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Things to Do on the East Coast: The Best in All 13 States

BY: Editors | Aug 22, 2016

With the Great American Bucket List, we bring you the best of the United States by naming the one thing you must do in each state during your lifetime. This edition: things to do on the East Coast. With our help, you can plan the perfect East Coast vacation. (See our picks and vacation ideas for the Midwest, the West, and the South.)

CONNECTICUT | Admire the Architecture of Gillette Castle

This hilltop estate, designed and once inhabited by actor William Gillette, looks hauntingly medieval, but it's actually less than 100 years old. Inside, you'll see several indicators of Gillette's creative prowess: he installed built-in couches and a table that moves on tracks in the floor.

  • State legacy: Connecticut made the grounds a state park in 1943, partly in response to Gillette's wish that the castle not go to "some blithering saphead."
  • Interior intrigue: The castle contains more than 45 interior doors, and no 2 are the same.
  • While you're here: Hike the surrounding trails and admire hilltop views of the Connecticut River.

DELAWARE | Relax on Rehoboth Beach

Rehoboth Beach has a reputation as one of the East Coast's best beach towns; it's even been dubbed "the Nation's Summer Capital" for being a favorite vacation spot for DC residents. Just beyond the boardwalk—ranked among the country's top 10 by Coastal Living and National Geographic—pristine Atlantic waters lap against the sand.

  • Where to drink: Dogfish Head started as a brewpub here in 1995; today you can sip exclusive in-house brews.
  • Money-saving tip: Shop at the area's outlet malls—Delaware has no sales tax.
  • Where to stay: Rehoboth Guest House, a bed and breakfast that's a five-minute stroll from the boardwalk

MAINE | Go Sea Kayaking in Bar Harbor

Get a different perspective of Acadia National Park by heading out to sea. Kayaking tours take you around Frenchman Bay's calm waters, where you can spot bald eagles and terns and—most exciting of all—get up close and personal with harbor seals and porpoises.

  • What to bring: A camera since your chances of spotting wildlife are good
  • Where to stay: The 16-room Acadia Hotel, located about a mile from Acadia National Park in downtown Bar Harbor
  • What to eat: Savory pie filled with Maine lobster and sherry cream at the oceanfront Reading Room Restaurant in Bar Harbor

MARYLAND | See Wild Horses on Assateague Island

You'll find some unusual beachgoers frolicking in the sand on Assateague Island: wild horses. Descended from the horses of 17th-century settlers, they now roam freely, grazing in salt marshes and cooling off in the ocean.

  • Safety tip: Keep your distance and don't try to pet or feed the animals—they kick and bite.
  • Best time to go: The horses are easiest to spot in summer, when they spend more time on the beachto find relief from the heat, humidity, and bugs in the marshes.
  • Where to stay: There are numerous family-friendly options in nearby Ocean City

MASSACHUSETTS | Walk The Freedom Trail

Walking along Boston's Freedom Trail isn't just a way to experience American history—it's a way to see some of the prettiest parts of the city. The 2.5-mile path begins in the historic Boston Common and winds its way to Bunker Hill, encompassing 16 sites.

  • Spookiest stop: See the graves of John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Samuel Adams at Granary Burying Ground.
  • Money-saving tip: Skip the organized tour and download a free app to guide you instead.
  • Where to eat: Get authentic Italian at Panza in the North End.

NEW HAMPSHIRE | Go Leaf Peeping on the Kancamagus Highway

Bask in the glory of New England's fall foliage on this 35-mile drive through the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. There are numerous trailheads along the way where you can step out for some fresh air and admire the vibrant red, yellow, and orange hues up close—this is autumn in New England at its best.

  • When to go: mid-September to mid-October
  • Insider tip: Drive east from Lincoln to Conway for the best scenic overlooks.
  • Heads up: There are no gas stations along the highway, and cell-phone service can be spotty.

NEW JERSEY | Hit the Boardwalk at Cape May

Nearly 600 well-maintained Victorian buildings fill the streets of Cape May with eye-popping color, from bubblegum pink to robin's-egg blue. New Jersey's southernmost beach town, Cape May is a perennial favorite for vacationers seeking historical architecture, saltwater taffy, and strolls along the family-friendly boardwalk.

