The bright lights of the big city; the tranquil beauty of the rolling countryside; the bustling boardwalks of the seashore; and the soaring heights of the unspoiled wilderness—everything that people love about the eastern United States can be found in the heartland of the East Coast, the Mid-Atlantic.
This region of the U.S.A. comprises five states and a federal district in the northeastern part of the country. While the region is dominated by the enormous megalopolis running from Washington, D.C., to New York City, it's the large areas of more rural character to the north and west that possess some of the east's most spectacular sights.
It's in the Mid-Atlantic where you'll find the unfathomable urban landscape of New York City, the indescribable power of Niagara Falls, the unspeakable gravity of the Gettysburg battlefield, and the uncompromising resolve of the nation's capital. Every city is a melting pot of humanity with unparalleled cultural attractions, and every rural highway leads to another undiscovered gem of scenic beauty or country living.
The heart of the Mid-Atlantic beach tradition and the less pleasant Mid-Atlantic toll plaza tradition.
Most notable for the world treasure that is the Chesapeake Bay, its port cities, such as Baltimore, and its fantastic crab feasts.
A big state home to arguably the world's greatest city, enormous park lands and mountains to the north, and the Great Lakes and beautiful Finger Lakes regions to the west.
The nation's most densely populated state, home to much of the New York City and Philadelphia metropolitan areas, as well as miles of white sandy beaches which have been a popular tourist destination since the 1950s.
Large, mostly rural, and beautiful, Pennsylvania is home to two iconic American cities, a large Amish population, and a wealth of important historical sites.
The capital of the United States, with the country's most important museums and monuments nestled in the center of a diverse and vibrant city.
- Annapolis — a small and charming colonial port city known as the "sailing capital of the U.S."
- Atlantic City — the "Las Vegas of the East", with 7 casinos, nightlife, and beaches to boot
- Baltimore — a large port city with a thriving arts scene, edgy character, and some great Italian food
- Buffalo — the largest city in upstate New York, gateway to Niagara Falls, and home of the Buffalo wing
- New York — one of the world's greatest cities, the financial and artistic center of the U.S.
- Philadelphia — the nation's birthplace, with countless historic buildings and the rowdiest sports fans in the country
- Pittsburgh — the Steel City, full of magnificent bridges over the Three Rivers, interesting neighborhoods, and great food
- Rochester — an old industrial city with a rich history of innovation and progress, home to several universities and film and jazz festivals
- Washington, D.C. — the capital of the United States, with the country's most important museums and monuments nestled in the center of a diverse and vibrant city
- Appalachian Trail — a foot trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine
- The Adirondacks — a mountain range in upstate New York and the biggest protected parkland in the country, with countless outdoor recreation opportunities
- Assateague Island — most famous for its wild ponies, but deserves equal fame for outstanding natural beauty and great beach camping
- Chesapeake and Ohio Canal — an old canal, turned into a park popular with runners and joggers, as well as admirers of the awesome Great Falls on the Potomac River
- The Finger Lakes — the East Coast answer to California's Napa Valley, with a hundred vineyards overlooking eleven long, thin lakes
- Niagara Falls — a powerful and awe-inspiring set of waterfalls on the Canadian border, and the "honeymoon capital of the world"
- Gettysburg Battlefield — the site of the most important battle ever fought on American soil, very well maintained and exhibited
- The Poconos — a popular Pennsylvania mountain "get-away-from-it-all" destination, home to some of the largest ski resorts in the Mid-Atlantic
- Thousand Islands — see where the rich and famous vacationed decades ago, along this chain of picturesque islands on the Canadian border
The Mid-Atlantic as a cultural region is largely a blending of the best of the cultural regions it borders: New England, the Midwest, the South, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec. Accordingly, individual states and especially cities have strong individual identities and locals are more likely to identify with a major subregion like the New York City tri-state area, the D.C. metropolitan area, rural Pennsylvania, Downstate New Jersey, etc., than to identify with the Mid-Atlantic as a whole.
Because of the Mid-Atlantic region's significance and large urban centers that draw not only upon the regional populations, but across the nation as well, there is a higher population density (see the Get around section). Three of the nation's top ten metropolitan areas are located here: New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., spaced apart from each other by only about one and a half hour drives. These metro areas consist of immense urban sprawl radiating out from the city centers, covering a significant fraction of the region's land area. Their huge populations ensure that the roads remain congested, beaches well attended, and paths well-beaten.
