Even the most influential power brokers of Washington, DC, need a getaway.
Luckily, the region around the US capital delivers day trips for every mood. Mountains, lakes, the Atlantic Ocean and countryside are within easy driving distance, while both adorable small towns and bustling cities in the region are filled with fascinating history, culture and (of course) food.
Here are our picks for the best day trips from Washington, DC.
Go wild in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Easy access to Shenandoah National Park is one of the best perks of living in DC. In these glorious mountains, hikes for every taste and fitness level await. For an easy stroll, there’s Dark Hollow Falls, leading to a pretty waterfall; more challenging is Hawksbill Mountain, featuring an uphill trudge that rewards with magnificent, nearly 360-degree views from the park’s highest peak. Wherever you are, you’ll enjoy waterfalls, mountain laurel, stunning vistas and – if you’re lucky – a black bear sighting.
How to get to Shenandoah National Park: The best option is to drive. Shenandoah National Park has three gated entrances: the North Entrance at Front Royal (off I-66), Thornton Gap east of Luray (via US-211) and the South Entrance at Rockfish Gap near Waynesboro. The closest one to DC is the North Entrance, about an hour’s drive west. The entrance fee is $25 per vehicle.
Visit a city on the move in Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore’s varied pleasures have long been a draw for Washingtonians. With its shops, restaurants, historic ships and famous aquarium, the popular Inner Harbor offers enough for a full day of fun. But Baltimore is a city on the move, and there’s no place that showcases this better than the up-and-coming neighborhood of Fells Point. This historic cobblestoned area is anchored by the luxurious Sagamore Pendry Baltimore, a pier-side hotel whose gorgeous interior garden courtyard merits at least a walk-through.
Founded by William Fell in 1730 and once a thriving shipbuilding center, Fells Point today is packed with locally owned boutiques, casual eateries and bench-dotted parks. Take a walking tour with Baltimore National Heritage Area or Baltimore Ghost Tours (this was the last place Edgar Allan Poe was seen alive, you know). Afterwards, find a table at The Point in Fells for local fare and glorious harbor views.
How to get to Baltimore: Baltimore is about an hour’s drive north of DC via I-95 (avoid rush hour if possible). You can also hop aboard a MARC or Amtrak train from Union Station, with numerous daily departures. You’ll need a cab or ride-share to reach Fells Point, a couple miles from Baltimore’s Penn Station.
Read more: 48 hours in Baltimore
Get crabby (in the best way) in Annapolis, Maryland
Maryland is all about its blue crabs, best enjoyed at a traditional crab shack along a bucolic waterway. One of the best is Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn, tucked away on quiet Mill Creek beyond downtown Annapolis. You’ll sit at a community table covered with butcher paper and join in the fun as a huge bucket of boiled crabs, doused with Old Bay spice, is strewn across the table. The wait staff will then give you a lesson on how to crack and devour the tasty crustaceans. (You can also avoid the hard work and order a crab-cake sandwich.)
Walk off the meal in downtown Annapolis, where colonial-era buildings house art galleries, clothing stores and (if you’re still hungry) local eateries. Check out Ego Alley at the foot of Main Street (aka Annapolis City Dock), where million-dollar yachts strut their stuff. You can also walk around the US Naval Academy, with highlights including the chapel (burial place of John Paul Jones) and a visitor center spotlighting the Navy’s history and greatest moments.
How to get to Annapolis: Annapolis is located about a half-hour’s drive east of Washington, DC via US 50.
Slurp Chesapeake Bay oysters in Northern Neck, Virginia
While Maryland has blue crabs, Virginia has oysters. The Northern Neck is the place to discover how these succulent bivalves have influenced every aspect of local life. Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping provides a lively overview of oyster harvesting. Perched on a scenic offshoot of the Chesapeake, this seemingly small operation daily dispatches fresh, luscious oysters as far away as Las Vegas. Walk out on the dock and see the sorting in action, then sample them at the on-site, waterside Merroir restaurant.
You’ll find oyster-related artwork at Allure Art Center in White Stone, oyster-inspired jewelry at Burke's Fine Jewelers, a historical overview of regional oystering at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, and oyster and wine pairings at Dog & Oyster Vineyard in Irvington. Consider staying overnight at Tides Inn, where you can sample the signature Angry Oyster (a local twist on buffalo wings) and take part in the inn’s Virginia Oyster Academy – or simply relax by the creek and do nothing at all.
How to get to the Northern Neck: The Northern Neck extends east of Fredericksburg, located south of DC off I-95, and requires a car to get around. It takes close to three hours to drive to Irvington, the heart of oyster country.
Read more: The top things to do in Virginia include historical sites, beaches and much more
Go hiking (with a side of history) in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
History and natural beauty are always a winning combination, and few places do it better than Harpers Ferry. Set at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, and surrounded by oak-covered mountains, this valley a sight to behold; numerous Washingtonians head here to hike its many trails. Most notably, the Maryland Heights trail leads to a stunning promontory overlooking the town, and shows why this outlook was such a strategic target during the Civil War.
The town’s other claim to fame is John Brown, the abolitionist who led his ill-fated raid here in 1859, a catalyst (one of many) for the Civil War. Be sure to join a walking tour of the historic arsenal area to delve into the dramatic story, and save time for the excellent John Brown Museum. (Tip: don’t confuse it with the nearby John Brown Wax Museum – unless you’re into eerily kitsch wax figures crowding a rambling old house.)
How to get to Harpers Ferry: Harpers Ferry is an easy 90-minute drive northwest of DC via I-270 and US 340.
Read more: 19 wild and wonderful West Virginia adventures
Taste fine vintages in Middleburg, Virginia
DC is a cork’s toss away from hundreds of wineries, and there’s no better wine-tasting destination than the beautifully preserved, colonial town of Middleburg, deep in the heart of Virginia horse country. Greenhill (one of the few wineries to offer sparkling wine) and Chrysalis (advocate of the indigenous Norton grape) are both nearby, where tastings, winery tours and picnicking abound amid rolling countryside. Middleburg itself offers one-of-a-kind boutiques, antique shops, the Mount Defiance Cidery and Distillery and the decadent Salamander Resort & Spa. Market Salamander is a favorite spot to pick up picnic supplies, including cheese, charcuterie, soups and salads.
How to get to Middleburg: Middleburg is about an hour’s drive from DC via I-66 and US 50.
Get to know George and Martha at Mount Vernon
One of America's most visited historic sites, Mount Vernon was the beloved home of George and Martha Washington, who lived here from the time of their marriage in 1759 until George’s death in 1799. Regular guided tours of the furnished main house give a fascinating insight into the Washingtons’ daily life, and self-guided tours of the outbuildings and gardens estate offer plenty of opportunities to interact with actors offering first-person narratives of working and living on the 18th-century plantation, including the experiences of enslaved people who called Mount Vernon home.
From April to October, the Mount Vernon entrance ticket also includes entry to Washington’s nearby distillery and gristmill; a free shuttle travels between these and the estate.
How to get to Mount Vernon: Mount Vernon is 16 miles south of DC, off the Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy. By public transportation, take the Metro (Yellow Line) to Huntington, then switch to Fairfax Connector bus (route 101). Grayline, OnBoard Tours and USA Guided Tours run bus tours from DC. Several companies offer seasonal boat trips to Mount Vernon. It's also possible to ride a bike along the Potomac River from DC (18 miles from Roosevelt Island).
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