What to See on a Drive from NYC to Washington DC

The classic East Coast road trip is the drive from New York City to Washington DC. While it is possible to make the trip 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. Our recommendations include stops in the usual suspects of New York, Philadelphia, and DC plus Bucks County, Valley Forge, Wilmington, and Annapolis. Along the way, there are lots of historic sites, parks, museums, and good things to eat and drink.

One World Trade Center tower.
The skyscrapers of New York are a great start to your adventure

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 let 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 any of the cities at rush hour.

With more time, we recommend skipping the highway and opting for the more remarkable, historic, and scenic route outlined in the itinerary below.

New York City

Statue of Liberty.
Lady Liberty in New York Harbor

Start by spending a day or two in America’s cultural capital: New York City. There is so much to do in New York that you could easily fill a week, but try to focus your time on the highlights. On a nice day, visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Museum is a must. Timed tickets are required for the ferry ride, and the climb to the top of the crown (164 steps!) is worth it. Back in Lower Manhattan, the ferry terminal is only a 10-minute walk from the somber giant waterfalls of the National September 11th Memorial.

There is no better way to get a sense of the grandeur of New York than by visiting one of its observation decks. The Empire State Building is a classic, and our favorite is Top of the Rock. Timed tickets mean that lines aren’t very long, and they’ll give you a rain check if the weather is poor. At Top of the Rock, you’re only three blocks from seeing masterpieces like Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Monet’s Water Lillies at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A combined ticket saves $10 on admission to both.

If seeing a Broadway show is high on your list and you’re flexible, check out the TKTS ticket counter in Times Square for a chance to get same-day discounted tickets. Joe Allen’s and Sardi’s are always a good choice for a pre-theater dinner. We also enjoy 5 Napkin Burger–they have good deals on their weekday happy hour.

Bucks County

Three-story brick building with large windows.
Historic Doylestown in Bucks County

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 towns like New Hope and Doylestown. There are a ton of activities and things to see in Bucks County to fill a day.

From pick-your-own spots like Solebury Orchard or Shady Brook Farm to the serenity of Washington Crossing Historic Park (the point where Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware), 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.

Our favorite spots in Bucks County are Main Street in New Hope and Fonthill Castle in Doylestown. Main Street is a delightful street lined with shops and restaurants, and it offers great river views. Browse the stores and stop for lunch at New Hope Ferry Market. If you’re up for more walking, stroll across the Delaware River to wander quaint Lambertville, New Jersey, on the other side.

Bedroom with a ceiling and wall covered with colorful tiles.
A bedroom at tile-covered Fonthill Castle

Fonthill is a location unlike anywhere else. Over 100 years old, the concrete castle was originally built as the private home of collector Henry Mercer. He filled it with souvenirs from his travels and adorned the walls, ceilings, and fireplaces with tiles collected from around the world as well as many he made himself. A tour of the massive building provides an in-depth look at the architecture and Mercer’s unique story. Timed tickets are needed. Leave about 90 minutes for a visit here.

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.


Two-story brick building with a clock tower.
Historic Independence Hall

The heart of your journey is Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and the birthplace of America. We recommend spending two days in Philadelphia to see the historic highlights and experience some of the unique things that set Philly apart.

For day one, take in all of the sites in historic Old City. Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, which are just a few feet from each other, are both free to visit and relatively quick. Just a few blocks away, flag maker Betsy Ross’s house and Elfreth’s Alley–the oldest street in America–round out some of the top attractions. 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. The Museum Mile in the western part of Center City includes the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is world-renowned for its collection. Outside, a statue of the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa draws visitors year-round (usually before or after they run up the “Rocky steps,” aka the museum’s steps). A few blocks away, the Rodin Museum showcases the largest collection of the sculptor’s work outside France.

Our favorite museum in this area is The Barnes Foundation which houses an unbelievable group of artwork, including paintings by artists such as Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, and other greats. The works are uniquely displayed alongside furniture and metal objects that may have you scratching your head at the groupings. If you’re looking for a place for lunch, the on-site restaurant is excellent.

Art gallery lined with paintings and wooden sculptures with a metal chicken displayed in the center of the room.
A gallery at the Barnes

If you haven’t had enough art yet, head to South Street for a completely different artistic space–the quirky Magic Gardens which is made of outstanding mosaics and found objects. Honestly, every time I see works by Isaiah Zagar–either at his Magic Gardens or around South Philly–I can’t help but smile. Along the way, check out the thousands of public art murals that are part of the Mural Arts Program – the largest public art project in America.

