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Mid-Atlantic bucket list: Must-see places in Maryland, D.C, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia

Every week for a year, The Baltimore Sun's Travel Unraveled newsletter is sharing a new must-visit destination in the Mid-Atlantic region.

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Week 32: “Miracle on 34th Street”

Mladen Antonov/Getty ImagesDec. 7, 2017: For five weeks every winter, a residential block in North Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood becomes a nightly holiday carnival centered around the simple fact that every house decks out — all out — for Christmas. The seven-decade tradition in the 700 block of West 34th Street is so embedded legend’s spread that a requirement to decorate is written into homes’ deeds. There’s, in fact, no formal obligation, but as one homeowner said, when “you live on the Christmas street, you don’t want to be a Grinch.” Thousands of lights strung roof-to-roof draping overhead, the displays, lit the Saturday after Thanksgiving through Jan. 2, mix Christmas classics with Baltimore kitsch: Trees are formed out of hubcaps or old records, for example, or topped with pink flamingos. As popular as it’s become — the “Miracle on 34th Street” regularly makes national lists of the best holiday lights — participants resist commercialization. They discourage vendors, and, contrary to other gossip, refuse help with their utility bills.

Week 31: Strasburg Rail Road

Baltimore SunNov. 30, 2017: In Strasburg, Pennsylvania, a brief 4.5-mile trip can take you back over one hundred years. The borough in Lancaster County is home to the nation's oldest continuously operating short line railroad. For the last several decades, the jaunts through the Amish countryside have been ones of leisure, rather than utility (the holiday season’s Christmas tree trains notwithstanding), as part of an immersive experience of authentically restored turn-of-the-century steam locomotives and cars. Museums showcasing more vintage trains, as well as toy ones, are nearby. A train fanatic’s paradise? In fact, that’s the name of one of the stops.

Week 30: The scenic route

Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media GroupNov. 23, 2017: This time, it’s not necessarily about where you’re going, but how you get there. This holiday travel season, how about trading the highway for the byway, on at least part of your trip? Instead of ticking off license plates and mile markers, you and your carmates could be taking in vistas and historic sites. The National Scenic Byways Program designates 150 such routes, selected for archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational or scenic qualities, including 17 in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia or West Virginia. Two of the longer ones offer alternatives to major interstates. The Historic National Road, which goes from downtown Baltimore all the way to the Mississippi River, roughly tracks Interstate 70. The Journey Through Hallowed Ground Byway, from Gettysburg to Monticello, parallels Interstate 81.

Week 29: Outdoor ice rinks

GPTMC/HandoutNov. 16, 2017: There’s no fountain of youth, but an open sheet of frozen water could be the next best thing. From squirming into the rented skates, to the first wobbly steps on the ice, to that moment it finally clicks and you can’t believe it could be this much fun just to go in circles, no place transports adults back to a state of childlike wonder quite like an ice rink. The picturesque settings of cities’ seasonal outdoor rinks only add to the magic. Rinks in Baltimore (through Jan. 15) and Philadelphia (Nov. 24-March 4) overlook the cities’ waterfronts and the National Gallery of Art’s in D.C. (Saturday through March 11) is set in the sculpture garden.

Week 28: NASA Wallops rocket launches

Bill Ingalls/NASANov. 9, 2017: While Cape Canaveral remains synonymous with launches, East Coasters needn’t go all the way to Florida to watch a rocket blast into space. Founded in 1945 to host rocket research, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore has assumed a more visible role in the country’s space missions since the retirement of the shuttle program in 2011. As one of the few U.S. facilities licensed to send a rocket into orbit, it’s used by contractors hired to resupply the International Space Station. The next such launch, viewable from the Wallops visitor center and, weather permitting, spots up and down the coast, is scheduled for a little after 7:30 Saturday morning. A free app for iOS and Android shows observers where to look, and gives updates on any delays or cancellations. The visitor center also hosts exhibits and programs on past and present missions and the science behind them as well as a gift shop.

Week 27: Bald eagles at Conowingo Dam

Courtesy of Hung TaNov. 2, 2017: If you've never seen a bald eagle before, here's your chance to see several. Just an hour northeast of Baltimore, the spillway below the Conowingo Dam is perhaps the best place on the East Coast to spot the formerly endangered national bird. While the confluence of waters at the head of the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding forest already make the area attractive, the birds of prey are particularly drawn by the easy eating. The funneling of fish through the dam creates a virtual buffet. A few dozen bald eagles are there year-round. A few hundred more stop there on their way south every autumn, which Saturday’s Conowingo Eagles Day is timed to take advantage of. Drawing photographers from across the country, the event kicks off an annual photo contest. It also has family-friendly wildlife and art demonstrations and an on-site food truck.

