Beautiful towns within driving distance of Washington, DC (and that are not overrun with tourists)
October 1, 2009 9:55 AM   Subscribe

EastCoastFilter: Is your lovely town a best-kept secret? Looking for a magical sort of place to visit in or near DC, Virginia, or Maryland, something with the sort of historic downtown/art scene/subtle eccentricity vibe of Savannah, Ga. or Charlottesville, Va.

I live near DC and have a car this weekend and my spur-of-the-moment notion was to find a special sort of place to which to have a leaves-changing-colors drive that is near the Mid-Atlantic. The last time I felt I was walking around in a "magical" town or city was New Orleans (of course), but I would gladly and gratefully "settle" for a place like Charlottesville, Va. or Savannah, Ga., where there's a lot of things to see and do without having to drive around. I think these sorts of places align very closely with college towns rather than places where people retire which is the impression I got from places like, say, Middleburg, Va. Thanks so much!
posted by actionPetential to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (25 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Annapolis would be close. Very similar to Charleston SC and Savannah GA.
posted by anti social order at 10:07 AM on October 1, 2009

I think Shepherdstown, WV might fit the bill ((including being home to a university). Every time I go there, I stop by Shaharazades Tea Room.
posted by amarynth at 10:17 AM on October 1, 2009

My dad was recently raving to me about Staunton, VA for some reason.
posted by ghharr at 10:22 AM on October 1, 2009

I'd vote for Ellicott City, though personally I'm excited about bringing the kids to Agricultural History Farm Park this weekend.
posted by and hosted from Uranus at 10:30 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Harper's Ferry. I was there this time last year and the colors were amazing. I day tripped - not sure if it would keep you busy for more than a weekend. You could also take the train, so you could hold on to this one for a non-car weekend.
posted by degrees_of_freedom at 10:30 AM on October 1, 2009

Crozet, VA. It's outside of Charlottesville, VA, but very different. Crozet Pizza is so awesome you will weep, and there's apple picking and fall foliage all around.
posted by littlerobothead at 10:31 AM on October 1, 2009

Lancaster, PA, fits your criteria. The MrsMoonPie and I, urban hippies that we are, loved our weekend trip to the area.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:42 AM on October 1, 2009

I hear similar things about Asheville, NC.
posted by politikitty at 10:44 AM on October 1, 2009

I second Ellicott City. I favorited, but I just want to be clear which part I'm favoriting. EC is a tiny bit twee, but I love it anyway.
posted by hought20 at 10:50 AM on October 1, 2009

Any place in the northern part of West Virginia this time of year will be beautiful. Berkeley Springs, Harper's Ferry are great choices, but they can be kind of boring if you're not into the spa thing or the hiking thing.

When I lived in W.Va. (I live near DC now), one of my absolute very favorite things to do around this time of year was take a road trip through the state. W.Va. has beautiful scenery - Blackwater Falls, Seneca Rocks, Dolly Sods, New River Gorge (which is host to Bridge Day, held on the third Saturday of October, where people can base jump off the New River Gorge bridge).

The leaves change color earlier in the northern parts, so I would stick to panhandle stuff if you're going this weekend. Here's a chart that tells you when peak time for maximum fall leaves ogling in W.Va. is.
posted by kerning at 10:50 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry for yet another answer, but as a North Carolinian I would second any high marks given to Asheville, NC. It's really beautiful, with a thriving art scene and some excellent restaurants. Hell, I'd just move there altogether if I could.
posted by littlerobothead at 11:16 AM on October 1, 2009

I was in and near Asheville last weekend and the leaves were *just* starting to turn. So you'll see some color, but it's not going to be full tilt from the leave-watching perspective. The town is awesome though, and funky-fresh-walkable in that Savannah kind of way.
posted by zpousman at 11:22 AM on October 1, 2009

littlerobothead: "Crozet, VA. It's outside of Charlottesville, VA, but very different. Crozet Pizza is so awesome you will weep, and there's apple picking and fall foliage all around."

