Some unique attractions close to home
While the Statue of Liberty stands as America’s most famous symbol, our country’s character can also be found in its quirky roadside monuments: the world’s largest ball of twine, a corn palace, giant dinosaur statues, and buildings that resemble shoes, bugs or coffee pots.
For your next day trip, consider a few overlooked destinations in our region: giant floats that have appeared in inaugural parades and the Rose Bowl, for instance, or ships that sailed in Maryland’s waterways centuries ago.
We have some wonderful, welcoming — and, in some cases, downright weird — places to visit without driving far from home.
Parade floats in Virginia
Although Shenandoah Caverns in Virginia (near Luray Caverns) is well known, its adjacent warehouse, the American Celebration on Parade, gets less attention. But visitors to the red-carpeted warehouse will be impressed by the enormous floats that had a few hours of glory before being laid to rest.
In addition to the elaborate parade floats, including from Presidential Inaugurals and Rose Bowl parades, the facility displays models ranging from a miniature U.S. Capitol building and Iwo Jima Memorial to a 20-foot pelican playing a banjo and a 30-foot genie (shenandoahcaverns.com). Open through Labor Day.
Baltimore’s eclectic treasures
In Curtis Creek in Baltimore, a unique collection of ruined ships rises from the water’s surface. As their useful lives ended, they were unceremoniously dumped along the shoreline.
Among the residents of the ship graveyard are several wooden World War I freighters, a sidewheel steamer and several houseboats.
The most notable ship, a three-masted schooner known as the William T. Parker, was abandoned in the 19th century off the coast of North Carolina and drifted all the way to Maine. To see the vessels, rent a boat or kayak, park at the nearby Jaws Marina, or glimpse them from the I-695 bridge nearby (gofishbaltimore.com).
While you’re in Baltimore, stop at a unique diner near the Baltimore Museum of Art. Along with breakfast classics and Southern staples, the Papermoon Diner serves up a colorful collection of quirky decorations that it touts as “living art” (others may call it pop-culture kitsch).
Mannequins lean against walls and lounge on the lawn. Plastic toys, carousel horses and a collection of Pez paraphernalia help to transform a place to eat into a feast for the eyes as well (papermoondiner24.com).
After eating, floss. That’s one of many messages imparted at the National Museum of Dentistry, appropriately located near the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery.
Among some 40,000 objects that trace the history of the profession are historic dental chairs, instruments that were used on Queen Victoria, and George Washington’s lower dentures — which, despite legend to the contrary, were fashioned primarily from ivory, not wood (dental.umaryland.edu/museum).
Frightening teeth are among the exhibits at Protean Books & Records, located in a Baltimore warehouse. A real book store, it’s also where Dr. Gloom’s Crypt of Curiosities displays a collection of morbid artifacts, like ghastly recreations of cryptids, mummified remains and a representation of Barnum’s sharp-toothed Fifi mermaid.
That fraudulent creature has the torso and head of a monkey attached to the back half of a fish, and in years past was a common feature of circus sideshows, where it was presented as a real animal.
West Virginia’s Mothman
Another unbelievable creature, the Mothman, is celebrated in the heart of West Virginia. At the Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant, visitors can learn about the bird-like humanoid that residents claimed to have seen in the mid-1960s.
They reported sightings of a large, gray-winged creature with glowing red eyes. The Mothman Museum displays police reports of eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles about the sightings, and a statue of the alleged creature itself (mothmanmuseum.com).
Offbeat buildings and museums
Einstein’s brain, Ulysses S. Grant’s fatal tumor, and other medical samples are part of the massive collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Established in 1862 by U.S. Surgeon General William Hammond, who asked physicians to send him “specimens of morbid anatomy…together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed,” the museum displays grim anatomical accidents as well as historic artifacts such as a 1660 microscope. Relocated 10 times, the museum has been located in the Army’s Forest Glen Annex since 2011 (medicalmuseum.mil).
Other buildings that in themselves are oddities are worth a visit.
The Markel Building in Richmond has the dubious distinction of having been included on a list of “The World’s 10 Ugliest Buildings.” That’s no surprise to those who have seen the circular edifice, whose top three floors are sheathed in a single piece of crinkled aluminum. The building’s designer conceived the idea at an American Institute of Architects dinner, where he was served a baked potato (architeturerichmond.com).
While smaller, the O Mansion in downtown Washington, D.C. has more to offer in terms of chic charm. The 1892 building houses a boutique hotel, museum, gourmet dining room and event venue under a single roof.
Its eccentric interior styling includes rooms individually decorated with antiques and fine art, and dozens of hidden secret doors. It even has a room that served as temporary home for civil rights activist Rosa Parks.
The museum displays a diverse collection of art, sculpture and memorabilia (omansion.com).
Before you visit any of these sites, call ahead to check for hours or pandemic restrictions.