The Getaway Mavens take pride in finding the most obscure, insider’y, behind the scenes, romantic places in the Northeast United States. Herewith, find 50 Under the Radar Tourist Attractions in Mid-Atlantic States of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Most are within a 3-5 hour drive of New York City.
Gape at the travel desk and land-claim cross that belonged to Christopher Columbus, discover some real Brigadoons, peer at George Washington’s actual dentures, and enjoy high tea in a mansion while a classical quartet plays. Dance the night away in the famed Spanish Ballroom, and so much more.
What you won’t find here are the typical national parks, beaches (e.g. the popular Virginia Beach), Museums of Art, the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of Natural History, or other museums on the National Mall, because those are covered ad nauseam elsewhere.
What you will find are some of the quirkiest, most romantic tourist attractions in all the Mid-Atlantic states, (with the exception of West Virginia).
Tourist Attractions In Pennsylvania
Weightlifting Hall of Fame @ York Barbells, York
Into bodybuilding or weight lifting? Industrial machines? Colonial taverns? There’s a museum for you in York PA!
Considered the “Father of World Weightlifting” – which includes both powerlifting (as pertains to weight) and body-building (sculpting the muscles) – Bob Hoffman started a trend that was popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s and still continues to this day.
You can delve right in at the Weightlifting Hall of Fame @ York Barbells.
York Colonial Complex, York
A history buff? Find out how people got their news during in the 1700s by touring the York Colonial Complex, in the City of York PA, which includes The 1741 Golden Plough Tavern, the adjoining 1755 General Horatio Gates House, and the 1812 Barnett Bobb Log House, which was moved here in the 1960s.
Agricultural And Industrial Museum, York
The Tavern belonged to a family of German heritage who lived and worked there. On the first floor, the tavern room was as close as it got to network news, as travelers would eat, drink, and share gossip of the day.
Learn about our industrial heritage at the Agricultural And Industrial Museum where large-scale printing presses, overhead crane rails, a 1916 trolley car from downtown York, a working gristmill water wheel, and artifacts from many York factories can all be found.
It’s a wonderland for both kids and adults.
Columbus Chapel and Boal Museum, Boalsburg
Christopher Columbus’s artifacts from the time he Sailed the Ocean Blue in 1492 are kept in a vault in little ole Boalsburg. Amazingly, yes. At the Columbus Chapel and Boal Museum (20 minutes from State College, in Happy Valley PA).
It almost seems too suspect to be true. The cross that Christopher Columbus used to claim unexplored land and his circa 1400s Admiral’s Desk in a vault in this tiny mid-PA town? And, slivers of the True Cross of Jesus, too?
Well, at least one of those has been authenticated, the other taken on faith. But both artifacts and much more have ended up in this small town location, the home of 8 generations of the Boal family.
Find out how this came to be on a tour of the Boal Museum and Chapel for a story that will blow you away. This is surely one of the most poignant tourist attractions in the Mid-Atlantic States.
American Philatelic Society Headquarters at the Match Factory
The center of everything stamps and stamp collecting is also within a 20-minute drive of State College PA at the American Philatelic Society Headquarters at the Match Factory in Bellefonte, a lovely “river runs through it” kind of Happy Valley PA town and center of the universe for all things philatelic.
“Philatelic” may be a mouthful of a word, but in essence, it concerns stamp collecting and postal history – with an emphasis on academic research. Who knew that the hobby some of us pursued as kids could be so exciting? The museum and research library are top-notch.
Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park, Spring Mills
Touted as the “Only all-water Cavern AND Wildlife Park” in America: See It By Boat!” this show cave has been delighting tourists for 133 years.
All Sports Museum at Beaver Stadium, State College
But, I gamely went to Beaver Stadium, home of the Nittany Lions, and the second largest college stadium in the country (at 106,500 seats, second only to U of Michigan, with 109,000 seats), to check out the All Sports Museum.
I’m glad I did. The stadium itself is imposing, but the museum swept me up in the fierce devotion, positive striving, and competitive spirit of the “Blue and White.”
Arboretum at Penn State, State College
Also on campus, wander among the blooms and sculptures at the Arboretum at Penn State: H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens.
A copse of evergreen trees pierces the sky, and colorful sculptures and flowers beguile throughout this serene arboretum. No wonder it’s one of the most popular attractions on campus.
Gateway Clipper Fleet Tour, Pittsburgh
Learn about the heroes and legends of America’s first government rebellion – post Independence on a boat tour through Pittsburgh’s Gateway Clipper Fleet.
