Washington, D.C., is known as the Capital of the Free World, and tourists come from across the country and around the globe to see the White House, Capitol and other symbols of freedom. But there’s far more to Washington than marble edifices. We have a huge network of free museums, expansive outdoor spaces, some of the best restaurants in America and lively late-night clubs. There’s a lot to see and do in our area -- it could take a lifetime to experience everything there is to offer. But if you give us three days, we can help you make the most of them.
No visit to Washington would be complete with a trip to the National Mall, the broad, (somewhat) grassy expanse of lawn that runs from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.
Start at the Capitol, where 45-minute tours are available from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The earlier you go, the shorter the wait will be. After your tour, it’s time for the truly difficult decision: Choosing which one of the Smithsonian Institution museums you want to visit. There are 15 altogether, with objects ranging from the Hope Diamond (inside the Natural History Museum) to the Wright Brothers’ Flyer (Air and Space Museum) to paintings by Andy Warhol (Hirshhorn Museum). Trying to take in all the highlights is too much for one vacation, so it’s better to choose one or two areas of interest and focus on those museums. Also near the Mall -- but not part of the Smithsonian -- are the National Gallery of Art, the largest art museum in Washington and home to many major exhibits, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
No matter what you choose to do, we’re going to suggest having lunch at the Mitsitam Cafe inside the National Museum of the American Indian. The selection of Native American foods ranges from buffalo burgers to chicken tamales and is easily the best thing on the Mall.
After lunch, take in fantastic views of the city from the top of the Old Post Office. It’s the best view of the city from on high while the Washington Monument undergoes repairs for damage caused by a 2011 earthquake.
Now that you’ve seen Washington from a bird’s-eye view, it’s time to check out another of the museums, or perhaps wander through one of the two outdoor sculpture gardens at the Hirshhorn or National Gallery. (The latter is a destination for all seasons, with live jazz in warmer months and ice skating in the winter.)
Time for dinner. If you have a favorite cuisine, check out Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema’s annual dining guide and recent reviews. If you find yourself by the Mall or the White House, we recommend the historic Occidental, which had a complete makeover a few years ago. With kids, we like the nearby Chef Geoff’s.
It’s worth noting that Washington is said to have the largest Ethiopian population outside of that country, and we have a plethora of good Ethiopian restaurants that make for an interesting dining experience. Ethiopic, Dukem and Etete are generally considered to be the best.
Ready to walk off some of those calories? Daytime isn’t necessarily the best time to see the monuments at the western end of the Mall. The World War II Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial are all open 24 hours a day, and much more dramatic in the dark. The FDR Memorial’s rushing water and outdoor “rooms” especially lend itself to after-hours exploration. One note about safety: The Mall and the Tidal Basin aren’t well lit at night, but all the memorials have nearby parking and park rangers on duty until 11:30 p.m.
Those who want to explore Washington’s nightlife should head for U Street, which has replaced Adams Morgan as the capital of late-night entertainment. Take your pick from the no-fills U Street Music Hall, which books cutting edge DJs, great cocktails at the speakeasy-style Gibson, thumping reggae at Patty Boom Boom, the lively rooftop decks at Marvin, Nellie’s Sports Bar and Local 16, the homey hip-hop bar Lounge of III or the more low-key DJs-and-beers scene at Dodge City.
U Street was known as Black Broadway in the 1920s and ‘30s when hometown boy Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie played clubs and concert halls on the strip. The neighborhood is still the city’s live music capital: touring jazz musicians and local unknowns play at Bohemian Caverns, Twins Jazz and U-topia on a regular basis. Popular rock bands perform at the indie-minded Black Cat, and the larger 9:30 Club, which tops any list of the area’s best live music venues, while you’ll find up-and-comers performing at DC9 and the Velvet Lounge.
It has become a rite of passage for tourists to stop for a late-night chili-cheese half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl, which has welcomed Martin Luther King Jr., Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, Miles Davis and Nat “King” Cole since opening in 1958. (The Obamas were more recent visitors.)
Those looking for a more laidback scene should try one of the traditional grand hotel bars. The Round Robin Bar at the Willard and the Hay-Adams’s Off the Record are old-school hideaways with fantastic bartenders and strong martinis.