It may seem counterintuitive, but summer is a fabulous time to plan an escape to a nearby city. Yes, it can get a little sticky. (That's why they invented air conditioning.) But the crowds have diminished, easing access to coveted hot spots, and many hotels offer weekend packages and incentives. So, ditch the car. Wander and explore. We've mapped out three ideal weekend getaway plans. The jaunts are short; the packing's light; the fun is everywhere.
Effortlessly slip into shows and restaurants on a whim. There are street festivals and live music everywhere. And the parks turn into playgrounds with free concerts, events, and recreation.
7 p.m. Leave your shades on when you check in at the hip Bryant Park Hotel (40 W. 40th St., Midtown, 877-640-9300, bryantparkhotel.com). And wear your best duds. Everyonehere is beautiful. Act cool, or they'll guess you're nobody. Guest rooms have giant, tilting flat-screen TVs, iPod docking stations, and bedside sound machines—rain, running streams, jungle rhythms. The outrageously romantic bathrooms offer double walk-in marble showers with rain-head spouts. For the 24/7 set, there are in-room fax machines, Wi-Fi, and bedside keyboards.
Hot deals: On weekends in July and August, prices drop to $239 a night for a superior queen room and $299 a night for a junior suite. The front desk suggests calling for unannounced last-minute specials, especially on the junior suites.
8:15 p.m. Head downtown to happy hour at 230 Fifth Avenue's Rooftop Garden (20th floor, Flatiron District, 212-725-4300, 230-fifth.com). Sip passion-fruit martinis amid dazzling panoramic views of the sun going down and the city lights coming on.
10 p.m. You may wander back and forth at the intersection of Lafayette Street and Cleveland Place in trendy Nolita (North of Little Italy) before you spy the entrance of the clandestine restaurant La Esquina (114 Kenmare St., 646-613-7100; advance reservations by telephone only). Go through the door marked "Employees Only," continue down barely refurbished stairs, and pass through the kitchen to a shadowy, interior wrought-iron gate adorned with dripping candelabras. Inside are NYC music industry icons and radically hip fashionistas feasting on the freshest, most innovative Mexican fare northeast of the Rio Grande. Hint: Keep the phone number handy; it's non-published.
11:30 p.m. Catch the late show at Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette St., East Village, 212-539-8778, joespub.com), NYC's insider, eclectic live-music scene, where globally renowned musicians and emerging artists play nightly. Purchase advance tickets online.
7:30 a.m. Just across the street is your hotel's namesake, Bryant Park. Head to the park's Fountain Terrace (40-42 Sts. and Avenue of the Americas, by Sixth Avenue, bryantpark.org) for a free Tai-Chi session.
10:30 a.m. Famished? Catch Subway Line 1 or 2 downtown from 40th Street and Broadway to 18th Street. Walk west to Ninth Avenue into Chelsea Market. On the ground floor isNicole Farhi (75 Ninth Ave., 646-638-1173, nicolefarhi.com), a boutique with nouveau fashions, home furnishings, and an elegant eatery. Order the fluffy French toast with crispy bacon. Don't worry about calories. You'll walk them off soon.
11:30 a.m. Head down Ninth Avenue to 14th Street—into the mod Meatpacking District. Don't miss the posh boutiques of Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Yigal Azrouel, and Carlos Miele. Next, wander to NYA Artificial (13 Eighth Ave., 646-340-0442, nyartificial.com), where you'll come for the handbags and stay for an impromptu makeup consultation. Owner Aaron Bond charms all who enter this exquisite, one-of-a-kind satchel shop—which is next door to his couture, handmade clothing and shoe boutiques—with his makeup wizardry. He is the cosmetologist of many celebs. While you are purchasing a pocketbook, he will begin smoothing Satin Slip foundation primer on your skin. Painting and dusting, this striking man magically transforms you into the glam girl you were meant to be.
7 p.m. Dine at Trattoria Dell'Arte (900 Seventh Ave., Midtown, 212-245-9800, trattoriadellarte.com). Ask for waiter Steve, a Baltimore ex-pat and struggling-actor/director. Start with the antipasto bar and a glass of chilled Orvieto. The osso buco is divine, but you'll also want to try one of the restaurant's gourmet pizzas. Finish with the chocolate cheesecake.
