There’s plenty to do in Philadelphia’s easy-to-navigate urban center to keep most people busy every day of the year. But sometimes, you just need a change of scenery and a fresh air escape from the city. Luckily, Philly is perfectly situated to explore the best of the Mid-Atlantic. Within roughly a one hour’s drive, you can visit gardens and museums in Delaware, beach towns in New Jersey, and historic sites in Pennsylvania, plus enough food and drink spots to keep you energized for a full day’s adventures before you head back home, no hotels required.
1. Brandywine Valley, Delaware
If you’re not familiar with Delaware, you may be surprised to discover the wealth of art in the Brandywine Valley area just over the border with Pennsylvania. It takes less than an hour to reach Wilmington and the jumping-off point for exploring the Brandywine Valley’s impressive former du Pont family estates, which have earned the area the nickname Chateau Country.
Start your explorations at Nemours Estate. Though it’s located in Wilmington, you may think you’ve been transported to France since the 300-acre estate was modeled after Versailles. Explore the formal French gardens and a 77-room mansion filled with artwork and gilded sculptures. Nearby is the Hagley Museum and Library where you can learn about the history of the DuPont family. Then head to another jewel in Delaware’s art crown: Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. Although the grounds are stunning, inside is where the prizes truly are: 90,000 pieces of American decorative and fine art spanning the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
Pro Tip: Pick up one of the award-winning sandwiches, like the turkey breast and cranberry stuffing “Zippy,” at Centreville Cafe (about five minutes from Winterthur) to enjoy in one of the scenic spots around the area.
2. Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Longwood Gardens is the star of the show in nearby Kennett Square, less than a 60-minute hop from Philly. Leave yourself plenty of time to explore the 1,077 acres of horticultural masterpieces here, including fountains, flowers, hedges, and trees. Highlights include fields of crocus, blankets of daffodils, and nearly a quarter-million tulips blooming in the spring. Flowers aren’t the only things growing in Kennett Square; the area is also known as the Mushroom Capital of the World. Visit The Mushroom Cap or The Woodlands at Phillips to learn about the mushroom industry and pick up some mushrooms in multiple forms (’shroom chip, anyone?) to take home.
Pro Tip: Need a pick-me-up before you hit the road? Stop at Philter for outstanding coffee and bakery treats before setting out for home.
3. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
Start your morning with modern conveniences before heading seemingly back in time with a visit to the Amish residents of Pennsylvania's Dutch Country, Lancaster. Even though it’s less than an hour from the bustling streets of Philly, it feels like another world altogether as you pass horses and buggies and farmhouses as you enter this quiet corner of Pennsylvania. Kitchen Kettle Village is where to stop for handcrafts such as quilts and woodworking. Learn more about these works of art at the LancasterHistory museum.
For a look at how the “plain” Amish live, plan a stop at the Amish Farm and House. Drive slowly in the countryside to see covered bridges (including Hunsecker’s Mill Bridge, the country’s longest single-span covered bridge), cornfields, barns, and farms (note there are several farms set up as tourist spots that you can visit, but private buildings do not welcome “English,” the name for non-Amish, visitors). Nearby you’ll also find Wheatland Estate, the home of James Buchanan, and Ephrata Cloister, an 18th-century structure built in the German Medieval style.
Pro Tip: Consider coordinating your visit with Central Market’s opening hours. Established in 1730, it’s said to be the country’s oldest farmers market. There are 80 stalls filled with area specialties such as scrapple, shoofly pie, stroopies, and whoopie pies, plus delicious cured meats, pickled veggies, and produce -- all worthy picnic fixings for your time out in the country.
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4. Hershey, Pennsylvania
Whether you have kids in tow or are a kid at heart, the Sweetest Place on Earth is a delightful day trip just under two hours from Philadelphia. There’s more than just the zippy Hersheypark here, although the 110-acre ride-filled park is loads of fun and boasts 14 wildly looping roller coasters. For tamer pursuits, there’s ZooAmerica, the year-round home of more than 200 North American animals, including Canadian lynx, elk, and mountain lion; and Hershey Gardens, 23 acres of blossoms and greenery including formal rose beds and a butterfly atrium in the summer. And, of course, there are chocolate distractions that are worth the trip alone, including Hershey’s Chocolate World for sweet shopping, a free ride exploring the history of chocolate making in Pennsylvania, and a “create your own candy bar” opportunity; the Hershey Story Museum offers a historical look at the life of Milton S. Hershey with interactive exhibits and includes a sophisticated tasting of chocolates from around the world. (Note that park admission includes the zoo, and museum entrance includes the gardens).
Pro Tip: The Spa at The Hotel Hershey is a two-floor paradise of sweet skin and body treatments including a whipped cocoa bath, chocolate bean skin polish, and a cocoa facial.
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5. Atlantic City, New Jersey
Just one hour from the urban center of Philadelphia are the golden beaches of New Jersey. While there are plenty of quiet spots to choose from, a trip to the bling and bustle of Atlantic City offers a full day of fun in one spot in any season. In the summer, hit the sand on the wide, clean, free (a rarity in Jersey) beach. Stroll the famous boardwalk, which is packed with shops and food stops for everything from pizza to saltwater taffy. Steel Pier offers up rides of every size including a Ferris wheel with views over the Atlantic Ocean. Then head indoors to check out the casinos. Even if you’re not up for gambling action, there’s plenty of live entertainment plus dining and cocktail stops to keep you busy.
One top choice: The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. A new entry to AC, it attracts big-name musicians (Mary J. Blige was headlining the last time I visited), and you can check out all of the artist swag for free and even grab a famed White House Sub from the food court.
Pro Tip: For a quieter beach experience, head just north of Atlantic City to Brigantine. You’ll have clear views of the Atlantic City Harbor but none of the crowds of the city to the south. Stop at beachside Laguna Rum Bar for drinks, food, and live music with sand under your toes.
6. Bucks County, Pennsylvania
History buffs will probably notice the signs noting George Washington’s myriad stops in the area as soon as they cross into Bucks County, about an hour’s drive from the city. But don’t stop at every one, or you’ll run out of energy before you hit the most important destination: Washington Crossing Historic Park, where General George Washington and his troops made their famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776. (Visit in December to witness a costumed reenactment). There’s more to do here than just watch the river, although it’s especially scenic if you visit in the fall when the leaves are changing. There’s also The Historic Village with period houses and businesses that offer living history demonstrations such as grain milling and blacksmithing. Enjoy a decadent meal with a side of history at Washington Crossing Inn, located in a perfectly preserved 1817 home.
Pro Tip: Round out a day trip with a shopping stop in nearby New Hope about 10 minutes away. The town is known for its art galleries and boutiques. Also here, the famous Bucks County Playhouse. Of your timing is right, you may even be able to catch an early show before you head back to Philly.
7. Princeton, New Jersey
A visit to the home of the eponymous Ivy League university, just an hour from Philly, is much more than a tour of the storied college campus. In the heart of the historic town is Palmer Square filled with independent shops and great spots to eat. Looking for a sit-down meal? Mediterra serves up farm-fresh spins on Italian and Spanish dishes. Just want dessert? The Bent Spoon has some of the best gelato in the state in flavors ranging from deep dark chocolate to passionfruit cilantro sorbet (the hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows is a worthy winter option). Burn off some of those calories exploring the scenic biking and hiking trails that frame the area.
Pro Tip: A great way to gain access to buildings on the Princeton campus is to buy tickets to one of the school’s affordable classical music recitals and concerts.