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10 Top-Rated Day Trips from Washington, D.C.

Dec 16, 2015

The area around Washington, D.C. is steeped in history and packed with interesting tourist attractions. The colonial towns of Williamsburg and Annapolis tell the story of the nation's birth, while the Gettysburg Battlefield reveals where America faced a turning point in the Civil War. Other important 18th-century landmarks include Mount Vernon, George Washington's elegant manor home, and Monticello, the Neoclassical architectural masterpiece of Thomas Jefferson. After learning about the legacy of the United States' Founding Fathers, tourists can delve into the region's maritime heritage and take scenic cruises. Besides the Annapolis seaport, St. Michaels is another important coastal town on Chesapeake Bay. The quaint Old Town of Alexandria also has an atmospheric harbor district on the Potomac River, and Solomons Island is a picturesque waterfront community along the Patuxent River. To enjoy an idyllic escape to nature, visit the storybook town of Harpers Ferry or the Shenandoah National Park in Maryland's beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

1 Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg
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About two hours south of Washington, D.C., colonial Williamsburg is a picture-perfect historic town that transports visitors to the late 18th century. The town played a key role in the American Revolution from 1776 to 1781, and it was from here that George Washington journeyed on horseback to the Battlefield of Yorktown. Since most of the town's buildings date back to the colonial period, and the town has not been modernized, Williamsburg has the feel of an open-air museum. Horse-drawn carriages and historical reenactments (street performances) with characters in period costumes also give visitors the impression of being in a time warp. Many of the 18th-century homes are open to the public, such as the George Wythe House and the Brush-Everard House, and are still decorated in the style of the colonial-era residents. Be sure to also visit the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum that displays antique furniture and ceramics, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum that showcases paintings, needlework, and toys for a fascinating insight into the everyday life of the 18th century.

To learn more about the nation's political heritage in this Revolutionary City, visit the Governor's Palace. This impressive colonial building features a grand ballroom and exquisite gardens. Dating to 1619, the Capitol Building is where legislators met to debate legislation and where courts convened to administer justice. Other must-see sights are Anderson's Blacksmith Shop that created armory for use during the Revolutionary War and R. Charlton's Coffeehouse, where tourists can sample coffee, tea, and hot chocolate prepared exactly how it was during the 18th century. To see more period furniture and home decor, head to the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

2 Mount Vernon: President George Washington's Manor House

Mount Vernon: President George Washington's Manor House
Mount Vernon: President George Washington's Manor House
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This genteel estate overlooking the Potomac River in Virginia is one of the most iconic houses in America. The historic mansion was George Washington's beloved home, originally built as a small farmhouse in 1735 by his father. George Washington later enlarged and enhanced Mount Vernon, and over a period of 45 years renovated the building to create a magnificent 21-room manor house. The 11,028-square-foot mansion is ten times larger than the average colonial house in Virginia. The cupola, completed in 1774, features a weathervane topped with a dove to symbolize peace. Visitors enter through the Central Passage, a spacious room with splendid views of the Potomac. This central hallway displays the Key to Bastille that Marquis de Lafayette of France gave to George Washington in 1790 after the storming of the prison in Paris.

The grandest room of Mount Vernon was the last to be created, the green-wallpapered New Room, which was used as a salon to welcome guests and occasionally as a dining room. The Small Dining Room also has vivid green walls and is one of the most striking rooms in the house. The Neoclassical, Prussian-blue-painted West Parlor was where the household enjoyed tea and coffee and played games. The Little Parlor is the music room and contains the harpsichord that Washington bought in 1793 for his step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis. Surrounding the mansion are spectacular 18th-century English-style gardens landscaped with pathways, lawns, and lush areas where native shrubs and wildflowers blossom. The outdoor property also has a 3,000-acre farm, with a barn and a garden planted with fruit trees and vegetables. Visitors may dine at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant (admission to Mount Vernon is not required), which serves authentic local cuisine including famous specialties such as Virginia peanut and chestnut soup and colonial turkey pie.