Week 26: WWII fire control towers

Lloyd Fox/Baltimore SunOct. 26, 2017: The concrete towers weren't intended to be a permanent part of the Delaware coastline. Yet, three-quarters of a century after their hasty construction, to triangulate the position of enemy ships during World War II, 11 remain, exceeding their expected lifespans several times over. They’re such fixtures that vacationers zipping up and down Route 1 hardly seem to notice these legacies of a millennium-old defense strategy. Right now the public can go up in just one of the fire control towers, Tower 7 at Cape Henlopen State Park, but, in acknowledgment of their historical significance and tourism potential, work has begun to restore and open another three, starting with Tower 3, south of Dewey Beach. The tower, which fronts the ocean, should become more of a landmark even before completion: One of the first steps is to light the tower with blue lights, like those on the nearby Indian River Inlet Bridge.

Week 25: Chesapeake oysters

Lloyd Fox/Baltimore SunOct. 19, 2017: Before colonization and industrialization, few environments on Earth were better suited for oysters than the Chesapeake Bay. Despite plummeting under 1 percent of their historical levels, the bivalves remain an important part of the region’s culture, cuisine and economy and the benefits they bring to the rest of the ecosystem — each filtering dozens of gallons of water a day and collectively providing habitat for other species — have made them a centerpiece of efforts to restore the estuary. This weekend, the molluscs’ heritage and future are celebrated at the 51st annual U.S. Oyster Festival in Southern Maryland’s St. Mary’s County, including the national shucking championship. To learn oystering’s history, head farther up the bay, to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. To experience how it’s increasingly being practiced today, head farther south, where several farms on the Virginia Oyster Trail offer tours.

Week 24: Longwood Gardens

Samuel Markey/Longwood GardensOct. 12, 2017: Whether or not you have a green thumb, Longwood Gardens is a treat for the eyes. Located west of Philadelphia, just above Delaware, the world-renowned horticultural showplace evolved from a farm and arboretum, purchased in 1906 by industrialist Pierre du Pont to preserve historic trees, to become one of the largest classical revival landscapes in the United States. Open year-round, Longwood boasts more than 1,000 acres of woodlands and outdoor and indoor gardens. On view this early fall is the Thousand Bloom Mum, featuring some 1,500 flowers arranged on a single stem, and native Asters, coming in a variety of shapes and colors. This month is also the season’s last chance to experience the almost completely rebuilt Main Fountain Garden, whose hundreds of jets, LED lights, and gas flames create a dazzling half-hour display set to music.

Week 23: Udvar-Hazy Center

Paul J. Richards/Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesOct. 5, 2017: The Discovery and Concorde alone would fill a quad on the National Mall. So, to showcase the space shuttle, supersonic jet and other literal and figurative giants of aviation history, the National Air and Space Museum ventured out of downtown D.C. Opened in 2003, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport is made up of two large hangars. They include an SR-71 spy plane, the fastest jet ever, and the Enola Gay, which the United States used to drop the first atomic bomb in combat, on Hiroshima, Japan. In addition to the exhibits, which also touch on general aviation and unmanned aircraft, there's an IMAX theater, observation deck, and an area where visitors can see artifacts being restored.

Week 22: Great Falls

David Fine/Community ContributorSept. 28, 2017: The crowds on nice weekend days notwithstanding, it can be hard to believe the ruggedness of Great Falls is just 15 miles from Washington. Formed during the last ice age, the Potomac River’s quick drop over dense, erosion-resistant rocks makes for a striking geologic show. Viewable from Maryland and Virginia, the series of cascades and rapids is straddled by parks with hiking, biking, bird-watching, climbing, and fishing opportunities. For experienced paddlers, the whitewater here can reach the highest classification of Class VI, or Extreme.

Week 21: Philadelphia Museum of Art

B. Krist/Baltimore SunSept. 21, 2017: Its front steps are recognizable to millions from Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" films. By all means, run up as fast and as long as you can, but don't consider this Philly bucket list item complete unless you actually go in. The third largest art museum in the country holds vast collections of Renaissance, American and Impressionist art. There are works from pre-antiquity and from around the world, but exhibits and galleries also connect viewers with what’s happening right now and across town, including a collaborative presentation running through early December, “Philadelphia Assembled,” on grassroots activism. If you visit soon, construction work is also likely to be on view. The museum is in the midst of a major renovation being assisted by architect Frank Gehry.

