There are lots of things to do in Washington DC, but sometimes you just need to get out of the city. From history and hiking to small towns and seaside charm, these 15 day trips from Washington DC will help you explore Maryland and Virginia beyond the bounds of the nation’s capital.
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The Best Day Trips from Washington DC
The most popular day trip from Washington DC is Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington and his wife Martha. Tickets are $30 (though you can save by booking at least three days in advance), and include admission and an audio tour. It takes about three hours to fully explore the estate’s mansion, gardens and grounds. Free tours telling the stories of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community are offered on weekends. The estate is about a 30 minute drive from Washington DC.
Old Town Alexandria is chock full of charm, especially when it’s lit up for the holidays. Any time of year, however, Alexandria makes an excellent solo day trip from Washington DC, just 15 minutes from Union Station on Amtrak. King Street is lined with charming boutiques, brick sidewalks and beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture. Alexandria is chock full of unique sites for history lovers, like Gadsby’s Tavern Museum (a favorite haunt of the Founding Fathers), the oldest farmers’ market in the country, Spite House (the skinniest historic house in the country), and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum — an 18th-century apothecary where you can see the real ingredients used as potions in the Harry Potter books and movies.
There are quite a few wineries in Northern Virginia, especially in Loudoun County. Breaux Vineyards and Sunset Hills Vineyard (pictured above) are particular favorites of mine. Together with lunch at Wine Kitchen in Leesburg, these make a great day trip from Washington DC. All three stops are about an hour’s drive from DC.
Baltimore — Maryland’s major seaside city — is so close to DC, they even share an airport. A perfect day trip from Washington DC might include visits to the National Aquarium and the American Visionary Art Museum, a seafood lunch on the Inner Harbor, or shopping the hipster boutiques in Hampden. It won’t be long before you understand why they call it Charm City. Trains from Union Station take about 40 minutes to reach Baltimore.
If you’re craving beach time, your ideal day trip from Washington DC is probably Ocean City, Maryland. OCMD boasts 10 miles of white sand beach. One section is reserved for surfers, but you can also find areas to kayak or paddle board. The 3-mile boardwalk is one of the best in the United States. Grab a fresh, hot doughnut from Fractured Prune and hop on the charming 1902 carousel. This is a longer day trip, with the one-way drive taking 2.5 to 3 hours.
One of the coolest under-the-radar day trips from Washington DC is Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton. Drive about two hours north of the city to explore an epic 22-acre garden full of larger-than-life topiaries. After your topiary adventure, taste ciders at Millstone Cellars or beer at Inverness Brewing.
There are plenty of charming towns to visit in Maryland from DC. Try St. Michael’s on for size with fishing, paddling or a boat tour. This seaside hamlet is a great place to dine on fresh Maryland blue crab. It’s also home to a sizeable maritime museum.
For a small town on the Virginia side of DC, head to Fredericksburg. Exactly halfway between Washington DC and Richmond, this area was one of the biggest clashing points of the Civil War, so there are several historic battlefields in the area. The University of Mary Washington’s campus (my alma mater!) has beautiful architecture and nearby downtown Fredericksburg is full of antique shops and used bookstores. For lunch, get a classic grilled cheese at Goolrick’s counter. You can easily reach Fredericksburg in about an hour on Amtrak or VRE, the local commuter rail.
The state capital of Richmond is an easy 2-hour shot down I-95. The city has a great art scene running the gamut from the Virginia Museum for Fine Art to loads of murals and street art. Carytown is an especially fun neighborhood to visit, full of trendy boutiques and eateries, but much of the city has a unique vibe to it. How many major cities can you visit and kayak or raft right through the center of town? I highly recommend checking out BLK RVA to support local Black-owned businesses and celebrate Black culture during your trip.
I may be biased in recommending my lifelong hometown, but I definitely consider Charlottesville one of the best longer day trips from Washington DC. If you only have one day, I recommend choosing either the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Monticello and the University of Virginia, or exploring the food and arts scene around the Downtown Mall. One of the most unique things you can do on a day trip from Washington DC is experience the Looking Glass. The first immersive art museum in Virginia, this 6000 square foot enchanted forest and kaleidoscopic cavern was built collaboratively by two dozen local artists, and made for you to touch and interact directly with the art. From Washington DC, it’s about a 2.5 hour drive or train ride.
Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post, but I am employed by the Ix Art Park, where the Looking Glass is located.
Shenandoah National Park
Sometimes you just have to get out of the city. Shenandoah National Park is full of scenic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and great hiking opportunities, including a good swath of the Appalachian Trail. The park’s northern entrance at Front Royal is about a 90-minute drive from Washington DC, though it will be another 30 minutes or so before you reach the park’s best hikes like Old Rag and Stony Man. You can visit for free on any of the National Park Service’s fee-free days in 2021: January 17, April 16, August 4, September 24 and November 11. Even if you’re not the outdoorsy type, you can enjoy the park’s views cruising down Skyline Drive.
Want more than a day trip? Shenandoah National Park is the starting point for my 2-week Virginia road trip itinerary.
Luray Caverns is a great day trip from Washington DC, located about a 2-hour drive away. Discovered in 1878, these are the largest caverns in the eastern United States. At $30 a pop, hour-long tours aren’t cheap, but there is better lighting of the cave features than other caverns in Virginia.
Chincoteague has one of the best draws for animals lovers: wild ponies! Every July, “Saltwater Cowboys” herd a special wild breed of horse from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island in the annual pony swim. While the summer swim is certainly the most exciting time to visit, you can visit Assateague Island and see the ponies in the wild any time of year. This is a long day trip from Washington DC, though — the drive is a little over 3 hours each way.
Located in the very tip of West Virginia, Harpers Ferry is one of the most popular day trips from Washington DC. The historic city center, famous for John Brown’s abolitionist raid which kicked off the Civil War, is a national park full of museum exhibits and well preserved 19th-century architecture. For an outdoor adventure, take to the Potomac River for whitewater rafting, tubing, kayaking or paddle boarding. There is also lots of good hiking in the area — check out Loudoun Heights Trail or the Maryland Heights Loop.
Can you fit Philadelphia into a day trip from Washington DC? Absolutely! The City of Brotherly Love is just a two-hour train ride from Union Station, and its top historic sites are within pretty easy walking distance of each other. You can easily fit the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall into a day trip. Grab an iconic Philly cheesesteak for lunch, or hit up one of the city’s fantastic craft breweries.
Each of these 15 day trips from Washington DC could enhance your stay and show you a different facet of this historic region of the United States. For tips on what to see in the city, check out my 3 day DC cherry blossom itinerary.