Washington Street Mall at Cape May, New Jersey, via Jonathan W. Cohen / iStock.com

10 Must-Visit Small Towns in Mid-Atlantic

The Mid-Atlantic region boasts world-famous cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. But a number of much smaller, must-visit towns in the region offer the traveler a look at the histories and peoples who made the region what it is. Usually, the term 'Mid-Atlantic' means seven states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. With regional history often dating back to the colonial era and before, each of these states provides a range of under-the-radar places to explore. Though they may be small, these Mid-Atlantic towns give big insights into the unique charm, local attractions, and reasons why Mid-Atlantic residents choose to live here above any place else. 

Cold Spring, New York

Sidewalk scene in Cold Spring, New York
Sidewalk scene in Cold Spring, New York

Cold Spring, about 60 miles north of New York City, has 2,000 inhabitants and sits on the edge of the scenic Hudson River. The town offers an escape from the city life for many New Yorkers, or city types from anywhere else, looking for a calmer place to live and play. History buffs will love that the town has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, as a site of well-preserved dwellings, churches, and buildings from the early 19th century, typifying a region sometimes called the Hudson Highlands.

Fans of architecture and old historic buildings will enjoy Bannerman castle, a former estate and abandoned military warehouse. Located between Cold Spring and the nearby town of Beacon, the castle offers a look into the past. Named after the Bannerman family, who built the residence in 1901, the land surrounding the castle still offers a scenic view of alluring gardens and paths created by heiress Helene Bannerman.

Colts Neck, New Jersey

Center of Colts Neck's business district at the intersection of Route 34 and CR 537
Center of Colts Neck's business district at the intersection of Route 34 and CR 537, By Mr. Matt - Wikimedia Commons

A town of just 10,000 residents in central New Jersey, Colts Neck is known for its small town charm, horse farming, and pleasant location near the Jersey Shore. It sits just 45 miles south of New York City. Colts Neck provides the visitor with suburban pleasures just a short distance from the fun of the Big Apple. Colts Neck has star status of its own, being the primary residence of rock'n'roll legend Bruce Springsteen.

Colts Neck bears plenty of interest for the outdoorsy tourist. Thompson Park is a large natural area with hiking trails, a lake with fishing, an off-leash dog area, and tennis courts, among other features. Dorbrook Park Recreation Area is another choice spot for fresh air. Colts Neck is home to the Naval Weapons Station Earle, a US Navy base operating there since World War II.

Cape May, New Jersey

The New Jersey shore resort community of Cape May is home to the colorful Washington Street Mall lined with shops and restaurants
The New Jersey shore resort community of Cape May is home to the colorful Washington Street Mall lined with shops and restaurants, via George Wirt / Shutterstock.com

Known for its pristine sandy beaches and Victorian architecture, the seaside town of Cape May — the southernmost point of New Jersey — has tons of old-world charm. With about 4,000 souls, the town is designated a National Historic Landmark. Recently opened points of interest include the Harriet Tubman Museum, built to honor the former slave and onetime Underground Railroad operative. Tubman lived in Cape May in the early 1850s, when the town was a center of anti-slavery activism.

For foodies, Cape May has seafood restaurants, like the beloved Lobster House overlooking Cape May Harbor. The town's outdoor options include whale and dolphin watching. The town is likewise a popular hub for sport and commercial fishing. 

Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Main street in Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Main street in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, By Dough4872 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, File:Main Street NB at State Street Doylestown.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

A quick drive from Philadelphia, Doylestown, population 8,400, lies in the surrounding Bucks County. Visitors should prioritize the Mercer Museum, an eccentric castle-like structure that houses a  collection of tools and artifacts. Another treasure is Fonthill Castle, a whimsical concrete architectural masterpiece with intricate tiles. Visitors can also take a picnic to the Doylestown Community Park or explore the lush trails of the Peace Valley Nature Center.

The town's James A. Michener Art Museum, named after the popular author and Doylestown native of the same name, offers a wide collection of American art that includes works by Pennsylvania impressionists. Also be sure to visit the historic Doylestown Inn, where notable guests like H.G. Wells and Oscar Hammerstein II once stayed. 

Lewes, Delaware

A scene from downtown Lewes, Delaware.
A scene from downtown Lewes, Delaware. Image credit: Tim Kiser via Wikimedia Commons.

