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It’s almost Labor Day, it rained half the summer, and D.C. is teeming with workaholics. Even those of us who took a vacation in June or July might be hard put to remember it by now. So take a day off. Treat your brain to the sight of mountains, a beach, or a different downtown. Swimming weather extends into September, and you can eat outside through the fall.
City Paper has compiled a list of 11 day trips from D.C. We made Union Station the starting point for most destinations because it offers trains and rental cars, and you can get there by public transit.
All of these trips are possible with less than 12 hours advance planning, and a lot of them are cheap. A day in North Beach, Maryland, shouldn’t cost you more than $35 if you have a car; we listed two destinations accessible by commuter rail; and if you go out to Trout Pond in West Virginia, you can pitch a tent to make it an overnight. Transform your day-long expedition into a weekend (or long weekend) by bringing a tent or booking lodging. Fancy-up any of these trips with a nice hotel. Or, as one writer recommends, put fresh sheets and some chocolates on your bed at home and conclude the day there.
Every itinerary here takes you out of D.C., but if you don’t have the time or the money to cross the District line, immerse yourself in Rock Creek Park for a day, or settle into one of the sparsely visited Smithsonians and get an iced coffee on the way home. Joy is yours. —Alexa Mills
Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown, West Virginia
For: West Virginia mountain mamas
Distance from D.C.: 70 miles
How to get there: Take the train or drive. MARC’s Brunswick Line will take you directly to the heart of Harpers Ferry for $17, but driving is your best bet if you want to visit other quaint small towns nearby. Lyft and Uber are available in the area, if a bit sporadically.
What to do: The Appalachian Trail passes directly through Harpers Ferry, and there are several different trails of varying levels of difficulty. The Maryland Heights and Loudoun Heights trails are the steepest and hardest, but also have the most rewarding overlook points. Once you climb back down, you’ll be ready to cool off on a casual river float. You can rent a floating tube from a local business like a chump, or bring an inflatable in your backpack and make your own fun. If swimming in the wild isn’t your thing, there are plenty of vintage antique shops to browse and historical oddities to explore. Try taking in a blacksmith demonstration, or check out the wax museum devoted to abolitionist John Brown’s failed attempt to start an uprising of enslaved people.
What to eat: Creamy Creations ice cream awaits you at the bottom of your mountain hike, and it’s worth waiting in the line. Nearby Shepherdstown has dining options that merit the 20-minute drive. Get your caffeine fix pre- or post-hike at Lost Dog Coffee, where you can also take in funky works by locals artists. The Blue Moon Cafe offers dishes prepared with ingredients produced or farmed locally and an excellent patio area. Maria’s Taqueria has unbeatable fish tacos and savory cheddar churros.
Make it an overnight: The Airbnb options are abundant, affordable, and adorable. You could stay in a teensy-tiny log cabin, a refurbished school bus, or a Colonial-era mansion that is almost definitely haunted. —Stephanie Rudig
North Beach, Maryland
For: Low-key day trippers. And we mean low-key.
Distance from D.C.: 33 miles
How to get there: Drive. Take the South Capitol Street Bridge to Suitland Parkway, a right on Maryland Highway 4, and a left on Maryland Route 260. This should take about 45 minutes, except during evening rush hour out of D.C. Then it’s easily more than an hour.
What to do:
It might be easier to say what there isn’t to do.
It’s not a sprawling beach for your loud party and honking big cooler filled with beer. (Alcohol is banned on the beach. They inspect your cooler.)
It’s not a beach with the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s not, really, a beach.
It’s a postage stamp-sized beach on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and non-resident visiting adults are charged $17 to access it.
But it’s the perfect day trip—or half-day trip—for a taste of salt air and casual detoxing from D.C. There’s a boardwalk, just a few blocks long, some antique stores, a museum, ice cream shops, and a few restaurants. The main thing to do is quietly appreciate the wide expanse of the Chesapeake Bay that spreads out before you. Breathe deeply.
What to eat and drink: Hook & Vine opened in May and serves tasty crabcakes in a relaxed, casual setting just two blocks off the beach. Sweet Sue’s Bake Shop and Coffee sells what it advertises. There are other eateries, most near adjoining Chesapeake Beach, but that area has a real suburban sprawl atmosphere.
Make it an overnight: It’s truly a day trip unless you rent a house or an apartment, or stay closer to Annapolis. Accommodations are scarce. Even Airbnb accommodations are scarce. Make it a day trip and sleep in your own bed. —Tom Sherwood
For: Cavern lovers
Distance from D.C.: 93 miles
How to get there: Drive. It’s a solid two hours and some change trip, so a car is essential. The fastest route is via I-66 W, but beware, the route has tolls.