9 p.m. Taxi uptown to tiny Brandy's (235 E. 84th St., 212-744-4949, brandysnyc.com), a highbrow, cabaret-style piano bar, where the talented waitstaff, bartenders (mostly in-between B'way actors), and locals croon to show tunes, classic rock, and jazz standards. Hint: Arrive by 9:15 to snag a table.
10 a.m. Order the cottage-cheese pancakes with brandied apples from your lakeside table at the Boathouse Restaurant (E. 72nd St. and Park Dr. North, Central Park, 212-517-2233,thecentralparkboathouse.com). Then, just linger and enjoy the view.
12:30 p.m. Rent bicycles by the lake for $45 for five hours. You also get a map and a helmet to cruise the park's 843 wondrous acres. Don't miss Belvedere Castle, Strawberry Fields, The Conservatory Garden, and Bethesda Terrace.
Travel Tip: Catch the Wi-Fi-connected Mega Bus (megabus.com) at the Park and Ride in White Marsh. It will deliver you, nonstop, to 28th Street and Seventh Avenue for as little as $1.
Powerfully historic, clearly patriotic, D.C. is a pulsating montage of adventurous, independent restaurants; new, blue-hot 'Hill-dweller hangouts; and renewed arts inspirations buzzing from its galleries, museums, and theaters. There's much to see easily on foot and via that marvelously efficient Metro.
5 p.m. Check in at the stunning Hotel Monaco (700 F Street NW, 202-628-7177, monaco-dc.com) in perky Penn Quarter. Surrounded by the Smithsonian, it places you within a 10-minute walk of the White House, Capitol, and monuments. This historic grand palace, once D.C.'s General Post Office, provides plush, mahogany-appointed accommodations. Later, you can lounge in leopard-print bathrobes and practice your power growl.
Hot deals: A summer playground package ($30 plus the regular cost of the room, through Sept. 7) includes extras like a $25 dining credit, sangria wine hour, and afternoon ice cream. Rates vary. A deluxe queen room is usually $259. For a free upgrade, guests should offer to Hula hoop or engage in "rock-paper-scissors" at check in. Really! The hotel suggests calling for last-minute specials.
5:45 p.m. Snack on shrimp potato crisps and a fresh blackberry mojito while you contemplate the imaginative menu at restaurant Indeblue (707 G St. NW, 202-333-BLEU,indebleu.net). Try the Thai basil-crusted lamb chops or the yellowfin tuna with black-olive-orange tapenade. For the best views, visit the restroom. You'll see what we mean.
7:25 p.m. Slip into your seat at the theater in the Ronald Reagan Building (1300 Pennsylvania Ave.) just as the Capitol Steps (202-312-1555, capsteps.com) troop onstage. These ex-Capitol Hill staffers perform hilarious satire about current politics and personalities. Real life is funnier than fiction!
9:30 a.m. Catch the Metro's Blue or Orange Line to the Eastern Market station. Walk one block north to the market (225 Seventh St. SE, 202-478-2429, easternmarketdc.com). Established in 1873, D.C.'s first public market houses vendors of fresh food, produce, and the wares of local artists. Find the famed fresh blueberry pancakes at the Market Lunch counter (202-547-8444) in South Hall.
10:45 a.m. Walk to Lincoln Park, the point from which master city planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant deemed all North American distances were to be measured. Continue along East Capital Street to the Folger Shakespeare Library, housing the world's largest collection of everything Shakespeare. Farther up East Capital, past the U.S. Supreme Court Building, is the newly renovated U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (visitthecapitol.gov). Admission is free, but advance tickets are necessary for a tour.
12:30 p.m. Few D.C. restaurants evoke Obama-aura more than lunch at Chicago chef Art Smith's Art and Soul (415 New Jersey Ave. NW; 202-393-7777, artandsouldc.com), a five-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol. Try the land and sea hoe cake, a cornmeal "pizza" with shaved beef rib-eye and blue crab topped with Brie.
