Corona Virus important information
USA Road Trips: The Atlantic Route | Insight Guides Blog

USA Road Trips: The Atlantic Route

The Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty


This the second of our routes across the USA, which starts in New York City and finishes way down south in Key West, Florida, a total distance of about 1,200 miles (1,940 km), passing through New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.


Beginning in New York City, undisputed king of America’s cities, the route passes through a close succession of two more important cities, each with its own distinct personality: Philadelphia, cradle of American independence, and Baltimore, originally a fishing town and one still largely dependent on port activities. This leg of the route is perfect for US history buffs.

Inland, enjoy two exceptionally scenic drives in Virginia, passing into North Carolina and exploring one of the South’s most pleasantly diverse states. The route cuts east through tobacco fields to the coastline and through South Carolina and Georgia; take time to linger over a beautiful old city or a small, half-forgotten town.

Once in Florida, the weather – and the temperature of the water – will turn steadily warmer as you zigzag south from the nation’s oldest settlement, St Augustine on the Atlantic Ocean, to Orlando’s lakes, Tampa’s mild Gulf of Mexico waters, and past the edge of south Florida to the vast Everglades. At long last, you will emerge at the Atlantic coast once more, passing through Miami and its beaches to continue on to the Florida Keys.

We have divided the route into three chunks: New York to Virginia, North Carolina to Savannah and Georgia to the Florida Keys.

The Atlantic Route

 

NEW YORK TO VIRGINIA


New York City

New York is the city that never sleeps; it has energy and confusion, culture, and great charm. The city skyline is instantly recognizable; its attractions the best in the world. Its cultural life is matched only by its food: there are over 15,000 eating places to choose from. There are countless ways of parting with your money here, so bring a fat wallet and lots of stamina. Here are just a few recommendations:

- Central Park, stretching from 59th to 110th streets, hosts ice skating in winter and outdoor concerts in summer. You can hire a boat on its lake.

- 9/11 Memorial. Passes are required to tour the site. They are best obtained online (www.911memorial.org).

- The Ellis Island Immigration Museum provides a visual history of the port that 40 percent of all Americans can trace their roots to, and documents the migration from the world to the United States.

- New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), on West 53rd Street, houses over 150,000 individual pieces of art.

- Lincoln Center, on the Upper West Side, is home to the New York City Opera, the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theater, and the Metropolitan Opera.

- The hub of much of New York City’s nightlife, Greenwich Village is still a center for musicians, artists, shoppers, and the eccentric. SoHo and Tribeca, with their art galleries and restaurants, are perfect for Saturday strolling. Chinatown is close by if you’re hungry.

Read more about New York City on our USA destinations pages or buy one of our New York City travel guides.

New York City street

 

Philadelphia

The nation’s fifth most populous city, this is, for tourists and historians – along with Boston – an American city par excellence. The Declaration of Independence was signed here on July 4, 1776 – thereby giving birth to the United States of America, and there are many attractions connected with the American Revolution and US independence.

The best place to start a tour is at the Independence National Historical Park Visitor Center at Sixth and Market streets (www.nps.gov.inde and www.independencevisitorcenter.com). It has free films about the city’s history,  tourist information kiosks, costumed interpreters, and a reservation service for many related tours and attractions.

The city's art collections are housed in the Rodin Museum with an excellent collection of casts and originals, including The Thinker, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art ( www.philamuseum.org). 

After hours spent walking the streets of Philly’s historic districts and visiting its museums, the greenery of Fairmount Park rejuvenates even the most exhausted traveler. The country’s largest municipal park, it’s a system of 63 parks and green spaces throughout the city. In addition to grassy meadows and acres of woodland, it features a horticultural center, zoo, Japanese house, tea garden, and several historic homes along the banks of the Schuylkill.

Read more about Philadelphia on our USA destination pages.

 

NORTH CAROLINA TO SAVANNAH

This diverse part of the Atlantic Route offers university towns and sandy beaches, antebellum plantations and Civil Rights landmarks, pastoral farmland and history-filled cities, plus the unique culture and cuisine of the Lowcountry.


Greensboro and the Civial Rights movement

Greensboro is the site of a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement – the first sit-in by blacks demanding an end to segregation. The Woolworth store where the sit-in occurred is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum (www.sitinmovement.org). The hour-long guided tour takes visitors on an uneasy journey through the historical and moral elements of America’s legacy of slavery and segregation. The lunch counter where four black college freshmen sat has remained untouched since those days in 1960. Other exhibits revisit “Jim Crow” laws, the role of churches in the non-violent movement, and a Wall of Remembrance of those who died during the Civil Rights struggle.