This is a real East Coast region, with all the associated stereotypes of huge immigrant communities from all over the world, leftist politics aplenty, good food, and a vaguely arrogant (and ignorant) attitude towards the rest of the country, especially the "fly-over" states in the middle. The long Atlantic Coast also means that the region has strong ties, in terms of travel, culture, and commerce, with Europe.
The areas outside these megacities are far less frequently visited by international tourists, but there is nonetheless much more to be seen: the Chesapeake Bay is a true world treasure and should not be missed by anyone interested in ecology, sailing, or seafood; the beautiful and wild Adirondacks comprise the largest park area in the continental U.S.; some of the most important Civil War battlegrounds like Gettysburg and Antietam are here; Niagara Falls is one of the great natural wonders of the world; and the Appalachian Trail is a hiker's dream.
As with the majority of the United States, all official signs in the Mid-Atlantic are in English and travelers speaking English should have little difficulty communicating their needs wherever they go. Spanish is widely spoken, mostly by immigrants from Latin America and their families, although the language is also taught poorly to the majority of the native-born population.
Because these five states lie on the East Coast, they were the initial point of entry for most English-speaking immigrants and as such, have retained a much greater degree of diversity in terms of regional accents than the rest of the country (accents tended to converge as settlers went west). While you are likely to just encounter General American Pronunciation pretty much wherever you go, you may be treated to a New Yorker accent in Brooklyn, Long Island, or northern New Jersey; the Inland North dialect (think the "Da Bears" guys from Saturday Night Live) in Upstate New York from Buffalo east to Syracuse and Binghamton, "Bawlmorese" in Baltimore, the baffling-to-linguists "Picksburg" accent that just keeps diverging ever farther from surrounding accents, a South Philly accent, or southern accents on Maryland's Eastern Shore. You can even find 17th century English accents if you look for them among the isolated island communities of the Chesapeake Bay!
The principal points of entry are the regions airports and the super hubs are in the New York and Baltimore-Washington metro areas. The former is served primarily by John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK IATA), Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR IATA), and LaGuardia Airport (LGA IATA), while the latter is served by Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD IATA), Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA IATA), and Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI IATA). Philadelphia is served mainly by just one airport, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL IATA), which is accordingly the largest in the area. Other cities in the area will often have their own airports, but direct flights may be harder to come by.
Amtrak runs several routes in and out of this region including the popular Acela express that goes from Boston to DC via New York. Unlike other parts of the country, Amtrak is often the fastest and best way to get somewhere, owing to higher train speeds along the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor as well as congestion on roads and airports. Prices tend to reflect that, so shop around what best fits your time and financial needs. Even travelers from Japan whose trains tend to be much more expensive than in Europe tend to be flabbergasted at the high prices of the Acela and even the Northeast Regional - a slightly slower service with more stops - is more expensive than some European high speed rail services.
New York City is still served by a regular ocean liner run by Cunard Lines.
Greyhound is unfortunately the main intercity bus operator, unfortunately because it is an inefficient and expensive way of getting around. Fortunately it is seeing low-cost competition from a peculiar set of Chinatown bus routes. These no frills point A to point B services arose organically from the needs of Chinese-Americans to visit their relatives in the various Chinatowns across the region. The service caught on when the general public realized they could travel round trip from D.C. to New York for $30. There is no central internet site for these services, so you are best off doing a general internet search. Be aware that the Chinatown buses do occasionally terminate and originate in unsavory urban neighborhoods.
A new wave in intercity coach transportation is large corporations trying to emulate Chinatown buses but with better services. Megabus was the first to embrace the new business model, offering heavily discounted fares from its New York hub to Boston, Toronto, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlantic City and Washington. Bolt Bus is a division of Greyhound but is significantly cheaper and more comfortable than their regular services, they provide newer coaches with more legroom, electric sockets at every seat and free wireless internet. Bolt Bus provides journeys within the northeast corridor, almost identical to Megabus. Ne-On is also a division of Greyhound and operates between New York City and Toronto, via Buffalo, their on-board services match those of Bolt Bus.
- See also: rail travel in the USA
While train service is very limited in the rest of the United States, the Northeast has by far the best rail service in the country. The high-speed Acela express runs frequently along the Washington-Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor. Amtrak also serves upstate NY, and western PA. Unfortunately, Amtrak is a very expensive option, often more so even than flying or renting a car!
In addition to frequent Amtrak service, there are a number of much cheaper regional (commuter) rail lines including: MTA Metro North and Long Island Railroad around New York City, NJ Transit in New Jersey, Shore Line (for Connecticut), SEPTA for the Philadelphia area (also connecting to Wilmington and Newark in Delaware), and MARC for Maryland (especially the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor).
