The US capital straddles the states of Virginia and Maryland, each with their own cosmopolitan cities, old towns, beaches and miles of empty green hills. Here’s a selection of the best day trips from Washington DC for every season.
Old Town Alexandria
Distance from Washington DC: 13 kilometres
When to go: Winter
Within eyesight of the US Capitol (if you stand by the Potomac River you can see it downstream) is Old Town Alexandria, a sweetly preserved historical neighbourhood with architecture dating back to the 1700s. Known as George Washington’s hometown, Old Town Alexandria has pretty cobbled streets (Captain’s Row), prime colour row houses and plenty of independent boutiques and restaurants along King Street, the eight-kilometre-long spine that runs through the town (like Columbia Firehouse, great for cosy-contemporary Southern food). Former arms factory turned artist union, the Torpedo Factory, is also worth checking out. While Alexandria is a chilled alternative to DC year-round, in winter it really shines – literally. At Christmas, the row houses along King Street are amped up with fairy lights and huge wreathes, and the town celebrates its Scottish heritage with the annual Scottish Christmas Walk Parade. There’s lots of tartan…and Scotty dogs.
Loudoun County vineyards
Distance from Washington DC: 65 kilometres
When to go: Summer
DC’s wine country is across the border in Virginia, where the hills are planted with mainly chardonnay, cabernet franc and viognier grapes. There are more than 300 vineyards dotted across the state, 40 on the fertile soils of Loudoun County, America’s wealthiest county by household income and right across the Potomac River from DC. There are plenty of vineyards to choose from, but one of the most atmospheric is Sunset Hills, in an Amish-renovated German barn (and, as the name suggests, with a beautiful view of the sunset). If you want to stay in Loudoun, the sprawling Lansdowne resort has a spa, golf and wine tours.
Distance from Washington DC: 28 kilometres
When to go: Spring and autumn
The first President of the US, George Washington, lived at Mount Vernon, a plantation home just outside DC. An impressively restored mansion house where Washington lived with his wife Martha (and entertained hundreds of visitors every year) sits within a 200-hectare estate with lawns, blockbuster views of the Potomac River across to Maryland and his (and his extended family’s) tombs. There’s a large education centre with exhibitions and even a 4G movie to explain Washington’s role in the Revolutionary War. The drive to Mount Vernon is just as remarkable, via the tree-flecked George Washington Memorial Highway, a landscaped road so pretty it is considered a national park.
Distance from Washington DC: 66 kilometres
When to go: Year-round
Less than an hour from Washington DC’s Union Station is Baltimore, a lively harbour city (it grew around its tobacco trade with England) with some of the US’s oldest historical districts. Not far from the Downtown area is 19th century Mount Vernon, home to Washington Monument, the ornate Peabody Library and the Walters Art Gallery, with an impressive collection of 19th-century European art; as well as Fell’s Point, a waterfront district with cobbled streets, quirky shops and over 120 pubs. It’s also a growing culinary centre – Woodberry Kitchen once hosted the Obamas, while nearby The Elk Room’s speakeasy vibe has made appearances on many a ‘best bar’ list. If you need to stay, The Lord Baltimore, handily positioned between Mount Vernon and the Inner Harbor, has plush rooms, a rooftop bar for hot summer nights and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.