The classic East Coast road trip is the drive from NYC to Washington DC, taking in America’s three capital cities. Three capitals? Yes, three capitals: New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC.
This road trip starts in New York City, the financial capital of the world. From Wall Street to Broadway, this city pulses with energy and cultural attractions. While heading south, stop in Philadelphia, America’s first capital city and one of her finest cities. And finally, arrive in Washington D.C., the current capital of the United States.
And while it is possible to make the drive in just a few short hours, it’s best to take a full week to enjoy each of the cities and some hidden gems along the way.
Driving from NYC to Washington DC
If time is of the essence, the fastest route is to head south on I-95. This traffic clogged and unremarkable stretch of roadway will take you drive from New York to Washington DC in 4-5 hours (distance of 226 miles) – assuming there is no traffic. It is best to allow 5 hours for the trip, or even a little more if you will be hitting either NYC or Washington at rush hour.
However, it is best to skip the highway and opt for the more remarkable, historic, and scenic route outlined in the itinerary below.
New York City
Start by spending a day or two in America’s cultural capital: New York City. There is so much to do New York that you could easily fill a week or two but try to focus your time. The not-to-be-missed activities are visiting the National September 11th Memorial, the Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Museum, and a show on Broadway.
If you have more time, don’t forget the world-class art museums (Museum of Modern Art or The Met), a walk in either Central Park or along The High Line, and the views from either Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building (both are magical around sunset).
Two hours outside of New York and just across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania is Bucks County. This wealthy, rural area is home to horse stables, farms and a number of very cute little towns like New Hope and Doylestown. There’s a ton of activities and things to see in Bucks County to fill a day.
From pick-your-own farms to an unusual castle, Bucks County feels like it is a million miles from the hustle of the big cities on the East Coast. When visiting, you’ll quickly see why this is a very popular weekend getaway.
Alternative: The Jersey Shore. If you are visiting in the summer and would rather have a beach day, head to the Jersey Shore. You can work on your tan and experience the uniqueness of this unusual section of American life. The beaches at The Shore are not like beaches anywhere else in America. If you are visiting with kids, head to Ocean City, Sea Isle City or Margate. If you want the full Jersey Shore experience, head to Seaside Heights or Belmar.
The heart of your journey is Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and the Birthplace of America. We recommend spending two days in Philadelphia. For day one, take in all of the sites in historic Old City: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, flag maker Betsy Ross’s house, and Elfreth’s Alley, which is the oldest street in America. In the afternoon, take a break having a drink in a pop-up garden on the Delaware River or sample some of the classic Philly foods, like the famous cheesesteak.
On day two, explore the city’s cultural scene. Be sure to check out Museum Mile: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, and the Rodin Museum along Ben Franklin Parkway. Then head to South Street to see the quirky Magic Gardens. Along the way throughout the city, check out the thousands of public art murals that are part of the Mural Arts Program – the largest public art project in America.
Often overlooked in favor of New York or Washington, Philly is actually a remarkable city. When you think about the first anything, it happened in Philadelphia: hospital, post office, library, zoo, planned city, university, fire department, and museum.
But Philadelphia is not a relic stuck in the past. This is a truly modern, vibrant city. And Philly should be the centerpiece of your East Coast road trip.
After leaving downtown Philadelphia, head west to the suburbs of Montgomery County. About an hour from downtown Philly along the hills of Great Valley is Valley Forge National Historical Park. Here in the winter of 1777, General George Washington led a group of ragtag fighters from the various colonies into a winter encampment. The army that left the hills in the spring of 1778 was fit and motivated for battle.
While Valley Forge is an important part of American history, it is also a beautiful park full of trails for walking and cycling. It is a beautiful spot to enjoy in the morning before heading on in your East Coast roadtrip.
Leaving Valley Forge, head through the Brandywine Valley, which straddles the Pennsylvania-Delaware state line. This valley has lush hills and beautiful rivers…and lots of famous gardens. Pause for a visit at the famous Longwood Gardens, one of the many DuPont family legacy sites in the area. The DuPont family estates also include Winterthur, Nemours Estate and the Mt. Cuba Center.
If you are hungry, grab lunch in Kennett Square – the mushroom capital of America. This small town packs a culinary punch with great restaurants. For history buffs, turn your attention to the Underground Railroad sites located through the area. Located just north of the Pennsylvania state line, this area was full of abolitionists.
Just south of the PA line is Wilmington, Delaware. Now known of the hometown of President Joe Biden, this is also the center of the First State. Many of the top attractions in Wilmington are in the Brandywine Valley, but don’t overlook the restaurants in downtown Wilmington. Spending the night here before continuing the trip can make sense.
Despite being a college town and the capital of Maryland, Annapolis still feels like a very small town. It has all the charm of a quiet, waterfront community and with all the amenities because of a major university. Of course, that university is the U.S. Naval Academy and its location in Annapolis isn’t an accident. This town is the gateway to the Chesapeake Bay.
Staying in Annapolis for one night is a must. There are so many things to do in Annapolis that you will have a hard time narrowing down your options. Top picks would be taking a tour the Naval Academy and then heading out on the Schooner Woodwind for some sailing on the Chesapeake. Do not forget to load up on some delicious crab at one of the local restaurants. Annapolis is magical in the evenings and is worth one night.
Alternative: Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. If cute waterfront towns, sailboats, and amazing food are not your thing, skip Annapolis and instead head to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Here you can visit the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center, while trying some of the local seafood.
A short drive from Annapolis is Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. Much of what there is to do in Washington centers around the government and the National Mall. Top picks for visitors, especially those with kids, are visiting our government sites – the Capitol, the White House, and the National Archives.
Across the river in Arlington, Virginia, the Arlington National Cemetery, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a powerful experience for any visitor. And finally, do not forget to spend time visiting the national monuments: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Vietnam wall, World War II and Korean War.
But visiting America’s national museum, the Smithsonian, located in 17 museums and galleries, primarily located along the National Mall. Whether your interest in natural history or air & space, there is a museum that will captivate your interest. Visitors could literally spend a week visiting all the museums, so we recommend picking one or two that you would like to focus on and doing those. If you have more time, you can always add a few more.
Beyond the formal government institutions, there’s also some cool things to do in the city. Do not miss the Spy Museum, which is way cooler than you would ever expect from a museum. And, of course, there are some exceptional restaurants to experience. Washington is worth at least two days on your East Coast itinerary.
A final note—
If you happen to be starting your trip in Washington, DC, just flip the itinerary. It’s possible to do this trip as Washington DC to New York drive. It really does not matter which way you do the trip.