  • Where to stay: A charming bed and breakfast such as the aptly named Gingerbread House
  • Where to eat: Have local seafood and honey-glazed duck at The Black Duck on Sunset.
  • Local tradition: Dig through the sand for Cape May diamonds—ocean-worn pieces of quartz.

NEW YORK | Escape City Chaos in Central Park

It's not easy narrowing New York City's many attractions down to just one must-see, but we have to go with Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's masterpiece of landscaping is an 800-acre oasis of calm in the middle of a city known for being anything but.

  • Things to do in Central Park: Visit the zoo, row across the lake, picnic on the Great Lawn, pay tribute to John Lennon at Strawberry Fields—and you're just getting started.
  • Best photo op: Head to the observation deck at Belvedere Castle.
  • Where to stay: For a truly memorable experience, splurge at the Ritz-Carlton right across from the park.

PENNSYLVANIA | Get Close to US History at Independence Hall

America's founding principles were put on paper inside Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the Constitution was drafted, debated, and signed. The Georgian-style building is located on the cobbled streets of Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood, which is home to what's called the country's most historic square mile.

  • Best photo op: Pose with Ralph Archbold, the city's official Ben Franklin impersonator during bicentennial celebrations.
  • Nearby attractions: The Liberty Bell Center, Betsy Ross House, and Pennsylvania Abolition Society
  • Where to eat: Dig into Amish specialties at Reading Terminal Market, founded in 1892

RHODE ISLAND | Tour the Newport Mansions

The quiet seaside village of Newport became a symbol of the Gilded Age, when the Astors, the Vanderbilts, and other titans of industry made it a summer resort destination. The families built palatial residences—incongruously called "cottages"—along a rocky coast facing a yacht-filled harbor. Today the homes are open for tours, providing a look into the lives of America's first wave of the super rich.

  • When to go: Summer offers great beach conditions, as well as famous annual events like the Newport Jazz Festival.
  • What to eat: Freshly caught seafood at Bowen's Wharf
  • Where to stay: The elegant Hotel Viking has hosted millionaires, socialites, and even a president (JFK).

VERMONT | Make a Tasty Trip to the Ben & Jerry's Factory

Founded in 1978, Ben & Jerry's is now available in 28 countries and more than 100 flavors; visit Waterbury, Vermont, to see how the magic is made. The 30-minute tours leave plenty of time to explore the gift shop and (of course) sample a few ice-cream flavors.

  • What to eat (if you dare): The Vermonster, a 14,000-calorie combo of 20 scoops of ice cream, three cookies, and four ladles of fudge
  • Money-saving tip: Seniors get in for $3, and kids aged 12 or younger are free.
  • Nearby attractions: The state capital, Montpelier, is just 12 miles away.

VIRGINIA | Visit Arlington National Cemetery

This isn't your typical tourist attraction: Arlington National Cemetery's endless rows of white headstones make for a stirring sight. Spanning 624 acres, the cemetery has been the resting place for American soldiers since 1864.

  • Best photo op: Catch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It happens on the hour or half hour depending on the season.
  • Can't miss: The Eternal Flame memorial at President John F. Kennedy's gravesite
  • When to visit: Springtime, when the Memorial Arboretum's cherry trees are in bloom

WEST VIRGINIA | Stay (and Play) at the Luxurious Greenbrier

You can't go wrong with a stay at The Greenbrier. This luxury resort in the Allegheny Mountains has something to offer every kind of vacationer: think golf, bowling, carriage rides, historical tours, casino games, spa services, and more.

  • Historical legacy: The Greenbrier is older than the Constitution, and it's hosted the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, and 26 US presidents.
  • Best time to visit: If you're on a budget, January or February (when rates are lowest); otherwise, try for spring (when the tulips are in bloom)
  • What the press says: Travel + Leisure put The Greenbrier on its list of the world's 500 best hotels, and Fodor's calls it "one of the leading resorts in the country."