Address: 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Virginia

3 Monticello: Thomas Jefferson's Neoclassical Mansion

Monticello: Thomas Jefferson's Neoclassical Mansion
Monticello: Thomas Jefferson's Neoclassical Mansion
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In the lovely Virginia countryside, Monticello is a Neoclassical architectural masterpiece constructed between 1769 and 1784 for Thomas Jefferson. The 43-room, 11,000-square-foot house features an enormous entrance hall that opens onto an elegant parlor; an impressive library filled with more than 6,000 books; and a bright dining room, with sunlight flooding through the large paned windows and skylights, and a charming tea room nook. The most iconic room in Monticello is the majestic Dome Room, with an inspiring domed ceiling, circular windows, and an oculus skylight reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. The entire building is surrounded by delicate, open-air pavilions and terraces. Visitors may choose from several different guided tour options: a tour of the house and gardens, a "behind-the-scenes" tour of the family quarters and the servants area, or a sunset tour of the house in the early evening after the regular closing time.

Address: 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia

4 Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg National Military Park
Gettysburg National Military Park
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Step into a pivotal scene of American history at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, about 82 miles (a 90-minute drive) from Washington, D.C. Gettysburg is the site of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, fought on July 1st - 3rd in 1863. This famous battle was the most decisive moment in the Civil War, with heavy casualties that set back the Confederate side and changed the course of the war in favor of the North. It's best to begin a visit at the Museum and Visitor Center and then explore the battlefields. The museum provides historical background on how the war started and details of events of the three-day battle, as well as explaining the results of the war. Exhibits present thematic topics such as "Causes of War from 1776 to 1861" and "Aftermath of the Battle." A highlight of the museum is the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama painted in the late 1880s by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux.

The Museum and Visitor Center has a bookshop and restaurant and is the starting point for guided tours of the battlefields. Guided tour options include a two-hour Battlefield Tour by Car with a knowledgeable, licensed battlefield guide driving your car or a two-and-a-half-hour Battlefield Tour by Bus led by a licensed battlefield guide. Visitors may opt to go on a self-guided driving or walking tour of the battlefield by following a CD audio tour or field guide book from the museum's bookshop. It is recommended to allow at least four hours to explore the battlefield by self-guided walking tour.

Tourists should also visit the Soldiers' National Cemetery, where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, and the David Wills House in the historic downtown Gettysburg, where Lincoln spent the night before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Free shuttles are available from the museum and visitor center to the David Wills House. For a truly exciting experience, attend the Gettysburg Civil War Reenactment that is held annually on July 1st - 3rd to commemorate the battle. Participants dress up in authentic military costumes to reenact the roles of generals, chief of staff, artillery reserve, cavalry units and foot soldiers; the performance features canon firing and other realistic details, except for the casualties. The event also includes lectures by historians, band concerts, and a showcase of Civil War antiques.

Address: Museum and Visitor Center, 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

5 The Historic Seaport of Annapolis

The Historic Seaport of Annapolis
The Historic Seaport of Annapolis Charlie Stinchcomb / photo modified
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The capital city of Maryland, Annapolis is a lovely seaport with four centuries of history. With its old brick streets and 18th-century colonial homes, the town is a living open-air museum. Annapolis was America's first peacetime capital, and four of the nation's Founding Fathers had residences here. Tourists can visit these homes (the most noteworthy is the William Paca House), where the men who signed the Declaration of Independence once resided. Another must-see landmark is the Governor's Mansion, a Georgian-style house built in 1870. The Historic Annapolis Museum tells the story of the city through its presentation of artifacts dating from 1728 to 1864. To learn more about the town's African-American heritage, visit the Banneker-Douglas Museum that displays interesting exhibits and offers lectures as well as other educational programs.

About 31 miles from Washington, D.C. on the Severn River, Annapolis is, at heart, a maritime town. Discover the town's 18th-century maritime history at the Annapolis Maritime Museum. Today, Annapolis is a popular destination for recreational boating such as kayaking, canoeing, and sailing. Or leave the navigation to someone more experienced by taking a boat tour or sailing cruise around the Annapolis Harbor and out onto the Chesapeake Bay. Annapolis is also home to the U.S. Naval Academy and has a Naval Academy Museum that is open to the public.

