This Chicago to DC road trip idea list is perfect for those who like history, science, and adventurous travel. With several great stops (including museums, National Parks, caves, and even gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants!) along the way, travelers can take their time enjoying the drive instead of plowing through from Chicago to Washington DC in haste.
My husband and I grew up in Indiana. We love traveling the Midwest and planning fun road trips!
Last year, we took a road trip from Indianapolis to Washington DC. With a 9+ hour drive, I knew we were going to need some stops along the way. We wanted fun and affordable things to see and do that made the drive feel less like a chore and more like part of the fun!
These Chicago to DC road trip route options give travelers an opportunity to check out a few great attractions and gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants along the way!
Why Take a Chicago to DC Road Trip?
There is so much to do in Washington DC, especially for history enthusiasts!
- The National Mall contains the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, United States Capitol, and more!
- There are also a plethora of free Smithsonian museums including the National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of American History, and the Museum of Natural History.
- The White House just north of the National Mall
- Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was shot
- Arlington Cemetery just across the Potomac River
How Long is the Drive from Chicago to Washington DC?
That’s really up to you! The direct drive from Chicago to DC is a little over 11 hours through Toledo, OH, Cleveland, OH, and Pittsburgh, PA.
I have set this road trip at 10 days, but if you stopped at all of these attractions and restaurants (on any of these road trip routes), this Chicago to DC road trip would take much longer. The beauty of this list is you have so many options based on the likes and dislikes of your group.
What are the Benefits of Making Stops on a Road Trip?
Besides the obvious need for a restroom and food, driving directly from point A to point B when the drive is longer than 6 hours can be daunting! While it’s nice to get to the final destination quickly, it can be so tiring to sit in a vehicle all day. But when road trip stops are added to the schedule, everyone gets to see fun things along the way and no one is stiff, sore, and cranky after several consistent hours in the car!
Moving at a slower pace can be so beneficial!
What Routes Can I Take for a Chicago to DC Road Trip?
There are three different Chicago to DC road trip route options:
1). Drive due east through Toledo, OH and Cleveland, OH, then head southeast to Pittsburgh, PA and finally Washington DC. This is the fastest route.
2.) Drive southeast to Indianapolis, IN; then head east through Dayton, OH and Columbus, OH and then on to Washington, DC.
3). Drive southeast through Indianapolis, IN and Cincinnati, OH. Then head east through West Virginia, Luray, VA, and Shenandoah National Park. This is the longest route but most interesting.
If you are planning to return to Chicago, you could always pick two of the routes and do one backwards! That’s essentially what we did when we did a road trip to DC. We took option 2 to DC and option 3 back to Indianapolis. However, we have made enough trips through the cities in option 1 to feel confident it would also be a great option!
Why Highlight Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Restaurants on this Chicago to DC Road Trip?
Those following this blog know that I eat gluten-free and dairy-free. It can be so difficult to travel with food allergies! There is a lot of research and preparation that happens before heading out. This blog was established to help others travel by providing them with suggestions for great gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants.
There are also tons of quick gluten free and dairy free restaurants in DC to give travelers more time to spend exploring all that Washington DC has to offer!
So, let’s get started!
Option 1 From Chicago to DC Road Trip: Through Northern Ohio and Pennsylvania
This is the fastest route from Chicago to Washington DC, but it might not be the most interesting!
To Toledo, OH
The drive from Chicago, IL to Toledo, OH will take roadtrippers past the Indiana Dunes. While it may be too early to take a pit stop yet, hiking the 3 Dune Challenge at Indiana Dunes State Park or relaxing at one of the many beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park are worth considering.
Toledo, OH offers several attractions including…
Those following a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, may want to check out Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano (has a gluten-free menu but has several items containing dairy/ might want to reach out to the restaurant if you eat dairy-free as well), Bibibop Asian Grill (100% gluten-free fast food), Fowl and Fodder (several delicious gluten-free and dairy-free options, but a bit pricey).
The last northern city before heading southeast is Cleveland, OH.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum is probably the most popular attraction. Rock out with your friends and family in the “garage”, check out the Signature Gallery, or see the instruments used in some of the greatest rock and roll concerts to date at Legends of Rock. Music enthusiasts will love the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum!
Cleveland also holds the largest rubber stamp in the world! This quirky attraction might be perfect to get everyone laughing before heading on to DC!
A half-hour south of Cleveland, OH is Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The famous Ledges Trail and Scenic Railway Station are popular stops at the national park. Cuyahoga Valley also boasts beautiful views in the fall!
Gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants include…
- Bigmouth Donuts: We loved our experience there! Great gluten-free and dairy-free donuts! And there are several other gluten-free and dairy-free meal options close by!
- Cafe Avalaun: 100% gluten-free and soy-free and several other allergens listed/ has delicious baked goods and cafe items
- Boss ChickNBeer: several gluten-free options with a vegan menu
- Barrio: tacos and drinks with several allergens listed on the menu
Located where three rivers meet and the Ohio River begins, Pittsburgh boasts some amazing views, especially from high up at Grandview Overlook. After snapping some photos, take the red cars down the incline to the city below and enjoy the Station Square Shopping Mall or Point State Park where the rivers meet.
We stopped at Grandview Overlook thinking we’d get some great views of the city and was pleasantly surprised to discover the incline cars taking visitors down the steep hill to the center of the city below! Grandview Overlook and the incline cars give guests a great opportunity to stretch their legs and experience a bit of the city of Pittsburgh!
Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Restaurants in Pittsburgh:
- The Yard (has a few locations, a gluten-free menu, and a gluten-free fryer. Vegetarian options are indicated on the menu, but not dairy-free)
- Fat Head’s Saloon (lists several gluten-free menu items that could likely be made dairy-free)
- Condado’s (make your own gluten-free and dairy-free tacos!)
From Pittsburgh to DC Attraction: Flight 93 National Memorial
A pivotal day in America’s history was September 11, 2001. On that day thousands of people lost their lives due to terrorist attacks on our country. But so many heroic men and women stepped up to save others who were spared.
Celebrate the lives of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country by spending some time at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stoystown, PA. There, visitors can view the very location where Flight 93 went down, learn of the heroic acts of the passengers that prevented even more fatalities, and listen to their final phone call messages.
Arrive in Washington DC!
The drive from the Flight 93 National Memorial to Washington DC is 3.5 hours. With beautiful rolling hills, the views will make the drive more interesting!
Option 2 From Chicago to DC Road Trip: Through Indiana and Central Ohio
While this one will take a little longer to drive, it is great if you want to explore central Indiana and Ohio.
Indianapolis, IN has several great attractions including Indiana State Museum, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, and more. Or, if you’re looking for another history lesson, check out Conner Prairie, a living history museum for kids!
Indianapolis also has some great gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants, including King Dough (pizza), Tinker Street (a nicer restaurant option), Public Greens (farm to table restaurant) and more. Indianapolis also has a few great gluten-free and dairy-free bakeries!
The US Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH is the perfect place to stretch your legs and immerse yourself in aviation history.. and it’s FREE! There are hundreds of early planes, fighter jets, Air Force One planes, and even space crafts and rockets on display at the US Air Force Museum. For a fee, visitors can even take a simulation ride and experience flying themselves.
Gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants in Dayton, OH include…
- Bibibop Asian Grill: 100% gluten free Korean bowls
- FUSIAN: sushi and bowls
- Table 33 Dayton: gluten free brunch menu, not dinner menu
- Purely Sweet Bakery: several gluten free and vegan as well as keto options
- The Neighborhood Nest: a gluten free bakery that can accommodate other allergens
Hocking Hills State Park, just south of Columbus, OH, is one of the best state parks in the nation. With phenomenal hiking trails through gorges and past waterfalls, this is a great place for a Chicago to DC road trip stop! Hocking Hills State Park is located a little less than an hour south of Columbus, OH and I-70, so take this into consideration when road trip planning.
The Columbus Zoo, on the other hand, is just north of the heart of the city. We love this zoo and still consider it the best in Ohio. Not only does the Columbus Zoo do several conservation efforts and have one of the largest zoos in the nation, they also have a water park, golf course, and more! Visitors could easily spend a full day or more enjoying all the Columbus Zoo has to offer.
Looking for gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants in Columbus, OH? Check out Condado Tacos (with build-your-own taco and taco bowls), Bake Me Happy (a gluten-free bakery with a few dairy-free options), and Moonbowls (with gluten-free and vegan Korean bowls).
Additionally, the Columbus Zoo owns The Wilds, a 10,000+ acre wildlife reserve for some of the most threatened and endangered animal species in the world. These animals are wild and have room to roam but also have the accommodations needed to preserve their species such as a warm place to go in the winter and vet care available when ill. The Wilds is in Cumberland, OH just south of I-70 through eastern Ohio.
