Within the Capital Beltway, less than ten miles northeast of Washington, D.C., College Park is a suburban city, home to the University of Maryland (UMD).
UMD is a recurring feature in this list, for its Big 10 sports, culture and a stunning campus with the largest quad in the country at McKeldin Mall.
There’s a little more to College Park, thanks to the oldest continually operated airport in the world, where Wilbur Wright instructed the first military pilots at the very dawn of powered flight.
There’s a museum recording this fascinating chapter of history, while you can stay on the aviation theme at the nearby Goddard Space Flight Center, where the James Webb Space Telescope was developed.
1. The University of Maryland, College Park (UMD)
Founded close by at Riversdale in 1856, College Park is home to the main campus for the largest university in both the state and the Washington metro area. More than 41,000 students are enrolled at UMD, and this institution has an endowment of $1.1 billion.
A visit should top your list of things to do in College Park, and you can begin at Turner Hall, housing the visitor center. From here can take a student-led guided campus tour of course, or pick up a map to see the main landmarks.
These include Rossborough Inn (1812), Memorial Chapel (1952), the Jim Henson Sculpture for the famous alumnus, and the sweeping, nine-acre expanse of the McKeldin Mall.
Sports-wise, the Maryland Terrapins have picked up 44 national championships in their time.
The men’s and women’s basketball teams are especially successful, while the football team, playing at the 54,000-capacity Maryland Stadium, has produced 17 first-round NFL draft picks and has claimed 9 ACC championships (third most).
2. College Park Aviation Museum
On the National Register of Historic Places, College Park Airport was built in 1909 by the United States Army Signal Corps, serving as a training facility for Wilbur Wright (1871-1948) to teach a pair of military officers to fly the government’s first airplane.
There’s a museum documenting this important moment in early aviation. The permanent exhibition touches on the “firsts” that took place at this airport, combining interactives with ten full-size aircraft.
These include faithful reproductions of the 1910 Wright Model B purchased for this airfield, the 1911 Curtiss Model D, made by the main competitor to the Wrights, and the 1912 Blèriot XI, of the kind that made the first heavier-than-air crossing of the English Channel in 1909.
Exhibits also go into detail on the history of civilian aviation, and the hair-raising training undergone by the first military pilots at this airfield in the years before WWI.
3. Xfinity Center
On the UMD campus there’s an indoor arena that wouldn’t look out of place in the NBA or WNBA.
This is the Xfinity Center, opened in 2002 with a capacity of 17,950 (highest in Maryland), and is home court for the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
Both are highly competitive, but the women’s team are perennial contenders under coach Brenda Freese.
Since she took over in 2002, the Terrapins have made 17 NCAA tournament appearances, going all the way in 2006 and reaching ten NCAA Sweet Sixteens.
Still a force to be reckoned with, the men were formidable under Gary Williams between 1989 and 2011, and were tournament champions in 2002, also reaching the Final Four the season before.
The arena’s layout is worth a mention, with its intimidating, steeply pitched seating on the west side, behind the visiting team’s second half basket and dubbed “The Wall”.
4. Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
Opposite Capital One Field on the UMD campus is the labyrinth of ten interconnecting buildings that make up the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
Completed in 2001, the complex was the largest building ever constructed by the State of Maryland, taking up 17 acres of land.
Among the key spaces are a 650-seat proscenium theater, a 300-seat recital hall, a 200-seat dance studio, scores of rehearsal rooms, a performing arts library and the lofty 1,200 seat concert hall.
For the wider community, The Clarice is a world-class, multi-disciplinary performing arts destination, with free and ticketed shows for classical music, opera, jazz, dance, theater and much more.
5. NASA Goddard Visitor Center
The important NASA space research laboratory, the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), is just a few minutes east of College Park in Greenbelt.
This became the agency’s first space flight center when it opened in 1959, and its most recent operation was the James Webb Space Telescope, launched in 2021 to study the history of the universe.
You can head to the free Visitor Center for a window on the GSFC’s thrilling, groundbreaking work in numerous fields, including astrophysics, planetary science, communications, heliophysics, engineering and technology.
There are permanent exhibits for Webb, as well as its predecessor, Hubble, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), rockets from Goddard’s history and the challenges of communicating with NASA spacecraft traveling further into the solar system than ever.
6. Riversdale House Museum
Next door in Riversdale you can visit a grand Georgian/Federal mansion from the beginning of the 19th century, where the predecessor of University of Maryland, College Park was later founded in 1864.
The house, a National Historic Landmark, was once at the heart of a 740-acre plantation using enslaved laborers, founded by Flemish expat Henri Joseph Stier, Baron de Stier, who had fled the French Revolution.
The building was designed after Stier’s Belgian residence, the Château du Mick, but he returned to Belgium before the mansion was completed, leaving his daughter Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778-1821) and her husband George Calvert in charge.
Rosalie’s correspondence is the main source of interpretation for the museum, which details the lives of the couple, their enslaved and free workforce and their important descendants, including U.S. Representative and UMD founder Charles Benedict Calvert (1808-1864).
7. Downtown College Park/Route 1
College Park’s campus-adjacent downtown area is scattered with eateries and nightspots, many of which have been around for decades.
