6 best day trips from Washington, DC

The USA’s capital is full of cultural and historical attractions but the gems that lie just beyond the city limits are equally extraordinary.

From tucked-away hiking trails to neighboring cities with different rhythms, these are some of our favorite day trips from Washington, DC.

1. Discover the best of nature in Shenandoah National Park

Travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

One of the greatest joys of living in the DC area is how quickly you can find yourself in the beauty of Shenandoah National Park. Within the 311-square-mile preserve are cascading waterfalls, breathtaking viewpoints and caverns galore.

Challenge yourself by hiking Old Rag Mountain or keep it lowkey with a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Drive just an hour further to visit one of Virginia’s greatest wonders, the Natural Bridge.

If small towns are your vibe, check out Elkton, where you can sip on tea or try spaghetti ice cream (don’t worry, there’s no tomato sauce involved) at Elkton Creamery and Tea Room. After you’ve worked up a thirst, head across the train tracks to indulge in a cold brew at the Elkton Brewing Company. Not far away is Luray, a town with cozy Nordic-style cabins and miles of underground stalactites and stalagmites on display at Luray Caverns.

How to get to Shenandoah Valley from Washington, DC: Your best option is to get here by car. From DC, the two closest entrances are the Front Royal Entrance Station off I-66 and Thornton Gap Entrance Station off Highway 211. You must purchase an entrance pass to access the park and the private vehicle fee is $30.

Visit more of the USA’s incredible national parks

Dale Chihuly glass reed sculpture at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts VMFA in Richmond, Virginia. Getty Images.

2. Feel that Southern charm in Virginia’s capital, Richmond

Travel time: 2 hours

Trade the current nation’s capital for the former one and enjoy a day of urban exploring – Richmond does not skimp on history and culture. Sample hand pies and BBQ while learning about the history of the city on a walking tour of one of its oldest neighborhoods, Church Hill. Rest your weary feet and take a short cab ride to the Museum District where you can surround yourself with unique modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Belle Island on the banks of the James River is a true urban island escape, perfect for those looking for an outdoor refuge. Then take a wander through Maymont – a 100-acre estate with a peaceful Japanese garden, a Romanesque-style mansion and some friendly goats. End your day with an irresistible taste of soul food at family-owned Mama J’s in the historically black Jackson Ward neighborhood.

How to get to Richmond from Washington, DC: Hop on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional line, which will drop you in the heart of Richmond’s main street in about two and a half hours. Or grab a 90-minute Flixbus from Union Station.

From majestic mountains to romantic valleys, here’s where else you should go in Virginia

3. Get your beach and seafood fix in Annapolis, Maryland

Travel time: 50 minutes

Annapolis boasts probably one of the closest beaches to DC at Sandy Point National Park, located right at the base of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. No Maryland beach day is complete without blue crabs, and cracking these babies is a Maryland rite of passage. Pile your plate high and drench it in Old Bay at the prominent Cantler’s Riverside Inn.

After your feast, venture into town and roam around the Historic district’s quaint shops and tasty restaurants like Iron Rooster, which serves a delicious all-day breakfast. Make sure to do a little yacht spotting at the Annapolis City Dock in the heart of downtown. For a unique experience, take a guided house tour at the gorgeous William Paca Home and Garden (he was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence).

How to get to Annapolis from Washington, DC: Annapolis is less than an hour’s drive east of Washington, DC, via US 50 East. Flixbus also offers a short 45-minute bus ride from Union Station into downtown Annapolis.

Man harvesting grapes
Peak harvest season at Bluemont Vineyards, as a member of their production crew, harvests from their Norton Vines. Photograph: Bluemont Vineyards.

4. Sip your way through wine country in Loudoun County, Virginia

Travel time: 1 hour

Move over, Napa – Virginia’s wine scene has plenty to offer. Head to the mountainside Bluemont Vineyard, where the 951 Tasting Room (named after its elevation) stuns with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Or grab a tasting flight decadent with local flavors at Three Creeks Winery.

Loudon has some of DC’s closest farms, so embrace the lifestyle and do some spring strawberry picking at family-owned Wegmeyer Farms. Tramp along lavender fields and create your perfect bouquet at the tiny Blooming Hill “farmlet” in Purcellville.

This area is also a divine option for an up-scale weekend getaway. If you’re feeling bougie, treat yourself to a stay at the luxurious black-women-owned Salamander Middleburg Resort & Spa.

How to get to Loudoun County from Washington, DC: Loudon is just 45 miles west of DC and is best accessed by car. Head west on 1-66 and then exit onto VA-267 W.

5. Float down the river in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes

Harper’s Ferry is full of fascinating history, but that’s not all it has to offer. Cradled at the meeting point of two rivers, this town has the perfect balance of natural sights and adventure. I’m talking ziplining over the dense canopy, whitewater rafting across the bubbling waters of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, or hiking magnificent overlooks like Jefferson Rock.

Its greatest warm-weather offering is a chance to lay back and go flat-river tubing (did I mention you can rent a tube for your cooler?). Balance all the adrenaline with a history lesson at the John Brown Museum and learn about the doomed raid led by John Brown in 1859 – though unsuccessful, it was a quintessential moment in the fight for abolition during the Civil War.

How to get to Harpers Ferry from Washington, DC: Two trains, the Amtrak Capital Limited and the MARC Brunswick line, can get you here in just one and a half hours from Union Station. Driving will give you the best accessibility for the surrounding area – head northwest on 1-495 to 1-270 N for one and a half hours.

Exterior of Mount Vernon, Virginia
Mount Vernon was the plantation house of George Washington, the first President of the United States © Bob Pool / Shutterstock

6. Leave the car and explore Alexandria on two wheels

Travel time: 1 hour and 45 minutes 

For an ultra-close two-for-one trip, head across the river to Alexandria. First up, Mount Vernon, the home of the first US president and his wife, George and Martha Washington. Take a guided mansion tour and walk the grounds for an insight into not only the First couple’s life but also the lives of the enslaved people who helped shape Mount Vernon into the estate it is.

Afterward, head just eight miles north to the cobblestoned streets of Old Town in Alexandria. While the facade seems reminiscent of colonial times, everything about Old Town is a modern delight, from an award-winning dining scene and spooky ghost tour offerings to boutique storefronts steps away from the riverfront.

Grab a scoop from a family-owned shop that’s been serving since 1984, The Creamery, and head for a walk around the Torpedo Art Gallery to witness incredible masterpieces by local artists. End your night with dinner at 219, serving creole-style food and live music.

How to get there: This entire journey can be done by combining the Metro and biking on the Mt. Vernon trail. From DC, head south on the Yellow or Blue line to King Street-Old Town Alexandria station, rent an e-bike and take the scenic 1-hour ride to Mount Vernon. Swap the bike ride for a quick Uber or Lyft if you’re not in the mood to sweat.

Keep planning your trip to Washington, DC:

Find the best times to visit
These experiences should be on your DC itinerary 
Getting around DC is easier than you think – here’s how
These incredible experiences won’t cost you a thing

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