Elegant Charleston

This was the first permanent settlement in the Carolinas. After 10 years of battling malaria, heat, flooding, and the Kiawah tribe, they packed up and headed to the peninsula where modern Charleston was built. The prosperity of the city’s early days is reflected in graceful 18th-century homes that fill the residential area south of Broad Street. This is one of America’s top walking cities.

The Visitor Center at Meeting and Anne streets is at the north end of Charleston’s Museum Mile. From there to Charleston Harbor, Meeting Street and the adjacent side streets have over 30 museums, historic houses, churches, and other notable sites. These include the Charleston Museum (www.charlestonmuseum.org) across the street from the Visitor Center. The first museum in America (1773), it showcases artifacts of the natural and cultural history of the Lowcountry – South Carolina’s coastal region including its sea islands. The area is so called because the land is at or near sea level. At one time, agriculture – particularly rice plantations – was the main Lowcountry activity. Now, tourism drives the economy.

At the Old Slave Mart Museum (www.oldslavemart.org), you can see, among other items, facsimiles of bills of sale used in the slave trade. “A prime gang of 25 negroes accustomed to the culture of Sea Island Cotton and Rice,” reads one placard advertising the upcoming sale of 25 human beings into bondage. It is a startling and sobering museum; the self-contented opulence south of Broad suddenly appears quite different after a long, thoughtful visit to the slave market.

Read more about Charleston on our USA destinations pages.


Savannah: First City of Georgia

The port of Savannah is an enticing, seductive place – equal parts history, gentility, revelry, and eccentricity. Best known for its gorgeous, moss-draped live oaks, cobblestone streets, and light, pastel-colored buildings, an air of mystique still hovers over Savannah, Georgia’s original settlement.

The saucy, best-selling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made this city a household name, with a corresponding increase in the city’s tourism. Today, a visit is likely to consist of a horse-drawn carriage ride through stately squares, lunch in an outdoor café – and an evening seeking ghosts in the shadowy passageways. In 1733, James Edward Oglethorpe received a royal charter to establish “the colony of Georgia in America”. He laid out a grid of broad thoroughfares, punctuated at regular intervals with two dozen spacious public squares. The 20 that remain have been refurbished, forming the nucleus of Savannah’s Historic District – one of the largest urban national historic landmark districts in the United States, and probably the most beautiful.

Bull Street, running the length of the district north to south, links some of the most beautiful squares. These squares excel in Savannah’s most characteristic details: fancy ironwork and atmospheric Spanish moss. They are also enlivened with daily activity – art vendors, hot dog stands, and street performers. Summer brings free jazz concerts to John Square near the river, but early spring is the best time to visit, when the city’s azaleas are in full blossom.

Read more about Savannah on our USA destination pages.

 

GEORGIA TO THE FLORIDA KEYS

Small-town ambiance, a tropical paradise, alligators in the Everglades, and the southernmost point in the US highlight the end of the Atlantic Route. The Georgia coast is one of the Southeast’s most interesting natural regions, a string of marshes, largely undeveloped islands, and good beaches. No wonder this region is known locally as the Golden Isles. A number of unusual birds live secreted along this coast, and there are also vestiges of African culture from the dark days when slaves were shipped across the Atlantic to work the plantations of the South.

Florida street in the evening with lights.

 

The salt marshes and islands of Glynn County

Palm fronds, live oak trees, and flowers cover both sides of the road in perpetual green as you drive through the road to the single attractive harborfront of St Simons Island, and you might consider staying the night in these restful environs. A museum in the former lighthouse tells the history of coastal Georgia, and there’s a good beach out beyond the main settlement. Sea Island, an even more exclusive resort reached via another series of roads on the island, possesses beautiful beaches and a world-class golf course. Unspoiled Cumberland Island is one of the most attractive islands in the Georgia chain.


Orlando: The world's best playground

Not so long ago, Orlando was just another agricultural town. Now it’s Florida’s best success story, a transformation made possible by a cartoon mouse. Orlando’s best known, best loved, and best reviled attraction is just southwest of the city. Walt Disney World (www.disneyworld.disney.go.com), with its four enormous complexes of entertainments, is thronged year-round. The other famous attractions here are Epcot Center, Disney-MGM Studios, and Universal orlando Resort. About 40 miles (64km) east of the city is the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral.

