20 Must See Northern Virginia Hidden Gems Rich in Nature and History

Updated on February 10, 2024 by Julie McCool

These Northern Virginia hidden gems offer beautiful places, fascinating history, and unique things to do at lesser-known destinations. They're perfect for a local's outing or a day trip for Washington DC visitors.

Our list of great places to visit in Virginia includes fun for the whole family, adult outings, cool photoshoot locations, interesting history, and special sites for every age.

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After 25+ years living here, we are still surprised by the diversity of places to visit and things to do in Northern Virginia. Popular spots like Great Falls Park and Shenandoah National Park call us back regularly. But we also love to follow the road less traveled and uncover new local experiences.

Have visitors in town? Here are the Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Northern Virginia.

Our Northern Virginia hidden gems are in two groups: natural gems and history-focused places. However, many of these destinations include both nature and history. Links offer additional information, tips, and photos to help plan your outing.

Here, in no particular order, are 20 Northern Virginia hidden gems to explore.

Natural Northern Virginia Hidden Gems

Northern Virginia is a happy place for nature lovers. We have bays, rivers, and wetlands; rolling hills across the Virginia Piedmont; and the foothills and peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to explore.

These beautiful places in Virginia are fun for active outings and include some of our favorite places to take pictures and create memories. These Northern Virginia hidden gems are worth a visit all year long.

1. Bear's Den Overlook, Bluemont

Plan your visit: Bears Den Overlook Hike in Bluemont Virginia: Alternate Routes and Tips.

View from Bears Den Overlook, One of the Best Hikes in Northern Virginia
Bears Den Overlook Hike

A half-mile uphill hike from a parking lot in Bluemont leads to rocky Bear's Den Overlook. Here you can enjoy one of the best views in Northern Virginia, looking west to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley.

That western view makes this one of the best places to watch the sunset in Northern VA. The rocky outcropping offers lots of spots to sit and enjoy lunch or a great sunset view.

You can also reach the overlook from the day-use area of the Bear's Den hostel. If you want a longer and more challenging hike to a view, try Raven Rocks just across Route 7.

Combine your visit with a stop at nearby Purcellville for tasty dining, shopping, and craft beverages. Or check out the eastward view with a craft beer at Dirt Farm Brewing and other Bluemont breweries and wineries. Free.

Day Trip/Getaway Guide: Fun Things to Do in Bluemont Virginia

2. Neabsco Creek Boardwalk Trail, Woodbridge

Plan your visit: Neabsco Creek Boardwalk Trail Hike in Northern Virginia.

Neabsco Creek Boardwalk, a beautiful boardwalk trail in Northern Virginia
Neabsco Creek Boardwalk Trail

Opened in 2019, the Neabsco Creek Boardwalk Trail winds over a wetland in Prince William County. The boardwalk is part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, a network of trails that highlight historic and natural areas along the Potomac River.

The 3/4-mile long Neabsco Creek Boardwalk is fully accessible to wheelchairs and strollers, making it ideal for a family-friendly outing near Washington DC. It's also a great spot for bird-watching. Free.

Find more easy hikes: 6 Beautiful Boardwalk Hikes in Northern Virginia

3. Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, Alexandria

Plan your visit: Dyke Marsh and the Mount Vernon Trail

Dyke Marsh boardwalk and platform
Dyke Marsh Preserve Boardwalk

It's easy to visit this unique Northern Virginia hidden gem by bicycle or car. The Mount Vernon Trail, a paved bike trail along the Potomac River, passes through the marsh. Or you can park at nearby Belle Haven Park and walk the .7-mile dirt trail follows the banks of the Potomac River.

You'll enjoy nice views of the marina, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and National Harbor in the distance. The level, easy trail ends with a  long boardwalk and viewing platform over a tidal marsh and across the river. Dyke Marsh is also a popular destination for birdwatching. Free

4. Difficult Run and Cross County Trail, Great Falls

Plan your hike: Difficult Run Hike to the Potomac River on the Fairfax Cross County Trail

Cross County Trail by Difficult Run, Great Falls Virginia
Cross County Trail by Difficult Run

The Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail extends for over 40 miles across Fairfax County. The trail begins at the Potomac River in the north and ends at the Occoquan River in the south. Along the way, it passes through many of Fairfax County’s best parks and stream valleys.

Our favorite stretch of the CCT follows Difficult Run and enters the eastern section of Great Falls Park before arriving at the Potomac. This is a great summer hike because the trail is shady and you can cool your feet in Difficult Run. In September and October, fall foliage colors the banks and reflects in the stream, creating lovely photoshoot locations. Free.

