We all know Washington, D.C. as the nation’s capital city and the epicenter of American politics, but there is so much more life to this city that demands to be noticed. The side most travelers see is a city overflowing with memorials and museums; the side we want to share with you is a city that is also lively, hip, enticing, entertaining, and memorable. There is an abundance of options on and off the beaten path for every type of traveler to The District. With this being said, we’re here to help. Here is our list of insider’s top choices of places to eat, drink, play, visit and stay while in Washington, D.C.
Visit the Smithsonian (and other) Museums
Whether it’s your first-time visiting Washington, D.C., or your tenth, you will find a wide array of the nation’s best museums to explore on each visit. In fact, there are so many outstanding museums to select from, we have narrowed the list to our absolute favorites. Spoiler alert, you won’t be able to see them all in one visit, which means you’ll have to return to this beautiful city for more! You can never go wrong with any of the Smithsonian Museums. Our favorites include: the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the Native American.
Although not a part of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art is a must see. If the quality of these museums isn’t enough incentive, consider that they are also free! Other highly recommended and genuinely memorable museums are the International Spy Museum (with an entrance fee) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Celebrate Black Culture
The District’s U Street Corridor, once known as Black Broadway, was one of the most established and exciting areas in the country to celebrate black culture in the first half of the 1900s. U Street was influential in the music and performing arts scene as theaters like Lincoln opened and iconic artists such as musician Duke Ellington and poet Langston Hughes launched their careers here. Over the past two decades, U Street has become a vibrant center for art, culture and African American heritage. A new generation of artists has revitalized the area, making it the favored neighborhood for art, music and especially jazz.
Get Lost in the World’s Largest Library
Books worms, look no further! The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with over 170 million books, recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts. Each day they receive around 15,000 items and add more than 10,000 items to its collections! The Library even houses materials in approximately 470 languages. The catch? All books can only be used on the premises and cannot be checked out. Don’t let that deter you from a visit; the impressive architecture of the building and the expansive collection of artwork is enough to make it worth a visit.
Reenergize with Panamanian Coffee
Café Unido is a high-end Panamanian coffee shop committed to roasting and serving exclusively Panamanian coffee beans. The team at Café Unido has developed strong relationships with farmers in over 15 different farms in Panama to source beans for their pour-overs, espresso blends, nitro coffee, and cascara (coffee cherry tea). Beans are sourced from diverse climates (volcanic, oceanic, and highland) to produce an array of flavors. Unido also offers the exclusive and sought-after geisha bean, a Panamanian-grown variety of an Ethiopian strain that is the most expensive coffee in the world. This bean thrives in Panama’s soil and climate and is glorified for its rare flavor with notes ranging from floral and fruity to jasmine tea and lemongrass. Café Unido has also implemented an initiative to support migrant coffee-harvest families by developing schools near the farms for children who must travel to the farms with their parents.
Brush up on Your American History
To relearn your American history, or to learn more, a visit to some of the nation’s most famous historical monuments will do the trick. Most monuments and plaques can be spotted on the National Mall. Favorites include the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Tidal Basin is another not to be missed area for seeing Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials. To see them in a different light (literally), return at night and visit the tributes under the moonlight; and to see them from a different perspective, rent a paddleboat and circle around the Tidal Basin to see some of the monuments.
Stroll through District Wharf
District Wharf is your all-in-one entertainment stop. Along the marina’s edge, lie exquisite restaurants (see NaRa-Ya below) and shops and entertainment venues. We suggest enjoying live free concerts that are typically held during warmer months, renting a kayak or paddleboard from The Wharf Boathouse, taking a free jitney ride to East Potomac Park (a man-made island) and visiting The Municipal Fish Market – having opened in 1805, it is the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States.
Experience a Traditional Moroccan Body Scrub
An unassuming storefront on a busy crowded street in DuPont’s Circle belies the unique services offered at Spa Logic. Owned by Kathy Luu from Vietnam and her Lebanese husband Fadi Gharbieh, Spa Logic provides a wide array of exclusive beauty services including Western, Eastern, and Middle Eastern spa selections. Spa specialties include Moroccan staples such as the hammam body scrub and the body scrub with argan oil that are basically facials for your entire body. Spa-goers will enter into a private room with a jacuzzi-like bed where the entire body will be scrubbed of dead skin. With pauses for showers in between and time in the private sauna, guests will leave with incredibly soft (and clean) skin. Eastern treatments include oriental cupping and kinesiology taping. There is an old-fashioned claw-footed tub for specialty baths, a full-service hair salon, and so much more.