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What to do: Luray is full of Virginia’s geological wonders—stuff you can’t find in the city. With a population of a little less than 5,000, it’s a small, scenic town in the Shenandoah Valley with a name that’s fun to say. Sure, there’s a nice beach and a nature trail at Lake Arrowhead Park, but the crown jewels of Luray are its vast caverns—the largest in the eastern U.S. And don’t worry, the caverns aren’t scary. They’re well-lit, have paved walkways, and guided tours are on offer. Be sure to check out the Great Stalacpipe Organ, a lithophone that, with gentle electric tapping, makes the caverns sing. It’s probably the biggest musical instrument on Earth. When you’re done with cave dwelling, check out the local museums: The Luray Valley Museum features recreated 19th century buildings and the Car & Carriage Caravan Museum showcases vintage rides.
What to eat and drink: Luray is meatlover heaven. Head to Triple Crown BBQ for juicy, slow-smoked Virginia barbecue—there’s pulled pork and sliced tri-tip sirloin by the pound. For cheap eats, enjoy Baby Moons’ all-American fare, from golden brown and deliciously crispy onion rings to stacked hot dogs.
Make it an overnight: Stay at the quaint little Hotel Laurance, with 19th century accents and free breakfast, or the old-fashioned Mimslyn Inn with free Wi-Fi, a spa, and a cocktail bar. —Kayla Randall
For: Biking in a city that isn’t D.C.
Distance from D.C.: 1 hour by train
How to get there: Take the train. Go to Union Station and get on the MARC bike car, available Saturdays and Sundays.
What to do: Charm City is a perfect one-day bicycling destination and it’s exceedingly easy to get there. The MARC ($8 each way) adds a dedicated bike car on weekends, allowing you to roll your ride on at no additional cost. In an hour, you and your bike are off at Penn Station and adventure awaits. On Maryland Avenue, a two-way protected bike lane (think 15th Street NW) carries you through downtown and toward the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, and Canton. You can take the well-marked and wide-reaching Jones Falls Trail back uphill past the train station and keep on it to get to Druid Hill Park or connect to Falls Road and Roland Avenue on your way toward always interesting Hampden. But the point, really, isn’t to go anywhere in particular. Bringing your bike to another city helps you cover a lot of ground quickly and caters to a love of whimsical exploration. Take the bike lanes and trails wherever they lead you. If you must have guidance, the Tour dem Parks route offers an excellent circumnavigation.
What to eat and drink: Crabcakes, pit beef, Natty Boh, Berger Cookies, Old Bay by the tinful—you’ve heard of all the stereotypical foodstuffs. Attman’s Deli will fill you with enough corned beef to power/impede your day’s pedaling. Handlebar Cafe is a combo restaurant and bike shop. Breweries abound, and you could stretch your legs riding from Waverly Brewing Company to Diamondback Brewing Company and back a few times.
Make it an overnight: Nah. If you miss your train, you’re only a little more than 30 miles from the Greenbelt Metro station. It’s a very doable ride on fairly quiet two-lane roads that parallel the Baltimore—Washington Parkway. Make sure you have lights—the parts of the route along the Patapsco River are quite woodsy. —Brian McEntee
For: A dose of nature and small town charm
Distance from D.C.: 139 miles
How to get there: Drive. From Union Station, it’s a straight shot down US-50 and takes approximately 2 and a half hours. You will have to pay a toll to cross the Bay Bridge ($2.50–$6, depending on your payment method).
What to do: Start your day on Assateague Island, where you can chase waves and soak up some sun on one of its beaches. The barrier island, located between Sinepuxent Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, is divided into a national seashore managed by the National Park Service and a state park managed by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. Leave your car at the state park—parking only costs $4 for Marylanders and $6 for out-of-state residents, compared to a $20 weekly pass for the national park—and start exploring. Wild horses, like those immortalized in Misty of Chincoteague, live on the island, as do a variety of aquatic birds, including gulls, sandpipers, herons, and pelicans. After your time on the island, head back to downtown Berlin, where you can visit artist studios and listen to live music at bars and restaurants on Main Street.
What to eat and drink: Burley Oak Brewing Company has served fresh craft beer to Berliners since 2011, and its tasting room is the perfect place to sample the brews, throw darts, and catch up with friends. When you’re hungry, check out Blacksmith, a farm-to-table restaurant serving cocktails and seafood-focused small plates, or Rayne’s Reef, an old-school soda fountain offering killer milkshakes and BLTs.
