by John Ellis
My Local’s Guide to DC was a long attempt to help tourists who want the stereotypical DC vacation. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The many sights and things to do that are highlighted in the previous post are truly wonderful and have the ability to help create an incredible family vacation. However, DC is a really large city with a lot of stuff to do that many tourists aren’t even aware exists; or, if they are aware, overlook. This post is my attempt to help those DC tourists who desire to see the DC that’s not on the beaten path, so to speak. Of course, with a city like DC, it is impossible for me to list everything. Not to mention the fact that there are many things in DC that I have yet to explore and enjoy myself.
In the following list, you’ll find a variety of things to do and see in the DC area. Not all of them are off the beaten path or even unknown, but all of them are hidden gems in their own right. In a city like DC that has so much to offer, it’s easy for sites to become overshadowed by the many iconic things to see and do. If you’ve been to DC before and are looking for new things to experience; or, if you are wanting to sprinkle in some less-touristy things among your visits to the Monuments, Smithsonian Museums, and famous government buildings, the following list is for you.
(note: I was going to include links, but that would’ve been a lot of links. I’ll simply trust that you know how to use Google.)
The National Arboretum:
On the day my family and I first visited the National Arboretum, I was hoping that my wife would say that she wasn’t interested. I had only suggested going because it was an item to check off our “things to do in DC” list. Even though none of us, including our kids, were thrilled about going; we went. And the National Arboretum has turned out to be one of our favorite places in DC. The bonsai exhibit is incredible, and the working children’s farm is fun. Take a picnic lunch, and eat in the shade of your state tree.
Georgetown is chock full of things to do, see, and eat. Some of the highlights that you don’t want to miss include the staircase used in the movie The Exorcist, Georgetown Waterfront Park, the Old Stone House (the oldest standing house in DC), and the remains of the old Chesapeake and Ohio Canal – some of the old wooden locks are still there. Plus, there are many boutique shops and local restaurants in Georgetown.
Almost directly across the river from Mount Vernon, Fort Washington is, without question, one of my favorite early American forts. It is well-preserved and the surrounding area is beautiful.
Located primarily on Massachusetts Avenue, Embassy Row is exactly what the name implies – beautiful mansions that are now foreign embassies. Check the embassies’ websites for events. For example, the French Embassy frequently hosts movie nights that are free and open to the public. You do have to reserve a spot, though. Many of the embassies have museums or memorials dedicated to their native land. If you’re lucky enough to be in DC in May, make sure to participate in Passport Day. This year, the event is held on May 7.
National Building Museum:
Often overlooked because it’s not a Smithsonian, the National Building Museum is a favorite of locals. Since it’s not a Smithsonian, there is a nominal entrance fee. (edit – I do not believe the National Building Museum is worth the ticket price. Many other locals disagree with me, though.)
National Guard Museum:
Right across the street from the Postal Museum sits the National Guard Museum. It’s free, interesting, and not very crowded. After your finished, enjoy a Guinness Burger at the Dubliner across the road. You’ll never want to leave DC after tasting it.
From great local bands to national touring acts, DC has a great music scene. It is a rare night that you won’t be able to find a band that interests you playing somewhere in the area. It would be impractical to attempt to list, much less describe, all of the excellent music venues in DC; I recommend starting with the famed 9:30 Club. The venue attracts nationally known acts, but is small enough to feel intimate. Other venues to check out: The Birchmere, The Hamilton, Jammin Java, Gypsy Sally’s, Bohemian Caverns, Iota, Blues Alley, and Madam’s Organ.
Claude Moore Colonial Farm:
The Claude Moore Colonial Farm is truly a hidden DC gem. Open from April until mid-December, the Claude Moore Colonial Farm is a working, living history farm. My family had a blast while visiting it, and it’s high on our “to do again” list. At various times throughout the year, the farm holds a market to sell its produce. Personal note – I hope that when my kids are teenagers, they will want to work here. It looks like a fun place to work.
Theodore Roosevelt Island:
Located in the Potomac River in the shadow of Rosslyn (Arlington, for non-locals), Roosevelt Island is only accessible on foot. While walking around the island, you’ll forget that you’re in the middle of a city, and begin to believe that you’re in a remote swampy woods (minus the planes flying overhead to and from Reagan National Airport every sixty seconds). In the middle of the park is a memorial to President Roosevelt.
Jazz in the Sculpture Garden:
During the summer, there is a free jazz concert in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. For the concert, there is basically a giant bbq set up in the garden, and you can buy hamburgers and other food to enjoy while you listen to the concert. Get there early; it’s a favorite event for locals and it fills up.
Manassas Battlefield is well outside of the Beltway, but it’s worth the drive. As my friend Tyler texted me, “There is a fantastic winery right near the battlefield which has tons of artifacts. You could kick up your feet, drink wine, and learn about DC history all in one.” How is that not a win-win? History and wine.
Speaking of well outside the Beltway, while in DC, take a day to drive up to Dover, Delaware. It’s not quite a two hour drive, and if you’re a history buff, it’s well worth the drive. Besides, you were considering driving to Gettysburg; Dover isn’t that much farther away. Plus, you get to find out for yourself that Delaware does indeed exist. While in town, make sure to visit the Phonograph Museum – one of the most surprisingly interesting museums I’ve ever toured. Of course, downtown Dover contains many historical buildings and landmarks. As a bonus, it’s near the Delaware beaches.
Great Falls Park:
If you enjoy hiking, Great Falls Park is for you. If you enjoy kayaking over waterfalls, Great Falls Park is for you.
