If you visit Washington for just a short time, you might only see the National Mall, the Smithsonian, and tourists with American flag sweatshirts and white tennis shoes schlepping through it all. Others might think of motorcades, suits, and K St. lobbyists. Or maybe high crime rates, or the terrorist-fighting CIA officers in Homeland. Sure, all of that has at least some sliver of reality in it, but the city has so much more to offer and there’s a lot more to the District that most tourists don’t get to. When I found out I’d be moving to the District, I thought it’d be a good place to go to law school — and it was — but I ended up enjoying the city itself much more than I thought I would. Visiting Z here over the holidays and revisiting some of my favorite places inspired this little walk down memory lane. So, here are some of my top picks for things to do in Washington, in no particular order. And, after you’ve worked up an appetite doing these things, stay tuned for What I like about the District (Part II) for my recs for eating and drinking.
1. People Watching: Dupont Circle or Logan Circle
I fully admit that I’m biased here, because I used to live right down the street, but the fountain and surrounding park in Dupont Circle is a great place to sit and people watch. It’s a popular spot to stage protests, so there’s always something interesting going on. A public screening of the 2010 US-England World Cup match was also held here. On weekdays at lunch hour, it fills up with people working nearby. Dupont is also DC’s gayborhood, and the tanning population in the Circle on sunny weekends is a place to see and be seen (better work on those abs before taking off your shirt here!). Nearby 17th Street and environs host Capital Pride and the pre-Halloween institution that is the High Heel Race, a must-see for District residents.
Coming here, also puts you right in the heart of the the Massachusetts Avenue Historical District. Just take a walk north on Massachusetts Ave. through Embassy Row, which runs all the way to the National Cathedral (3101 Wisconsin Ave., NW). You’ll pass some amazing architecture — personally, I love the Indonesian Embassy (2020 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest ) — as well as Ghandi, Churchill, and Atatürk among others along the way.
If you’re looking for a quieter place to sit with more green space, head to nearby Logan Circle. It’s more spacious and less crowded, and the trees provide plenty of shade. A great picnic spot.
2. Museum: The Phillips Collection
There are tons of great museums in the District, and nothing beats the Smithsonian in terms of sheer size and variety. That much history, art, archival information and architecture in one place is truly incredible. Go see them all and often. But, the private museums here can get overlooked. One of these that in my opinion is absolutely not to be missed is the Phillips Collection. Set back from Mass Ave. and Embassy Row, it was America’s first modern art museum, opening in 1921, eight years before the New York MoMA. The collection is an absolute pleasure to visit, meandering through the rooms and floors of the Georgian townhome of it’s founder, Duncan Phillips, as well as two adjoining buildings. The impressionist paintings are the real draw here, and the collection is arresting. Just try and pass Renoir’s Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) without pausing on the bench to marvel at the light dancing on the glasses on the bistro table. Go ahead. I dare you.
1600 21st Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
3. “No Taxation without Representation!”
One of the most difficult things to explain to foreigners who are unfamiliar with the US is that I most recently lived in Washington, the capital city. “No, not that Washington, the District of Columbia.” I have to explain that, yes, the US has only 50 states and I hail from “a federal district carved out of Maryland and Virginia.” And, how and why this federal territory has no voting representation in Congress is something most people don’t understand, or are downright apalled by. And well, many DC residents aren’t too happy about the arrangement either.
This issue wasn’t really on my radar before I moved to DC, but it was impossible to miss once I did. These signs and others are all over the District and it’s a constant topic of political debate. Without getting into the details of the various considerations involved, there are those for and against voting rights in Congress as well as a debate about whether DC should become the 51st state. DC does have a delegate in the House, currently Eleanor Holmes Norton. The DC rep is able to participate in Committees and represent her constituents on the House floor, but can’t participate in the final vote on any legislation. To give you an idea of how central this is to Washingtonian identity, the license plates here say “Taxation without Representaiton,” and the whole debate is as much a matter of District pride as it is a real political and Constitutional connundrum.
4. Used Bookstore: Second Story Books
As a kid, I loved helping my grandmother who worked at the local public library, shelving books, checking them in and out, and sneaking off to read whatever the ladies who worked there recommended. And thanks to my mother, I had the most beautiful children’s books growing up and learned to love to read. Living in San Francisco and Paris has totally spoiled me as far as good used bookstores go, and wherever I’m living, I’m always hunting for a good one. In DC, I found Second Story Books. I really like this little place and am rarely able to resist the temptation to pop in and see what they’ve got (which happens often since it’s right across the street from my favorite pizza place, Pizzeria Paradiso). I’ve bought a good number of used cookbooks here in great condition for half the cover price. They’ve also got vintage posters and postcards and a rare books selection if you’re into that. Another good address is Idle Times Books in Adams Morgan if you’re up that way.