Make it an overnight: The Atlantic Hotel, in the center of town, has been in operation since 1895, and its decor refers back to its Victorian roots. It also made a cameo appearance in the classic 1999 rom-com Runaway Bride. If you seek a more intimate vibe, try the Waystead Inn, a five-room bed and breakfast. —Caroline Jones
Seneca Rocks, West Virginia
For: Rock climbers, hikers, and nature enthusiasts
Distance from D.C.: 171 miles
How to get there: Drive. Follow I-66 W and US-48 W to Patterson Creek Road in Maysville for just over two hours, then take exit US-48 W and drive to WV-28 S/WV-55 W for about 40 minutes.
What to do: There’s no place quite like Seneca Rocks, located in Pendleton County, West Virginia, for city-dwelling rock climbers looking for picturesque views and a challenge. The rocks rise nearly 900 feet above the water. Many of the routes are for advanced climbers, but guide services like Seneca Rocks Climbing School, Seneca Rocks Mountain Guides, and Blue Ridge Mountain Guides can help beginners or people who don’t have climbing partners. The area is home to farms, forests, and two mountain streams, Seneca Creek and the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Use the streams to cool off after a day of climbing or hiking.
What to eat and drink: There aren’t many options, so consider bringing your own food. But if you’re in a hurry, Yokum’s Vacationland has a general store and deli, and two restaurants, Front Porch and Subway, are nearby.
Make it an overnight: Find a campsite at either Seneca Shadows Campground, run by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, or Yokum’s Vacationland, which includes campsites for tents and fully equipped log cabins. —Kelyn Soong
For: Mountain views and delicious food
Distance from D.C.: 117 miles
How to get there: Drive or take the train. You’ll want to leave early to avoid traffic on your trip to Central Virginia. It takes about two and a half hours, and let your GPS of choice guide you to roads that cut through postcard worthy farms. Amtrak also runs trains from Union Station to Charlottesville.
What to do: Your day begins at the University of Virginia’s “academical village.” While exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Site, be sure to duck into the recently refurbished Rotunda, peek into the room Edgar Allan Poe (very briefly) inhabited before dropping out, and wander through the school’s many gardens. From here, head downtown to poke around Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall. Hunt for treasures in art and clothing shops and grab a bite to eat before heading out to the countryside to take in Blue Ridge Mountain views. Depending on your tastes, you’ll be ogling vistas from a brewery, vineyard, or mountaintop. There are too many spots to list, but Blue Mountain Brewery and King Family Vineyards are fan favorites, offering house-made drinks. If you’re looking for something a bit more active, hike Humpback Rock; it’s a short two-mile trail not far from town with a very rewarding view. Finish your day with a nice dinner in Belmont, a neighborhood just a few minutes from the mall.
What to eat and drink: For breakfast, do as locals and students do, and get a bagel at Bodo’s Bagels, conveniently located right next to the University. For lunch, it’s hard to go wrong on the mall, but The Whiskey Jar is the go-to spot for traditional southern fare. For dinner in Belmont, enjoy locally sourced food at the aptly named The Local, homemade pastas and thoughtful cocktails at Tavola, or toothsome tapas at Mas.
Make it an overnight: The South Street Inn puts you in the heart of Charlottesville, and offers a continental breakfast and free cookies. As an added bonus, if you’re staying Friday night, you’ll wake to find a bustling farmers market full of local products and street food outside the front door. —Will Warren
Alexandria, Virginia and National Harbor, Maryland
For: Locals trying to sail through all three parts of the DMV in one day
Distance from D.C.: 8.9 miles
How to get there: Public transportation. Take the Yellow Line from D.C. to Alexandria, then hop on a water taxi ($11 round trip for children, $17 round trip for adults) and cruise across the Potomac to National Harbor.
What to do: Start the day walking the cobbled streets of Alexandria. Check out comic books at Aftertime Comics, gaze at pretty vintage glassware at The Hour, or see what some of the region’s best artists are creating at the Torpedo Factory. From there, wander down to the waterfront, where you can set sail for Maryland. (Water taxis depart every 40 minutes on weekends.) If you’re interested in gambling, set your sights on the MGM National Harbor. If you’d rather not risk your money, you can enjoy the riverfront views from one of National Harbor’s many public seating areas or go for a spin in the Capital Wheel, which rises 180 feet. When you’ve finished exploring all that Oxon Hill has to offer, sail back to Alexandria and make your way back home.
What to eat and drink: Killer E.S.P. in Old Town Alexandria offers coffee and sweet treats throughout the day. Carnivores might consider Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster BBQ for snacks, sandwiches, and piles of smoked meat. If you’re looking for a way to treat yourself, try Fish by José Andrés at the MGM or the tasting menu at Nasime, an intimate Japanese spot in Alexandria.