Week 20: Antietam National Battlefield

Kim Hairston/Baltimore SunSept. 14, 2017: Fought 155 years ago this Sunday, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was also one of the most pivotal. Antietam made plain the great cost it would take to win, and, stopping a Confederate invasion of the North, gave President Abraham Lincoln standing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Among the first where the dead were photographed on the battlefield, the battle also produced some of the war’s most enduring images. The battlefield itself, meanwhile, is one of the best preserved, lessening the imagination needed to see it as soldiers did. Visitors can tour the site, located south of Hagerstown, by vehicle or foot, with audio and ranger guides available for select routes. Every December, volunteers illuminate Antietam with 23,110 luminarias, one for each casualty.

Week 19: Annapolis from the water

Al Drago/Baltimore SunSept. 7, 2017: In addition to being Maryland’s capital and, briefly, the nation’s capital, Annapolis, home to the Naval Academy and National Sailing Hall of Fame, is also the self-anointed "Sailing Capital of the U.S." While Newport, San Diego and other coastal communities might have qualms with that, there’s no denying that the bay, rivers and creeks are a central part of Annapolis’ identity. They can be experienced in many ways, and, if you insist, even without getting wet. On the water, sailing classes and rentals, cruises, and stand-up paddleboarding launch from multiple spots. On land, watching a sailing race or walking or running the edge of the Naval Academy grounds can be the next best things to being out there yourself. Somewhere in between, there’s an annual tug-of-war over the water, a quirky tradition birthed by a prolonged closure of a drawbridge.

Week 18: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesAug. 31, 2017: The occasion of Oriole Park at Camden Yards’ 25th anniversary is bringing another binge of national publicity for the ballpark that changed ballparks. Building a stadium downtown just for baseball that blends retro style and modern comforts, groundbreaking in 1992, quickly became commonplace, even cliched. Camden Yards’ impact is so profound that it’s even influenced renovations to classic stadiums that influenced it. Despite imitations, with the over 1,000-foot-long red brick warehouse in right, raised bullpens in left, and a view of downtown landmarks all around, there’s no mistaking the original. Thanks to numerous maintenance projects, including a new field and lights this year, and new additions, such as a rooftop bar and monument park added five years ago, it can be hard to believe, though, that the place is a quarter-century old. $15 gets in you in for a game, $9 for a tour.

Week 17: Harpers Ferry’s The Point

David Hobby/Baltimore SunAug. 24, 2017: Geography and history buffs should make a point to get to The Point in Harpers Ferry. The confluence of two rivers and three states (West Virginia is separated from Maryland by the Potomac and from Virginia by the Shenandoah), the water gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains offers lines of sight to numerous noteworthy spots, including the John Brown Fort, where the abolitionist and his followers barricaded themselves in their ill-fated 1859 raid, Civil War battle sites, the carefully preserved buildings of Lower Town, and, most dramatically, a crossing that, through floods and conflict, swallowed numerous predecessors to the railroad bridge and footbridge (linking the Appalachian Trail and C&O Towpath) that stand today.

Week 16: Harriet Tubman center and Blackwater refuge

Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore SunAug. 17, 2017: The marshes, fields and forests of Dorchester County have awed visitors for decades at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, the protected habitat a haven for bird watchers, photographers, bikers, kayakers and those simply seeking to be closer to nature. Not all probably appreciated that the setting south of Cambridge was also the backdrop for the first act of one of the most extraordinary of American lives: That of Harriet Tubman, who, in the words of a distant niece, “started life as a slave and became an international hero.” While enslaved, the Underground Railroad's most renowned conductor, Civil War spy, suffragist and nurse lived on a farm a few miles away. After escaping in 1849, she would return to the area multiple times to bring others to freedom. Through video, exhibits and programs, the recently opened Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, less than 2 miles west of the refuge’s visitor center, shows how Tubman’s experiences here made her who she was, and puts the placid scenery in a new light: Dense woodlands presented an early and formidable obstacle on the long journey north. A seven-mile canal was hand-dug by free and enslaved African-Americans, back-breaking, sometimes deadly work. The refuge and Tubman center are launching points for other recreational and educational opportunities, which often can be combined, such as the bikeable Harriet Tubman Byway.