The DEA Museum:
I’m not sure if many people are even aware that the DEA Museum exists. Located in Arlington, the museum tells the story of drug enforcement in this country. And it’s free. Potheads may want to skip this one. Or, better, they should clean themselves up and go learn something.
Secret Metro Tunnels:
Many of you are wondering, how in the world did secret metro tunnels not land at the top of this list? Well, because this list isn’t in order. But I understand your point. After the old trolley system was shut down in the early 60s, the tunnels were blocked off and forgotten about by everyone except the homeless and the unsavory. The tunnels, specifically the ones under Dupont Circle, are being renovated and turned into green spaces, art galleries, and food courts. The renovations are not complete, but you can still tour the tunnels.
Boating on the Potomac:
And by boating, I mean paddle boarding, kayaking, and paddle boating. Or, you can go the expensive, leisurely route and do one of the many boat tours of the Potomac. There is even a pirate themed boat tour. I have yet to kayak the river (my wife really want to do it), but I have several friends who have. It’s not too expensive, and it’s a great way (apparently) to spend the afternoon.
O Street Museum:
This quirky museum dedicated to the creative process is located on O Street (where else) in the Dupont Circle area. FYI – you may not want to take your kids to this museum. While in Dupont Circle, eat at one of the many ethnic restaurants in the area.
Everyone knows about Arlington National Cemetery (and for good reason), but few people are aware that a few blocks from the US Capitol is an even older cemetery. Free tours are offered on Saturdays, but you are welcome to visit and peruse other times.
If you have kids who love airplanes (or if you love airplanes) hang out at Gravely Point one evening with a picnic dinner, and watch the planes landing and taking off from Ronald Reagan National Airport.
Rock Creek Park:
A large-ish National Park located in the heart of DC, Rock Creek Park is a great place to hike, unwind, and enjoy nature. Besides nature, the park contains many points of archeological and historical interest. The park is also home to the Rock Creek Park Horse Center – you can tour the park on horseback if you desire.
President Lincoln’s Cottage:
Lincoln’s summer home is open to the public, for a small entrance fee, of course.
Military Band Concerts:
In my previous post, I briefly mentioned the free concerts throughout the week provided by the various military bands. For this post, I want to highlight three: Every Tuesday evening during the summer, the Marine Band plays a free concert at the Marine Memorial (more commonly known as the Iwo Jima Memorial). On Fridays, the Air Force Band plays a free concert at the Air Force Memorial. Towards the end of the summer, the US Army Band plays its “1812 Overture” Concert. We’ve had the privilege of seeing it twice – once at Fort Myer and the following year at the base of the Washington Monument. The concert on Fort Myer was great; the concert at the base of the Washington Monument is one of my favorite music experiences of all time. At the end of the final song (“1812 Overture”), actual cannons are fired. A spectacular experience. If you’re in town during that concert, make it a priority.
DC Restaurant Scene:
Please do yourself a favor and do not drive (or fly) all the way to Washington D.C. and then eat at The Cheesecake Factory. DC has a great food scene, and you should take advantage of that when you’re here. I’m going to list some of my family’s favorite local eateries, but I encourage you to ask for restaurant recommendations from the locals when you get here (I’m only going to list restaurants in Arlington or near Arlington in Northern Va. You can find a plethora of restaurant recommendations for inside the district). Not too far outside of DC you’ll find some of the best Korean bbq ribs you’ll ever eat – Lighthouse Tofu in Annandale, VA. In Clarendon (a stop on the Metro orange line in Arlington), our family loves Ambar, a Balkan restaurant that has delicious food and fun service, make sure to do the “Balkan experience” – an all-you-can-eat-off-the-menu steal at only $35 a person; just around the corner from Ambar, Faccia Luna is our favorite pizza restaurant – if you prefer NY style pizza, try the Italian Store in the Westover neighborhood of Arlington; last, but not least in Clarendon, is Citizen Burger, which has delicious burgers and an extensive beer list. Outside of our neighborhood in the Columbia Pike area is our favorite burrito restaurant – Pedro and Vinnies. P and V is what Chipotle wants to be, but is not. Along Columbia Pike, Bob and Edith’s Diner is like a Waffle House if Waffle House served food that was edible. Also in Arlington, Lost Dog Café is a local favorite with an almost overwhelming selection of sandwiches and beer. Pro tip – if you do make it to Lost Dog, stay away from the pasta. Sadly, our favorite Mediterranean restaurant in Arlington recently altered their menu and it is no longer our favorite. We’re still looking for a new Mediterranean restaurant to replace it with. El Ranchero Bar & Grill is not your local Tex-Mex restaurant, but the food is delicious and it’s not too expensive. As far as bbq, Rockland’s BBQ and Texas Jack’s are both very good. Rockland’s is less expensive than Texas Jack’s, but also the lesser of the two as far as the food goes. James Beard Award winning chef Peter Chang has a delicious Chinese restaurant bearing his name in Arlington. If you want cheap yet delicious, Arlington (and the entire DMV) is dotted with Peruvian chicken restaurants. Lastly, BonChon, which, in the issue of full-disclosure, is a national chain, has very addictive double-fried Korean chicken. If you go to the BonChon on Pershing Drive, tell them I sent you and you’re liable to receive some free appetizers.
While in DC, you will discover many more things that aren’t on this list. That’s one of the great things about this city. Everywhere you turn, there is something interesting to see and do. Even those of us who live here find it impossible to keep up with the amount of cool things at our disposal. This is why we love living here, and why you love visiting DC.