Second Story Books
2000 P Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
Idle Times Books
2467 18th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009
5. Way to get around: DC Bikeshare
My enthusiasm for bicycles and biheshare programs is no secret and DC a great, one. Whether you’re looking for a long-term membership or just passing through for a few days, I really encourage you to give it a try. You can read my post with tips and tricks here.
But, for all it’s faults and funding problems, DC’s public transport system WMATA deserves a mention, as it serves most of the city and all of the tourist spots. Plus, I love that it looks like it fell right out of the ’60’s. If only they could get those escalators to work consistenty …
I lived right down the street from the Dupont Farmers Market for a few years and went there every week. But, I really fell in love with the less crowded and more neighborhood-oriented Mount Pleasant Farmers Market. Unfortunately, it was closed during my last trip to the District so I wasn’t able to take any photos, but I can’t write a post on DC without mentioning it.
Held on Saturday mornings this producer-only market features local meat, produce, dairy products, and baked goods. (Full disclosure: I worked for one of the producers there while I lived in the area) The produce is seasonal and and consistently good, and for the meat-eaters, their forgaing chickens Z and I would buy were some of the best I’ve ever had. It’s not all organic and it’s a bit smaller than other markets in the District, but it’s an independent operation with a real sense of community. As a result, it’s less crowded and a bit slower-paced: you see the vendors greeting each other and their customers and people chatting with the producers about recipes. The people I worked for supplied the melons for Pleaseant Pops, a local food truck/cart operation that makes incredible, seasonal popsicles which they sell there and out of their roving food truck. The market also makes a conscious effort to remain socially responsible and at the service of the Mount Pleasant community. They accept WIC checks and donate to Loaves and Fishes, which serves hot meals on Saturdays and Sundays to DC’s hungry and homeless. And if that hasn’t sold you, there’s usually some live music as well as a booth where you can get your bike checked out and tuned up. Good food. Good people.
Mount Pleasant Farmers Market
Lamont Park, Mount Pleasant
May – November only
Dupont Farmers Market
1500 20th St., NW, Washington DC 20009
7. Summer in the District: Screen on the Green and Jazz in the Garden
For some reason I will never understand, the Hill scene hasn’t really adopted the summer suit. While women go into sandals-and-sun-dress survival mode to get through the sticky, sweltering heat, the men on Capital Hill shuffle off to work in the same wool suits and ties that are totally inadapted to the weather. So, when the heat rolls in and the National Gallery of Art’s Jazz in the Garden series starts, residents, students and interns in town for the summer flock to the Sculpture Garden (7th St NW & Constitution Avenue) on Friday evenings with snacks and drinks in tow to loosen their ties, take off their shoes and beat the last hours of the day’s heat. Music starts at 5pm, and if you want to hear it you’ll need to get there early to snag a spot near the stage. For the most part, we’re just content to sit and chat with friends as they arrive from work in various parts of town.
Another free summer event is is Screen on the Green (on the National Mall between 8th and 14th Streets). On Monday nights in the late summer, this film festival shows some great old movies on the National Mall. Check the weather, otherwise you might find yourself sprinting thorugh downtown with your picnic basket only to ride the Metro home as a sopping wet mess (just trust me). And, remember your outdoor film etiquette please — bring a blanket and leave the lawn chairs at home. Yes, even the low ones.
8. Go for a run!
This might seem like a strange thing to add to a list of must see’s in a city, but DC is a running town. Everyone does it. There are constantly people out running before work, after work, on their lunch break on the Mall and throughout the residential areas here. I immediately noticed the difference coming back from Paris, where comparatively few people jog and really working up a sweat in public is guaranteed to get you stared at.
There are so many great places to run here, whether you’re looking for a short jog or a longer run. The National Mall is a popular one. The rambling Rock Creek Park has lots of running trails as well that make you feel like you’ve left the city completely. For a more urban experience, I love the run down along the Potomac near Foggy Bottom. You pass the Watergate Towers, the Kennedy Center, and the run across the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge is worth it for the view of the monuments on the way back. If you plan it right, you can can come back over the bridge at dusk — before it’s too dark to run but the sun has set just enough that the monuments are lit. It’s pretty arresting. No matter where you’re living/staying in the city, lace up those running shoes and get out there like a local!
Other posts on DC:
Check out these local sites for non-touristy things going on around town:
DCist is a great resource for local news and events.