You can also extend your trip with a loop hike on the Run, Ridge, and River Trails. Here are some helpful tips for hiking the CCT with links to other trail segments.

5. Great Marsh Trail, Mason Neck

Plan your visit: Hiking and Eagles on the Mason Neck Peninsula in Northern Virginia.

Great Marsh platform at Mason Neck
Great Marsh Trail platform at Mason Neck

The Great Marsh Trail is a paved, 3/4-mile accessible trail that is part of the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge on Gunston Road. There is a large platform at the end of the trail with expansive views of the 250-acre Great Marsh, one of the largest freshwater marshes on the Potomac River.

This is a beautiful spot to watch for birds, including bald eagles that nest in the protected marsh. Extend your visit with a stop at Mason Neck State Park for beautiful birding, hiking, and boating. Free.

Explore more 15 Best Nature Trails in Northern Virginia for Wildflowers and Wildlife

6. Huntley Meadows Park, Alexandria

Plan your visit to the Wonderful Wetlands at Huntley Meadows Park

The Accessible Boardwalk Trail at Huntley Meadows Park, a Spring Bucket List Destination in Northern Virginia
Huntley Meadows Boardwalk in Spring

Huntley Meadows Park transformed a former asphalt testing facility into one of the most beautiful marshland habitats in our busy region. Visitors stroll a long, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk allowing close-up views of the many birds, amphibians, and other wildlife in the park.

Climb the Observation Tower, one of our favorite romantic spots in Virginia, for more expansive views and a rest. Free ($2 donation for parking requested).

Nearby fun: 25 Fun Unique Things to Do in Alexandria VA

7. Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, Vienna

Plan your trip: Visit Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Northern Virginia

Flowers, gazebo, and pond at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna Virginia
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens Vienna VA

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is a Northern Virginia hidden gem we return to throughout the year. The gardens grow, transform, and fade, but the park's 95 acres and paved paths always offer peace and beauty. A children’s garden, gazebo and pond, and small bridges entertain families; and the Korean Bell Garden adds cultural interest.

The gardens are especially beautiful when cherry blossoms bloom in spring. During the holiday season, the Winter Walk of Lights sparkles with one of the best holiday light shows in Northern VA. Admission is $3.00 – $6.00, depending on age.

Find more Gorgeous Gardens in Virginia.

8. Potomac Heritage Trail

Plan your hikes with our guide to Potomac Heritage Trail Hikes in Northern Virginia

Narrow stretch of the Potomac Heritage Trail, Windy Run hike
Potomac Heritage Trail, Windy Run hike

The Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT) covers over 800 miles from Washington DC to Pennsylvania, with local segments following the banks of the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. Close to DC, we like the stretch from Theodore Roosevelt Island to Windy Run. More popular segments pass through Great Falls Park and Riverbend Park. Free.

Find more Epic Virginia Trails to Hike and Bike.

9. Prince William National Forest, Triangle

Plan your visit: Explore Prince William Forest Park in Northern Virginia

Bridge over Quantico Creek Prince William Forest
Bridge over Quantico Creek Prince William Forest

It's odd to think that part of the national park system can be a Northern Virginia hidden gem, but we frequently meet locals who have never visited Prince William Forest. Those who do visit will enjoy 37 miles of beautiful hiking trails, a 9-mile scenic loop drive, and paved and gravel bike roads. Stop by the Visitor Center to pick up a map and get advice on the best trails for your group.

There is also some interesting history from the park's days as a “relief camp” for low-income DC children. Camping is available in historic cabins or open sites. The entry fee is $20.00 per vehicle, which is waived on national free entrance days. If you plan to visit a few times during the year, buy a National Park Annual Pass and save.

Explore more Prince William County Virginia Sites for History and Hiking

10. Seneca Regional Park, Great Falls

Plan your visit: Hike Seneca Park and the Potomac Heritage Trail in Northern VA

Historic 1700s Patowmack Canal wall at Seneca Park
Historic Canal Wall, Seneca Park

An entryway of woven branches welcomes hikers, birders, and equestrians to the beautiful woodland and riverside trails at this Northern Virginia hidden gem. Several pleasant trails criss-cross the woodlands here, leading to the Potomac River.

The riverside Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail is especially interesting and scenic. In one section visitors can see a historic 1700s stone wall from George Washington’s Patowmack Canal. Near the parking area, signs explain details of a historic calvary crossing during the Civil War. Free.