Make it an overnight: Don’t. While the idea of turndown service is nice, the hotel prices aren’t worth it. Instead, change your sheets and make your bed before you leave. Maybe put some chocolates on your pillow. Flop onto the bed once you return home and enjoy the smell of fresh laundry. —Caroline Jones
For: Last-minute planners
Distance from D.C.: 79 miles
How to get there: Drive. Travel west on Route 7. The ride should take you about an hour and a half.
What to do: If you’re too lazy or busy to plan in advance—or you have little aptitude for day trip planning—Winchester is there for you. It’s lovely, low-key, and a fine place to go for the kind of day tripper who doesn’t choose a destination until the Saturday morning of the trip. The downtown Loudoun Street Mall is the perfect place to mosey and eat. Winchester Brew Works, also downtown, has a great beer selection and an ambience far more relaxed than you could find in D.C. Other Winchester activities include the Patsy Cline Historic House and the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley’s art galleries, plus historic house and gardens.
What to eat and drink: Snacking your way through Winchester is a good idea. Even if you go for a full meal, top it off with one of these three treats: A doughnut from Moe’s Donut Shop, which rivals every fancy doughnut store in D.C.; a slider (or several) from Snow White Grill, which you order from a window facing N Loudoun Street; an espresso drink from Hopscotch Coffee & Records, where, as you might guess, you can flip through vinyl records.
Make it an overnight: It’s possible to get a clean, quiet hotel room in Winchester for a good price, even at the last minute. Try for a deal at The George Washington Grand Hotel downtown, but if that doesn’t work out, look into the chain hotels. Getting a good night’s sleep in a quiet town is, in itself, a worthy thing to do. —Alexa Mills
For: People who love to hike in the morning and imbibe in the afternoon
Distance from D.C.: 74 miles
How to get there: Drive. Take a scenic journey along I-66 W and US-29 S.
What to do: Start your day by lacing up your shoes and hiking through Shenandoah National Park. Admission is $30 per vehicle. Trail options range from the moderate Thornton River Trail (10.5 miles) to the seriously strenuous but always popular Old Rag hike (9.2 miles). If you’re not too tired after your trip through the mountains, head into town for some beverage sampling. Pick your poison by visiting Pen Druid Brewing to try funky, fermented beers, Gadino Cellars for Italian wine and bocce, or Copper Fox Distillery, known for its single malt whiskey.
What to eat and drink: Try Three Blacksmiths (open Thursdays through Saturdays only) for farm-to-table fine dining; Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen for creative, wood-fired pizza; and Thornton River Grille for American classics like roasted chicken and grilled rack of lamb. If you’re feeling really fancy, The Inn at Little Washington is a mere six miles north.
Make it an overnight: Stay at Hopkins Ordinary, a food-driven bed and breakfast that even brews beer in the basement for guests to try. There’s a main house and a separate garden cottage for those who want more privacy. Prices fluctuate depending on the season, but rooms generally go for around $280 a night. —Laura Hayes
Wardensville, West Virginia
For: Those who favor small-town exploration, hiking, and lake lounging
Distance from D.C.: 104.3 miles
How to get there: Drive. Hop in your car, roll down all the windows, crank your favorite road trip tunes, and enjoy the scenic western drive.
What to do: Wardensville is the kind of small West Virginia town where looks are deceiving. It’s often overshadowed by Lost River, a similar town a few miles down the road that’s become quite popular among D.C.’s gay community. Wardensville has a small, roughly mile-long commercial main street with some interesting spots, including a throwback general store/diner and a small art gallery. But your best bet is to spend the day at Trout Pond. With an area of about 3 acres, Trout Pond has a small beach for lounging and swimming, an area to canoe and fish, and plenty of hiking trails in the surrounding woods, which offer some breathtaking views.
What to eat and drink: For nearly 10 years, the Lost River Brewing Company—a small brewery and pub situated in the center of main street Wardensville—was reason enough to make the trek. It unfortunately shut down earlier this year. But there’s still a number of spots worth checking out: The Star Mercantile, Quarter Mile Diner, and Kac-Ka-Pon Restaurant are your go-tos for quality comfort food. A few miles down the road in Lost River, the Lost River Grill & Motel, The Inn at Lost River, and the Guesthouse Lost River Restaurant & Lounge all offer unpretentious and delicious homestyle cooking.
Make it an overnight: Pitch a tent at one of the campsites in the Trout Pond Recreation Area. If you’re not into camping, there are a few inns, a motel, and bed and breakfasts in Wardensville and Lost River. —Matt Cohen
This article has been updated to reflect the current dining options in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia.