We’re keeping it domestic on this Travel Tuesday and this time we’re going straight to the top – the capital city of the United States of America – Washington DC.
Joining me today dish on all things DC is my colleague Lindsay Hill, the Senior Manager for Tourism Sales at Destination DC. Now I’m well aware that when most of us who aren’t familiar with this destination picture it, our minds eye is filled with monuments, museums and politics. Which of course can all be found here. But there’s so much more to our capital city and it is mine and Lindsay’s goal to educate you on just how much more.
In fact, Lindsay was very vocal about the fact that the one thing she wants you all to take away from our chat is that Washington DC is a vibrant city with many facets. Of course, there is the Washington politics side – but there’s so much more than just the National Mall strip – there is also an entire city to explore with many great neighborhoods that she is going to walk us through on a virtual tour today.
So, let’s do some armchair traveling to the District of Columbia to uncover all that it has to offer.
How Can I Get There? Super easy! There are three airports that you can utilize – Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Reagan National Airport (DCA) – which is the closest – as it is only which is 15 minutes from downtown and easily accessible via the Metro system (more on that later). And, if you’re on the East Coast corridor, you can simply take Amtrak right into Union Station arriving just steps away from downtown DC.
And Where Exactly Is It? I now a lot of you are quite familiar with Washington DC but if you’re not on the east coast – to give you an idea – it’s about four hours from New York City and just two and a half hours from Philadelphia. It is nestled between Virginia and Maryland meaning you can use DC as your base then take side trips to the Shenandoah Mountains – and the wineries! – or head to the fabulous beach towns in Maryland. What a great mix of opportunities – think about what an awesome multi-city tour this would make!
Demographics? DC – which is a lovely diamond shape – is home to 700,000 people mainly between the ages of 25 and 45 making this for a young and vibrant town with plenty of nightlife. There are also a lot of families that live in DC and that means there are also plenty of activities to explore with the kiddos.
How Am I Going To Get Around Once I’m There? One thing Lindsay was quite adamant about was that you do not need a car in DC. In fact, she came right out and said do NOT bring a car to DC. For those of you guys who are in metropolitan cities like New York the subway is something we all cherish, and you will be thrilled to discover that DC has a subway system too – the Washington Metro – that also includes buses. The Metro system is fabulous because it is not confined to the city limits as it travels to the outskirts as well giving you the ability to even link up with the Light Rail in parts of Maryland or Virginia. That being said one piece I will definitely add to your DC itinerary is a SmarTrip card to pay for all of your Metrorail and Metrobus rides. One great thing about this SmarTrip card is that it can be used on all of the city buses including the DC Circulator which is similar to a shuttle bus system and costs just a one dollar per ride. And I am a huge advocate of taking buses when you can as it is a great opportunity to get sightseeing in – whether you are passing along popular sites or sitting at a traffic light – I feel it just gives you a view that you wouldn’t get otherwise.
In addition to the Metro and the buses DC is a very walkable city that has been voted the number one most walkable city in the entire country many times over. It is also a very bikeable city and its flat so no hills to worry about! DC has trails everywhere due to the fact they are mostly constructed of national parks – making it a very green city. Fun Fact: You can rent a bike and bike all the way to George Washington’s Mount Vernon and then take the boat back for a relaxing view from the water for a great day excursion. And the beautiful thing about that is you can take the bike from one area to another and not have to worry about bringing it back to where you started.
And finally, there is the Potomac River Water Taxi that is relatively new – just over two years old as of this writing. It connects the new District Wharf area (more on this later) to Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria and the National Harbor.
Tell Me About The National Mall Area. Undoubtedly the most popular area of DC, the National Mall area is walkable as it is just a little over 2 miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capitol with all of the monuments, the White House and a slew of Smithsonian’s – or what Lindsay refers to as Smithsonian Row – all there in the middle before you reach the capital making for a fabulous way to spend the day. And if you are not big on walking there are other
ways to tour the monuments and memorials such as a hop on hop off bus tours. In fact, there are all kinds of tours you can take, including National Mall tours done by professional comedians – I kid you not. (See what I did there?) Lindsay shared that her absolute favorite is the guided night tour because seeing the monuments all lit up at night is just gorgeous – so much so that she suggests even if you do the tour during the day to get all your pictures up close – still go back at night and seeing everything illuminated is a completely different experience and will take your breath away.
As for the Smithsonian Institution – which most of you are quite familiar with – but did you know that the Smithsonian is not just one building? Nope – it is 16 buildings interspersed around Washington DC with most of them on the National Mall. And even the DC Zoo – featuring those oh so adorable giant pandas – is a part of the Smithsonian – with its actual name being the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Best part? Every one of the Smithsonian museums and the zoo are free of charge. So, for those of you who are on a budget and want to do something fun that also counts as a travel as a living classroom that free admission factor lets you get your children up close and personal to learn firsthand rather than just reading it in a textbook. And as Lindsay so poetically put it – they actually stand in the footprints of history at many of these locations. Just incredible opportunities here you guys!
As you walk along you will come across the International Spy Museum which is in the L’Enfant Plaza near the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Now, the International Spy Museum has been with the DC family for over ten years but last spring they opened their new location which is twice the size of the old venue. So even if you’ve been there before you have to go back as it’s completely brand new with new exhibits. And if you are not familiar with it, the International Spy Museum is a super interactive experience where you get to put on the persona of a spy and take on little missions and at the end, they tell you if you would have been a good spy or not. And if you have a group we can arrange for workshops on forensics and other areas of interest.
Two other museums that just opened in 2020 are the National Children’s Museum – that focuses highly on STEM – so all of your science, technology, engineering and mathematics related stuff- and Planet Word which is really about bringing words and language to life and reminding you of the power of words. Per Lindsay she is quite excited about this one and said that if you like crossword puzzles and libraries and things along that line you are going to love this place!
What If I Get Hungry? Or Thirsty? DC has you covered with a great food scene that includes OVER 2200 restaurants! Bonus – you’ve got Michelin starred restaurants included in those 2200 too. Lindsay also pointed out that DC has close to 200 embassies in its backyard which is unique to any city in the entire world. And with so many embassies they have a ton of global influence added to their culinary scene. That also means they don’t have one thing that’s considered DC cuisine because they have so many flavors coming at them. As for those Michelin starred restaurants – DC is only the fifth city in the United States to be honored with the Michelin Guide which of course they are oh so proud of as they are of Jose Andres who is their hometown chef who’s doing some really wonderful things within the communities.
Some of the more popular places to grab a bite include Ben’s Chili Bowl (and a half smoke) – which is the only restaurant that survived the riots after MLK’s assassination, District Donuts and of course Georgetown Cupcakes that many know from the TV show DC Cupcakes.
If happy hour is your jam you will not be disappointed in DC! There are a lot of rooftop experiences – both for rooftop dining and bars – which is a great place to try a Gin Rickey which is DC’s cocktail, and you grab some Ethiopian food. Why Ethiopian food? Because outside of Africa, Washington DC has the largest population of Ethiopians.
And of course – we all know I am huge into cultural immersion through gastronomy so I would love to make an entire itinerary of culinary exploration for my foodies out there as there is so much to see from the Wharf Fish Market to Union Market to Speakeasy visits to neighborhood food tours and more!
Anything There In The Way Of Arts? There are over 30 theaters in DC with the Kennedy Center as the mainstay for opera, ballet and their Broadway circuit. But they also have so much more in terms of homegrown theater productions as well thanks to a huge community behind those efforts. Besides theater there’s a ton of art in DC including the hidden art within like the Library of Congress and mural art everywhere that was commissioned to highlight leaders of the city.
Sports? Truly you are going to find something for everyone here in the way of sports. You’ve got baseball, football, soccer, basketball, hockey – I mean there’s literally pretty much every major sporting event imaginable here. And Lindsay proudly pointed out that in the past couple of years they have had a lot of championship wins with the Nationals, Capitals and even their women’s basketball team the Mystics bringing home the trophy.
What Kind Of Activities Can I Participate In? So besides professional sports, DC is quite an active city, meaning there is a ton of outdoor activities to be had. Which is great news – especially now – as everyone wants to make spend a lot of time outdoors and engage in some social distancing. The city has a plethora of wellness opportunities – and remember – wellness isn’t just a spa treatment – it includes many other activities including soft adventures! In DC you are going to find plenty of soft adventures – and hard adventures if that is what you are looking for. From kayaking on the Potomac River to bike tours to paddle boats on the Tidal Basin and even yoga on the National Mall! Then there is Rock Creek Park – part of the National Park Service – which is twice the size of Central Park in New York City. Here there are trails and there’s actually a horseback riding center in there so you can even ride horses in Washington DC!
DC is host to many different events and festivals but arguably its most famous is the Cherry Blossom Festival. I personally have seen the cherry blossom trees at different points – when it was early in the start of the season and when they were in full bloom and it’s just absolutely stunning. There are over 200 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and Lindsay assures us not to worry about timing it right because even if for some reason the timing isn’t perfect there are three weeks of activities during the festival. You will still have the parade, the fireworks show, the kite festival and more – and you will still have a great time even if they’re not in full bloom at that point.
You Mentioned Great Neighborhoods? Why yes, I did. And I can make you an itinerary for each one where you can spend one day exploring all they have to offer.
- Georgetown: So, what’s really interesting is that when the city was first created Georgetown was not part of DC, instead it was its own separate city. Due to this it does definitely have a different vibe as well as a very old feel. It features cobblestone streets and quaint old stone houses and is one of Lindsay’s favorite places to walk around. For my movie buffs – in particular fans of The Exorcist you can visit what is known as The Exorcist Steps which is a staircase that was featured in a pivotal scene in the movie. You can also tour historic Dumbarton Oaks Estates and Gardens, shop on M Street, kayak, paddleboard or canoe on the Potomac River and then in the evening have dinner along the waterfront and take in a show at the Kennedy Center.
- Southwest DC and the Capitol Riverfront: Heading a little bit more into the southwest area where you’re going to find amazing foods and the new District Wharf or The Wharf neighborhood we alluded to earlier. This is the newest addition to DC and it’s definitely great for a date night walk down the Potomac River. There are also three live entertainment stages here with one – The Anthem that’s right on the water – being able to house 6000 people. Here you are close to the ballpark and the soccer stadium, and it is a good launching point for kayaking, paddle boarding or canoeing. You can take in the Museum of the Bible or Artechouse – which is an innovative art space for immersive and interactive art exhibitions. Evening activities include the District Winery for local wine tasting, Bluejacket Brewery for local beer tasting or perhaps a dinner cruise. Top Secret Fun Fact: It’s Lindsay’s favorite neighborhood – but don’t tell anybody she said that!
- Capitol Hill: Featuring the US Capital Building, Library of Congress and the Supreme Court – this is a history, law, political lovers dream neighborhood! And Lindsay reminds us that the Library of Congress – which is across the street from the US Capital Building is a hidden treasure of art so if you’re an art buff it’s a must see. Bonus – they are connected by a tunnel so that’s a super fun way to go back and forth! In the backyard of Capitol Hill, you have a sort of a foodie treasure trove as well as artisan crafts at the Eastern Market which has been in existence for decades and decades. It is a great place to wander through especially on the weekends, browsing the stalls and shopping for trinkets or original artwork. If you are there on the weekend the one thing you must do is get yourself some of the famous buckwheat blueberry pancakes from the market! And once again – being a walking city you can walk around and see all the fun town houses that were built during the civil war – and walk off those pancakes! Other sites not to miss here are the US Botanic Garden and Barracks Row – where you can view the evening parade at the US Marine Barracks on Friday evenings in the summer.
- 14th Street and the U Street Corridor: Featuring another flavorful feel this area has become sort of the nightlife area of DC. A lot of locals live in this neighborhood but it’s also really rich in history due to the fact that U Street was once known as the historic Black Broadway and during segregation this was where all of the black leaders all lived. Howard University is located here, Ben’s Chili Bowl – which we mentioned earlier – and Little Ethiopia can be found here too as well as a lot of street murals – which are a big part of touring this neighborhood. But the biggest thing is that this was one of the birth places of Jazz – did you know Duke Wellington was born in Washington DC and he played here? And that’s not all from the music scene! Go-Go music – a mix of funk and Latin American percussion – was created here and is now the official music of DC. You can walk through Meridian Hill Park while you are here – which has the largest cascading fountain in North and then take in live music at U Street Music Hall, 9:30 Club or the historic Howard Theater.
We Know You Like Your Off The Beaten Path Options Loulu. I sure do and I asked Lindsay to highlight some for us today so that we have a list of things not everybody knows about to take in during our DC trip. First there’s H Street that’s definitely a part of DC that you want to see. It’s like raw DC – and is filled with nightlife, restaurants and festivals amidst a communal atmosphere. Then you have the Congressional Cemetery which is a really beautiful – and cool place to visit. Fun Fact: John Philip Sousa is buried there. There is the Saint John Paul II National Shrine featuring mosaics by Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik – so even if you’re not religious my art enthusiasts would really love it. Or you can visit President Lincolns Cottage – a historic site and museum. And finally, there are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens where every summer when the lotuses and water lilies bloom, they have a Lotus and Water Lily Festival.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing Washington, DC is open for visitors.
Whether you travel for the history, the gastronomy, the culture, the wellness, the activities or the off the beaten path adventures – Washington DC offers them all – right here in our own backyard – no passport needed. I’d love to be able to start building an itinerary for you and your travel companions that includes what’s important to you – so let’s get that conversation started!
For more details on things to see and do in Washington DC, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!