Week 15: Duckpin bowling

Algerina Perna/Baltimore SunAug. 10, 2017: You can bowl in almost any moderately sized town, but the Mid-Atlantic is one of the few places that ever had — and still has — duckpin bowling. The smaller-ball, shorter-pin cousin to mainstream tenpin can seem easier on its face — you get three rolls instead of two — but is actually harder — officially, there’s never been a perfect game. Duckpin was more likely invented in New England than in Baltimore, as legend long suggested. Still, Marylanders became some of the most fervent players of the regional sport and champion themselves as preservers of it even as the once hundreds of alleys from Massachusetts to Virginia have thinned out to a few dozen — thanks in part to the discontinuation of automatic pinsetters. In the Baltimore area recently, duckpin centers have even been renovated and reopened. Elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic, the handful of remaining lanes include ones near the travel destinations of Gettysburg and the Shenandoah Valley.

Week 14: Luray Caverns

Chiaki Kawajiri/For The Baltimore SunAug. 3, 2017: Maybe the easiest way to feel like you're on another planet is to climb down inside ours. Over millions of years, minerals and water can interact to form underground caves and fill them with eerily beautiful icicle-, mound-, and column-like structures. Luray, featuring 10-story ceilings and a musical instrument made from the formations, is the largest and most popular tourable system in the East.

Week 13: Beach boardwalks

Steve Earley/Baltimore SunJuly 27, 2017: Perhaps boardwalks are so popular for the front of postcards because they can represent virtually anything you write on the back. It's the place to pile on the calories, or burn them off, to splurge on impulse buys, or make a day of it for free, to check several items off your bucket list, or just completely check out. The big three boardwalks in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia are Rehoboth (the most family friendly, 1 mile long), Ocean City (the liveliest, 3 miles long), and Virginia Beach (the most bike friendly, 3 miles long). Send us a postcard to say which you picked!

Week 12: New River Gorge

Elevated ElementJuly 20, 2017: Home to some of the best whitewater in the country, an annual BASE jumping festival, and a growing complex of tree-top ziplines, southern West Virginia’s New River Gorge area is synonymous with adventure. Yet, not keeping still for a few moments to take in its beauty would be passing up perhaps its biggest thrill. At the gorge’s northern end, near the town of Fayetteville, the splendor is both natural and manmade. There, North America’s longest steel arch bridge carries vehicles — and (guided) catwalking pedestrians — 876 feet over one of the continent’s oldest rivers. Reducing what was a 40-minute commute to 1 minute, the New River Gorge Bridge is celebrated locally for its economic impact beyond tourism, and, featured on the 2005 West Virginia quarter, has become a symbol for the state.

Week 11: Skyline Drive

John Gearan/APJuly 13, 2017: Less than two hours from D.C., motorists can feel light years beyond the beltway on one of the region's most scenic road trips. The 105-mile Skyline Drive transverses Shenandoah National Park through the Blue Ridge Mountains, featuring dozens of overlooks, wildlife, wildflowers and camping and recreation opportunities along the way.

Week 10: Fallingwater

Amy Sancetta/APJuly 6, 2017: Department-store magnate Edgar Kaufmann Sr. wanted the waterfall to be a focal point for the retreat Frank Lloyd Wright was building for him and his wife, but Wright surprised him by building overtop the waterfall, rather than overlooking it. The result is a masterpiece of American architecture, as popular with critics as it is with the tens of thousands of tourists who visit every year. A museum for the last half-century, Fallingwater is in the Laurel Highlands of the Allegheny Mountains, about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Week 9: U Street Corridor

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty ImagesJune 29, 2017: The historic hub of black culture and business has experienced a revival in recent decades after being hit hard by the 1968 riots. Institutions surviving from its heyday such as Ben's Chili Bowl and the restored Lincoln Theater now share the district with modern dance halls, hip bars and coffee shops and eclectic restaurants.

Week 8: West Virginia and Pennsylvania stargazing

Terence DickinsonJune 22, 2017: Light pollution maps of the East Coast are a swath of bright colors. With all that artificial light, millions are missing out on thousands of stars. The nearest breaks are on the periphery of the Mid-Atlantic region, in Eastern West Virginia, on and around an Allegheny Mountains peak, and in Northwestern Pennsylvania, on the Allegheny Plateau. Reaching the darkest spots can mean braving dirt roads; thick, dampening dew; and, possibly, bears. And keeping them dark can mean watching where you shine your headlights or putting a red filter over your flashlight. The reward is a night sky not seen for generations in the areas most of us call home. If conditions are perfect, the Milky Way’s shine might even be bright enough to cast a shadow.