6 Alexandria: The Old Town and Waterfront

Alexandria: The Old Town and Waterfront
Alexandria: The Old Town and Waterfront
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Combining charm and sophistication, Alexandria is a pleasant place to visit. This attractive waterfront city lies just eight miles from Washington, D.C. along the banks of the Potomac River. Alexandria has a well-preserved historic district that is a delight to wander around. In the Old Town, visitors can stroll the cobblestone streets and red-brick sidewalks, stopping to admire the stately old buildings and browse the boutiques. Many shops are locally owned, others are upscale retailers. The Old Town also has a great selection of gourmet restaurants.

Along the Potomac River waterfront are superb seafood restaurants. At the harbor, tourists can also take a boat tour to see Alexandria's historic riverfront and yacht marina. Other must-see sights in Alexandria include the three museums at Market Square: Gadsby's; the Carlyle House; and Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, housed in splendid 18th-century buildings.

7 St. Michaels

St. Michaels
St. Michaels
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Steeped in history dating back to the mid-1600s, St. Michaels is a peaceful coastal town in Maryland that was once a trading post for tobacco farmers and fur trappers. The town helped to defend against the British in the War of 1812 and later became an important center of shipbuilding and fishing. Tourists will enjoy visiting the town's historic churches, colonial houses, and old Victorian homes. To learn more about the town's maritime heritage, visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum along the waterfront. St. Michaels also has a noteworthy 19th-century lighthouse as well as a picturesque harbor with yacht marinas. From the harbor, tourists can rent sailboats, canoes, and kayaks. Several companies also offer chartered boat tours and fishing trips that depart from the harbor and sail out onto the Chesapeake Bay.

8 Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
Harpers Ferry National Historic Park
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Nestled in the rolling hills of Maryland's Blue Ridge Mountains along the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, the town and surroundings of Harpers Ferry are designated as a National Historic Park. It's worth taking the one-hour-and-15-minute drive (67 miles) from Washington, D.C. to visit this idyllic place. With quaint old buildings clustered around a steepled church, Harpers Ferry seems to be straight out of a painting. Despite its storybook appearance, the small community made significant contributions throughout American history, including an important battle during the Civil War, John Brown's protests against slavery, and the education of former slaves.

Tourists can step back in time by strolling the town's atmospheric old streets and participating in a historic trade workshop such as tinware making or baking of the 19th century. Shenandoah Street is lined with museums and interactive historical exhibits. The Harpers Ferry Historical Society hosts special events such as the 1865 West Virginia Ladies Ice Cream Festival in July. Visitors can also explore the natural surroundings outside of town. The Jefferson Rock Trail is an uphill hike, with sensational views from the top, as well as an excellent place for birdwatching.

9 Solomons Island: A Peaceful Riverfront Community

Solomons Island: A Peaceful Riverfront Community
Solomons Island: A Peaceful Riverfront Community bk1bennett / photo modified
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Although not technically an island, this tranquil waterfront community is a mecca for recreational boating. Solomons Island is in Maryland about a one-and-a-half-hour drive (63 miles) from Washington, D.C. at the mouth of the Patuxent River, accessible by the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge. The town has a Riverfront Boardwalk with a pleasant village ambience. Tourists can enjoy a leisurely meal at one of the restaurants with riverside views. The local specialty is fresh seafood. To discover the area by boat tour, hop aboard the historic Wm. B. Tennison ship that was constructed in 1899. The boat tour takes passengers on a one-hour scenic cruise around Solomons Harbor and the Patuxent River. Other top tourist attractions include the Calvert Marine Museum and the Annmarie Garden Sculpture Park.

10 Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park
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At Shenandoah National Park, visitors can escape to a pristine natural environment just 75 miles from Washington, D.C. The park is a wonderful place for relaxation and recreation. Encompassing 200,000 acres of protected lands in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park delights visitors with its rushing waters, tranquil woodland, and gorgeous views. Take a hike or nature walk along the scenic Skyline Drive while spotting wildlife and birdwatching, and stop for a picnic lunch. The park is home to many songbirds and deer. For those who decide that a day trip is not enough and want to stay the night, the Big Meadows Lodge and the Skyland Resort offer comfortable accommodations. If seeking a rustic experience, opt for the Lewis Mountain cabins or the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club cabins. The park also allows camping, and campsites may be reserved in advance.

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