The USA’s European/modern history may be short(ish) by world standards, but they’ve packed plenty into the past four hundred years.
From the establishment of the first permanent and very precarious English colony at Jamestown in 1607, to the adoption of slavery, the American Revolution to overthrow British rule, the bloody devastation of the Civil War, the growth of the civil rights movement, and the rise of the United States as a global superpower throughout the 20th century, it’s been a wild and often rocky ride.
Home to much of the action for the first two hundred or so years, today the north-eastern corner of the USA is a travel destination like no other — and one that offers something for everyone. History buffs are especially well catered for with a wealth of heritage-based attractions to enjoy. But equally, this is a destination that holds huge appeal for culture vultures, foodies, and nature lovers. Exploring by road is a great way to go. You never have too far to travel to see something amazing, and the backstory of a particular area can make its cultural tone completely different from that of its neighbours. And you’ll experience plenty of heartfelt hospitality along the way.
For this story, we travelled by road from New York City to Williamsburg, Virginia, before continuing on into the Deep South. You could do this northern component comfortably over the course of seven days with overnight stops only. If it’s your first visit, add on at least three or four days to explore New York, and plan on spending a minimum of three days in Washington, DC.
Here are ten top things to do on a USA East Coast road trip.
Watch our video of ten top things to do on a USA East Coast road trip:
★ Did you enjoy this video? Help us make more by hitting the subscribe button! It will help us get more destinations on board. Thank you! ★Top Oz Tours takes…
1. See amazing art in New York City
New York is a mighty metropolis of 8.5 million people and a destination that defies logic in terms of the sheer number of attractions and things to do. There are around eighty museums and galleries vying for your attention, but don’t miss seeing the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) — an incredible cache of art spanning the past 150 years. Take in whimsical works of Monet, cubist creations by Picasso, splash-tastic abstract expressionism from Pollack, and popular pop art by Warhol. The gallery holds more than 200,000 pieces (with just a fraction of that number on display at any one time), and there’s literally something to gasp at around every corner. MoMa is located in Midtown Manhattan and is open daily.
From New York, head south to fabulous Philadelphia — the second largest city on the US eastern seaboard, and one that played a key role in the historical progression of the country from a collection of colonies to a unified country. Independence Hall is the centrepiece of the leafy Independence National Historical Park, which is renowned as the birthplace of American Democracy. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence from the British was adopted on the 4th of July, 1776 at what was then Pennsylvania State House — now known as Independence Hall — following a vote by the then thirteen colonies two days earlier.
The park is also home to the Liberty Bell Center, Congress Hall, and Benjamin Franklin Museum. Expect to spend a full day soaking up the historical gravitas of the precinct. When hunger strikes, seek out the much-loved and lauded local specialty — the Philly Cheesesteak.
It’s hard to believe that Australian director Peter Weir’s Oscar winning film Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, is now almost 40 years old. While it wasn’t well received at the time by the community it portrayed, it was an introduction for many to the gentle, softly spoken complexity of the Amish — a Christian religious group with roots in 16th century Europe. It’s 1.5 hour-drive west from Philadelphia to Lancaster County — notable for being the home of America’s oldest Amish settlement. The region is defined by rolling farmland, traditional-style barns (‘barn raisings’, where the community builds a barn for one of its members, are still a common occurrence here), and boxy horse-drawn buggies.
At the centre of Amish culture are a strong faith and belief in family values, a shunning of modern technology (including motorised transport), and a recognition of the benefits of hard work and a slower pace of life. Tourists have long been interested in getting an insight into life within this largely closed community (it’s estimated around eight million people visit Lancaster County each year). That’s given rise to a plethora of local tourism experiences, which the community has learned to live with over time. Amish Experience operates a guided tour that includes a visit to a local dairy farm, an arts and crafts shop, and an Amish family home — where the host fields questions from guests.
4. Learn about the Battle of Gettysburg
Continuing on towards Pennsylvania’s state border with Maryland will bring you to the historic town of Gettysburg. It’s remembered as the site of one of the most significant battles of the Civil War — and for Abraham Lincoln’s famously succinct but powerful Gettysburg Address. Fought between Union and Confederate forces, largely over slavery and political control, the Civil War claimed the lives of an estimated 600,000 men. A staggering 51,000 died over the course of just three days during the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, which took place in July, 1863 on the fields and hills surrounding the town.
