Growing up inside the Beltway meant Smithsonian museums on weekends and field trips, boating on the Tidal Basin, picnics by the Washington Monument, and generally enjoying DC as my hometown. So, I’m sharing my top picks. There are so many more wonderful places, especially given I’ve not lived in DC since 2004, so this is just a jumping off point. And, to be candid, this is usually my checklist for my annual visit home. And don’t forget to check out Part Two.
American History Museum (I love the bread pudding in the Jazz Cafe on the main floor). Don’t forget to check out Julia Child’s kitchen.
Freer Gallery of Art to see Whistler’s Peacock Room and its neighbor the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. If you have the chance, also visit the National Portrait Gallery
Neighborhoods & Monuments
Tidal Basin by paddleboat (Great views of the Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, and Washington skyline. There is limited parking by the dock.)
Chinatown and Penn Quarter (near 7th and H Streets NW) – Spy Museum
Window shop in historic Georgetown
Arlington Cemetery just across Memorial Bridge from the Lincoln Memorial. It is a monument of sorts to the dedicated men and women who have given their lives for the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of their fellow Americans. Most notable for visitors are the Custis-Lee Mansion, the Kennedy grave sites and the Eternal Flame, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Many, including I, have family who have served our country in the military and are now interred at Arlington so even though it is a popular destination for tourists, I still see it as a final resting place for thousands of Americans who looked, worked, and gave beyond themselves for something they believed in.
Dining in DC
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Hawk ‘n’ Dove, a watering hole for many Senators and Representatives
Low Country foodie fix at Georgia Brown’s, the parking is a bear there at lunchtime
B. Smith’s at Union Station (I’m in LOVE with the architecture there and the coffered ceiling). Known for its southern hospitality and rich cuisine, B. Smith’s served up everything on my wish list – sweet tea, fried green tomatoes, cornbread muffins, biscuits, catfish fingers, and sweet potato pie.
Occidental Grill in the Willard Intercontinental Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue just west of the White House. This is the hotel where the term “lobbyist” was coined and the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., stayed while in town to give one of his most memorable speeches ever. For an authentic mint julep made according to Henry Clay’s own recipe, visit the hotel’s Round Robin Bar.
Dining Outside DC
Bethesda (Red Line stop on the Metro)
Shanghai Village, Bethesda, MD – veggie dumplings, Peking duck, filet with scallops, string beans.
Manoli Canoli, Chevy Chase, MD – pizza!
Tia Queta, Bethesda, MD – enchiladas verdes and crepas
Urban BBQ (beef brisket, pulled chicken, grilled corn on the cob, cornbread, mashed potatoes with gravy, French fries, apple crumble, and key lime pie)
Harris Crab House, Kent Narrows, MD – crab cake!
City Grille in Manassas, Virginia
Little Italy, Baltimore, MD
Bethesda Crab House, Bethesda, MD – steamed Maryland blue crab encrusted with Old Bay and served on yesterday’s Washington Post
Chick & Ruth’s Delly, Annapolis, MD
Part two focuses on a seven-day itinerary that breaks down attractions by locality and includes a day trip or two. But in general, I highly recommend Mount Vernon for a day trip and Colonial Williamsburg for an overnight getaway (it’s a bit of a drive for one day unless you hire a driver).
Food to Pack & Bring Back
My advice to visitors is to take METRO which is easy, clean, and fast for getting around the greater Washington DC area. Just remember that you need your pre-paid METRO card to enter and exit and DO NOT EAT OR DRINK in a METRO train. This is punishable by fine or arrest as we learned from Fawn Hall’s mistake in 1987. In fact, from what I can tell the WMATA police have their own set of rules so just because something is legal doesn’t mean they won’t fuss at you about it so when in doubt, don’t do it on METRO.
Navigating DC Streets
Washington, D.C. is defined by four quadrants: NW, NE, SW, SE. Northwest is where you will probably spend your time. This section of D.C. is comprised of many neighborhoods, each with its own charm and personality. SW is small since it was the part of DC taken back by Virginia way back when.
Some find the streets confusing, but if you know the rules you will always know exactly where you are just by looking at the nearest intersection’s street signs (just remember that the quadrants are key).
- The Capitol Building is the center of everything. All streets and addresses are numbered based on their location from the Capitol. A building’s street address signifies its distance from the Capitol in the direction of the street (north-south or east-west).