Week 7: Reading Terminal Market

GPTMCJune 15, 2017: Jeet yet? Whatever kind of food you’re in the mood for, you’re liable to find it inside Philadelphia’s vast Reading Terminal Market. The 125-year-old institution, often held up as a model for reviving old city bazaars, is still a destination for fresh meat, seafood and produce, but, of more interest to visitors, boasts a wide range of prepared foods. Dozens of vendors purvey the trendy (bacon on a doughnut) alongside the traditional (chicken pot pie), heavy (fried mac and cheese balls) alongside the light (fresh-squeezed vegetable juice), meaty (roast pork sandwich) alongside the veggie (vegetarian cheesesteak), and foreign flavors (salmon curry) alongside local staples (scrapple). In perhaps the hardest-to-pull-off contrast, the old train shed maintains a feeling of history and authenticity even as it’s become a tourist hotspot.

Week 6: Appalachian Trail

Kim Hairston/Baltimore SunJune 8, 2017: For this one, it truly is the journey, not the destination. We’re not telling you where, how far or how hard to hike. All we’re saying is no Mid-Atlantic bucket list is complete without trekking at least part of the Appalachian Trail. The longest hiking-only footpath in the world, the AT covers 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine, over a third of which run through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia or Virginia. Parking lots near the Boonsboro Washington Monument (the first to be completed honoring the first president), near the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park’s Cavalier Heights Visitor Center, and on Tuckers Lane near Route 66 in Northern Virginia's Fauquier County are among the many spots to pick up the trail.

Week 5: The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum

Amy Davis/Baltimore SunJune 1, 2017: Life-size and incredibly lifelike, the three-decade-old museum's more than 100 wax figures, portraying luminaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Barack Obama as well as everyday African-Americans, are impressive in their own right. But what makes the East North Avenue nonprofit a cultural gem is the context it puts them in. As it pursues a major expansion, Great Blacks in Wax is already presenting the African-American experience with historical breadth, and, especially, emotional depth that rivals institutions many times its size and budget.

Week 4: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

William Philpott/APMay 25, 2017: Every minute of every day in every kind of weather, sentinels guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Remains of unidentified American service members killed in World War I, World War II or Korea are interred at the monument, which is meant to honor all unidentified soldiers as well as those missing in action. Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery can witness the somber and elaborate changing of the guard ceremony once every hour from October through March and twice every hour from April through September.

Week 3: Cape May-Lewes Ferry

Algerina Perna/Baltimore SunMay 18, 2017: Saving motorists the long drive around the Delaware Bay, or the often sluggish drives through Baltimore and Washington, the 100-vehicle ferry between New Jersey and Delmarva runs 365 days a year for utility, but it can be the launching pad for a fun day trip in and of itself. Both ends of the ferry are close to standout shopping, food and drink, and attractions, including antique dealers, wine and beer tastings and the Cape May Lighthouse in New Jersey, and outlet retailers, Rehoboth restaurants, and Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware. The cheapest, and perhaps most fulfilling, way to make a day of it is on a bike. Traveling on two wheels lowers your fare (if you’re transporting your bike, there’s no charge to leave your car in the terminal’s lot) and lets you board first, and once you’re on the other side lets you park for free and take in the scenery at your own pace. Cape May is a 7-mile ride from the terminal, mostly on two-lane roads; Rehoboth is an 8-mile ride, mostly on a rail trail.

Week 2: Smith Island

Algerina Perna/Baltimore SunMay 11, 2017: A visit to Maryland's most isolated inhabited island, accessible only by boat, is a chance to witness a distinctive place and way of life while you still can. Thanks to erosion and rising water levels, the bay whose crabs, fish and oysters have sustained the island's villages for more than three centuries now threatens to condemn them, as population also dwindles. Better accommodating tourists — beyond the culture, the island's fresh seafood, signature cake, kayaking and bike tours, and abundant birdlife are among its draws — as well as building up infrastructure are part of a "vision plan" to save the island.

Week 1: Embassy open houses

Cultural Tourism DCMay 4, 2017: Limiting this list to the Mid-Atlantic still affords the opportunity to go to and experience the cultures of other countries. Foreign embassies in Washington are technically on the soil of their respective nations, and every spring dozens open their doors to the public to share native cuisine, arts and wares. 2017's Around the World Embassy Tour is scheduled for Saturday.

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