Read more about Orlando on our USA destinations pages or buy one of our Orlando travel guides.


Florida Everglades

US 41 cuts through the quiet and unspoiled heart of Florida. There are no towns because you are slowly penetrating the Everglades, a vast pocket of swampland inhabited by alligators, venomous snakes. The best way to explore the sinuous blackwater creeks of the Everglades is to rent a canoe or boat, or get in touch with one of the licensed outfitters who also provide guides.

At the Miccosukee Indian Village/Resort you can get supplies, stay overnight, gamble, watch alligator wrestling, or take an airboat ride through the Everglades. Just a few miles east is one of the two main entrances to Everglades National Park (the other is in Homestead). At the Shark Valley Visitor Center, visitors can rent a bicycle or board a tram for the 15-mile park loop.


A short stay in Miami

Sensual and warm, spicy and seductive, Miami appeals to the visitor who is longing for escape. Here’s a list of some not-to-be-missed attractions.

- Coral Gables is an enchanting Mediterranean-style neighborhood, home to the glorious Biltmore Hotel (1926) and the Venetian Pool, sometimes called “the most beautiful swimming hole in the world.”

- Coconut Grove is a vibrant, eclectic neighborhood of funky houses, dense natural greenery, and good shopping at Coco Walk.

- I.M. Pei designed the futuristic International Place, a 47-story building in downtown Miami that changes color at the flick of a switch.

- Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, the Italian Renaissance-style villa built in 1916 by industrialist James Deering, remains one of Miami’s top tourist destinations.

- Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, on the very tip of Key Biscayne and with a view of Cape Florida Lighthouse, has few facilities and little shade – just peace and solitude.

Read more about Miami on our USA destinations pages.


Florida Keys

This string of tiny islands holds some of the world’s most unique plant and animal life, and is where noted literati and glitterati have visited, put roots down, and decided to stay. The most famous is perhaps Ernest Hemingway, but numerous others have passed through, by, or lived here in the “Conch Republic.” Recent decades have made it quite a hit with gay and lesbian travelers, perhaps in part because of the laid-back, carefree attitude that pervades (often referred to as “Keys Disease”). Even the light is different here, a mysterious, turquoise shade of blue that reflects off everything it touches.

There are many fantastic sights to see before you reach Key West. At John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (www.pennekamppark.com) you can gaze through glass-bottomed boats at the most incredible formations of coral reef under the sea. Equally compelling are the fish and shellfish swimming and living throughout this delicate ecosystem. You can also snorkel, scuba-dive, and hire a canoe or kayak.

Buy one of our Florida travel guides.

Playing golf in Florida

 

The end of the road - Key West

You cross more bridges still, landing on Big Pine Key, Sugarloaf Key, and Looe Key, each with its own personality and laid-back eateries. Eventually, the highway comes to rest upon balmy Key West, last island in the chain – and also the name of the town that has been drawing interesting characters for a very long time. Today, it’s a mixture of fishermen, retirees, Cubans, and tourists, and a large gay and lesbian population.

The writer Ernest Hemingway lived here, and purveying his image has become one of the town’s most lucrative cottage industries. To get a taste of how he lived, visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (www.hemingwayhome.com), where the writer lived for a decade. Duval Street – the hub of the town – is lined with tacky tourist shops, restaurants, and extremely noisy bars (several which were patronized by Hemingway himself). The writer’s look-alike contest held every year is a highlight of the social season.

The two most popular sights in town, however, are both free. The first is Mallory Square Dock, where residents and tourists alike have been turning out every night for decades to cheer the beautiful sunsets over the water. The other is the brightly colored buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental 48 states. Locals claim that on a very clear night you can even faintly make out the lights of Cuba, lying less than 100 miles (160km) away.

 

Plan your US road trip

 

To read more about what to see in the United States, visit our USA destination pages. See also our guide to the Northern route from east coast Boston to west coast Washington state.

Or choose from one of our fantastic USA travel guides.

 

 


This June we're exploring the highways and inroads of the United States of America as our destination of the month. For more updates keep following the Insight blog, or check us out on Twitter @InsightGuides or on our Insight Facebook page, or why not look at some lovely travel photography on Pinterest.



Discover more with Insight Guides

home  •  inspire me  •  destinations  •  shop •  blog