Through Southwestern Pennsylvania and Maryland to Washington DC
Visitors could always go a bit out of their way to see Pittsburgh (mentioned in option 1) if they want to enjoy a few quick stops before Washington DC.
Option 3 From Chicago to DC Road Trip: Attractions and Restaurants through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia
This is the best Chicago to DC road trip route for adventurous couples and families!
As mentioned above under “Option 1” for the Chicago to DC road trip, Indianapolis, IN has several fun attractions including the Indiana State Museum where you can see fossils from mastadons, mammoths, Sabertooths and more, the Indianapolis Zoo known for its amazing Orangutan exhibit, and Conner Prairie, a living history museum for kids.
And there are tons of great gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants in Indy!
Looking for fun things to do in Cincinnati, OH? Check out the Cincinnati Zoo, Kings Island (great amusement park!), Newport Aquarium (best in the area!), and the Creation Museum (a sister museum of the Ark Encounter!).
Gluten-free and dairy-free? While on this Chicago to DC road trip, check out the following gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants in Cincinnati, OH.
- Kings Island: if you are only gluten-free and don’t worry about cross-contamination, there are gluten-free chicken nuggets and fries at Kings Island available to you. But visitors can bring their own food and eat in the parking lot.
- Cherbourg Bakery: A dedicated gluten-free and nut-free bakery. While not many, there are a few dairy-free items on the menu.
- Emery– A nicer restaurant option with several gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan menu options.
- The Madison Place: A coffee and sandwich shop with several dairy-free drink options and gluten-free sandwich bread.
- Melt Revival: Salads, sandwiches, and wraps with gluten-free and dairy-free menu items.
Huntington, WV and Charleston, WV
Huntington, West Virginia is 2.5 hours east of Cincinnati, OH and 1 hour west of Charleston, WV, West Virginia’s capital. Check out Harris Riverfront Park along the Ohio River in Huntington or drive on to Charleston to learn about the culture of the state at the West Virginia State Museum. New River Gorge National Park (pictured above) is also a great place to take in the views or even go hiking or white water rafting!
Oscar’s Breakfast, Burgers, and Brews in Huntington, WV is a good option for gluten-free and dairy-free travelers. They have a dedicated gluten-free fryer and gluten-free bread. Burgers can be made with gluten-free buns; they even have a vegan burger for those on a vegan diet.
Bridge Road Bistro in Charleston, WV is a nicer restaurant option with several gluten-free items on the menu, many of which look like they could easily be made dairy-free.
Virginia: Luray, VA and Shenandoah National Park
Luray, VA and Luray Caverns
Luray, VA is surely one the best stops on this Chicago to DC road trip! It is a great town for adventurous families!
Hike Stony Man Mountain Hike just inside Shenandoah National Park with a camera ready to capture some amazing views. This hike is considered easy and would be a great option for newbie hikers. Try out canoeing, kayaking, or tubing on beginner rapids with Shenandoah River Outfitters. Or find your inner spelunker at Luray Caverns, known not only for spectacular cave formations and a few great freebies with admission but also the largest organ in the world known as “The Great Stalagpipe Organ”!
Shenandoah National Park
Washington DC is surprisingly close to some beautiful, scenic views! Just one hour southwest of DC is the city of Front Royal, VA, located at the northernmost tip of Shenandoah National Park. The park stretches north to south with spectacular overlooks along Skyline Drive.
Visitors can take in the views from their vehicles as they drive south or hike some of the National Park. Stony Man Mountain Trail in Luray, VA (mentioned above) continues to be a popular hiking trail. This trail, considered easy, has some of the best views of the park upon arrival at the lookout spot. Or try a challenging trail like the climb up Old Rag Mountain that includes a rock scramble but leads to amazing views.
Gluten Free and Dairy Free Restaurants in Virginia
Unfortunately, I have not found great gluten free and dairy free restaurant options in Luray, VA and the Shenandoah National Park area. I suggest you bring your own food to stay safe. Spelunkers in Front Royal may work for those not worried about cross-contamination of gluten. When we visited Shenandoah National Park, I was not as careful with gluten as I am today. I got the burger without a bun and fries (fried in peanut oil, not soy!).
Chicago to DC Road Trip Attractions and Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Restaurants
I’ve listed everything from science, aviation, and music museums to amusement parks, national parks, and cave tours. With three great Chicago to DC road trip ideas, surely there is one that works for you! And maybe you’ll find some delicious gluten-free and dairy-free restaurants along the way!