It is possible to travel much of the coast using only regional rail, and although it will probably be slower than the Amtrak or Acela Express, it will also cost a fraction of the price, and may take you through towns you might not otherwise see. Making the trip from New York City to D.C. is relatively straightforward, with only one rail gap between Philadelphia and Baltimore: take New Jersey Transit from Penn Station to Trenton Amtrak Station, connect to SEPTA R7 Regional Rail to Philly's 30th Street Station, get from Philly to Baltimore by other means (Greyhound bus or car rental being the most simple way), then connect to the Marc Train at Baltimore's Penn Station to D.C.'s Union Station. Note, though, Marc Train service may be limited to fewer lines and times during the weekend.
All states in this region maintain convenient service plazas along the major highways, which are probably your best bet for hitchhiking as the freeway itself is closed to pedestrians.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do; drive in the USA. Driving is the only practical way to tour the Mid-Atlantic, if you intend to visit anything beyond the major cities. That said, the Mid-Atlantic is the least pleasant place to drive in the entire country. Traffic, both inter-city and intra-city, can be horrendous—the D.C. area regularly tops the lists of the nation's most congested cities, and Metro New York is never far behind. But above all, Mid-Atlantic drivers are rude. Aggressive and often puzzling driving is commonplace along the interstates and in more populous areas.
I-95 is the coastal super highway, at times encompassing a whopping eighteen lanes, and connects D.C. to New York through Baltimore, Philadelphia (optional), and pretty much everything in between in New Jersey and Delaware. It is the fastest way to drive between these cities, but it is unpleasant and ridden with expensive tolls (especially in Delaware!) and very bad traffic on weekends and around local rush hours. Avoiding I-95 requires a bit of creativity and slightly longer trips through Pennsylvania west of Philadelphia, but such trips can be rewarding in terms of scenery, no tolls, little traffic, and just easier traveling generally.
Upstate New York and rural Pennsylvania can be home to unmaintained roads, so be wary of where the GPS is taking you. In Upstate New York and Pennsylvania as well, snowfall is not always dealt with immediately. Many regions will not plow secondary roads unless several inches of snow fall. Driving can be treacherous in winter storm conditions, so it is best to avoid it all together.
Finally, a direct warning is in order: Driving into D.C. and New York is really not advisable. Doable, certainly; fun, not likely. According to a popular urban legend Washington D.C.'s street layout was designed to confuse invading armies. New York is extremely congested, and its drivers are the most aggressive in all of North America (though Bostonians may dispute that claim). Philadelphia is also filled with extremely reckless and fast-drivers, but at least the city is laid out in a grid. If you are driving into D.C., get good directions and don't do it anywhere around rush hour. If driving into New York, save yourself by parking in a less congested borough (like Queens or Brooklyn), where you might actually find free on-street parking, and take a subway line from there into Manhattan. Driving in Mid-Atlantic cities is really not recommended however because it is not necessary; Mid-Atlantic cities have the best mass transit systems in North America. It is almost always better to take a train in and use mass transit than to drive in and pay astronomical parking expenses.
By contrast, navigating urban traffic in the more off-the-beaten-path areas of the Mid-Atlantic, such as Upstate New York, can be a breeze: the populations of many cities such as Buffalo and Rochester have shrunk considerably since the 1950s, when their highway systems were constructed. This means that roads are uncongested the vast majority of the time—it's even relatively easy going at rush hour.
- See also: air travel in the USA
Although there are lots of budget flight options between cities on the Mid-Atlantic, due to the hassles and delays associated with increased security precautions, especially in the New York City area, short flights are usually best avoided. All major cities are connected by regional and commuter rail options with stations in the central business districts of these destinations. Moreover, most inter-city planes travel between suburban airports fairly far out from the city center. When the distances are long enough, though, flights can indeed be cheap and convenient, from, say, Washington, D.C. to Albany, or New York to rather far-flung Pittsburgh.
A rule of thumb is that flying is not worth it time-wise if you would spend less than three and a half to four hours on your alternative transport mode (car, train or bus) from city center to city center.
If visiting the Mid-Atlantic, you may want to take a look at the following itineraries:
- The Appalachian Trail runs along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains through Western Maryland on through Pennsylvania and New York.
- The Braddock Expedition traces the French-Indian War route of British General Edward Braddock (and a younger George Washington) from Alexandria, Virginia through the Cumberland Gap to the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
- The Jazz Track contains excellent information about visiting jazz-related sites in New York.
