The Ultimate Atlantic Coast Road Trip


What to see, where to eat and where to sleep along the Atlantic Coast.

A road trip down the Atlantic Coast will take you from 17th century historic towns like Plymouth in Massachusetts and Newport in Rhode Island, through the hustle and bustle of New York City, down Maryland's Chesapeake Bay to Virginia Beach and North Carolina's Outer Banks. From there, you'll pass through the gorgeous, sleepy hamlet of Savannah, Georgia and down to America's oldest city, St. Augustine Florida, to a cruise along the Space Coast to vibrant Miami Beach, and finish off in colorful Key West. It could be the trip of a lifetime, if you know where to find the can't-miss spots along the route. Sure, you could take I-95 all the way from Boston to Miami, but there are loads of detours and scenic byways that will take you on and off the highway. From Boston to Key West, you're looking at 2,400 miles of beaches, woodlands, two-lane country roads, vintage diners, charming small towns and urban adventures. Whatever your taste, there's something for everyone along this road trip down the Atlantic Coast.

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Historic Sites

Beginning in Massachusetts, experience the harsh reality of 17th century life at Plimoth Plantation. Or, if you'd prefer a more modern walk around history, hit up the Freedom Trail in Boston. As you leave Massachusetts, take a detour to Fall River and see Battleship Cove, which showcases the world's largest collection of WWII naval vessels. Once you reach New Haven in Connecticut, definitely visit the New Haven Lighthouse. Not only is this a gorgeous historic lighthouse from the mid-1800s, it also features a beautiful, antique Carousel that was built in 1916. Another trip highlight is obviously the Statue of Liberty in New York City, and the Montauk Lighthouse Museum in East Hampton, and the beach town of Cape May in New Jersey is home to another stunning historic lighthouse, the Cape May Lighthousebuilt in 1859. But, the charming seaside hamlet of Cape May alone is worth a detour. Since this is a road trip focused on features of the Atlantic Coast, one last lighthouse that's absolutely worth a visit is the striking black and white-striped Bodie Island Lighthousein Nags Head, in North Carolina's Outer Banks, which offers tours and climbs (but, be warned, it's also rumored to be haunted). 

As you venture down the Atlantic coast, imagine you're walking in the footsteps of Pilgrims, colonists, and soldiers of years past. Historic highlights include the mysterious Lost Colony of Roanoke, where an entire settlement disappeared in the 16th century, and left behind a single clue as to their disappearance "Croatoan." Historians and archaeologists still have been unable to decipher the bizarre text. For more modern history, there's the impressive sea fort at Fort Sumter National Monument, which saw action during two Civil War battles, and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, where many military historians argue was the site of the Civil War's bloodiest climax. Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania are known collectively as "America's Battleground." The park itself is impeccably maintained and incredibly rich with information on the pivotal battles that occurred there.

Nature Sites

Of course, there's more than massive military monuments and nautical sites to see along the Atlantic Coast. A few highlights that feature the outdoors include the serene and lush Bamboo Forest in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which is open year round. The bamboo grow to be in excess of 30ft in height and the walk through the garden is the perfect way to relax after driving, or to just stretch your legs. Another important highlight is Maryland's 41,000+ acre Assateague Island National Seashore, where you can go for a long walk on the beach and see wild horses playing in the ocean. The seashore is also a wildlife refuge for wild ponies, and you can camp on the beach with them! Lastly, John U. Lloyd Beach State Park in Dania Beach, FL is a great place to end your Atlantic Coast road trip. Here you can picnic, canoe, swim, fish or boat through Port Everglades, between mangroves and palm trees. 

Must-See Attractions

The Atlantic Coast is renowned for its beach boardwalks, amazing museums and quirky roadside attractions. When you reach New York City, see a different side of the city with a mile and a half walk along The High Line. What makes it so cool is that it's an elevated walking park that was built atop an unused section of the New York Central Railroad! After all that walking, hit up Coney Island Sideshow and Museum, which will teach you everything you'd ever want to know about the burlesque shows, sideshows and "freak shows" that have cemented Coney Island's iconic status in American alternative culture. For a more low-key boardwalk experience, visit the Atlantic City Boardwalk and while you're in the neighborhood head to Margate City to see Lucy the massive pink elephant, another roadside attraction of yesteryear.