2 p.m. From smoke signals to blogging, the Newseum (555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 888-639-7386, newseum.org) honors every medium of communication. There are seven floors of news memorabilia, interactive exhibits, live information studios, and 15 theaters.
6 p.m. You have been transformed into a U.S. intelligence officer on an international high-security mission. You will think, feel, and perform duties of an authentic secret agent. This one-hour immersive Operation Spy experience at the International Spy Museum (800 F St. NW, 202-393-7798, spymuseum.org) incorporates live-action, themed environments, special effects, and hands-on activities in a series of reality-based challenges for adults with Bond-like aspirations.
8 p.m. Potenza (1430 H St. NW, 202-638-4444, potenzadc.com) is the hottest new Italian restaurant in D.C. The creators of the ragin' Red Sage and Zola fuse their mastery with an Italian farm-to-table menu and an on-premise bakery, offering original breads, pastas, and desserts. Sit outside for views of the Washington Monument and order the signature pasta—pici e acciughe bianche—fat spaghetti, white anchovies, and pesto.
10 p.m. Hop a taxi to the U Street corridor, the neighborhood that spawned music legends like Marvin Gaye, Duke Ellington, and Chuck Brown. The area is an electrifying mosaic of clubs, ethnic restaurants, and trendy boutiques. Browse Busboys and Poets (14th and V Sts. NW, 202-387-7638, busboysandpoets.com), an avant-garde bookshop/cafe. For the coolest live jazz, check out Bohemian Caverns (2001 11th St. NW, 202-299-0800, bohemiancaverns.com)—with its huge lounge and spicy cocktails like the ginger cosmopolitans and black martinis—and Twins Jazz (1344 U St. NW, 202-234-0072, twinsjazz.com), showcasing an array of artists.
9:30 a.m. Call Poste Moderne Brasserie (202-783-6060, postebrasserie.com), adjacent to the hotel, for room service. Order coffee and house-made chocolate-ganache-and-lemon-curd doughnuts to nibble while you dress.
10:30 a.m. Whether you are seeking an early 20th century walnut-frame bed, a 19th century nightstand, or some period china, you're likely to find it at the Georgetown Flea Market(1819 35th St. NW, 202-775-FLEA, georgetownfleamarket.com). Also dubbed "The Flea Market of D.C.'s Designers," the venue is where many local antiques dealers got their starts in the 1970s and '80s. Folks flock to the vendors on Sunday mornings for deals on antique and vintage furniture, rugs, art, lamps, tableware, china and silver, as well as vintage and handmade clothing and jewelry.
12:45 p.m. It's worth waiting for an outdoor table for brunch at Georgetown's Peacock Cafe (3251 Prospect St. NW, 202-625-2740, peacockcafe.com). Sip on a mango tango smoothie until you score a seat. Order an eggs Chesapeake omelet. Then, hang out and people gaze.
Travel Tip: The $7 MARC train (mtamaryland.com) from Baltimore into Union Station will save you hours of traffic terror, parking fiascos, and oodles of weekend spending money. MARC doesn't run on Saturdays and Sundays, so return on Amtrak (amtrak.com); regular, advance fares vary. Sometimes, they are as low as $11.
The founding fathers might not have foreseen Philly's present-day perks: no sales tax, a smoke-free city, and a brilliant new baseball park. But William Penn's forward-thinking city grid, still intact, provided a critical matrix to manage today's manic pace. Its tree-named streets—Chestnut, Walnut, and Locust—run east to west and numbered streets run north to south.
5:30 p.m.Arrive at Penn's View Hotel (Front and Market Sts., 215-922-7600, pennsviewhotel.com), a refurbished, 19th century, family-operated European hotel in the heart of Old City. Guest rooms are outfitted with period furnishings, marble baths, and Wi-Fi. Many have balconies with views of the Delaware River.
