Washington, D.C. is so chock-full of museums, you could see them from star-spangled sunup to sundown for days on end (to say nothing of the Capitol and the White House, both worthy of a tour). But despite the fact that there’s an endless list of cultural treasures to work your way through -- even locals struggle to see it all -- we still think it’s worth saving some vacation days to duck out of town and do a few side trips. The region around D.C. is saturated with history dating back to the founding fathers, plus it offers dazzling natural attractions, family-friendly sights, and a gentler pace. Here are our eight picks for the ultimate D.C. day trips.
1. Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Home, Virginia
Hamilton may be having a moment, but Virginia’s Monticello will prove to you why Jefferson has always been at the top of the founding fathers list. On the surface, it’s a beautifully preserved building that offers a glimpse into life in early America. But Monticello is also a memorial to Jefferson’s brilliant mind, documenting his advancements on everything from architecture to wine-making to democracy. That said, exhibits and tours don’t shy away from some of the more difficult questions surrounding Jefferson, including his conflicted actions surrounding slavery. For younger visitors, there are hands-on activities that show kids 18th-century games and other diversions. Leave a little time to explore the region’s Wine Trail, too. After all, a bottle of Virginia red or white makes a fine souvenir. Driving time: two hours and twenty-five minutes.
2. Luray Caverns, Luray, Virginia
If you’re a fan of the “National Treasure” movie franchise and think a trip to D.C. should be filled with treasure hunting through booby traps and underground caves, head to Luray Caverns in Luray, Virginia, to indulge in that last part (we can’t make any promises about treasure or booby traps). Registered as a national landmark, these caverns are covered in towering stalactites and stalagmites made more even dramatic with lighting. Jagged geological formations throughout create an otherworldly backdrop to some incredible cathedral-sized caves. Highlights include a subterranean lake that provides a perfect mirror to the undulating ceiling and a “stalacpipe” organ that taps the surrounding rock formations to play notes — an especially Gothic touch. But kiddos may prefer the little rock formation that resembles two sunny side-up eggs, proving nature can be both majestic and dainty at once. Driving time: two hours.
“Charming” is an understatement for Old Town, a waterfront neighborhood in Alexandria with well-preserved houses and buildings dating to the 1700 and 1800s, back when the journey to D.C. was made on horseback. Cobblestone streets, clapboard townhouses, and steps topped with boot-scrapers are just some of the details that make this area feel like you’ve time traveled to a previous century. But this town is very much alive and thriving in 2017, as is evident with all the shops and restaurants that line King Street. (Note to foodies: This is an excellent spot for brunch.) Another relatively modern addition is the Torpedo Factory Art Center along the harbor that houses a number of galleries showcasing contemporary artists. Driving time: 20 minutes.
4. National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland
Sharks! Do we have your attention? The fact is, nothing is more attention-grabbing than coming face-to-face with a real-life “Jaws.” And that’s exactly what the National Aquarium’s Shark Alley in Baltimore allows. Visitors can enter a ring-shaped tank to become completely surrounded by sandbar sharks, nurse sharks, and many of their gilled cousins. If you prefer your animals a little less menacing, you can always pay a visit to the turtles, dolphins, or puffins. Countless tropical fish sporting colors from electric orange to rainbow stripes prove that marine life offers up loads of razzle dazzle. And plenty of kid-friendly “4-D” films screen here, including movies like “Happy Feet.” Driving time: one hour.
5. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Yes, there’s a national park that’s within day-tripping distance from Washington, D.C. The Shenandoah gives a great counterpoint to all the city’s indoor activities, and it can give kids (of all ages) the opportunity to get big gulps of fresh mountain air and let all their frenzied energy out. Take a trek down the park’s various hiking trails, which includes over 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Or join a ranger program that can offer instruction on the area’s flora and fauna (including bears!). A trip here can also be paired with a Luray Caverns visit, doubling up your dose of Mother Nature. Driving time: one hour and 40 minutes.
6. Mount Vernon, George Washington's Home, Virginia
Historian James Thomas Flexner nicknamed George Washington “The Indispensable Man,” and for history buffs, a trip to Mount Vernon is the indispensable outing. The estate here includes multiple original buildings reflecting the President’s era. While the iconic red-roofed mansion gives a thorough rendering of Washington’s daily life down to the teacups, it’s the ancillary buildings, like the blacksmith shop and the spinning house, that provide a fuller picture of the labor involved in running this massive property. Incidentally, farm animals are still kept on the ground along with thriving gardens. Washington’s tomb is also here, so you can pay your respects to good ol’ number one. Driving time: 30 minutes.
7. Maryland Science Center, Baltimore, Maryland
When your eyes begin to glaze over from all the historic dates and important figures of our past, come to Maryland’s Inner Harbor to switch your perspective to the future. This science center in Baltimore knows how to electrify an all-ages crowd with hands-on science labs and planetarium presentations like “Solar Superstorms.” Newton’s Alley can seem more like a big playroom than a museum, thanks to tug-o-wars and water vortexes. An on-site IMAX covers crowd-pleasing creatures like beavers, butterflies, lemurs, and whales. Pair a visit here with a trip to the National Aquarium. Or top off your visit with a water taxi ride to explore the area by boat. Driving time: one hour and 10 minutes.
The D.C. area is home to all kinds of Americana related to our country’s early days, but this day trip covers another major milestone: the Civil War. Gettysburg, the most famous and bloodiest of all its battles, is brought to life here through films, tours, and exhibits. Kick off your visit with a movie narrated by Morgan Freeman that sets the scene for the battlefield tour ahead. Be sure to leave a little time for the museum and the Soldier’s National Cemetery, where Abraham Lincoln delivered the words “four score and seven years ago” in the Gettysburg address. Note: Licensed battlefield guides get booked up in the summertime, so reserve in advance. (It’s worth the extra hassle, as a good guide has trained extensively to address the crowd’s questions and give an evocative account of the battle.) Driving time: one hour and thirty minutes.
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