Book an hour sightseeing cruise on one of the several paddlewheel boats in the Gateway Clipper Fleet for an overview of Pittsburgh PA history, with a crash course on Pennsylvania History.
While plying the three rivers that run through Pittsburgh, a historian narrates the area’s history from 1681, when King Charles II granted 45,000 square miles of land to William Penn to modern times.
Top contender for the quirkiest of tourist attractions in the Mid-Atlantic States, you’ll be sure to stare in wild-eyed wonder at this fantasia of a back, front, and side yard – Randyland.
On the same street and steps from The Mattress Factory, Randyland – the wildly colorful brainchild of Randy Gibson, whose goal was “to bring happiness to his neighborhood” – is such an ecstatic, iridescent, geometric, disjointed, engrossing, eclectically decorated home and property, it’s become a media darling.
Fred Rogers Center, Latrobe in Laurel Highlands PA
“Mr.” Fred Rodgers grew up about 1 ½ hours from Pittsburgh in this small town. Visit the museum devoted to him – Fred Rogers Center, on the campus of Saint Vincent College in Laurel Highlands PA.
An ordained minister, Fred Rogers considered his television show to be his ministry, leading one reviewer to write, “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood makes us feel safe, cared for, and valued.
Wherever Mr. Rogers is, so is a sanctuary.” The Fred Rogers Center was the prime resource for both the Documentary and the Tom Hanks film. (Yes, Hanks spent time here doing research).
It also features a small museum where you’ll see Rogers’ four different colored sweaters – knitted by his mother (that he alternated every day and couldn’t differentiate due to his red-green color blindness), puppets used on the show, plenty of photos, and quotes by Rogers and others about him.
Fred Rogers died in 2003. He was, as many said, “an island of peace.” We sure could use him now.
Elk County Visitor’s Center, Benezette
The best time to see these moose/deer mashups is at dusk and dawn. And, the best place to see them is through the Elk County Visitor’s Center’s picture windows or by walking the trails around open fields.
Bilger’s Rocks, Grampian PA
Stumbling on Bilger’s Rocks in Clearfield County, a 20-acre natural wonder, is akin to discovering Angkor Wat Temple in the midst of a Cambodian jungle. Roots and trees shoot out from rock outcroppings, some overtaking them entirely.
This geological phenomenon was caused by “frost wedging” – where angular boulders broke off from the surrounding mountainside, creating narrow stone passageways, caves, and moss-covered stone chunks – some as high as a 5 story building and perfect for climbing.
If you’re seeking one of the really wildest, out-of-the-way tourist attractions in mid-Atlantic states, Bilger’s Rocks fits the bill.
Clearfield County Historical Society, Clearfield PA
We can learn a lot about forest management from the Native Americans who knew how to do it right. The Clearfield County Historical Society provides an overview.
Timber and logging were central to the wealth of Clearfield County, as this 1880 “One-Percenter” brick home, overlooking the Susquehanna River, attests.
White pine grew quickly and floated well on the river, so the logging company owner who owned this home could watch his product float – and his money grow – from the front porch.
Grice Clearfield Community Museum, Clearfield
See taxidermied animals juxtaposed with antique cars at Grice Clearfield Community Museum, Clearfield. Lynn “Scoot” Grice is very into ammo and autos. And animal mounts.
After serving overseas in WWII, he got into firearms, opening up his own gun store in Clearfield PA – the largest in the state – which provided him with the funds to start collecting his favorite automobiles.
Now, those with the same fascinations can see over 70 antique and classic cars with over 800 taxidermied animals mounted on walls and scattered around the collection.
Dubois (pronounced, “do-boys”) Area Historical Society
See the very first version of Budweiser Beer at Dubois Area Historical Society in Clearfield County PA. Tom Mix, Hollywood’s first “Western Star” was born and raised in Dubois PA. Though he lived in L.A., he came home to see his Ma on occasion.
There’s also a whole exhibit about Dubois Brewing Co.’s Budweiser Beer – the original Budweiser. Until Anheuser Busch purchased the name from this historic PA brewery.
Doolittle Station, Dubois
Plan a day, and perhaps a night at Doolittle Station. This compound of old train cars has been pulling travelers off I-80 in greater and greater numbers lately. That’s because owner and visionary, Dr. Rice has been collecting singularly iconic train cars.
He repurposes them as hotel rooms and restaurants – including a fire-oven pizza parlor, a brewery, an ice creamery, fine dining, and a 50’s diner. Stay overnight in Teddy Roosevelt’s travel Pullman or a renovated Circus Train.