Arrive in style: Great Falls Scenic Drive on Pretty Country Roads in Northern Virginia

Historic Northern Virginia Hidden Gems

The emphasis is on history at the Northern Virginia hidden gems below, but many of them also allow outdoor activity. Follow the links to learn more and find special events at each site.

11. Balls Bluff Battlefield Park, Leesburg

Plan your visit: Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Park: Hiking and History in Leesburg Virginia

Balls Bluff Battlefield Trail
Balls Bluff Battlefield Trail

The first Civil War engagement of Loudoun County took place at the battlefield at Balls Bluff. Today, the park has an excellent interpretive trail that explains how the battle unfolded. Other trails include sometimes steep, wooded hikes to the river and a segment of the Potomac Heritage Trail. The park also includes one of the smallest National Military Cemeteries in America.

Nearby Red Rock Wilderness Overlook also offers wooded hiking along a bluff and down to the Potomac River. Free.

Nearby fun: 21+ Fantastic Fun Things to Do in Leesburg Virginia

12. George Washington Distillery and Gristmill, Mount Vernon

Plan your trip: Visit George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill in Mount Vernon Virginia

George Washington's Gristmill Mount Vernon VA
George Washington's Gristmill Mount Vernon VA

Step back in time for a close-up look at businesses built by George Washington in the 18th century. The George Washington Distillery and Gristmill faithfully recreate two of Washington's profitable businesses using period methods and materials. Today, the gristmill grinds wheat and corn just as Washington's workers and enslaved people did.

Nearby, the only authentic 18th-century distillery in the United States creates fine whiskey, brandy, and other spirits using the arduous methods of Washington's time. The distillery and gristmill are open seasonally, from April 1 through October 31. Admission is $10.00, or you can purchase a ticket that also includes admission to George Washington's Mount Vernon.

Nearby fun: Fun Things to do at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

13. Historic Downtown Clifton, Virginia

Plan a Clifton Virginia Day Trip: A Charming Small Town Near Washington DC

The historic Buckley House in Clifton Virginia
Buckley House, Clifton Virginia

Clifton’s compact downtown is a Northern Virginia hidden gem blessed with interesting and well-marked history. Clifton makes a perfect day trip, with several delicious restaurants, good hiking, and a winery to explore.

Downtown Clifton is a National Historic District. A stroll up Main Street leads to houses and businesses marked with signs offering interesting tidbits about the people who lived and worked in them. Free.

Nearby fun: Bull Run Occoquan Trail Hike and Paradise Springs Winery in Clifton Virginia

14. Gunston Hall, Mason Neck

Plan your visit with our guide to Beautiful History at Gunston Hall

Gunston Hall, Mason Neck VA
Gunston Hall, Mason Neck VA

At Gunston Hall, the family home of George Mason IV, you can enjoy a guided tour of the mansion and reconstructed outbuildings, and explore 550 acres of grounds and hiking trails. As you explore the history and beauty of Gunston Hall, you’ll learn about George Mason’s lasting impact on Virginia and the very beginnings of our American democracy.

George Mason was among the first to call for such fundamental American liberties as religious tolerance and freedom of the press. These ideals became the foundation of the United States Bill of Rights. $10 with discounts for seniors and children. Or, purchase a $5 grounds pass to hike the trails and see the gardens at Gunston Hall.

Nearby fun: Hiking and Eagles on the Mason Neck Peninsula in Northern Virginia

15. Lake Anne Van Gogh Bridge, Reston

Find this hidden photo spot with our guide: Van Gogh Bridge in Reston Virginia

Cherry Blossoms surround the Van Gogh Bridge at Lake Anne in Reston Virginia
Van Gogh Bridge Cherry Blossoms Reston

The Van Gogh Bridge is one of the most beautiful photoshoot locations in Northern Virginia and is one of the best places to see cherry blossoms in Virginia. And this hidden gem is just one of several picturesque art installations at Reston's original village center, Lake Anne.

The Lake Anne Plaza opened in 1966 to national acclaim and was even compared to Venice's Piazza San Marco by an architecture critic. Today you can explore the art and architecture on an easy walk around Lake Anne.

Concrete artworks are built into the plaza and surrounding pathways and underpasses. This lovely bridge and a nearby swing offer pretty spots to enjoy the view and take pictures. Local Reston restaurants at Lake Anne include a brewery and a coffee shop/wine bar. Free.

Nearby fun: Local’s Guide: 10 Best Things to Do in Reston Virginia

16. National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle

National Museum of the Marine Corps
National Museum of the Marine Corps

Anyone traveling busy route I-95 will notice a dramatic 210-foot stainless steel mast, angled to mimic the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, that soars from the National Museum of the Marine Corps. But too few locals stop to explore the excellent immersive displays and multi-media experiences that tell the story of the strength and heroism of the Marines Corp throughout history.

