Washington, D.C., the vibrant capital city of the United States, is an amazing place. I lived just up the road for a year and went to high school in MD, so got to visit quite often, and now pop back to see family too.

Known for its rich history, iconic landmarks, and political significance, you can read about my top tips for things to do in D.C for first-timers over on Blogger at Large, but when you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city, these day trips are a great idea.

Looking out car window to Washington Monument
We’re heading to Colonial Williamsburg!

Whether you’re a local looking for a quick escape or a visitor eager to explore the surrounding area, there are plenty of exciting options to choose from. 

This post highlights some must-visit destinations and the best things to do, including the charming city of Alexandria VA, Colonial Williamsburg VA, Leesburg VA, Harper’s Ferry WV, and Mt Vernon VA.

Korean War Memorial by night in Washington DC
One of the most impressive memorials in Washington, DC is the Korean War Memorial. Especially by night.

Alexandria, VA: A Historic Gem

Just a short drive or metro ride from the heart of Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Virginia, is a must-visit destination for history buffs and leisure seekers alike.

This picturesque city, founded in 1749, is brimming with colonial charm and boasts a well-preserved historic district. You’ll find cobblestone streets, beautifully restored 18th-century architecture, and a vibrant waterfront.

Exploring Old Town Alexandria

Start your Alexandria day trip by exploring the Old Town. Stroll along King Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, where you’ll find a delightful mix of boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries. Be sure to stop by the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a former munitions factory turned creative hub, housing dozens of artist studios.

Buildings reflecting on water Old Town Alexandria
Old town Alexandria charm

Delightful dining experiences

Alexandria is also renowned for its culinary scene. From waterfront seafood restaurants to cozy cafes, you’ll find various dining options to suit your taste. This is where you can savor some fresh Chesapeake Bay seafood— yes to the crab dip please — while enjoying views of the Potomac River.

Historical attractions

To dive into Alexandria’s rich history, visit some of its iconic landmarks and historic buildings. Find out how Alexandria balances modernity and historical preservation and explore the history of Alexandria by visiting its museums. 

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, where George Washington once dined, offers a glimpse into colonial-era hospitality. For a deeper understanding of African American history, head to the Alexandria Black History Museum.

Outdoor adventures

If you prefer the great outdoors, Alexandria has you covered. Rent a bike and explore the scenic Mount Vernon Trail, which takes you along the Potomac River to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.

The serene Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve is another nature lover’s paradise, offering birdwatching opportunitiesand some of the best hikes.

Wineries and breweries

Alexandria has several wineries and breweries to choose from for those looking to unwind with a glass of wine or a craft beer. Many offer tastings and tours, making for a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

Colonial Williamsburg, VA: A Living Museum

I have family living here and we just popped over for a wedding a few months ago. Colonial Williamsburg is like a living museum, but it’s an actual town located on the edge of Williamsburg.

Come here for a rich historical experience with its well-preserved 18th-century architecture, costumed interpreters, and various activities.

Megan with lady in costume, Colonial Williamsburg
The staff stay in costume and in character in Colonial Williamsburg

Explore the Historic Area

Start your visit by walking through the historic area and immerse yourself in the colonial era. Stroll along Duke of Gloucester Street, which is lined with historic buildings, homes, shops, and taverns. Interact with costumed interpreters who will share insights about life in the 18th century – all in character.

Visit Historic Buildings

Colonial Williamsburg boasts numerous historic buildings, including the Governor’s Palace, Capitol Building, and Bruton Parish Church. You can take guided tours and see demonstrations that provide a better understanding of the region’s history.

main street of Colonial Williamsburg
The main street of Colonial Williamsburg

Enjoy craft demonstrations

Watch artisans at work and learn about traditional crafts and trades from the colonial period. Blacksmiths, silversmiths, weavers, and more demonstrate their skills and often offer hands-on activities for visitors. My niece used to bake bricks as a summer job!

Dine in a Colonial Tavern

Have lunch or dinner in one of the authentic colonial taverns, such as Chowning’s Tavern or Shields Tavern. Enjoy traditional dishes and experience the ambiance of a colonial-era eatery.

Shields Tavern exterior
Step inside the old pub!

Watch educational programs and performances

Colonial Williamsburg offers a variety of educational programs, reenactments, and performances throughout the day. It doesn’t shy away from America’s slave history either. You’ll be walking along the street when all of sudden a black man will be accused of a crime and an impromptu trial will take place!

Check the schedule for events like historical reenactments, military drills, and musical performances to enhance your understanding of life in the 18th century.

A street reenactment in CW

Pro tip: You might want to buy a single-day or multi-day ticket to make the most of your visit, as there is much to see and do in Colonial Williamsburg. And be sure to drop by the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center for maps, information, and tips to plan your day.

Once you’re done in Colonial Williamsburg, step into Williamsburg itself for some lovely boutique shopping, cafes and restaurants.

The famous Cheese Shop in Williamsburg
The famous Cheese Shop in Williamsburg, just outside of CW

Leesburg, VA: A Wine Lover’s Haven

If you’re a wine enthusiast, consider taking a day trip to Leesburg, Virginia. It’s located about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C.

This charming small town is nestled in the heart of Loudoun County, which has gained recognition as a premier wine region on the East Coast.

Wine tasting in Leesburg

Wine tasting adventures

One of the great day trips from Washington, D.C., Loudoun County boasts over 40 wineries, each with its unique character and varietals.