Glasslight Studio, St. Peters Village
Explore this nearly hidden village and blow your own glass bowl at Glasslight Studio (about a 40-minute drive from West Chester in Chester County PA).
Having had experience with half a dozen drop-in glassblowing classes in other studios around the country, I can honestly say that the full-day make-and-take class at Glasslight is the most hands-on, immersive experience you will ever have as a novice.
Up the street, the hidden burg of St. Peter’s Village is not gussied up for the tourist trade. But seekers of the off-the-beaten track will find much to love here – especially the rocky, tree-studded French Creek that both rages and meanders over and through boulders behind Main St.
It’s such a stunning scene that those who know how to find St. Peter’s compare it to Brigadoon.
Yellow Springs PA
Into tiny little art villages? You’ll adore Yellow Springs in Chester County PA, which has both Civil War, Medical Hospital, and resort history, and is now strictly an arts enclave.
Dedicated to the visual arts, environment, and the village’s 300-year history, Historic Yellow Springs now hosts one of the largest Annual Art Shows in the region, showcasing the work of 209 artists over a 2-week period every spring.
Artisan Exchange at Matlack Industrial Center, West Chester PA
Purchase real food from real chefs at the Artisan Exchange at Matlack Industrial Center. Have your friends told you that you should be selling your sublime gluten-free cheesecake to the masses? Are people constantly gushing about your version of the cake that your great-grandfathers baked for Irish royalty?
Corporate types with a passion for something other than office work – a product, an heirloom recipe – can build a business at the Artisan Exchange without risking their retirement nest egg. And fans of homemade, artisanal foodstuffs will find nirvana here.
There are currently 54 vendors who sell directly to the public every Saturday from 10-2. This Under the Radar Attraction is a great way to meet the person who made your food.
Tourist Attractions In Delaware
The Zwaanendael Museum, Lewes DE
The Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes DE was built in 1931 as a replica of the Hoorn City Hall, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of this Dutch Whaling Settlement. As such, it’s a fanciful architectural anomaly in Lewes DE. Its mere appearance draws curious visitors.
But what’s inside is nearly as captivating.
Air Mobility Command Museum @ Dover AFB, Dover
Anything to do with the movement of troops, food, and equipment, or, as tour guide Jon Andrews quips, “You call, we haul.” It’s the only museum in the USA dedicated to airlift and refueling history.
Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover
Did you know that the saying “put a sock in it” derived from the only way that Victor Talking Machine users could dampen the volume on its speaker horn?
You’ll discover, everything you ever needed to know about Nipper the Dog, and tons more at the esoteric, hugely entertaining Johnson Victrola Museum on a tour that takes you through a 20’s era store to listen to music on original Victrola’s, and then on to comprehensive exhibits about its history.
John Dickinson Plantation National Historic Park, Dover
This Plantation, the boyhood home of John Dickinson, was Delaware’s first National Historic Landmark.
Dickinson stood out as the only Founding Father who refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. You’ll discover why at his “Homeplace” outside of downtown Dover.
Trap Pond State Park, Laurel
You may feel as if you’re in Florida and not really know why until you jump on a Pontoon Boat Tour which winds through the northernmost stand of bald cypress trees in the USA.
These trees, partially submerged throughout the rainwater-fed pond, form an otherworldly landscape at night. It’s a spookiness that’s amplified by the sounds of winged creatures (herons, owls, other things) that shriek and moan in the dark.
Tourist Attractions In Washington DC
National Museum of the American Indian
There’s no sugar-coating our abysmal history with Native Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian, a world-class museum of America’s indigenous people.
Our initial contact with Native Americans was promising, represented by the “Two Row Wampum Belt” that embodied insight into how different Nations could co-exist.
In 1790, George Washington offered the Seneca Nation “security” for their lands, but a mere 40 years later, in 1830, “bloody, bloody” Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, justifying the violent removal of over 67,000 American Indians from their land.
Still, today, Native Americans are attempting to return to the ideals of the Wampum Belt. Be sure to have lunch in Mitsitam– the Native Foods Café on the main floor – featuring representative dishes from a variety of regions in the USA. It’s one of the best meals in town.
Tourist Attractions In Maryland
College Park Aviation Museum
Amazingly, College Park Airport is the World’s Oldest Continuously Operating Airport (small planes only: call letters CGS)!
In 1903, the Wright Brothers made history by gliding 852 feet in 59 seconds over Kitty Hawk in their newfangled flying machine. Four years later, they won a contract to sell several of these contraptions to the United States Government.
