You know your one friend who always looks good in photos, no matter what she is wearing or doing? Washington, DC is like that. Call her camera friendly or photogenic or picturesque. She is a gorgeous city with lush gardens, stately architecture, historical statues, and memorial parks that can make you as teary as a sad film. Washington, the capitol of the US, is trendy with young professionals sipping cocktails in speakeasies; ordering espressos in cool cafes where jazz musicians perform and radical artists display their work; and shopping in upscale consignment shops with the latest designer clothes for sale at relatively reasonable prices.
Cover Photo: Washington Monument. Views of Washington Monument, cherry blossoms and Tidal Basin circa 1920
Photo Credit: Theodor Horydczak, photographer. Prints and Photographs division, Library of Congress.
Background. Instead of organically growing from a small community into a city, Washington was designed and built in the early 1790’s specifically to be the nation’s capitol. Its design was inspired by great European cities of the mid 1700’s, like Paris, Milan, and Frankfurt. Washington has four main quadrants (NW, NE, SE, SW), which is good to know when getting directions to destinations. The interesting layout of the streets, designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, can be bewildering because the wide streets run into and out of circles, veering just enough for visitors to lose their sense of direction. The circles are filled with flowers, benches, frequently a statue of a man on horseback, and paths crisscrossing them. L’Enfant also envisioned what became the National Mall, on which many of the nation’s essential government institutions, the Smithsonian museums, monuments, and memorials are located. The design succeeded in providing lots of gardens, parks, and a sense of grace and grandeur for the nation’s capitol even if it’s a bit hard to navigate.
Unlike other cities where you can pay a small fortune to visit museums and galleries, in Washington you can wander in and out of terrific museums and memorials at no cost. Even if you spend weeks here, there is more to see and do than you will have time for. To make it easy for you, here are some of our favorites.
For first-time visitors see the below.
- The National Museum of the American Indian is a huge change from standard museum displays. Music and voices, videos, and artifacts immerse you in the multitude of fascinating indigenous cultures in the Western Hemisphere. It’s a welcome change of pace from the usual dusty dioramas since the museum does a great job of showing the vibrant nature of Native American tribes through the North, Central, and South Americas. Additionally, we love the museum’s architecture and the gardens outside that are accurate reflections of the plants grown by different tribes.
- Plan ahead by getting tickets to tour the Capitol , the beautiful Library of Congress, and the White House since you will avoid the lines and get to see the interesting history found in each of these places.
- Check out the various Smithsonian museums . They are a national treasure. On our last trip, we discovered one of the smaller Smithsonian museums, the National Portrait Gallery. We were eager to see The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which was a special exhibit comprised of invited artists from across the US to display their best portraits. Delightfully, these portraits were not of elite, powerful white guys. Instead they were mixed media pieces of ordinary and extraordinary women, men, and children.
- Memorials can be emotional. Here is the list of all of them. Our favorites are the Washington Monument, the Korean and Vietnam memorials, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. Another opportunity to step into history and in fact, to be surrounded by it.
- Set aside a couple of hours for The Phillip Collection, a private art gallery (not free) with innovative ideas about displaying art. Part of the gallery is in the house of Duncan Phillips, the founder.
What is on our list for future visits?
- The United States Botanical Gardens. We haven’t been here, yet, but residents love it; and it will be the first place to go on our next visit.
- The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opens to the public immediately following the Dedication Ceremony on Saturday, September 24, 2016. The museum will also be on our must-see list for the next visit.
Don’t miss eating at The Wharf which is an open air seafood market with numerous stalls run by a variety of vendors. You can eat prepared food there or buy it and take it with you to prepare later. In the city, you can also sample fabulous cuisines from around the world at a variety of special eateries. Here are an insider’s suggestions:
- Thai X-ing (5th and Florida) is really good. It’s only fixed price and BYOB, and you will need reservations.
- Alfa PieHouse (18th and H NW) makes really good Greek pita (pies)
- Julia’s Empanadas (18th and Connecticut NW) prepares really good take away Empanadas
- Lost Society (14th and U NW) Google thinks it’s a steakhouse but we describe it as contemporary Americana. Reasonably priced.
- Barcelona Wine bar (14th and Corcoran NW) is simply delicious but a little more expensive.
- Iron Gate on N street between 17th and 18th NW. It is little on the expensive side, but super good.
By the way, many Washington DC restaurants have dress codes, so check to make sure your clothes adhere to the selected restaurant’s standards. “Casual” in DC often means “business casual,” which is very different from “casual” in other parts of the US.
Hidden bars are a thing. They are secret, unmarked places where you go for cocktails or after-theater drinks. If you want the ultimate speakeasy experience, go to The Gibson on U Street, an unmarked lounge with mixologists that can create original drinks for your tastes. Speakeasies are cool, so this is the time to dress in trendy, stylish clothes.
A hotel located in the neighborhood that you plan to tour is convenient, but lodging in Washington is expensive. If money is no object, there are elegant and historic hotels in plenty to choose from. If you’re on a budget, even Airbnb places can be pricey. If you want to make your travel money go further, consider staying in a nearby suburb and taking the subway into the city, or taking Uber or Lyft. Parking in DC is extremely limited so best to avoid driving whenever possible. The Metro is getting much needed maintenance, so make sure the subway is working in the suburb you select.
Washington DC is a relatively safe city, especially in tourist areas. Crime does happen, but visitors typically are not involved. As usual, be aware of where you are and what is going on around you. Organizations from around the US often gather in Washington to demonstrate for their causes. Most protests are peaceful, but occasionally they turn violent. There is the potential for terrorism; though nothing of note has happened for many years, still best to practice situational awareness. To learn what to do in a terrorist attack, read our piece here. Throughout your visit, take standard measures to protect yourself, your purse, and backpack.
Washington DC kicks off springtime by hosting the National Cherry Blossom Festival with a parade, big-name performers, and numerous events. Although the organizers try to schedule the festival when the cherry trees are blooming, the trees actually will blossom when the conditions are right for them, which may not be during the festival. Whether the trees cooperate or not, the festival is fun and extremely popular. To participate, be sure to make your reservations early.
Lastly, the Potomac River flows through Washington DC. Consider walking on paths along it, taking a river tour by boat, or kayaking it. Alternatively for some fun, rent a little paddle boat in the tidal basin. No expertise is needed and you may see the city from a very different perspective. Be sure to take your camera with you to see Washington from the river where she is arguably at her most photogenic. The views from there will provide you with many picturesque photo opportunities, especially in the early morning, sunset, and during the weeks the cherry trees blossom.
If you have suggestions for your favorite places in Washington DC, be sure to send them to us via the Comment form.