Displays capture important moments of American history from the perspective of Marines who participated in them. Full scale displays include an assault on Iwo Jima by Higgins Boat, a frozen mountain pass in Korea, and the aftermath of the battle in Vietnam. Free.

Visit nearby: US Army Museum a Must-Visit in Northern Virginia

17. Pope-Leighey House, Alexandria

Plan your visit: Pope-Leighey House Tour: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Gem

Pope-Leighy House Alexandria Virginia
Pope-Leighey House, Alexandria Virginia

The Pope-Leighey House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, recognized by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time.” Wright designed homes to encourage living in connection to, and harmony with, nature.

Wright's Usonian homes were designed for middle-class family living. He believed that garages, attics, and basements were unneeded structures that encourage excessive consumption and cluttered living. Open central rooms were designed to bring people together.

Guided tours of the Pope-Leighy House explain how every design detail contributed to Wright's vision of happy family life. Open April to December, tours are $15, or $20 for a combined tour with Woodlawn Plantation. In February, Woodlawn hosts a fantastic Woodlawn Needlework Exhibition.

Nearby fun: Scenic Drive: Georgetown Pike and George Washington Memorial Parkway

18. Snickersville Turnpike, Aldie to Bluemont

Plan your trip with our guide: A Scenic Drive on the Snickersville Turnpike In Loudoun County Virginia

Fall on he Snickersville Turnpike Scenic Drive part of a Leesburg Loop Route through Northern Virginia
Snickersville Turnpike Scenic Drive

The Snickersville Turnpike (SR 734) is a quiet, two-lane road, that passes farms and fields, and preserves much of its early character. George Washington traveled the road as a surveyor. By 1786 it was the first operating turnpike in America, praised by Thomas Jefferson as a success.

A monument erected by the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry marks the site of a fierce Civil War cavalry battle. The Turnpike passes three general stores along the drive, including the Philomont General Store, which has been in continuous operation since 1913. Once you finish the turnpike, continue your drive with a visit to charming, historic Waterford Virginia. Free.

Explore more hidden gems: Fantastic Northern Virginia Scenic Drives

19. Stabler Leadbeater Apothecary, Alexandria

Plan your visit: Visit Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Old Town Alexandria VA

The historic Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum is one of the most quirky and unique hidden gems in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum Alexandria Virgiina

One of the most unusual Northern Virginia hidden gems is frozen in time—preserving and displaying its original 1933 contents. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary was frequented by Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee (or their servants) and everyday residents in the bustling port of Old Town Alexandria.

Glass bottles line the shelves, filled with the same exotically named medicines and herbs they contained when the business abruptly closed. The glassware, the furnishings, the fabric, and even the contents of the containers-unicorn root, dragons blood, “worm destroying drops,” and more—are all original. If you are looking for cool places to visit in Northern Virginia, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary is a great choice. $5.

Find more Fun and Unique Things to Do in Alexandria VA.

20. Occoquan Regional Park and Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton

Plan your visit with our guides:

Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Lorton Virginia
Turning Point Suffragist Memorial

Occoquan Regional Park is a popular spot for boating and fishing on the Occoquan River. The area is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, explored by Smith in 1608. You can enjoy a meal with views of the river at the Brickmaker Cafe, one of our favorite outdoor dining spots in Northern VA.

The park was also the site of a critical turning point in the long fight for women's right to vote. The National Turning Point Suffragist Memorial opened here in 2021, highlighting that local connection.

Visit the nearby Workhouse Arts Center Lucy Burns Museum for a powerful introduction to the events at Occoquan that helped turn the tide and gain support for women’s suffrage.

The park is also home to the last of nine Beehive Brick Kilns, used by prisoners from the former Occoquan Workhouse. Many of the red bricks produced here were used in public buildings throughout Washington DC. Park and memorial admission are free.

Nearby fun: 15+ Fantastic Things to Do in Historic Occoquan Virginia

Our 20 picks for Northern Virginia hidden gems include a nice mix of low-cost and free things to do in NoVA. They include fun destinations for family time or a quiet solo escape. And all of these unique places have more interesting stops nearby, perfect for a DC day trip.

If you're a local, keep the list handy for inspiration the next time you're looking for unique things to do in Northern VA.

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20 Virginia hidden gems for nature and history lovers, perfect for a day trip near Washington DC.
20 Northern Virginia Hidden Gems