Step Back in Time at Ford’s Theater
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot while attending Ford’s Theater. Today, the theater still performs live shows. Visitors can tour the balcony where Lincoln sat, visit the Petersen House across the street where Lincoln inevitably died, and peruse the theater’s excellent basement museum. The tour ends at the Center for Education and Leadership where history buffs can wander through several floors of exhibits that examine the aftermath of Lincoln’s death and his legacy.
Stay in Iconic Accommodations
Stepping into what was once a bus terminal and printing house, guests will immediately notice Eaton’s understated, natural, and vintage decor feels authentic rather than overly curated. The hotel’s aesthetics are inspired by people and places such as the Beatniks and Hong Kong culture. Eaton supports over a hundred community organizations working toward social justice and advocates for the health and safety of the community by working closely with environmental justice groups. In the heart of Dupont Circle sits a reimagined apartment building that now serves as an unassuming art deco hotel, Lyle. Casual elegance best describes the interior, which is beautifully appointed with abstract artwork, tapestries, burl wood furnishings, rattan seating, berber carpets, white or natural-toned couches and bedspreads, and delicious smelling bath products. Did we mention the oh so comfy bed and pillows? Located at the gateway of high-end boutiques and upscale restaurants, lies Conrad, an architecturally striking, minimalist expression of purity. Light, neutral colors throughout the hotel evoke relaxation and calmness during visitors’ stay. The hotel’s all-glass conspicuous exterior gives guests a sneak preview of the incredible floor-to-ceiling windows offered in each guestroom. Conrad has partnered with DC Central Kitchen to provide culinary internships for youth and Clean the World to recycle soap from guestrooms.
Discover La Cosecha
La Cosecha is a Latin lifestyle market in the Union Market neighborhood. Aside from being home to a number of delicious Latin American food stalls, two boutiques inside are worth the trip. Nova Bossa features more than thirty small artisanal brands – approximately 90% women-owned – that celebrate Latin American heritage. The boutique has also developed its own line of eco-friendly handbags, scarfs, notebooks and home décor. Zona E is a mother and daughter-owned boho-chic boutique with home, interior, lifestyle products and jewelry from Colombia and around the world.
Play with your food at El Cielo
Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos, of El Cielo, is the first Colombian chef to win a Michelin star for a Colombian concept. The restaurant offers two menus; The Journey Menu is 15 courses and The Experience Menu is 22 courses. The sequence of dishes not only follows a unique journey through Barrientos’s love for his home country but is meant to thrill all five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. For instance, both menus involve immersive moments like choco-therapy – a ritual where guests wash their hands with liquid chocolate and then get to taste it straight from their fingers, and lick me! – a playful dish that requires guests to lick a sorbet-like dessert straight from the plate. The main dining room offers an a la carte menu with unique dishes like Yucca Gnocchi, served with sweet plantain honey and pecorino cheese foam, and Guava BBQ Ribs, served with atollado rice and apple. Supporting a good cause, El Cielo foundation provides aid to wounded warriors, former guerrilla soldiers, and indigenous peoples who have experienced violence in Colombia.
Stop and Smell the Flowers at the U.S. National Arboretum
The United States National Arboretum is a 446-acre haven of beauty that was established in 1927. The green space is home to the National Bonsai Collection, a mesmeric collection of renowned miniature Japanese and Chinese trees; the Gotelli Conifer Collection, a collection of conifers from Arctic and subtropical climates; a herbarium and variety of other flora. The National Capital Columns are also not to be missed as the installation features 22 Corinthian columns that once supported the U.S. Capital but were later removed due to poor construction. They are now one of the most photographed spots in the arboretum. The arboretum is open daily, free to the public, and literally changes with the seasons, so it’s worth repeated visits. Insider’s Tip: Visit in the spring to see the outstanding Azaleas in bloom.
Wander through Georgetown
Georgetown’s cobblestone streets are recognized as one of the best shopping areas in the country. M Street is a good starting point for shoppers with the intersection of M and Wisconsin Avenue being the heart of Georgetown, with mainstream stores and boutique-lined streets extending in all four directions. Exhausted from shopping? Meander through Georgetown Waterfront Park and stroll along the Potamic River for beautiful and relaxing views. If you are feeling energized, visit Thompson Boat Center where you can rent a kayak, canoe or paddleboard and explore the Potomac. Insider’s Tip: This is also a great way to see the Cherry Blossoms without the crowds!