In 1909, the US Army summoned the brothers to provide flight instruction to our country’s first military aviators, right here at College Park Airfield.
Ghost Ships, Mallows Bay, Nanjemoy
On the Potomac River, Mallows Bay is both a Maryland State Park and a graveyard for over a hundred ships from the Revolutionary War through today.
Most are wooden cargo ships constructed in haste during WWI. Obsolete as soon as they were built, the ships were intentionally burned to the waterline, scuttled, and then scavenged for iron.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “the Ghost Fleet is the largest and most varied collection of visible historic shipwrecks in the Western Hemisphere.” And, you can kayak through it – either with guides or without.
Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House & Museum, Waldorf MD
President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin slept here. Get all the details on a fascinating 1 ½ hour tour that begins with, “Let’s go back to April 15, 1865.”
A costumed docent at the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House and Museum in Charles County MD, sets the stage, as she welcomes guests into the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, just 31 years old with four young children, who took in an injured John Wilkes Booth right after Booth had killed the President, “and put him right on that sofa – that very one.”
National Museum of Dentistry, Baltimore
It’s the largest such museum in the country, most likely due to this being the world’s first dental school. The Baltimore College of Dental Surgery debuted here in 1840.
The most prominent – and myth-busting – artifact here is an actual set of George Washington’s dentures. And they are not made out of wood, as countless teachers have taught us.
Jewish Museum of Maryland, Baltimore
In 1960, the Maryland Jewish Historical Society was formed to save the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the first built in Baltimore in 1845, to house the Orthodox Baltimore Hebrew Association.
The Synagogue is now part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland with its poignant permanent exhibit, “Voices of Lombard St.” Though specific to Jewish life in Baltimore, the exhibit speaks to a more universal immigrant experience.
George Peabody Library, at Johns Hopkins University
Its Visitor’s Center features rotating exhibits, from rare books to ancient maps. The main event, however, is the gorgeous library room itself. Step across the threshold, breathe it in, take a snap, and shhhhh. Let the students work.
Tea With Chamber Music at Strathmore Mansion, N. Bethesda
Dining on scones with clotted cream, crustless cucumber sandwiches, and an abundance of sweets in the middle of the day is the ultimate guilty pleasure. And at just $32 per person, a great way to show your honey how cultured you are.
Glen Echo Park, Glen Echo MD
Take an art, music, or dance class at Glen Echo Park – formerly an amusement park in Montgomery County MD. In 2009, a $23 million renovation brought the facades and interiors of buildings back to their original boldly colorful, geometric Art Deco grandeur.
Following an expensive face-lift, the 1921 Dentzel Carousel spins once again and is the only ride left over from Glen Echo’s Amusement Park days.
The famous Spanish Ballroom, opened in 1933 with 7,500 square feet of dance space to accommodate 1,800 foxtrotters, still attracts thousands of people a week from all over the country. Amazingly, a modest fee buys you an hour of Swing lessons and three hours of dance time to a live band – one of the cheapest date nights ever.
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring
Gaze upon the bullet that ended President Abe Lincoln’s life at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Montgomery County MD. Founded by Surgeon General William A. Hammond in 1862, this institution highlighted the “Medical and surgical history of the War of the Rebellion.”
Now, the Department of Defense’s National Museum of Health and Medicine is tucked away in a modern building behind the U.S. Army Forest Glen Annex.
An array of glass cases hold a multitude of specimens: bone fragments with gunshot wounds, diseased appendages, medical tools, shrapnel, innovations in medical technology, and some pretty significant relics, including the bullet that killed Lincoln and several pieces of his skull removed during the autopsy.
National Capital Trolley Museum
Delve into more than just the mile-long trolley ride at the National Capital Trolley Museum. Most people come to this Montgomery County MD museum for the mile-long streetcar ride – the hallmark of this institution – and then leave.
But there is much more to this museum than the “primary interpretive object outside.” Museum’s Director, Ken Rucker, chafes when parents come through the door making a “choo-choo” sound. “It should be ‘ding-ding’ or ‘clang-clang.’”
Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park, Sandy Spring
The walls literally talk at Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park. The 1832 Stone Barn on this farm managed by the Montgomery Park System offers one of the most engaging ways to learn about slavery and the difficult decisions encountered by both the enslaved (to run or stay) and the slave owners (to free them or not).
Interactive exhibits highlight the area’s agricultural landscape, the Underground Railroad and the Quaker experience in Montgomery County, revealed through the lives of Woodlawn’s residents.