- All North-South Streets are numbered (First Street, Second Street, 17th Street, and so on)
- All East-West Streets are alphabetical. There are three alphabets (none include X, Y, Z). Starting closest to the Capitol, the first alphabet streets start with “A Street” this follows the alphabet as you go away from the Capitol with one exception, there is no J in this alphabet and “I Street” can sometimes be referred to as “Eye Street” and the same sometimes goes for “Q Street” or “U Street”. The second alphabet is two-syllable words (example: “Calvert Street”). The fourth alphabet is three-syllable words (example: “Brandywine Street”). There are some other tree names used as a fourth alphabet, but only in part of NW as it approaches Maryland. Non-Street names do not follow this, so beware Place names.
- State names are Avenues and run diagonally, intersecting with Avenues & Streets at traffic circles.
- An address can give you all the information you need to find a location in the District. If you in the 5400-block of Wisconsin Avenue of Chevy Chase, Maryland (the numbering carries over to Bethesda and Chevy Chase) and want to go to 3600 Connecticut Avenue
Getting to DC
Washington, DC is served by three airports. Reagan National Airport (DCA) is about 20 minutes from downtown, Dulles International Airport (IAD) is 45 minutes from downtown, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) is about 1 hour from downtown. They each are serviced by the major commercial airlines and fares are competitive. You have many choices to get from each airport depending on your time and budget. Taxis are the quickest. Downtown Washington is Metro (our subway) accessible from Reagan National Airport. The Washington Flyer Coach service operates between Dullles International Airport and the West Falls Church Metro station. For information, contact: 1-888-WashFly. Express Metro Bus #B30 departs operates between BWI Airport and the Greenbelt Metro station (departs the main BWI terminal Lower Level, Pier East). For more information, contact: 202-637-7000. Check to make sure this information is accurate at your time of travel as times, options, or routes may change.
A Very Long List of Free Things to Do in Washington DC
I have had this list for about 15-20 years (I can’t remember where it came from) and we’ve added to it as we encounter something new.
Research your genealogy at the National Archives
Be dazzled by the 45.5 carat Hope Diamond
Be mesmerized by Shakespeare in The Park
Enjoy lunchtime concerts on Freedom Plaza
Browse nostalgic Eastern Market
Visit the National Museum of Health & Medicine
Visit your Congressperson on Capitol Hill
Have fun in-line skating through Rock Creek Park
Watch ongoing chess matches in Dupont Circle
Jog on the National Mall
Smell the flavors of culturally diverse Adams Morgan
Frolic on the National Mall
Marvel at Japanese ceramics at the Sackler Gallery
Tour the White House
Enjoy free concerts along the C&O Canal
Ride a bike along the C&O Canal
Roam the many antique stores of Washington, DC
Play Frisbee on the National Mall
Visit Ford’s Theater, site of Lincoln’s assassination
Bicycle along the Potomac River
Browse the stores of the beaux-arts Union Station
Feed the ducks at Constitution Park
Enjoy the Military Band Summer Concert Series
Window shop in historic Georgetown
Take a picture in front of the US Capitol with a friend
Walk in DC’s historic neighborhoods
Enjoy free daily performances at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage
Visit the Corcoran Museum of Art on Sundays and participate in free family programs
See the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner”
Be moved by the Hall of Remembrance at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
The buck starts here… See money being printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing
See the original Declaration of Independence at the National Archives
See Dorothy’s ruby slippers at the Museum of American History
Visit the Decatur House Museum for free on the first Tuesday of each month
Explore thousands of aquatic plants at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Experience Steward Johnson’s “Awakening” at Haines Point
Picnic at Haines Point and watch airplanes land over the Potomac
Explore Washington’s literary life at its many bookstores and reading rooms
Read excerpts from the Declaration of Independence on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial
Watch a polo match, baseball, kickball, soccer, rugby or volleyball game on the National Mall
Read inscriptions of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address at the Lincoln Memorial
Stroll beneath free-swinging orangutans at the National Zoo
Explore the Asian art collection at the Freer Gallery of Art
Be fascinated by ancient and modern African art at the African Art Museum
Attend mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Tour the US Capitol and behold the magnificent Rotunda
Be flown away at the world’s most visited museum, the Air & Space Museum
Compete in the monthly 3K race at the Tidal Basin
Peer through a working periscope at the Navy Museum
Observe the live Insect Zoo at the Natural History Museum
Pose for a picture at the Albert Einstein statue (Constitution Avenue around 22ndStreet NW)
Visit the Castle that houses the crypt of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian
Take the production tour at The Washington Post newspaper
See the Marine Corp perform drills with pageantry
Tour the museum of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution
Count the many statues and monuments of Washington, DC
Visit the luxurious Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art
See masterworks of Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Art
Take a picture at the Capitol Columns at the National Arboretum
Now read Part Two.