This. Crozet pizza is worth it. Can do both C'ville and Crozet.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:32 AM on October 1, 2009

Mmm. Crozet Pizza. Seriously though, there's not enough here to do for a whole weekend without including Charlottesville, Waynesboro, or Staunton or a bunch of driving to do the Brewery crawl in western Albemarle -> Nelson counties or the Vineyard Crawl in roughly the same area.

If you don't want to repeat Charlottesville, I'd go for Staunton (home of Mary Baldwin College), which has Shakespeare and a fire engine museum and a Presidential museum and good food. Plus, there are a bunch of old houses being fixed up near downtown that would make a lovely walking tour. And if you're willing to drive 5 minutes outside of town, the Frontier Culture Museum is having Oktoberfest on Saturday. The museum is an open air museum that has living demonstrations of what it was like to farm the Valley at different times in different cultural communities. Staunton has old restored movie theaters and an old-fashioned drive-in restaurant, is right in the middle of an Antique Store-rich stretch of Rte. 11, and has artsy shopping. You might enjoy driving home up the Skyline Drive (from just east of Waynesboro) up to I-66 on your way home.
posted by julen at 11:50 AM on October 1, 2009

If you're thinking about Staunton (my home town btw and a good choice), another one to consider would be Lexington, VA (which is just up the valley, @30 miles down 81 from Staunton). It has an awesome downtown area, two colleges (W&L and VMI) with a lot of history and historical attractions and museums to go with it.
posted by trox at 12:02 PM on October 1, 2009

Not too far from DC (an hour down I-95) is Fredericksburg and I would recommend it for a visit. Probably not a full day thing, but close by is Ferry Farm, Geo. Washington's birthplace and Fredericksburg old town has his mothers home and other historical spots and Civil War connections. We also have some pretty good restaurants, antique shops and art studios and galleries.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2009

When I lived in that area (caveat: decades ago), my favorite unknown spot was Occoquan in Prince William County. I have no idea what the little village I knew then is like now, but it certainly was a charming place to visit at that time.
posted by trip and a half at 12:45 PM on October 1, 2009

I'm going to third Ellicott City. I used to live there and I loved it. Don't forget the abandoned Women's Psychiatric Institute. It's super awesomely creepy. You can also check out nearby Savage Mill.
posted by mrsshotglass at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I second Lancaster, Pa. and also suggest Chadds Ford, Pa.

If you want beautiful country, you can't go wrong with the land that inspired three generations of Wyeths. Tour the Brandywine Museum and then hit the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail's Harvest Festival. Perhaps stroll around Longwood Gardens? These are close together, relatively speaking, but not clustered within walking distance.

If I were going to Lancaster this weekend, just for fun, I'd pick up Route 15 to Frederick and then into Pennsylvania just to see the Catoctins and the fields and the open road. Maybe pick up 30 East (though it's slow and York congestion is awful) and go over to Lancaster. You can check out what's going on here, though I'd suggest parking in the central downtown lot and going to Market, Zap's and pretty much everywhere that I suggested to MrMoonPie, above. I'd describe Lancaster as emergent funky rather than as beautiful, but it makes a fun day trip.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:12 PM on October 1, 2009

Havre De Grace, MD has a small historical downtown (it was almost the US Capitol), decent B&Bs and at least 3 very good restaurants (Laurrapin Grill, MacGregor's and Tidewater). Plus, it has the benefit of being on the water. The boardwalk starts at Concord Point lighthouse. Stop for a casual & cheap lunch at the little marina cafe. If you like walking, the town has helpfully marked out Lafayette's Trail. There are a multitude of 'antique' and artsy shops in 'downtown HDG' plus the Decoy Museum & the Lock House. If you stay at a B&B in HDG, you can walk to everything.

Depending on what time you'd arrive in HDG you'd have the option to take the fall foliage dinner cruise on the Lantern Queen at $45pp on Friday night. You have to pre-purchase tickets on line though.

A few miles up north of HDG is Chesapeake City, MD. Another quaint town and this one's on the Delaware Canal which makes for interested boat watching. Plenty of shops and eateries. I highly recommend the Bayard House restaurant although it's a little pricey for the area.

About 20 minutes from HGD up the river is Port Deposit, MD. There is not much to do in town but there are quite a few very good restaurants - Portside is right on the river, the tea room a block down river is nifty and I highly recommend CM Tugs - especially on the weekends.

