There are so many museums and monuments and things to see in Washington, DC that it can be easy to overlook the communities just outside of the District. If you have time to explore, though, most are quite reachable by car or on the Metro.
“….where the stories of the people, the land, and the waters of Maryland, which have been intertwined for thousands of years, are told. In Heritage Areas individuals, businesses, non-profits and governments form partnerships to preserve the best of Maryland’s historic sites and towns, unspoiled natural landscapes and enduring traditions.”
It’s hard to tell a cohesive story of a region that Captain John Smith explored and mapped in 1608, and that is stuffed with historic sites from different centuries, chunks of natural beauty criss-crossed with trails, the site of a War of 1812 battle, an arts district, gobs of museums, and aviation/aerospace history.
To help get yourself situated, start at the Maryland Milestones Heritage Center, which is in the town of Hyattsville in the southern part of the heritage area.
Housed in an historic building along with the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center next door (maybe you can catch one of the Art Center’s letterpress or bookbinding workshops) the Heritage Center has numerous fun artifacts and explains the different threads that make the area unique: transportation links including U.S. Route 1, parks and preserves, and a little of what you’ll find in the area’s 17 different communities.
There are a few shops and cultural centers in the surrounding streets, as people have begun renovating the beautiful old buildings and setting up bike shops, yoga studios, dance studios, and restaurants.
Across from the Maryland Milestones center and Pyramid Atlantic is Vigilante [coffee] Roastery and Cafe, if you need a quick snack or caffeine boost.
Speaking of pick-me-ups, I have a local breakfast/brunch recommendation – the Milk & Honey Cafe in either College Park or Bowie.
Behold this crab-based delight at their College Park location….
Anyway, back to exploring. If you start in the southern part of the heritage area, you can work your way north. A lot of what you’ll want to see is along old U.S. Route 1/Baltimore Avenue.
The Bladensburg Waterfront Park is right on the Anacostia River. There is a reasonable amount of parking, so you could also use it as a base to bring a bike and jump on the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail that runs through it.
Most of us (myself included) don’t know much about the War of 1812 other Fort McHenry’s bombardment and the making of the Star-Spangled Banner, plus Dolley Madison saving George Washington’s portrait when the British burned the capital, including the presidential mansion. So, the information placards in the park were a revelation to me.
Seems like we Americans don’t learn about the Battle of Bladensburg because, well, we got whomped by the British and mostly ran away, leaving the road to the capital open so the British could march down and commence burning things. American Commodore Joshua Barney and his men on the third battle line did put up a fight, but to no avail after they ran out of ammunition and Barney was shot through the thigh, then passed out.
“‘They have given us the only fighting we have had,’ remarked the British admiral. Barney was immediately paroled by his captors and taken to Bladensburg to have his wounds tended.”
The park’s placards explain all of this, or you can simply enjoy watching the river go by.
One end of the park has rentals of all kinds, a public boat ramp, information on boat tours, and some additional placards that explain that this is part of the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail.
After some time on the river, swing back over to U.S. Route 1 and the tiny town of Brentwood, which together with North Brentwood, Hyattsville, and Mount Rainier form the Gateway Arts District that runs for two miles north-south along Route 1.
They are working to not only encourage development of an arts, culture, and entertainment cluster, but also provide support and housing, like the Artist Apartments in the town of Mount Rainier.
I’d like to have seen the Prince George’s African-American Cultural Center and Museum, but it is closed on Mondays (the day we were there) so I’ll have to plan a return trip. The events at Joe’s Movement Emporium looked intriguing, too.
The small gallery and gift shop at the Brentwood Arts Exchange was open, so we spent almost an hour with a helpful staff member who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the artist behind every piece.
Something about this contemporary art piece about eyelashes (below) drew me in.
There are a lot of different visual and tactile elements to it….
Continuing north through the Maryland Milestones area, you’ll reach College Park. It is home to the University of Maryland, but also to the world’s oldest continuously operating airport and a fine museum that chronicles the surprising depth of aviation history in this part of the state.
Did you know that Wilbur Wright came here in 1909 to train the first military aviators? That’s when the airport was established; things moved fast once the Wright Brothers figured out how to make it all work in their Dayton, Ohio bicycle shop.
The College Park Aviation Museum is not a large building, but there is a lot to see in there, so you’ll want to allow at least an hour and maybe two.
I knew some of the Wright Brothers and military aviation history, but had no idea about what went into….
- The early days of air mail – actor Douglass Fairbanks “mailed” himself from College Park to New York in 1918 as a WWI fundraiser
- Women in aviation – first U.S. female passenger Mrs. Van Deman was “delighted” with her 1909 four-minute flight with Wilbur Wright
- The odd-looking little Ercoupe plane – John Travolta bought one in 1972 after he finished flight training
- The extensive history of African-American pilots who fought discrimination and KKK intimidation to get their wings and form flying clubs like the Cloud Club and its airport in nearby Croom, MD.
If you want to dig into more aviation/aerospace history here, also see the NASA Goddard Visitor Center.
After a long day of running around, you may want to relax with a walk on one of the trails at the Patuxent River Wildlife Refuge – it’s split into North and South tracts, but the Visitor Center is at the South one.
For dinner, there are a ton of great restaurants, but we went back to Hyattsville to eat at Franklin’s restaurant and brewery, which is in an historic building that is basically across the street from the Maryland Milestones Heritage Center.
It’s Maryland, so you eat more crab, right?
The Rubber Chicken Red amber ale that I had with it was delicious!
It’s tempting to think of the vast urban sprawl beyond the District of Columbia as merely “the suburbs” that feed all of those cars onto the many freeways, but that’s a mistake in this part of the U.S.
There is a ridiculous amount of history and beauty wherever you turn here (I didn’t even make it to the Greenbelt Historic District or the town of Laurel,) so take some time to wander and look for the many layers to discover.
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