Unless you’ve been living under a boulder (or have a severe seafood allergy), you’ve probably heard Baltimore’s a great day trip if you like crabcakes. Ditto a jaunt to Richmond if you’re obsessed with Civil War history. Still, summer trips don’t have to tread the beaten path. Here are three familiar cities, all within a few hours drive, with downright surprising reasons to go there and start exploring. by Jennifer Barger and Holley Simmons
The City of Brotherly Love gets press for cheesesteaks, the Liberty Bell and its mammoth art museum. But beyond the beef and colonial sites, it’s also one of America’s greenest, prettiest cities with more than 10,000 acres of parkland and a slew of not-so-secret gardens both in town and in nearby suburbs. Summer is the best time to dip into these verdant attractions.
Morning: Longwood Gardens
On your way to Philly by car, stop to immerse yourself in blooming flowers, wacky topiary trees and an Italian water garden with 600 spouting jets at this 1,077-acre compound once owned by the du Ponts. Don’t miss the massive 1919 greenhouse with its grand, glassed-in rooms of cacti, tall palms and orchids. $18; reserve at Longwoodgardens.org, 1001 Longwood Rd., Kennett Square, Pa.
Noon: Terrain Boutique and Styer’s Garden Cafe
A 10-minute drive east of Longwood Gardens plants you at Terrain, a garden and outdoor decor store from the boho folks at Anthropologie. The vibe? Young Hipster had a Farm, with succulents and herbs mingling with weathered tin pots and vintage finds (a birdbath-turned-planter). Its restaurant, Styer’s Garden Cafe, dishes up locovore lunch/brunch in a greenhouse and dinner under the stars. Bread even comes out in mini flower pots! 914 Baltimore Pike, Glen Mills, Pa., 610-459-2400; Shopterrain.com
Afternoon: Biking by the River
Once you’ve arrived in Philly, ditch your car and rent a bike ($10-$15 an hour, Wheel Fun Rentals, One Boathouse Row; 215-232-7778) to explore Fairmont Park, where you can zip down paths by the Schuylkill River or up into the massive greenspace to visit outdoor attractions like the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden (Horticultural and Lansdowne drives; Shofuso.com) with its manicured trees and stone-flanked waterfall
Evening: Talula’s Garden
Herbs grow in rustic wooden boxes on the wall and mismatched dining chairs crowd an ivy-walled outdoor garden at this Washington Square farm-to-fork restaurant. Specialties include veggie-loaded pastas, sweet pea Benedict (a veggie-pork-egg brunch melange) and scallop-okra bouillabaisse. 210 W. Washington Square, 215-592-7787; Talulasgarden.com
Spending the night? Near Philly’s tree-filled Rittenhouse Square, The Hotel Palomar offers cheeky decor (neon-hued busts of Ben Franklin) and a free wine happy hour nightly. 117 S. 17th St., 215-563-5006, Hotelpalomar-philadelphia.com
Baltimore residents know there’s no such thing as dive bars: They’re just bars. But to assume the burg is all run-down watering holes, “Wire” sets and crushed Natty Boh cans would be to overlook Charm City’s classy side. Historic, glitzy ’hoods, a retail-heavy waterfront and a cool food scene make B-more an ideal jaunt for frill-seekers.
Morning: Garrett-Jacobs Mansion
In 1872, railroad titan John Works Garrett gifted this 42-room brownstone to his daughter-in-law as a wedding present. Like a backdrop for an Edith Wharton novel, it once served as a playground for socialites. Tours (by appointment Tuesday-Saturday, 1-4 p.m.) let you peek at its grand, hand-carved oak staircase and Tiffany windows. 11 W. Mt. Vernon Pl., 410-539-6914; Garrettjacobsmansion.org
Noon: Harbor East
D.C. residents may recognize some retailers in this newish hub for upscale shopping — think Urban Chic and Sassanova (both founded in Georgetown) and South Moon Under (with roots in Ocean City), which mingle with homegrown spots like Amaryllis Jewelry (look for Barbara Heinrich’s black and lemon diamond pieces) and Loafers and Laces, a dapper men’s shoe shop. Bound by Fleet St. and S. Central Ave.; Harboreast.com
Afternoon: Baltimore Spa & Salon
You’ve strained yourself with all this touring, haven’t you? Then tuck into this luxe space at the Ritz Carlton Residences (801 Key Hwy.; 410-625-2427; Baltimorespasalon.com) where indulgences include Balinese massages ($230 for 90 minutes) and Vichy shower treatments ($175 for 50 minutes) — imagine a rinse with multi-headed water spouts followed by gentle exfoliation.
Evening: Bolton Hill
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Woodrow Wilson once hung their hats in this neighborhood just north of downtown (Boltonhill.org) lined with impeccably preserved, late 19th-century rowhouses. You can’t get into their former homes, but you can dig into scallops with pork belly and roast duck breast with a sweet tea gastrique at B Bistro, an eclectic American spot in a converted townhouse. 1501 Bolton St., 410-383-8600; B-bistro.com
Spending the night? End a lavish day in digs worthy of Gilded Age swells. The newish Four Seasons in Harbor East boasts a heated infinity pool and big, water-view hotel rooms. Get a good night’s rest: You’ll want to do brunch at the hotel’s Wit and Wisdom restaurant (below), where executive chef Michael Mina’s elevated American classics include, of course, zesty crab cakes. 200 International Dr., 410-576-5800; Fourseasons.com/Baltimore
Any history buff worth his weight in textbooks knows Richmond played a major role in the American revolution and Civil War. And any longtime resident knows the city is also rich in contempo art, retro-cool fashion and good food. It all makes Virginia’s cap city a destination for those who love the past, but are interested in keeping up with the times.
Morning: Jackson Ward Art
Start on foot in Jackson Ward, where galleries are gobbling up shuttered storefronts. Quirk (311 W. Broad St., 804-644-5450; Quirkgallery.com) shows local paintings, photos and mixed-media works plus Little Fools Textiles’ scarves. If Gallery5’s (200 W. Marshall St., 804-644 0005; Gallery5arts.org) whitewashed, circa-1849 brick walls could talk, they’d speak of bands, performance art and exhibits they’ve witnessed.
Lamplighter’s new cafe (1719 Summit Ave., 804-447-2648; Lamplightercoffee.com) in Scott’s Addition brings brews to a zone in the midst of a hipster renaissance. A Diedrich roaster toasts beans for tasty pour-over coffees or iced java. Grab a bite down the street at Lunch RVA (1213 Summit Ave., 804-353-0111; Eatlunchrva.com) where chalkboards announce a rotation of fresh salads and inventive sandwiches.
Afternoon: Carytown Shopping
Hit Carytown’s indie shops like city-cool clothier Need Supply Co. (3100 W Cary St., 804-767-1825) and Ruth & Ollie, a hotbed of preppy furniture (3108 W. Cary St.; 804-288-3360). For vintage clothes (a huge strength here), try Bygones Vintage (2916 W. Cary St.; 804-353-1919) or, a few blocks northeast, Halcyon Vintage (117 N. Robinson St.; 804-358-1311), known for party frocks and sparkly jewelry.
Evening: The Roosevelt
In gentrifying Church Hill, chef/James Beard Award nominee Lee Gregory serves Southern comfort food — catfish with black-eyed peas, poutine with sausage gravy — in a throwback-chic room with a tin ceiling and framed vintage photos. 623 N. 25th St., 804-658-1935; Rooseveltrva.com
Spending the night? End your day at the artsy Museum District Bed and Breakfast. 2811 Grove Ave., 804-359-2332; Museumdistrictbb.com