If you were going next weekend, I'd tell you to add the Darlington Apple Fest (a short drive from HDG) into your itinerary but alas, you will miss it.
posted by jaimystery at 1:17 PM on October 1, 2009

Response by poster: Wow, what an amazing number of ideas: Staunton, Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown, Annapolis, Fredericksburg, Crozet, Chesapeake, Havre De Grace, Ellicott, Lancaster, Chadds Ford... my head is swimming with the possibilities! You folks are all so amazing - I never cease to be impressed by the helpful AskMeFi community.
posted by actionPetential at 1:50 PM on October 1, 2009

I strongly second/third the suggestion of Lexington. It's home to Washington and Lee, as well as the Virginia Military Academy, to old and historic institutions. It's a historic town, and you can visit the Lee Chapel where Robert E. Lee is buried, as well go visit Stonewall Jackson's burial site in a local cemetery. My parents lived there for my dad's law school, and still talk lovingly of it. From my own visits, it seemed very walkable.

For bonus points, drive Route 11 down to it, and stay off of evil 81.

I also would warn about Crozet. Crozet Pizza is famous (though, I think more for reputation - but my own personal opinion!), but there isn't a lot to Crozet. It's a small town with a grocery store, a retirement home, a Subway, and another little restaurant and a couple gas stations. There's a brewery there now, I think as someone mentioned, which was established inside an old ConAgra factory (used to sell manufacture price frozen dinners across the street - was good bargain).

More to the point, Crozet is now the classic example of sprawl in Albemarle County. The place is surrounded by housing developments, where the houses are crammed in on each other, from regular homes to townhouses, all built where beautiful fields used to be, or where woods were cut down.

The mountains are pretty to view there, and I loved seeing them every day that I went to school from middle school through high school.

If you don't want to go down to Lexington, I'd recommend driving south to C'ville, then hop on 250 west. Drive it through Ivy on to Crozet (you have to turn off 250 after you cross Mechum's River or you'll miss Crozet! This will be Three Notch'd road which is a highway built on an old road), and then from Crozet, reconnect with 250 just east of "Brownsville" (it's just a sign and two gas stations now) and where the schools are all located. Take 250 west over the mountain pass Waynesboro, and then on to Stanton, which has Mary Baldwin and a neat restored downtown.

Harper's Ferry is also a beautiful destination, but more of a historic tourist destination than a college town. It offers a fantastic view of two great rivers coming together beneath stone bluffs.
posted by Atreides at 2:07 PM on October 1, 2009

N'thing Asheville. If you haven't been, it is a must-visit. You can stay at the Grove Park Inn if you are feeling especially rich, and you won't regret it. The Biltmore is also expensive but right around this time of year, it is simply gorgeous.

If you are coming from D.C., you could even drive a good bit of the way down on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That's as good as it gets.
posted by suburbanrobot at 3:00 PM on October 1, 2009

Don't forget Harrisonburg. It's not as big or funky as Charlottesville, but it is a college town, and from there you can easily continue down I-81 (or my preferred alternative, Rt. 11) to Staunton and on to Charlottesville. Harrisonburg is, IIRC, fairly walkable downtown, especially on Main Street.

Charlottesville, Staunton, and Lexington are about as good as you can get for pretty, small, walkable cities. Roanoke is another two hours south of Staunton and also has a walkable downtown, but it's a lot larger and probably not worth the drive when other places are closer.

Incidentally, starting October 1 a new Amtrak Regional train starts service to Charlottesville and Lynchburg. You could easily leave the car and take the train; public transit is quite good in the city, and you could take a taxi to Crozet. There is a single train a day running from Charlottesville to Staunton, in case you wanted to spend a night in Staunton as well. (The Cardinal goes from Staunton back through Charlottesville to DC.)
posted by armage at 7:00 PM on October 1, 2009

Staunton Grocery is an incredibly good restaurant. And costs about half of similar meals in any big city. Also in Staunton: great Shakespeare theater, farmers market Saturday AM, and the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:29 AM on October 2, 2009

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