The Mid-Atlantic region is well-known for its large cities like New York City and Washington, D.C. Yet a host of much smaller, much underrated towns in the region await the curious traveler. The term 'Mid-Atlantic' usually means seven states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. With local history often dating back to the colonial era, before the United States became a country, each of these states offers a fascinating collection of under-the-radar places to explore. Though small, these Mid-Atlantic towns offer big insights into the unique charm, local attractions, and reasons why locals feel proud to call the region home.
Cold Spring, New York
Cold Spring, located north of New York City, sits on the edge of the Hudson River and offers picturesque views. It is recognized today as a historic district. This town offers an escape from the city life for many New Yorkers looking to get away from the concrete jungle experience associated with the Big Apple, not to mention the state's other cities. For those who appreciate the fall colors and walks in nature, Cold Spring is the perfect getaway. And students of architecture and old historic buildings will enjoy Bannerman castle.
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 Helene Bannerman.
The castle was used as a fortress for weapons--which left it in ruins after a gunpowder explosion in 1920. New York state bought the property in 1967, converting the place into a historic area. A fire in 1969 brought further damage to the property, but the site is safe to visit today.
Cape May, New Jersey
Known for its pristine sandy beaches and Victorian architecture, the seaside town of Cape May -- New Jersey's southernmost point -- exudes old-world charm. The entire town has a population of about 4,000, according to 2022 data from the US Census Bureau, and is designated a National Historic Landmark. Cape May offers delicious seafood restaurants including the well-known Lobster House overlooking Cape May Harbor, as well as numerous outdoor activities such as whale and dolphin watching. A newer addition to the town’s tourist offerings is the Harriet Tubman Museum, built to honor the famous emancipation advocate and former slave. Tubman lived in Cape May in the early 1850s, when the town was a center of anti-slavery activism along the US Mid-Atlantic and elsewhere.
Colts Neck, New Jersey
A town of just 10,000 inhabitants in central New Jersey, Colts Neck is known for its horse farming history, small town charm, and location along the Jersey Shore. It sits just 45 miles south of New York City. Visiting Colts Neck enables the traveler to enjoy suburban pleasures while staying close to the fun of the Big Apple. The town can also claim star status, as the primary residence of musician Bruce Springsteen.
If you love the outdoors, you'll find plenty of interest in Colts Neck. Thompson Park is a large natural area with hiking trails, a lake with fishing, an off-leash dog area, tennis courts, and historic buildings. Dorbrook Park Recreation Area is another great site for some fresh air on a pleasant day. Colts Neck also has the Naval Weapons Station Earle, a United States Navy base that has been in operation since World War II.
Located along Delaware’s picturesque coast, where the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean meet, Lewes is a coastal town with a unique blend of history and natural beauty. Visitors can explore the historic district, which boasts beautifully preserved buildings dating back to the 17th century. The town is home to several museums, including the Zwaanendael Museum, which showcases artifacts from Delaware’s early Dutch settlement. Lewes also offers stunning beaches, scenic nature trails, and a lively downtown area filled with boutique shops, such as the Bungalow on 2nd and delicious seafood restaurants including Wheelhouse. With its captivating coastal charm, Lewes is an underrated gem that offers an escape from the stress of larger cities.
Situated on the banks of the Chester River, Chestertown is a historic town known for its colonial architecture, tree-lined streets, and vibrant arts scene. The town’s rich maritime heritage is celebrated during the annual Chestertown Tea Party Festival, a lively event commemorating the local resistance to British taxation in the 18th century. Strolling through the town, visitors can admire stunning Georgian and Federal-style homes, browse art galleries, and enjoy waterfront dining 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.
With a population of about 41,000, the coastal town of Essex, Maryland is among the larger underrated places on this list. And for good reason: locals enjoy living on the Chesapeake Bay, while staying close to Baltimore, which lies a few miles to the west. Essex developed in the early 20th century as a more rural alternative to the urban life of the nearby city.
The town itself sits between the Back River and the Middle River, making its location ideal for water sports and boating. Visitors to Essex can see the Ballestone-Stansbury House, also called the Ballestone Manor. The house, first built in 1800, joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Nestled in the scenic Shenandoah Valley, Staunton is a vibrant town with rich history and cultural attractions. Staunton's crown jewel is the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse, a replica of Shakespeare's original indoor theater. Visitors can watch world-class performances of Shakespearean plays in an authentic, historically accurate setting. Staunton’s downtown area is a lively hub of art galleries, artisan shops, and farm-to-table restaurants such as the Zynodoa restaurant. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and the Frontier Culture Museum are also worth exploring. With its cultural offerings and idyllic location, Staunton is a hidden gem in the Mid-Atlantic.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
At the meeting point of two rivers and three states, the town of Harpers Ferry provides a historical, and beautiful, focus point of Mid-Atlantic history. 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.
Here you 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 Bottom Line
The list of underrated Mid-Atlantic towns runs longer than these nine. However, from Cold Spring and Cape May to Staunton and Harpers Ferry, this US region offers a wealth of destinations and points of interest. Combine those with the remarkable local geography in each place -- from sea coast and rivers, to mountains like the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah -- and it seems clear why these towns deserve more recognition.