When I think of Maryland, I think of water — from the wide, tree-lined Potomac River forming a border between Maryland and Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay that nearly slices the state in half. Along that watery divide, the state nestled between Pennsylvania and Virginia has long been the land separating the industrious, say-it-as-you-see-it North from the slower-paced, genteel South.
From the nation’s capital to the Pennsylvania border, this Maryland road trip from Washington, D.C., to Hagerstown explores the history and places that make Maryland a charming cultural blend of the North and South.
Saying there is a lot to see and do in Washington, D.C., is like pointing out that Denali is tall, the Grand Canyon is deep, or New York City is densely populated. Despite having lived in the Washington, D.C., area three times, I still haven’t visited all of the sights on my travel bucket list.
At a minimum, I recommend that visitors to Washington, D.C., tour the monuments and memorials. Visit them on foot by strolling the National Mall, a wide green space that stretches 2 miles between the United States Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Or rent a bicycle to speed up your travel time between stops. However you choose to explore, don’t forget to head south from Honest Abe to the cherry tree-lined Tidal Basin, where statues of Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Jefferson stonily stare each other down across the water.
From the National Museum of Natural History to the National Zoo, I also recommend visiting as many of the Smithsonian venues as you can. While many people think the Smithsonian Institution is one massive exhibition hall, it’s actually a collection of museums, art galleries, and gardens — plus a zoo! And the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is one of only four places in the U.S. where you can observe giant pandas. Tackling the world’s largest museum complex is no small feat, but these tips always help me have a great experience.
College Park Aviation Museum
If you didn’t get your fill of aviation history after viewing Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and other exhibits at the National Air and Space Museum, then hopefully the College Park Aviation Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, will do the trick. Located next to the airport established in 1909 so that Wilbur Wright could teach two military officers how to fly, the museum showcases several unique planes, including a reproduction of a Wright Model B, a Berliner helicopter, and a Boeing Stearman.
After exploring historic aircraft that once glided through the sky, it’s a 30-minute drive directly east to the water. On a peninsula with a shoreline that resembles the beautiful, jagged edges of an ice crystal, Annapolis is Maryland’s capital city and home to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Start your visit at the stately red-brick Maryland State House, where the treaty ending the American Revolution was ratified, granting the U.S. its independence from Great Britain. Then grab a scoop (or two) of ice cream at the Annapolis Ice Cream Company and stroll the cobblestone streets through historic Annapolis, passing colorful row houses, local eateries, and unique boutiques on your way to the harbor. See the city from the water by enjoying a bay cruise, or simply relax in Ego Alley and watch the boats breeze by.
Pro Tip: While quaint and historic, the cobblestones and uneven pavement in Annapolis can be a bit difficult to navigate in some areas, so be careful not to twist an ankle.
Fort McHenry National Monument And Historic Shrine
Near Baltimore, about 40 minutes north of Annapolis, the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine is best known as the site of the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Start your visit with the movie in the visitor center, and then attend a musket-firing demonstration, enjoy a fife-and-drum performance, or join a ranger talk to learn more about this important historic site.
Pro Tip: You can see the 15-star tattered garrison flag that flew over Fort McHenry on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History before you leave Washington, D.C.
Just a short drive north of Fort McHenry, Baltimore is Maryland’s largest city and one of the nation’s oldest seaports. Start with a trip to the Inner Harbor, where a brick promenade creates a crimson border between the water and several blocks of restaurants, shops, and attractions. This is where you’ll find the Baltimore Visitor Center, board charter and tour boats, and see the city from the Baltimore World Trade Center’s Top of the World Observation Level. And the building whose pointed glass top looks like an Atlantic sharpnose shark preparing to leap out of the water is the National Aquarium.
After you’ve explored the sights and sounds of the waterfront, take your taste buds on a tour of Baltimore. Since you’re in blue crab country, kick off your meal at the Thames Street Oyster House in Fells Point with a cup of Maryland crab soup or the cast-iron crab cake. Then dig into a seafood salad of blue crab, shrimp, and calamari piled high on a leaf of butter lettuce. And, as you might expect from the name, the oysters are delicious, too!
Patapsco Valley State Park
Back on the road again, Patapsco Valley State Park is just 20 minutes west of downtown Baltimore. With eight recreational areas covering 16,000 acres, this state park offers hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing, and more. One of the most popular destinations is Cascade Falls.
For an easy trek to the waterfall that cascades into the Patapsco River, follow the Cascade Falls Trail. This 2.1-mile out-and-back trail is rated easy and is relatively flat. For a more challenging hike, take the Cascade Falls Loop Trail that continues north from the falls, adding an additional mile to the journey as it returns to the main trail through the woods.
About 40 minutes west of Patapsco Valley State Park, Frederick is where Maryland’s coastline fades into your rearview mirror and the mountainous western part of the state emerges. Built around Carroll Creek, arched stone bridges connect the well-preserved brick colonial buildings and cross-topped, high-steepled churches on both sides of the water in downtown Frederick.
While exploring the historic downtown, stop at Hootch & Banter. Whether you select an appetizer, cocktail, or entree, you won’t be disappointed! From the appetizer menu, try the twice-cooked chicken wings or the mini beef Wellingtons. While you’re no longer along the coast, you are still in Maryland, so the crab cakes are delicious. And if you’re growing tired of seafood (I’ve heard it occasionally happens), consider the burger of the weekend. While the offering changes regularly, it’s consistently a beast of a burger with multiple layers featuring surprising ingredients like a deep-fried potato cake or sunny-side-up egg. And it is typically topped with something substantial, like a massive dill pickle spear or strip of fried chicken. I promise you won’t leave the joint hungry if you order one of these babies!
Antietam National Battlefield
In the mid-1800s, as the nation marched toward civil war, Maryland was a house divided. Although slavery was allowed in Maryland, residents in the northern and western regions supported emancipation, while those in the southern and the eastern regions were sympathetic to the Confederacy.
Although Maryland never seceded from the Union, General Robert E. Lee led the Confederate Army into the Old Line State to “liberate” Maryland from the North. The first Civil War battle in a Union state was horrific, and after the smoke from the muskets and cannons had settled, more than 22,700 Americans were dead in the rolling hills about 20 miles west of Frederick. To put the death toll from America’s bloodiest battle into perspective, that’s nine times the number of American deaths than there were on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
As you explore the Antietam National Battlefield, reading the posted signs and viewing the monuments, it’s hard not to hear booming cannons and agonizing cries of pain, recognizing that there are never winners in war, only heartbreaking losses for all.
This Maryland road trip ends in the Appalachian valley town of Hagerstown. Just south of the Pennsylvania border, this quaint Maryland town has long been associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch (who are actually of German and not Dutch descent). Visit the Jonathan Hager House Museum, the two-story stone home of the city’s founder that dates to the 1740s. Then stop by the Pennsylvania Dutch Market in the Long Meadow Shopping Center for a bite to eat or a unique souvenir. You’ll find crispy fried chicken, fresh pastries, seasonal produce, handmade quilts, handcrafted wooden furniture, and more.
With a focus on the area’s rich history and delicious food, this Maryland road trip includes some of the best things to see, do, and eat from Washington, D.C., to Hagerstown.