Everyone knows the basics when it comes to visiting the nation’s capital—see the White House, the Capitol, Supreme Court, the monuments—but the locals know there’s a lot more that is worth checking out. Here’s a rundown of the best of DC:
What to See
If you like art but are overwhelmed by the more popular art museums on the mall, the Phillips Collection offers an intimate modern art collection, with Renoirs and Rothkos tucked away in a Edwardian Dupont row home. Even if you don’t go to a show or concert, check out the Kennedy Center rooftop for skyline views of the city. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is classic fun for all ages, and the United States Botanic Garden is a refreshing natural respite from the hustle by the Capitol—in the winter, it even has an exhibit that recreates DC out of plants. The district has several summer Screen on the Green options: NoMa Summer Screen complete with local food trucks, Golden Triangle Cinema Series, and, new in 2014, Films at the Stone, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Meridian Hill Parkon 16 th is famous for its tiered fountains and a fun drum circle that meets on the upper level every Sunday afternoon. A bit farther out, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Catholic church in North America, and Washington National Cathedral is the sixth largest cathedral in the world. Sports fans might want to check out a Nats game or DC United match.
What to Skip
Most important tip: skip the memorials during the day—instead, go at night to see them lit up, and don’t miss the World War II and Vietnam Wall shrines. The Newseum is a tough sell for the $22.95 entrance fee, especially when the Smithsonian history museums are free and have similar exhibits. Georgetown Cupcake never ceases to be an endless tourist fascination thanks to a television show, but Baked and Wired down the street has no line, and superior cupcakes.Adams Morgan has turned into the college kids nightlife spot, so if that’s not your scene, only Jack Rose (whiskey heaven) and Las Canteras (best Peruvian, even in a lime shortage) are worth the trip. Ben’s Chili Bowl downtown is a tourist trap.National Harbor is farther than you think, and without good public transportation, cabs can be pretty pricey for the corporate-feel payoff. Jazz in the Sculpture Garden can be fun, but less fun since BYO alcohol is a no-go for your picnic.
Where to Eat
- DC is a foodie heaven, so much so that its hard even for locals to keep pace with the new restaurant openings. Here’s some to get you started:
- Coffee. Filter and Dolcezza (also known for its gelato) are hip DC’s espresso spots. Many places also serve DC’s local brew, Vigilante Coffee.
- Brunch. If DC is a happy hour town during the week, it is brunch-obsessed on the weekends. Le Diplomate boasts delicious French-inspired plates, Farmers Fishers Bakers has an unreal buffet spread, The Pig is known for its pork and bourbon maple syrup, Red Rocks has a chill outdoor patio, Ted’s Bulletin is good for families and its homemade pop tarts, and Masa 14 is a must for its bottomless drinks. If you don’t mind waiting, the blueberry buckwheat pancake line atMarket Lunch inside Eastern Market is a fun activity.
- Lunch. If you try one spot, make it Union Market. It’s a warehouse full of different local food artisans and pop-up kitchens, making it good for a group with lots of different taste buds.
- Dinner. You can’t really go wrong at any of the places on 14 th Street between Logan Circle and U Street, or with anything in chef Jose Andres’ restaurant group (including Zaytinya, Oyamel, Jaleo, and minibar). Mike Isabella’s Graffiato is famous for its seasonal small plates.Tosca is the finest and freshest Italian around. Founding Farmers offers farm-inspired goodness, or for a quick and delicious bite, there’s always burgers and milkshakes at Good Stuff Eatery. Belgian-fare Brasserie Beck, 555-beer-cellar Birch and Barley, modern-Indian Rasika…we could go on and on. Columbia Heights on 11 th St. has gems like Room 11, El Chucho, and Meridian Pint. The more adventuresome may want to check out the Atlas District, H Street NE from Union Station out to Benning Rd NE, a hipster haven with favorites including Ethiopic and, Washington’s best, Toki Underground ramen. The best kept dining secret? Little Serow, a northern Thai speakeasy does not take reservations, but its seven-course, prix-fix menu will blow you away. Definitely worth putting your name in early and then grabbing a drink at nearby Hanks Oyster Bar while you wait.
For a classic DC experience, Point of View, the W Hotel’s Rooftop, is a must—it overlooks the White House. DNV Rooftopat the Donovan House has great views to the city’s north. Cocktails are great at Pearl Dive and Bar Charley. For wine, check out Barcelona or Proof. Beer is top-notch at Right Proper Brewing Company (while you’re at it, try out some of the new places cropping up in Shaw), Biergarten Haus, and Granville Moore’s. Nellie’s Sports Bar, Satellite Room, and American Ice are the go-to’s on U Street.
Dining Pro-Tip . Get reservations. Most places are on OpenTable, and DC is definitely a reservation culture, so walking in can mean a long wait.
Where to Stay
The Hay-Adams features stunning views of the White House and the Washington Monument, and it's where President Obama and his family stayed before they moved into the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If you want luxury in the heart of Georgetown, book a room at the Four Seasons—just don’t expect it to come cheap. Le Méridien just over the Potomac in Rosslyn is a stylish, boutique spot, or if you want to skip the hotel route, you can check out Airbnb’s neighborhood guide.