Tourist Attractions In Virginia
NEON Arts District, Norfolk
Although Norfolk VA is best known as the world’s largest Naval Base, it has a growing artsy side as well. One that most outsiders don’t know about.
The NEON Arts District (an acronym for the New Energy of Norfolk) houses 80+ works of public art. Once a blighted neighborhood, this area is now a magnet, not just for tourists, but also for restaurants and coffee shops (e.g. Café Milo), and of course, artists.
O. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke
The O. Winston Link Museum is part of the Historical Society of Western Virginia, located in Roanoke, and unique in its own right. The link was a celebrated New York photographer with a passion for the N&W Railroad and the people who worked for it.
As a labor of love, he documented the last five years of steam locomotives, from 1955 to May 9, 1960, in Vermeer-ish photographs known for their artfully lit night scenes.
Beagle Ridge Herb Farm, Wytheville VA
Beagle Ridge Herb Farm, in the southern VA town of Wytheville, is a lavender farm; a nature center; a gift shop; a craft cocktail destination. It’s a Butterfly Garden; and an event and education center. One thing Beagle Ridge Herb Farm is not is boring. But it takes a concerted effort to get there – off the main road, on 3.5 miles of dirt and gravel each way. It’s so worth it.
The National Sporting Library and Museum, Middleburg
Discover the genteel world of country sports at The National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg VA. What exactly is “Sporting” and how is it different from, say, Basketball, Baseball, and Football?
Well, explains one docent, this museum is all about “old country sports. If they did it in a Jane Austin novel, they’ve got exhibits about it here.”
Virginia Holocaust Museum, Richmond
Warning – this is a tough hour for anyone who walks through the door of this excellent, compelling, somber, and oft-times horrifying museum, with a no, holds barred examination of an incomprehensible era in recent history.
A recent study showed that Americans are “forgetting about the Holocaust,” with a fifth of Millennials not even sure what it is. That is terrifying – and a reason that more people should visit.
Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia
The thought-provoking Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, highlights Slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Brown Vs. Board of Ed, Civil Rights Era, and Black notables, in several spare rooms. Without clutter, individual stories shine through.
Lexington Carriage Tour, Lexington
Sure, you’ll see some sights and learn something about the history of Lexington on your 45-minute excursion, but you’ll also fall in love with the hard-working equines, each with his or her own distinct personality.
Virginia Military Institute, Lexington VA
The Virginia Military Institute, a four-year undergraduate college, combines a full curriculum within a framework of military discipline emphasizing honor, integrity, and responsibility. Walk on original Lexington Brick sidewalks to the VMI Museum/Chapel which provides visitors with a view of the Civil War from a Southern perspective.
Washington & Lee University Chapel and Galleries
Stroll through the gated stone wall that divides VMI and Washington & Lee University Robert E. Lee, served as school President from 1865 until his death in 1870.
Be sure to take a tour of Robert E. Lee’s final resting place, the Lee Chapel, a National Historic Site first built as an assembly hall for students. It’s now a tomb for the Lee Family and a museum for the rest of us.
Virginia Safari Park
For this particular “Safari Park” (and against all common sense), leave your car windows open, because you’ll be feeding the bison, elk, lama, deer, ostriches, and other animals that beg and stick their heads right into your car for buckets of feed purchased at the gate.
They slobber, they spray food pellets all over the place, and you’ll never laugh so hard. At least, I didn’t.
Dinosaur Kingdom II, Natural Bridge VA
Hear tell about the Union’s “secret weapon” at Dinosaur Kingdom II (Back From Extinction).
This strange, but weirdly fun and compelling walk-through theme park, drawn from the unbound mind of Mark Cline, re-imagines the Civil War as if the Union side used various dinosaurs as weapons of mass destruction against the South.
Ragged Branch Distillery, Charlottesville VA
Here’s an interesting closed system for you to chew on: raise cows, open Virginia Straight Bourbon distillery, feed cows spent mash, discover that mash-fed cow beef is better than grass-fed beef, gain attention for both excellent bourbon and beef, invite the public to enjoy both, raise more cows, make more bourbon, repeat.
North American Sake Brewery, Charlottesville
If sake is more to your liking, plan an evening at North American Sake Brewery in IX Art Park, – the only brewery devoted solely to sake in the state of Virginia.
Surprise, surprise, sake is actually brewed like beer. And, for those who are firm in their belief that sake is served warm, you’ll be in for a surprise. According to North American Sake Brewery owner, Andrew Centofante, “sake is traditionally served chilled.”