A few notables are Marathon Deli, Ledo Pizza, Cornerstone Grill & Loft and RJ Bentley’s. Follow Baltimore Ave (Route 1) north or south and you’ll come to several other worthwhile commercial districts underpinned by local businesses.
Hyattsville to the south is a must, and has long been known for its arts scene and progressive spirit, with studios, street festivals and a slew of inviting independent businesses in its historic downtown area.
Go north along Route 1, and you’ll be in the Lower Midtown area, with a mix of big box stores and long-running establishments like Mamma Lucia’s (Italian) and Azteca Cantina (Mexican).
8. Greenbelt Park
College Park is bordered to the east by almost 1,200 acres of forested park in the care of the National Park Service.
Designated in 1950, Greenbelt Park is divided in two by the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, with the majority of the facilities on the west side, close to College Park.
You can amble or ride through this pristine urban forest along a continuous 5.3-mile hiking and equestrian trail, part of a 9-mile system with numerous shorter nature trails.
Greenbelt Park is also known for its affordable camping, with a 172-site campground open and staffed all year round.
9. University of Maryland Art Gallery
There’s yet more culture on the UMD campus at the university’s flagship art museum, established in 1965.
The Art Gallery has a collection extending to 4,500 works, specializing in Maryland Artists, South American Art, East Asian Art, African Art and more.
There are masterpieces in the collection by the likes of Andy Warhol, Rembrandt, van Rijn, John Baldessari, Honoré Daumier, Maurice de Vlaminck, Lee Krasner and Paul Reed.
Typically the gallery stages around five exhibitions a year, and you can sample the university’s emerging talent at the annual MFA Thesis Exhibition in spring.
10. Lake Artemesia
This 38-acre body of water came about in the 1970s following sand and gravel excavation for the Washington Metro, running down the west side.
As part of the process, a natural area was developed around the former quarry and today this is a serene place for passive and active recreation, a stone’s throw from the UMD campus.
A 1.35-mile hiker-biker trail surrounds the lake, and this links with the wider Anacostia Tributary Trail System, as we’ll mention a little later.
There’s a birding trail with regular guided walks by the Audubon Society, while rainbow trout, largemouth bass and bluegill are regularly caught in the lake.
11. Paint Branch Trail
You can traverse a big slice of College Park on foot or by bike along this paved trail through the wooded Paint Branch valley.
This begins at Lake Artemesia, traveling along the eastern edge of the UMD main campus as far as Cherry Hill Neighborhood Park in the north.
In all the trail is nine miles out and back, linking a sequence of public parks, with woods, open spaces and plentiful wildfowl on the way.
This route is also a small component of the sprawling Anacostia Tributary Trail System, while close to Lake Artemesia you can also connect with the Trolley Trail, on the right of way of the old Streetcar 82 (more later).
12. Ellen Linson Splash Park
A brief walk from College Park Station on Campus Drive, there’s a small but well-appointed public pool, open in the summer months.
The main pool has a series of interconnected areas, combining a lap pool, kids’ pool with a small slide and obstacles, and a zero-depth area for toddlers to play in.
There’s also a little splash park just next to the main pool, as well as a range of other amenities, including sun loungers, a picnic area, basketball court, showers, a vending area and a locker room.
On Saturday mornings, May to November, there’s a farmers’ market in the parking lot, for local fresh produce, plants, baked goods and more.
13. Streetcar 82 Brewing Co.
Nearby, bohemian Hyattsville has a booming craft beverage scene, whether you have a nose for artisanal beer, spirits or even mead.
In a converted auto garage you’ll find Streetcar 82 Brewing Co., named for the streetcar line that ran from near Washington Union Station as far as College Park for 70 years up to 1958.
The three founders all have deep roots in the area and graduated from Gallaudet University, opening the brewery as a way of contributing to the community.
There were 12 beers on tap when we compiled this article. Although the tap list is updated almost weekly, a few brews to look out for are The Colonel (Pilsner), The Garage (Hazy IPA), Livin’ the Hy-Life (Coffee Stout), Sunny Dutchman (Farmhouse Ale) and the special, barrel-aged Imperial Irish Ale, Unified Red.
14. Herbert Wells Ice Rink
For a fun activity in winter there’s an NHL size rink in the same complex as the Ellen Linson Splash Park, open October through March.
The Herbert Wells Ice rink is partially enclosed, and has an indoor warming room and a room catering to birthday parties.
Throughout the season there’s a schedule of regular public skating sessions, freestyle sessions, skating lessons (private and group) and pick-up hockey for all ages.
The rink is home ice for the Wells Warriors Youth Ice Hockey Teams and Herbert Wells Ice Rink Figure Skating Teams. The rink can be rented by the hour, while skate rentals are as little as $2 for residents and non-residents.
15. Paint Branch Golf Complex
Just north of the UMD campus, on the river of the same name, there’s an excellent facility for people who want to learn the game of golf or hone their skills.
The main feature at Paint Branch Golf Complex is an immaculate nine-hole, par 33 course, perfect for younger or less experienced players, as well as those who want to work on their short game and iron play.
This is complemented by a driving range and short game practice area. If you’d like some professional help to take your game to the next level there’s a year-round indoor Performance Center, with four training rooms and PGA instructors offering private and group lessons.