Spend your day exploring the scenic countryside, stopping at wineries like Stone Tower Winery or Breaux Vineyards. Enjoy tastings of locally produced wines while taking in panoramic views of the rolling vineyards.

The Old Courthouse in Leesburg
The Old Courthouse in Leesburg

Historic downtown Leesburg

After your wine adventures, wander through historic downtown Leesburg. The town’s picturesque streets are lined with charming shops, artisanal boutiques, and quaint cafes.

Don’t forget to visit the iconic Red Fox Inn & Tavern, which has been plying travelers since 1728.

Harper’s Ferry, WV: A step back in time

Another captivating day trip with a scenic drive from Washington, D.C., is Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Situated at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, this historic town is known for its pivotal role in the American Civil War and its stunning natural beauty.

Pro tip: If you are traveling with your family, you can prepare some fun road trip games which I’ve covered, to make it more fun for the little ones! (Some also serve as great drinking games!)

Aerial view of Harper's Ferry
Harper’s Ferry

Historical sites

Harper’s Ferry is a living history museum with well-preserved 19th-century buildings and exhibits that transport you back in time. Explore the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, where you can visit museums and hike the scenic trails.

General Store at Harper's Ferry
Visit the General Store at Harper’s Ferry

Outdoor adventures

Surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains, Harper’s Ferry is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Set off on a hike along the Appalachian Trail, which passes through the town, or go tubing and whitewater rafting on the rivers. 

And if you loved the Shenandoah River, go for a drive to Shenandoah Valley for another wonderful nature hike.

Mount Vernon, VA: A Presidential Retreat

Just a short drive south of Washington, D.C., you’ll find the perfect place; the historic and serene Mount Vernon, Virginia.

This charming town is home to the iconic Mount Vernon estate, the former residence of the first President of the United States, George Washington. It is also one of the must-do day trips from Washington, D.C., for you history and nature enthusiasts. 

Exploring the Mount Vernon Estate

A visit to Mount Vernon is like stepping back in time to the 18th century. The visitor center will help you tour the beautifully preserved mansion. 

Four poster bed at Mt Vernon Estate
Inside Mt Vernon Estate

Stroll through the lush gardens and take in breathtaking views of the Potomac River from the mansion’s piazza. You’ll gain insight into the life and legacy of George Washington, one of America’s founding fathers.

Educational and cultural experiences

Mount Vernon offers a range of educational and cultural experiences. Explore the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, where interactive exhibits and artifacts bring history to life.

Don’t miss the opportunity to watch historic trade demonstrations on a guided tour, showcasing skills like blacksmithing and weaving.

Scenic beauty and waterfront

After immersing yourself in history, take a walk along the estate’s picturesque grounds. The tranquil beauty of the Potomac River, with its charming boathouse and scenic trails, is a great place for a leisurely stroll.

You can also take a sightseeing cruise from the waterfront, providing unique views of the estate from the water.

George Washington's home at Mt Vernon
George Washington’s home at Mt Vernon

Farm and Distillery tours

For a taste of 18th-century farming practices, explore Washington’s working farm. The four-acre farm offers insights into the cultivation of crops and the care of livestock.

Additionally, the onsite distillery produces George Washington’s renowned whiskey, providing a fascinating look into historical distillation methods.

A couple more day trip ideas from DC

Antietam National Battlefield

A day trip from Washington, D.C., to Antietam National Battlefield offers history enthusiasts and casual visitors an immersive journey back in time.

Located just over an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital, the battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland, is the site of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, which took place during the Civil War on September 17, 1862. 

As you traverse the hallowed grounds, marked by monuments, plaques, and preserved landmarks, you can almost hear the echoes of the fierce combat between Union and Confederate forces.

The visitor center provides insightful exhibits, films, and guided tours, enabling guests to understand the significance of the battle and its profound impact on the Civil War’s course. This trip offers a scenic respite from city life and a poignant reminder of the sacrifices made for the nation’s unity.

Canons at Antietam National Battlefield at sunrise
Canons at Antietam National Battlefield

Gunpowder Falls State Park

Gunpowder Falls State Park offers a delightful escape from the hustle and bustle of the capital on one of your weekend trips. Spread across over 18,000 acres, the park boasts a diverse landscape, with scenic trails, sweeping meadows, serene woodlands, and the eponymous Gunpowder River threading its way through the park’s expanse. 

Visitors from D.C. can spend their day exploring the park’s various sections, from the Sweet Air area with its gentle hiking paths to the Big and Little Gunpowder Falls, where the calming sound of flowing water provides a perfect backdrop for picnics and relaxation. A day trip to this Maryland gem provides a refreshing blend of nature, tranquility, and outdoor adventure, making it a must-visit for anyone looking to recharge amidst natural beauty.

Bridge at Gunpowder Falls State Park in the fall
Gunpowder Falls State Park in the fall

Day trips from Washington, D.C., cover everything from historical exploration to outdoor adventures and culinary delights.

Whether you choose to uncover the colonial charm of Alexandria, indulge in wine tasting in Leesburg, or step back in time in Harper’s Ferry or Colonial Williamsburg, each of these is the perfect way to create memorable moments just a stone’s throw away from the nation’s capital.

What to read next?

How about my 1 day in Washington, DC – that’s not nearly long enough, but if it’s all you have I can help you.

Or head further afield and visit Amish Country PA on a day trip from Philly.

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