skyline DriveCredit: David Jones, on Flickr
The spectacular scenery of forests, waterfalls, streams and valleys of the Shenandoah Valley will make you want to spend more than a day hiking through the trails here, but you can instead take one of the best road trips from Washington DC by driving to the park and then cruising along the 105 mile Skyline Drive that runs along its crest till it meets the Blue Ridge Parkway. Other options include taking a guided tour or horseback ride. The central entrance to the park is just 90 minutes away from the capital.
Just 10 minutes away from the central entrance are the Luray Caverns, where paved walkways take you over 1.25 miles through spectacular cathedral-sized rooms where you'll see pristine water pools and giant columns and draperies of stalactites and stalagmites. The one hour tour is suitable for children as well. The highlight of the tour is the automated GreatStalacpipe Organ, which was constructed from carefully tuned stalactites and installed in the Cathedral room to take advantage of the unique natural acoustics of the caves.
Take a short ride through this video of Shenandoah National Park
The state capitalCredit: Tony Fischer, on Flickr
Driving two hours south of DC will get you to Virginia's state capital. During the Civil War, Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and the city's American Civil War Center is a museum that explains the Civil War from all points of view - the Confederates, the Union and African Americans. You'll find memorials to the leaders of the Confederacy along Monument Avenue, historical churches and homes like the Old Stone House from 1754, which is now the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, and the luxury Jefferson Hotel that has served five U.S. presidents.
Richmond will be observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation until 2015. During this time there is plenty of opportunity to tour historical sites and experience colonial era music, dining and photography.
A colonial era outdoor museumCredit: Kathleen Conklin, on Flickr
Prepare to be transported 300 years back in time at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history open air museum set in the original Williamsburg and recreated as an authentic colonial American city. The city used to be the center of governance for most of the 18th century until the capital shifted to Richmond for security reasons.
Several reconstructed buildings, like the Governor's Palace, the Capitol and Raleigh Tavern, and the original Bruton Parish Church, help tell the story of the American Revolution. You'll find several interpreters living, working, dressing and speaking as the 18th century people did. It is free to walk through the historic area, while there is a fee to enter buildings where there are demonstrations.
Tickets also include outdoor performances like the Revolutionary City program, where you can take part in role playing while reenactors show you what daily life was like back then and how they engaged in battle and endured hardships. Then join the troops as they march to victory. Kids, in particular, will have immense fun with these activities.
Round it all off with a traditional southern meal at one of the authentic taverns or fine dining restaurants, where you also witness colonial music and have a pint of local brew.
Williamsburg is 150 miles south of DC and you can drive down or take the Amtrak. There are official hotels all around if you decide to stay the night.
Beaches and other places near the water
Ocean City, Chesapeake Beach, Eastern Shore - St MichaelsCredit: eutrophication&hypoxia, on Flickr
Washington DC is surrounded by water, so if you tire of all the historical and modern city attractions, some of the best day trips around Washington DC can be had at any of the numerous beaches around. The closest is at Sandy Point Beach Park, just 45 minutes away and before Chesapeake Bay, but if you don't mind going farther away, there are very good beaches that provide more entertainment and things to do.
Ocean City in Maryland is three hours away on a narrow barrier island on the Atlantic. It has a three mile long boardwalk with lots of fun activities for the entire family. If you decide to stay overnight, the restaurants and clubs come alive and you can experience free bonfires and concerts on the boardwalk.
For shallow waters and more of a boating and historic vibe, try Chesapeake Beach, less than an hour away and on the western shore of the Chesapeake bay. Don't miss a visit to the railway museum and trail there.
The Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia lies on the eastern side of Chesapeake Bay. Small historic towns with lots of natural beauty and outdoor activities comprise this area. The Maryland towns are closer to the capital and can be accessed via the Bay Bridge or the Lewes Cape May Ferry. St. Michaels, Easton, Chestertown and Oxford are some of the towns worth visiting.
A monster book of ideas for day tripping from DC
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An e-guide to the historical significance of DC and surrounds
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Another city with several unlikely day trip possibilities is Las Vegas