End your day with a visit to one of Philly’s iconic restaurants–Zahav, Amada, or Parc–and a nightcap at Bok Bar or a speakeasy like Hop Sing Laundromat or Andra Hem.

Valley Forge

Stone building in a park.
General George Washington’s headquarters in Valley Forge Park

After leaving downtown Philadelphia, head west to the suburbs of Montgomery County. About an hour from downtown 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 over 12,000 ragtag fighters from the various colonies to set up a winter encampment that essentially became the fourth largest city in America. The winter was extremely challenging due to diseases and lack of supplies, but the army that left the hills in the spring of 1778 was fit and motivated for battle.

Throughout the park, there are memorials to the Revolutionary War troops as well as replica log cabins of the type they built and lived in. You’ll see Washington’s Headquarters–the building he stayed in along with his aides-de-camp and paid and enslaved workers. It is open daily for visiting. We always stop by the dramatic National Memorial Arch where there are sweeping views of much of the park and gorgeous foliage in the fall.

While Valley Forge is an important part of American history, it is also a beautiful park full of trails for walking and cycling. It’s a popular spot for people training for races (myself included) or just for having a picnic in a peaceful setting. Depending on your interest level and how many sites you want to see, a stop here could range from 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Brandywine Valley and Wilmington

Plants and flowers in a glass conservatory.
The Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

Leaving Valley Forge, head through the Brandywine Valley, which straddles the Pennsylvania-Delaware state line. This valley has lush hills, beautiful rivers, and lots of famous gardens and estates.

Pause for a visit at the famous Longwood Gardens, one of the many DuPont family legacy sites in the area. The incredible space is 1000+ acres of manicured gardens and woodlands. The creations in the Conservatory consistently impress and intrigue us with their use of sculpted plants, brilliant flowers, and water features. If the weather is nice, a stop here is essential. It’s also incredible when decorated for Christmas.

With more time in the area, consider a visit to one of the other DuPont family estates such as Winterthur, Nemours Estate, and the Mt. Cuba Center. Winterthur has a house museum that features the largest collection of decorative arts in America ranging from hand-painted Chinese wall paper to a tankard that belonged to Paul Revere. A spring visit to the 60-acre garden here actually took my breath away when we managed to see peak bloom of most of the flowering trees. Nearby, the outstanding landscaping at Nemours includes ponds, grand fountains, and a stunning vista view from the 77-room mansion built by Alfred I. duPont. Check out the bowling alley and the vintage cars in the chauffeur’s garage.

Garden full of blooming flowers.
Winterthur’s quarry garden

Rounding out the group of estates, a visit to Mt. Cuba Center is primarily about the outdoor space. The grounds are filled with native plants, and the nature trails provide an opportunity to see many of them. We love the pond, and the dogwood path is worth a stroll.

Just south of the PA line, there are lots more attractions in Wilmington to visit. Take a walk and have a meal along the Riverfront or tour Old Swedes Church–consecrated in 1699, it’s one of the country’s oldest churches. Don’t miss DE.CO food hall for a selection of different cuisines and drinks. Fortunately, it is located in the same building as the Hotel du Pont–spending the night here before continuing the trip can make sense.


Sailboat on the water.
Sailing on the Schooner Woodwind in Annapolis

Despite being the capital of Maryland, Annapolis still feels like a small town. It has all the charm of a waterfront community with all the amenities associated with a capital and the home 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. Our picks include taking a tour the Naval Academy and then heading out on the Schooner Woodwind for some sailing on the Chesapeake. If you’re in town on a Wednesday night in the summer, the city’s Wednesday night sailing races are always fun to watch (or participate in!).

Don’t miss the chance to see the city’s street art or watch the boats showing off in the area affectionately known as Ego Alley (it’s technically City Dock). If you’re in town on a weekend, Great Frogs Winery is a fun place to stop for a wine tasting. For shellfish lovers, Annapolis does not disappoint–you’ll find everything from a crab omelet (Chick & Ruth’s Delly) to excellent crab cakes (Carrol’s Creek).

Washington DC

White building with a large dome, the US Capitol Building.
The Capitol Building in Washington

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.

The various museums of the Smithsonian are fascinating and free to visit. With 17 museums and galleries in all, there is something for everyone. 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. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is at the top of our list.

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.

Statue of Abraham Lincoln
The Lincoln Memorial

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.

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