Some cities just naturally belong on everybody’s travel bucket list—Rome, New York City, Barcelona… Overflowing with monuments, museums, history, and energy, Washington D.C. easily earns its place as one of the most visited cities in the US. The Nation’s Capital, Washington, the District, or just D.C., whatever you want to call it, here’s our only guide you’ll ever need to Washington, D.C.
What To See
Volumes have been written on the plethora of fantastic museums in Washington D.C. The National Building Museum, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and anything Smithsonian are all not to be missed, and we’re barely even scratching the surface. The relatively new Newseum tells the story of modern American history through seven levels and 250,000 square feet of interactive activities and exhibits. Don’t miss the gallery of Pulitzer Prize winning photography or the memorial to journalists who have died pursuing the news. Visit the largest collection of pieces of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany, or keep it light and pretend to be a reporter in the NBC News Interactive Newsroom.
All three pillars of the US government call Washington D.C. home, along with the World Bank, the Pentagon, and embassies from around the world, so it’s not a huge surprise that many also think that it has the highest concentration of spies in the world (although obviously, this can’t be confirmed). It only makes sense then, that the world’s largest collection of espionage artifacts would in D.C. too. From Bond villains and shoe phones to Moses and Abraham Lincoln’s use of spies to the KGB, the International Spy Museum explores the reality and the fantasy of a practically invisible profession to educate the public on the role of secrets and espionage in the shaping of human history. That, and you get a secret identity upon entry.
Bonus Tip: Stay for an extra hour to experience Operation Spy, an unforgettable espionage immersion experience where you can save the world from a nuclear explosion.
Nature lovers can escape that famous DC hustle at the United States National Arboretum, about three miles away from the National Mall. Relatively light on tourist activity, and full of native foliage and specialized garden displays, the Arboretum is a great place to get some exercise or recharge in nature. Be sure to check out the Azalea Collection and the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. You can still get in your nature time without venturing away from the other sights at the United States Botanic Garden, located right on the Mall. Created by Congress in 1820 and one of the oldest facilities of its kind in North America, the Botanic Garden is a living plant museum, displaying plants and flowers from every kind of eco-system all over the world. The indoor gardens of the Conservatory are the perfect place to take a break, rain or shine.
The hub of Washington D.C.’s vibrant Capitol Hill neighborhood, Eastern Market is a shopping, cultural, and foodie destination for locals and visitors from all over. On weekdays, you can find the best of everything you would expect at a farmer’s market, from produce and flowers to freshly caught fish. On weekends, additional food stands plus artist, antique and other stands join in the fun, overflowing from the indoor market out into the street and the adjacent plaza. Live music and a lively atmosphere round out a perfect weekend afternoon full of local flavor.
Where To Sleep
With views of the White House and the feel of a private mansion, the Hay-Adams is perfectly situated and appointed to make you feel like Washington D.C. royalty during your stay. This historic hotel has hosted countless notable guests (the Obamas stayed here while waiting to move into the White House), and with an emphasis on service and an intimate, discreet atmosphere combined with elegant luxury, it’s no wonder. Stay in one of the 145 refined guestrooms for a truly grand D.C. experience.
The Hotel Tabard Inn is a trip back in time, from the wood paneled lounge to the 40 uniquely decorated guest rooms. The 1880s townhouse was turned into a hotel in 1922, and the charming and unpretentious space gives guests a taste of turn of the century Washington D.C. You’ll be tempted to spend your whole trip on the property, between the seasonally based restaurant, the retreat-like bar and lounge, and of course, the cozy guestrooms.
What To Do
With so many monuments and important buildings to see in D.C., it’s a good idea to take a tour to learn as much—and to fit in as much—as possible. Washington Walks, whose licensed guides have a combined 404 years of D.C. experience, believe that the city is best experienced by foot. Their various tours happen regardless of weather and don’t require reservations—great for last minute planners! The classic Memorials by Moonlight tours is one of the most striking ways to see the impressive monuments and architecture, and your knowledgeable guide will fill you in on the history and evolution of the city’s plans and ideas about how to memorialize national heroes, and the specifics of each monument.
If you prefer wheels to feet, Bike and Roll offers a wide range of fun and educational bike and Segway tours of the Mall and the surrounding area. Springtime D.C. visitors can take advantage of their Blossoms by Bike tour, focused on showcasing the pink and white views of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. If you happen to have your own bike or want to borrow one to tour around on your own, check the calendar for a DC Bike Party, a monthly, themed party on bikes. Each month a different route is chosen, ending at a different bar for a post-ride celebration where you can make new friends and get a real local perspective on the Capital City.
Live music lovers are sure to find a venue to suit their tastes in D.C. The oldest continuously operating jazz supper club Blues Alley has served up New Orleans style cuisine and the world’s finest jazz since 1965. The candlelit ambiance was described by Wynton Marsalis as the “best of any jazz club in the world.” For local, national, independent and alternative acts, check out 9:30 Club, a large but intimate venue that has been favorite of locals and visitors for over 35 years. For an edgier vibe, the Black Cat delivers the best of indie music from all over, plus other events (screenings of Daria on Saturdays!), and a legendary vegetarian restaurant. After the concert, take your dancing shoes over to the U Street Music Club, a low-key, basement dance club (they have live music too—just check the schedule) owned by DJs, and frequently hailed as one of the best dance clubs in the US. Music is number one here—the dress code is nonexistent and the sound system is off the charts.
Bonus Tip: After a night out on the town, stop by the Satellite Room (located behind the 9:30 Club) for burgers all night long (or my personal favorite, the grilled peanut butter sandwich) and an adults-only boozy milkshake.
Where To Eat
Plan out how to spend your day in the District over coffee and breakfast at Tryst in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. This super cozy café reflects it’s “no corporate coffee, no matching silverware” attitude in the comfy, mismatched furniture and creative comfort food menu. Try the sweet potato pecan waffles or the Three Mushrooms Tart. Tip: If you love it there as much as most of the guests, come back in the evening when this coffee bar turns into a bar bar.
Washington D.C.’s reputation as fast-paced is no secret, and their local fast-food scene is legendary. Opened in 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a favorite of locals, visitors, celebrities, dignitaries, and presidents practically since day one. The concept is simple: everything tastes better with chili on top. But if you disagree, go for the cheese fries. In Capitol Hill, get your quick eats at adorable vintage themed hot dog shop DC-3. The menu primarily consists of regionally themed hot dogs, but you can also round out your nostalgic meal with some cotton candy or fried pickles. For something a little different, try the hand made, fresh baked empanadas at one of D.C.’s three Julia’s Empanadas locations. Choose from several varieties of savory and sweet hand-pie flavors, all made from scratch. The daily soups are yummy too. Julia’s, along with DC-3 and Ben’s Chili Bowl, offer plenty of veggie options as well!
Washington D.C. has one of the largest Ethiopian communities (outside of Ethiopia) in the world, and is widely considered a destination for Ethiopian food. The meals at Dukem, a U Street staple, are not westernized or fusion versions of Ethiopian standards—you’ll find the real deal here. If you’re unfamiliar with this family style cuisine, your best bet is a sampler or platter, and be sure to ask for recommendations. The friendly staff is happy to give advice!