I’ve lived in Washington for (gulp) 23 years—and something I’ve learned in all that time: This is one great city to visit.
I recently had the honor of writing Nat Geo’s forthcoming book Walking Washington, D.C., and reveled in the chance to traverse the District to rediscover old favorites through the eyes of a tourist and dig up treasures I never even knew existed.
Here’s the recipe for a perfect day in one of the world’s most vibrant capital cities:
Start your day off with breakfast on Capitol Hill. Hop on the Metro and head for Eastern Market, D.C.’s oldest and continuously operated fresh food market. Market Lunch here is famous for its blueberry-buckwheat pancakes, which are best enjoyed at the busy counter or outside at a picnic table. A few blocks away, no-frills Pete’s Diner—a favorite among members of Congress and their staffers—offers visitors an authentic taste of “the Hill.”
Spend the rest of the morning exploring the eastern half of the National Mall. Hop on the Metro at Eastern Market and get off at the Smithsonian stop, which provides easy access to the eight outstanding museums the Institution oversees on the Mall, including its latest addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open in late September.
You could easily spend a week inside the Museum of American History (highlights include the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a fascinating exhibit on the American presidency, and Julia Child’s kitchen, brought piece-by-piece from her home in Massachusetts) and the Air and Space Museum (must-sees here are the Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo Lunar Module, and the Starship Enterprise).
My advice? Pace yourself. Of course, what people love about Washington is that many of the city’s museums (including all of which are under the Smithsonian umbrella) are free, so really, you shouldn’t feel bad about taking in a few highlights in one and then moving on. Tip: Start by ducking into the information center at the red sandstone Smithsonian “Castle” to map out your plan of attack.
Note: If you’ve already done the Mall, the Newseum offers truly unique rotating exhibits and permanent galleries that turn a journalist’s lens on history. The striking seven-story museum charges an admission fee (which, notably, is good for two days), but when so many of the capital’s cultural offerings are free, you’ll hardly feel the sting.
Most of the National Mall museums offer mediocre food, with the exception of the National Museum of the American Indian, which serves up seasonal indigenous specialties—buffalo tacos, sweet fry bread, cedar-plank salmon, and the like—in its cafeteria-style restaurant.
Walking a few blocks will earn you the classic Washington experience at Old Ebbitt Grill. The District’s oldest restaurant comes complete with a stuffed walrus head over the bar allegedly bagged by Teddy Roosevelt, politicos taking a break from the nearby White House, and a lush dimly lit interior full of mahogany, velvet, and marble that calls to mind turn-of-the-century D.C. Tip: Try the oysters.
Or you could head up to Penn Quarter, a relatively new neighborhood with all kinds of fun restaurants. Jaleo is ever popular for its small-plate Spanish tapas and upscale brasserie Nopa Kitchen + Bar for its twice-fried chicken, while Oyamel offers elegant, contemporary Mexican fare and fanciful lunch specials.
After an indulgent lunch, find yourself a Capital Bikeshare station (there are more than 350 across town; sign up ahead for a 24-hour “key” of time online) and get in a quick workout with a “bridges loop.” Start at the Washington Monument, then circle past the Jefferson Memorial, ride over the 14th Street Bridge, and follow the Mount Vernon Trail north to Memorial Bridge. The route will have you cruising right next to the Potomac, with resplendent views of the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials reflected in the water. Simply divine.
Or, if it’s warm, rent a kayak at Thompson Boat Center for an hour and paddle up to the Key Bridge and back. You won’t believe how easy it is to get out on the water, just like that. If you prefer to sit back with a cocktail, POV at the W Hotel offers sublime vistas over the National Mall and the White House—look down and you can literally see the sharpshooters on the White House roof.
After all that action, reward yourself with a bout of shopping in one of the District’s hippest neighborhoods. Everyone loves Georgetown, of course, but try out the section of 14th Street stretching between U and P streets instead, where Berkeley-esque shops and boutiques offer trendy goodies you won’t find elsewhere in the city.
Home Rule offers fun and funky bath and kitchen wares in spades; Miss Pixie’s is filled with delightfully retro furniture, textiles, and other treasures bought directly at auction; and Redeem, focusing on up-and-coming designers from D.C. and far beyond, always has something new and interesting.
When I first moved to D.C., it was a restaurant wasteland. But over the years, the city has earned a spot on the world map of foodie destinations. One of my favorites is Le Diplomate on 14th Street, NW, a quintessential Parisian-style bistro.
Another gem in the neighborhood is Ted’s Bulletin (which now has several locations), offering a twist on traditional comfort foods—house-made Pop Tarts, peanut-butter-bacon hamburgers, adult (aka boozy) milkshakes.
The Kennedy Center is the classic, grown-up place to spend a night on the town. Something that’s fun to do here, and not too expensive, is Shear Madness, a play set in a unisex beauty salon in Washington that involves audience participation. Or hop aboard an Old Town Trolley, leaving from Union Station, for a moonlit tour of the monuments. The guides share all kinds of fascinating trivia, and the memorials are especially moving at night.
Or, if you’re in a strictly going-out mood, head to the up-and-coming H Street corridor in the city’s northeast quadrant. A long-awaited streetcar now connects the neighborhood with Union Station, providing easy access.
Among the bars and eateries that line the corridor, H Street Country Club may be the most fun. The restaurant and bar serves up Mexican food alongside an indoor mini-golf course outfitted with models of Washington landmarks.
As you juggle your tequila while trying to hit a golf ball past briefcase-wielding K Street lawyers and King Kong clambering up the Washington Monument, it’s easy to forget the partisan craziness happening around the clock on Capitol Hill, located less than a mile away.
Barbara A. Noe is a freelance writer and the former senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.