Located along Delaware’s picturesque coast, where the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean meet, Lewes, with 3,500 residents, boasts a unique blend of history and natural beauty. A visit to Lewes promises sublime beaches, picturesque nature trails, and a lively downtown area with boutique shops, such as the Bungalow on 2nd, as well as delicious seafood restaurants like Wheelhouse.

Visitors can also explore the historic district, with its beautifully preserved buildings that date back to the 17th century. Lewes has several museums, including the Zwaanendael Museum, which showcases artifacts from Delaware’s early Dutch settlement.

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware
Boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, via Ritu Manoj Jethani / Shutterstock.com

Rehoboth Beach, with 1,200 souls, welcomes many thousands more during the summer season. Founded in 1873 as a resort destination, the Atlantic coastal town is now famous as a beloved beach destination. The main street, Rehoboth Avenue, leads straight to the beach. Restaurants, hotels, and other points of interest line the way. 

A number of prominent families and individuals from mid-Atlantic cities maintain summer homes in Rehoboth Beach, including US president Joseph Biden. The town has a famous beach boardwalk, built the same year as the town's founding, for memorable beachside strolling. Rehoboth Beach also maintains a strong tradition of free live music on summer evenings, and players have performed from the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand and other nearby locations since the 1960s.  

Chestertown, Maryland

Chestertown on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland in the fall.
Chestertown on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland in the fall.

Located on the banks of the Chester River, Chestertown, population 5,600, has a well-deserved reputation based on its colonial architecture and vibrant arts scene. Since its 1805 incorporation, the town has developed a rich maritime heritage, and which is celebrated during the annual Chestertown Tea Party Festival that commemorates colonial resistance to British taxation in the 18th century.

Strolling through Chestertown, travelers will see lovely Georgian and Federal-style homes, art galleries, and find waterfront dining options at Rolph’s Wharf sandbar. Chestertown’s small-town charm, welcoming community, and cultural offerings make it a must-visit destination in the Mid-Atlantic.

Essex, Maryland

Boats and docks along the Back River in Essex, Maryland
Boats and docks along the Back River in Essex, Maryland

With a population of about 41,000, the coastal town of Essex, Maryland is among the larger must-visit towns listed here. Locals love living on the Chesapeake Bay, while staying close to Baltimore a few miles to the west. Essex developed in the early 20th century — later than many Maryland towns — as a more rural alternative to the urban life of the nearby city.

Essex sits between the Back River and the Middle River, an ideal location for water sports and boating. Visitors can head to the Ballestone-Stansbury House, also called the Ballestone Manor. The house, first built in 1800, joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.  

Chincoteague, Virginia

Main street in Chincoteague, Virginia
Main street in Chincoteague, Virginia, via Kosoff / Shutterstock.com

Chincoteague, with 3,300 residents, makes for a quieter seaside destination. Located among the barrier islands of the Delmarva Peninsula, the place examplifies the waterside lifestyle around the Chesapeake Bay. The town and surrounding region are also famous for its local breed of wild horse, the Chincoteague pony. According to legend, this animal population descended from shipwrecked Spanish horses and adapted to the local environment.

If the romance of horses and the seaside is not enough, Chincoteague keeps up a strong tourism economy. The large number of area bed and breakfasts make the area a great choice for a weekend away. 

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Historic buildings on the main street in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Historic buildings on the main street in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Situated at place where two rivers and three states meet, the town of Harpers Ferry, with fewer than 300 residents, provides a historical, and beautiful, destination for Mid-Atlantic travel. Set on a spit of land at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, the geography of Harpers Ferry helps form the borders of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. The town is the site of the raid of abolitionist John Brown in 1859.

In Harpers Ferry the tourist can visit four national parks at the same time: after the John Brown site, walk across the Potomac River into Maryland, to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park towpath — also a part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail — and hike on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail as it works its way through the lower town.

The Mid-Atlantic: 10 great towns — and so many more

As one might imagine, the list of underrated Mid-Atlantic towns runs far longer than these ten. All the same, from Cold Spring and Cape May, to Lewes, Essex, and Harpers Ferry, the Mid-Atlantic region serves up a wealth of destinations and points of interest. History lovers already know how much the Mid-Atlantic, with most of its states original English colonies, contributed to the revolution that would make the United States an independent nation

Keeping in mind the remarkable local geography in each place — from sea coast and rivers, to mountains like the Shenandoah — and it seems clear why these Mid-Atlantic towns are celebrated by locals and out-of-town visitors alike. 

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