For a more sophisticated, but still very quirky stop, there's the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which showcases medical oddities, using actual specimens and wax models. Maryland's Ocean City Life-Saving Museum chronicles the historic efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard in their most harrowing life-saving rescue missions. If you head into Washington D.C. there's clearly an abundance of museums to visit, but a classic that's not-to-be-missed is the National Museum of American HistoryAs you head deeper south, and if you're on I-95, you're going to start seeing some peculiar kitschy billboards advertising a place called "South Of The Border" in South Carolina. This place is every bit as quirky and cheesy as the billboards suggest. But, kids seem to enjoy it, and it's right off the highway so it's pretty easy to hop off and check it out.

A far better place to visit in South Carolina is the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk! It's a little over a mile long and is a major highlight along the Atlantic Coast. For a quieter stop, there's Savannah, Georgia, just down the road. This gorgeous historic town features an absolutely breathtaking public park, Forsyth Park, loads of restaurants and cute places to spend the night, a town further south with a similar feel is St. Augustine, the oldest town in America, and one of them most charming. And as you head into Florida, check out the Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour in Titusville, it will seriously make you wish you became an astronaut. Finish up your trip down the Atlantic Coast in Miami, and dip your toes in the ocean, after enjoying a walking tour of the Miami Beach Art Deco District.

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What to eat

Diners, seafood and fried chicken. This is the Atlantic Coast culinary triumvirate. From Maine to Maryland, you've got lobster, crab and haddock. South of the Mason-Dixon line, it's all about southern soul food. From fried chicken to barbecue and that Southern starchy staple, grits. And all up and down the Atlantic Coast there are vintage roadside diners that have been serving up home-cooked, blue plate specials to road weary travelers for over half a century.

White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island serves delicious upscale cuisine in a historic tavern that dates back to 1673. Ocean Mist bar in Wakefield, RI is  ridiculously-relaxed beach hangout with cold beer and live music. The Lobster House in Cape May, NJ is an exciting harbor-front seafood restaurant. For some great pizza there's Lombardi's in New York, which has been serving up thin-crust pizza since 1905. The Trolley Car Diner & Deli in Philadelphia is an  old-school diner serving breakfast and beer, next to a trolley car that dispenses ice cream. In Fredericksburg, VA hit up Hyperion Espresso to get your coffee kick. Buz and Ned's Real Barbecue in Richmond, VA is famous for BBQ ribs, pork and brisket and refreshing microbrews. Heading even further south, you hit The Olde Pink House Restaurant, which offers elegant dining in a colonial mansion, as well as innovative southern cuisine. Lastly, The Gourmet Hut in St. Augustine is located in the historic downtown, off Cuna Street and when you get to Miami, you have to go to Versailles for some of the best Cuban food you'll ever eat stateside.

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Where to sleep

The Cliffside Inn in Newport, RI is an 1876 mansion that's now a beautiful bed and breakfast. It's just a 15 minutes walk to Easton's Beach, and the rooms are beautifully-appointed Victorian-style, with antique furnishings and in the afternoon there's tea and a wine and appetizer reception. Philadelphia's Morris House Hotel is set in a colonial home built in 1787. The boutique hotel is just a block from Washington Square Park and a few minutes from Independence HallThe Hay-Adams Hotel in DC built in 1928, and the location is to die for. The hotel is on Lafayette Square and looks out directly over the The White House. There's also an onsite restaurant and roof terrace bar. Once you hit North Carolina, there's the Foreman House Bed and Breakfast in Elizabeth City, which dates to the turn of the 20th century. The historic inn is an antebellum-styled bed and breakfast , just a mile off Route 17. Georgia's Tybee Island Inn is just four minutes walk to the beach and only seventeen miles from Savannah's vibrant downtown. As you head into Florida, St. Augustine's The Old Powder House Inn is a fantastic choice for lodging. They provide a delicious breakfast, and the charming historic inn is also very affordable. Lastly, the Freehand Miami Hostel is a "reinvention of the historic Indian Creek Hotel," which was one of Miami Beach's "classic 1930s Art Deco buildings." It's just a short walk to the beach and has a killer pool and outdoor bar.

Best Time to Travel the Atlantic Coast

During winter the road conditions can vary, but in the Northern part of your trip be prepared for weather delays from December through mid-March. Spring is off-season, so you should be able to score some good rates at hotels along the route. Summer is high tourist season all up and down the Atlantic coast, which means hotel rates will be high and crowds at stops along your route will also be a factor. Fall however, is an ideal time to travel up and down the coast. Not only is the fall foliage particularly gorgeous from end of September through early November in New England, but once you get down to Georgia and Florida the temperature up north will be chilly, so you'll welcome the warmth of the south. 

The Best Atlantic Coast Byways 

Places explored in this article:

This was originally written for Roadtrippers, a great resource for anyone interested in travel.
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