Colonial heritage and scenic East Coast cities converge on the Atlantic seaboard. If you want to find your way into every beach, cove, and inland outpost from the Florida Keys to the tippy top of Maine, we recommend you do it the all-American way—by car. Here are all the best snack shacks, roadside oddities, and sweet detours you must take on the ultimate East Coast road trip from Bar Harbor to Key Largo.
Maine: The Desert of Maine
Start out your road trip at one of the East Coast’s most unexpected sights—the Desert of Maine. How did 40 acres (16 ha) of sand dunes end up in the middle of the forest? Take the tour to find out how geology and poor farming practices created this world-class oddity. While you’re there, check out the sand museum and extensive gift shop. Kids can run off their energy at the playground before packing back into the car to continue your East Coast road trip. Don’t leave Maine without swinging by Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery for a buttered roll topped with local lobster and served with their famous fries.
New Hampshire: Madame Sherri’s Castle
In the shadowy, fern-filled forests near Chesterfield, the ruins of a 1920s summer home—which once welcomed guests to Gatsby-esque fetes—make for a fairytale setting. Walk around the stone bridge and artificial lake, imagine the extravagant home that once rose from the stone foundations, and picture the ghosts of a bygone era at the arched remains of the curving staircase, which climbs up to end mid-air. Want to journey back in time in a different way? Detour to the American Classic Arcade Museum in Laconia for a few rounds of Tetris, Space Invaders, Tron, or Pac-Man.
Massachusetts: The Witch House of Salem
Between the House of Seven Gables and the Witch House of Salem, Massachusetts was way ahead of the game on the black house trend—like, 350 years ahead of the game. At the latter, you can step back into the 17th century to study the architecture and furniture of the times in the home of Jonathan Corwin, the judge who investigated claims of diabolical activity during the Salem witch trials, ultimately sending 19 people to the gallows. See the actual trial documents and other interesting artifacts at the Salem Witch Museum. If the thought of witch hunts feels a little too real these days, get away from it all at Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau went “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”
Rhode Island: Newport Cliff Walk
Take a break from sitting behind the wheel and stretch your legs. Stroll down the Forty Steps and onto the Newport Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile (5.6-km) walkway along the shore. Trek along the full length of the walk for stunning views of the rocky shoreline and some of the city’s most famous gilded mansions, from Rosecliff to The Breakers. Also, don’t miss the Big Blue Bug, a 58-foot (18-m) fiberglass termite on the roof of a pest control company. It’s an icon, apparently, and gets dressed up for different holidays. We don’t know either.
Connecticut: Dinosaur State Park
Love dinosaurs? Then get out of the car and walk in the footsteps of extinct reptiles at Dinosaur State Park. You can see around 500 imprints of Dilophosuarus feet on display in the park’s geodesic dome. After checking out the largest collection of dino prints in the US, picnic in the Mesozoic era arboretum or make your own tracks along the park’s trails. Then, head to O’Rourke’s Diner for a steamed burger—a Connecticut specialty (trust us!).
New York: Jell-O Museum
What happened to the Jell-O factory in LeRoy? Why in the world did the inventor of the jiggly dessert sell his rights for just $450? And WHY OH WHY did someone once test Jell-O for brain waves (“It’s aliiiiive!”)? These are just some of the fascinating questions you can learn the answers to at the Jell-O Gallery Museum in LeRoy. Pick up a “salad” recipe or two—the Olive Relish from the 1944 cookbook Bright Spots for Wartime Meals: 66 Ration-Wise Recipes is a good one—and a bit of gelatinous trivia on this dessert-y inland detour. If you’re cutting back toward the coast on 90, swing through Roma Sausage & Deli in Utica for a slice of old-school tomato pie.
New Jersey: Lucy the Elephant
There’s no shortage of oddball attractions on the Jersey Shore, so take a little extra time if you’re into this sort of thing. One of the longest standing—and tallest, and cutest—is Lucy the Elephant. Lucy is a National Historic Landmark, and she’s been keeping watch over Margate City since 1881. Take the spiral staircase up the leg of this 6-story, 90-ton elephant to tour her innards and learn about her past. Lucy the Elephant was an office, a summer home, and even a tavern over the decades. Turn off the I-95 in Elizabeth for an order of potatoes in a cup from Tommy’s Italian Sausage and Hot Dogs. Potatoes in a cup!
Delaware: Rothschild Patent Museum
As The First State, Delaware’s had plenty of time to conjure up road trip-worthy attractions, like the quirky collection of inventions at the Rothschild Patent Museum. Hearkening back to a time when registered patents required working models, this Wilmington museum hosts dozens of turn-of-the-century innovations sure to pique your curiosity.
Maryland: National Museum of Health and Medicine
Beyond the Civil War sites at Antietam, the frolicking wild ponies on Assateague Island, and the tall ships in Baltimore’s historic Inner Harbor, Maryland is home to a wide array of off-beat attractions. For something a bit different, try the life-and-death artifacts at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where you can get an up-close look at the bullet that killed Lincoln.
Virginia: Hugh Mercer Apothecary
If you’re passing through Fredericksburg to get a look at George Washington’s childhood stomping grounds, stop in at the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop. Find out how Civil War-era doctors treated their patients through artifacts and displays. From the live leeches used for blood letting to the herbal remedy gardens out back, the shop’s period-garb guides will make your last doctor’s visit seem like a spa treatment.
North Carolina: North Carolina Maritime Museum
Let the ocean guide your way in North Carolina. Scope out the artifacts of Blackbeard’s pirate ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge beside the humongous heart of a sperm whale at the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort. And if you’re looking to check out marine life that’s a little more lively, don’t miss the chance to swing into the SEA LIFE Charlotte-Concord Aquarium.
South Carolina: Historic Charleston
For lovers of the paranormal, South Carolina can’t be beat. Whether it’s the eerie environment created by the swaying strands of Spanish moss or the antebellum architecture of plantation houses, this haunted hot spot is an ideal place to look for luminous legends. If you need a little guidance, pair up with a specter detector for a walking tour sure to spook.
Georgia: Paris Market in Savannah
Swing through Atlanta to try some tasty southern fare and look at the adorable giant pandas at Zoo Atlanta. Then, head to Savannah for a heaping dose of Sothern charm and one-of-a-kind souvenir shopping at the Paris Market. You may feel as if you’ve left the East Coast as this curiosity shop was inspired by flea markets and bazaars from around the world.
Florida: Hemingway’s House
Key West, the end of the line, where nothing seems more romantic than finishing an East Coast road trip with a champagne cruise toward the setting sun. But before you cast off, consider swinging by the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum, where the legendary writer’s typewriter is still set up at his desk. Soak up the ambiance, pet one of the six-toed great-great-grandkittens of the author’s beloved cats, and close out the final chapter of your coast-hugging drive.
Which of these spots will you detour for on your East Coast road trip?