- Touring Shaker country takes you through several historic Shaker villages in New York State.
Much of the Mid-Atlantic is afflicted by so much suburban sprawl that there isn't much to do other than go to the movies. But peer a bit further into the region, and there are magnificent outdoor opportunities in the west and north. For hikers, the longest trail in the world runs from Georgia to Maine, passing through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. Pennsylvania between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, is beautiful and largely wild. Drives through pastoral Amish country or hikes through thickly forested hills are a great way to get away from the huge urban centers of the region. Way up in the northern section of New York is the enormous Adirondack State Park—the largest state park in the country, spanning an area larger than next door Vermont. Possibilities there for kayaking, boating, hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing are pretty much endless. The most popular escapes, however, are to the region's beaches in the summer, in the Jersey Shore and in Delaware and Ocean City, Maryland, where you can get a good tan, go swimming, gamble in some places, and eat boardwalk fries to your heart's content.
Sporting events are another huge draw to the region, with at least one major national team in each major city for each major league as well as several large universities with enormous sports programs.. The region also hosts minor league teams, such as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the AAA-level Philadelphia Phillies team, based in Allentown. Several tourist railroads and preservation groups offer (in season) Santa Train Rides and Easter Bunny Train Rides.
If you know where to go, the Mid-Atlantic is a food-lovers paradise. New York City has the world's best upmarket dining scene hands down. The D.C. area has an unlimited supply of cheap, delicious, immigrant-run restaurants featuring cuisines from every corner of the world. Philadelphia takes its fast food seriously and is an excellent place to try American street food including, of course, the Philly Cheeseteak. New Jersey's diners are iconic, Baltimore's are funky as they come. And the coastal areas of Delaware and Maryland are rightly famous for their magnificent crab feasts.
Few parts of the world can boast the nightlife to be found in the urban areas of the Mid-Atlantic. New York City's nightlife probably needs no introduction. From the diviest dives to the swankiest wine bars, as well as the best jazz in the world, New York's really got it all in this category. Philadelphia, Allentown, and Baltimore offer quirky, rougher-edged, and less accessible, but very lively bar and clubbing scenes. Pittsburgh defies post-industrial-city expectations with a lively and surprisingly classy nightlife scene. Washington, D.C. would at first glance seem the exception, with its reputation for bland, poorly dressed staidness and early closing times. The early closing times are a bummer on weekdays, but weekends have become hot for clubbers in the last 5–10 years.
Local drinks are many, mostly in the beer category. Most famous of all is Yuengling brand (pronounced ying-ling), America's oldest brewery. In most of Pennsylvania, ordering a 'lager' will net you a Yuengling lager.
As is true for much of the United States, crime is a problem in the inner cities, while city outskirts, suburbs, and the countryside are almost always quite safe. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore are particularly risky for travelers--they all are worth visiting, but have rough neighborhoods near many popular tourist sites—best to do your research ahead of time and avoid straying off the beaten path. New York, despite what you may have seen in the movies, is actually one of the safest big cities in the country, and you may rest easy knowing that violent crime has become rare in areas frequented by tourists. The main cities of New Jersey are less of a concern, as they are not at all major travel destinations. Bear in mind, however, that Newark, Camden and Trenton are all non-destinations because of their high levels of violent crime.
Mid-Atlantic cities all have their share of gang and drug-related crime. Gangs have moved away from cities like New York City and Philadelphia to mid-sized New Jersey and Pennsylvania cities like Allentown, Reading, York, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Chester, Camden, Trenton, Atlantic City, and Newark. Just be sure to know what neighborhood you're in and be cautious of suspicious activity.
The climate in the Mid-Atlantic part of the United States is not as extreme as in some other parts of the country, but does present perils depending on the time of year. Wintertime can bring ice and snow to inland areas, but only for short periods of time. Summers are often quite humid and steamy, especially in and around the Washington, D.C. area. Fall can bring the occasional hurricane or tropical storm, but these are rare and plenty of advance notice is given.
The upside to staying safe in the Mid-Atlantic is that there is no better place on Earth to develop a brain tumor, get knived, or crash your car—it is home to the best hospitals in the world in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins), and the New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. metro areas. Indeed, the hospitals get visits from the elite of the world, ranging from third world dictators to jet-setting millionaires. If they can't repair you, nobody can, though if you don't have insurance that covers this care, expect to be charged a tremendous price for any hospital visit.