Hot deals: Stay two nights and receive $60 off Friday or Sunday night. The package includes breakfast and a daily newspaper. (Rates are standard queen Friday, $89; Saturday, $149; Jacuzzi king, Friday, $109, Saturday, $169. There's also a P.S. Ice Cream Summer Package through Labor Day, which includes extras like a $20 gift card for the Franklin Fountain, two tickets to Trolley Works, and a one-night accommodation including breakfast. (Rates are $164, standard queen; $184, Jacuzzi king.) Call for last-minute specials.
6-8 p.m. Il Bar is an über-impressive wine bar on the first floor of Ristorante Panorama, just inside your hotel. It pours up to 120 premium wines by the glass, via its private, patented dispensing system. Pre-register for Friday Night Flights (800-331-7634) and enjoy a wine tasting, discussion, and epicurean hors d'oeuvres with the sommelier and a visiting celeb winemaker.
8:30 p.m. Dining at Ortleibs Jazzhaus (847 N. Third St., 215-922-1035, ortliebsjazzhaus.com) ensures you a double-header: a prime seat to Philly's best jazz and its most creative Cajun fare. Try the blackened catfish fingers appetizer and mesquite filet mignon Oscar with jumbo lump crab and chipotle lime hollandaise. Hint: Ask Kevin to set you up with a stage-side table.
10:30 a.m. Avoid wait times at Independence Hall (520 Chestnut St., 877-444-6777, nps.gov/inde) by pre-purchasing your timed entry online. Inside are the original U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Nearby, at Congress Hall, is the home of the first U.S. Senate with the original chambers and alcoves for sipping sherry and smoking—including spittoons! Next, visit Liberty Bell Center, showcasing the famous cracked bell.
12:15p.m. Insiders swear the best cheese steak in Philadelphia is at Campo's Deli (214 Market St., Old City, 215-923-1000, camposdeli.com). Cash only here!
1 p.m. Stroll along Third Street and peek into the chic vintage shops. Venture into Forbidden Planett (10 N. Third St., 215-923-7399) to find labels like Jimmy Choo, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. Go ahead. Be a namedropper. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Farther up the block are more treasure troves: Lost + Found, Sioux Zanne Messix, Sugar Cube, Third Street Habit, and Vagabond.
3:45 p.m. Dragging from the heat? Stop by Franklin Fountain (116 Market St., 215-627-1899, franklinfountain.com), an old-fashioned soda fountain that creates carbonations and ice cream concoctions of yesteryear and today. But be prepared: The delicious raspberry soda infused with peach ice cream and sweet cream comes with a very modern cost of $5.
8 p.m. Dining at Osteria (640 N. Broad St., 215-763-0920, osteriaphilly.com) simply for the signature Lombarda pizza doesn't disappoint. Imagine a lovely crust laden with a baked egg, bitto cheese, mozzarella, and cotechino sausage. But if you also choose to sample any of the divine entrees, you can truly depart this life fulfilled. Chef/owner Marc Vetri is one of the hottest names in Philly, if not the East Coast, so call way ahead for a table.
11 p.m. If you are the up-for-anything sort, stop by National Mechanics (22 S. Third St., 215-701-4883, nationalmechanics.com). Located in an historic bank building, this crazy-quilt joint has church-pew booths, candelabra lighting, recycled stained glass windows, and a custom bar. Best is the broad selection of beer, on tap and bottled. The DJs mix it up with indie rock, hip-hop, and folk. The crowd is as eclectic as the music.
11 a.m. The brunch menu at Fork (306 Market St., 215-625-9425, forkrestaurant.com) changes often to accommodate the fresh finds of the day from area organic farms and Amish purveyors. Two standards—fruit-of-the-day brioche French toast and daily vegetarian panini—are sure bets.
1 p.m. C'mon, swallow your Bird pride and check out a Phillies game (philadelphia.phillies.mlb.com). The newish Citizens Bank Park has real grass, cool rooftop bleachers for $16, and every new-fangled amenity a fan could fancy. 'O!' go ahead and enjoy yourself.
Travel Tip: It's a one-hour ride on Amtrak (amtrak.com) to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, with fares as low as $30. Take a taxi to Penn's View Hotel in Old City.