Situated an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Gettysburg, US capital Washington, DC, is a city that needs no introduction — and like New York, is packed with cultural attractions and must-see monuments. Don’t miss seeing the epic Lincoln Memorial, which honours Abraham Lincoln — the 16th president of the United States — who oversaw the end of the Civil War in 1865. The Memorial overlooks the famous Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument, and United States Capitol Building in the distance.
The axis between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol is framed by Constitution and Independence Avenues — home to some of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution museums — all of which are free to enter.
6. Pay your respects at Arlington National Cemetery
It’s a short drive from DC over the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery — one of America’s most revered commemorative sites, and the final resting place of service personnel from every US conflict since the American Revolution. Many visitors come to pay their respects to John F Kennedy — the 35th US president and WWII naval hero. The Kennedy family graves, which include that of the former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, are marked with an eternal flame.
7. Meet the Washingtons at Mount Vernon
It was on the 30th of April, 1789 that George Washington took his oath of office as the first President of the United States. Washington’s beloved home — Mount Vernon — is located 30 minutes’ drive south of DC. Now owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, it’s open to the public and provides a fascinating insight into 18th century life.
Washington lived here with his wife Martha from the time of their marriage in 1759 until his death in 1799. Tour the main house with its glorious period furnishings, and explore the extensive grounds and beautiful walled gardens. It may come as something of a surprise to learn that many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, owned slaves. Washington would go on to free all his enslaved labour in his will, and the practice was finally abolished with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution on the 18th of December, 1865.
8. Spend a night in Shenandoah National Park
The busy streets of the capital give way to leafy country roads and emerald-green pastureland as you make your way west towards Virginia’s 200,000-acre Shenandoah National Park. Established in 1935, the wooded park follows the line of the Blue Ridge Mountains (part of the transcontinental Appalachian range) and cruising along the top of the ridge on famous Skyline Drive is a truly sublime experience.
Shenandoah is home to a variety of furry residents — including bear and deer — and an abundance of birdlife. If you’ve ever wanted to escape the rat race and live in a log cabin in the woods, this is the place to give it a try. Skyland Resort is beautifully integrated into the natural setting and offers a range of accommodation options, including some seriously rustic cabins. Sit for a spell on your porch and let those cares drift away on the mountain-laurel-scented breeze.
9. Walk in the footsteps of the first settlers
From Shenandoah, travel south-east to Virginia’s capital Richmond and down the Virginia Peninsula to where it all began for the US. The city of Williamsburg is home to two key historical attractions — one of them, situated in its very heart. But first, pay a visit to Jamestown Settlement — an engaging historical recreation that showcases what life was like for those first arrivals from Britain in May 1607. Explore a Powhatan Native American village, board replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery (the three ships that arrived from England), and learn what life was like inside the James Fort — the fortified structure that housed the initial settlement and encompassed an area of about an acre.
Life was no picnic in the New World by all accounts, and the arrival of reinforcements bolstered the fortunes of the settlement a number of times. Just a short distance away on Jamestown Island, remnants of the real fort have been uncovered at the Historic Jamestowne archaeological site.
By 1699 Jamestown had been burned to the ground by rebels and largely abandoned in favour of the growing town of Williamsburg, a short distance up the peninsula. Designated the capital of Virginia that year, Williamsburg prospered until the decision was made to move the colony’s administrative centre to Richmond in 1780 for defensive reasons. Williamsburg’s 18th century architecture fell into disrepair, only to be gradually brought back to life throughout the early 20th century as part of Colonial Williamsburg — today, a bustling 70-hectare living museum in the heart of the surrounding modern city. It’s quite the tale, and is testament to the USA’s respect for its own history.
Millions of mainly domestic tourists visit the site every year, which is occupied by townsfolk clad in bonnets and shoe buckles, living and working in the buildings that still stand exactly where they did pre-the American Revolution. Watch historical re-enactments and traditional tradespeople at work, ride in horse-drawn conveyances, and browse the wares behind the amazing heritage shopfronts. This is as close any of us is going to get to time travel!
Top Oz Tours offers a great range of USA day tours, guided experiences, and attraction tickets and passes. There are no booking or credit card fees when you book through us, and you’ll have access to the widest choice of activities and most competitive prices.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of top things to do on a USA East Coast road trip? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of Top Oz Tours and Travel Ideas, and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger, and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.