Treat Yourself to the Flavors of Michelin-Starred Cuisine
Undeniable creativity can be found dining at Masseria. Owner and Chef, Nicholas Stefanelli’s southeastern Italian ancestral roots are evident in his traditionally inspired creations; however, his food is by no means limited to this region as he takes inspiration from the rich culinary heritage woven in the dishes throughout Italy. To indulge your palate in a wide range of sensations and unusual combinations, try the six-course tasting menu and you will finish your evening satiated and anticipating your next booking. Bresca takes inspiration from Paris but characterizes itself as taking a more dynamic, experimental and informal approach to cooking than traditional French cuisine. Ordinary ingredients like beets and tomatoes hold the same value as truffles and caviar in their three or four-course menu. Look around and guests will spot whimsical touches throughout the restaurant – like animal paintings, fish heads and a moss wall. Maydan, meaning gathering place in Arabic, brings attention to wonderous cuisines from parts of the world that remain mainly misunderstood in the US. Diners walk on antique Arabian carpets to reach their dining table where herb-drenched cheeses, a variety of flavorful dipping spreads, honey-soaked dates and mains like spiced fish and chicken thigh can be shared. The faint sounds of traditional Arabian beats will transport guests to the Middle East during this dining experience.
Peruse Union Market
Dating back to 1871, Union Market, once the largest market in Washington, D.C., has been transformed into an urban village that proves to be a gathering place by way of restaurants, shops, workspace and artwork. One noteworthy boutique is In Seven Words which focuses on giving new life to gently used clothing, footwear, and accessories. Proceeds from sales support N Street Village, a community for empowerment and recovery for women, Women Giving Back, provides first steps to stability for women and children, and Central Union Mission, offers shelter, hot meals, medical care and job training to those in need. Our second recommendation is theTwelve, which offers holistic retail, housewares, live plants, fragrance, and sustainable apparel and accessories. The back room of theTwelve is also a gallery.
Take Photos of the Cherry Blossoms
Every Spring, the city turns pinks during the two to four weeks of cherry blossom season. This is such a highly sought-after occurrence that The District calls it the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The festival commemorates Tokyo’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to Washington, D.C. in 1912 and it celebrates the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan. In addition to aweing over the magnificent flowers, a number of arts and culture events that are free to the public occur around this time as well. Insider’s Tip: Head to the Tidal Basin at sunrise for the best views and less crowds of the striking pink flora.
Sample Incredible Restaurants
NaRa-Ya is a Japanese eatery that offers a la carte options in addition to three unique tasting menus (including a vegan option). Named for the year Georgetown University was founded, 1789 is the quintessential Washington, D.C. dining experience. The ambiance reminds you of a stately home and the cuisine embodies seasonal dishes such as brioche-crusted halibut with roasted fingerling potatoes, fennel, grilled leeks and saffron-mussel broth and pheasant ballotine with foie gras, pickled tiny radishes and mustard aioli. If you’re looking for a dining experience that embraces true African heritage, look no further than Swahili Village. Kenyan immigrant, executive chef and founder, Keven Onyona, offers diners an immersion into African culture through his wide variety of traditional African dishes. Step into Maketto, an eclectic Cambodian and Taiwanese marketplace, and you may find yourself here all day. Whether you’re stopping in to enjoy fried rice noodles, reenergize with coffee, shop for new shoes or listen to classic vinyls; Maketto’s policy is always ‘our home is your home’. Royal is a Latin-inspired, family-owned restaurant where the food and drinks are influenced by the family’s Colombian heritage, family recipes, and time living throughout Central and South America. Guava pastries, egg arepas, and masa gnocchi are a few of the drool-worthy dishes found on the menu. Makan, which is Malaysian for ‘to eat’, showcases diverse and flavorful Malaysian cuisine. Dishes showcase the complexity of flavors and cooking processes that are unique to Malaysia.
Express Yourself at Culture House
A bold building located in an unassuming inner-city neighborhood; Culture House is a vehicle for artists to expressive themselves. Culture House’s mission is to provide a space for all to enjoy and learn more about art through exhibitions, events, performances, and workshops. The building was built as a church in 1886 and was purchased by a real estate developer with the intention of building condos in 2004, until the Historic Preservation Board stopped the project from happening. The developer then re-envisioned the space as a community art center. A huge mural now wraps around the building, while the interior is covered in graffiti. The space is used for rotating art exhibitions as well as a community garden.
Revel in Nature at Rock Creek Park
Rock Creek Park is an urban oasis that was founded in 1890 by the U.S. Congress. Visitors can explore 1,754 acres of the park by foot, bike or horse. With lush greenery, 32 miles of trails, picnic areas, a nature center, an amphitheater and even a planetarium, the park is open year-round during daylight hours. Other activities available in the park include fishing, tennis, golfing and boating. For history buffs, the park is also home to a number of Civil War sights that are labeled with plaques or statues.