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.
The second day is when Washington really begins to show its variety. We’re going to break our suggestions down for three broad kinds of groups: families, those interested in history and politics, and those who’d rather engage in people-watching, shopping and culture. Feel free to pick and choose from our suggestions, though -- there’s no reason thirtysomethings can’t hit the Zoo.
Families: The National Zoo is the must-do. It’s open early, when animals are at their most active, and the kids will have a more memorable visit if they can watch the pandas eating or playing instead of sleeping, as they are prone to do for much of the day. Other kid-pleasers include Kandula, the young elephant; tiger and cheetah cubs; Amazonia, a walk-through rainforest; and the children’s farm, with its cows, donkeys and goats.
After lunch -- we like Open City, a modern diner in Woodley Park, more than what’s on offer at the Zoo -- consider heading back to the Smithsonian, where children can check out exhibits they may have skipped the day before. Another idea is the National Cathedral, located a short bus ride away from Woodley Park. (You can catch the 96 Metrobus outside Open City, along with the private sightseeing buses.) It’s the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and half-hour tours are offered daily. Kids will love looking at the gargoyles and running around in the Bishop’s Garden.
For dinner near the Cathedral, the popular 2 Amys is a favorite of adults for its Neopolitan-style pizza, but it is also usually packed with neighborhood children.
History Buffs: Washington’s history is intertwined with America’s. As the home of government, there is no shortage of sites to visit.
The resting place of John F. Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, two Challenger astronauts and several unknown service members, Arlington National Cemetery is one of the most hallowed sites in America. The grounds were formally part of Arlington House, the home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. That mansion is open to the public.
Besides the Smithsonian, there are a number of history-related museums in town. The International Spy Museum traces the story of spycraft from Moses through the Cold War. The Woodrow Wilson House gives an insider’s look at the 28th president’s post-White House life. Near the Mall, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells the story of the persecution of Jews, homosexuals and other groups by the Nazis.
Civil War buffs can take our tour of Washington’s extant Civil War sites. If you have a car, consider a drive out to Manassas Battlefield Park, west of Washington, which was the site of the first major battle of the Civil War in 1861, and an encore the following year.
Time for dinner. In Georgetown, Martin’s Tavern is a 1930s saloon that was frequented by John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, House Speaker Sam Rayburn and convicted Soviet spy Elizabeth Bentley, and still visited by political figures today. Every president since Harry S Truman has visited Martin’s, making it a required stop on the campaign trail. Paintings in the dining room came from the estate of President James Monroe. The kitchen’s Delmonico steak remains a crowd-pleaser. After dinner, consider a trip to Blues Alley, the intimate brick-walled jazz club that has welcomed Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis and a long list of bold-face names.
Culture Vultures: Start the day off right at Eastern Market, the historic farmer’s market full of butchers, florists and vendors selling fruit and vegetables. The venerable Market Lunch makes the best blueberry pancakes around -- order the “blue buck,” or buckwheat blueberry pancakes. On weekends, a bustling flea market and produce vendors fill the neighborhood.
Then it’s off to Georgetown, Washington’s best-known shopping district, where little boutiques line Wisconsin Avenue, alongside big names like Barney’s Co-Op, Zara, H&M and Intermix. (Walk over to Union Station and grab the cross-town Circulator bus, which will drop you at the corner of Wisconsin and M, which is the heart of the neighborhood.) Spend some time wandering the side streets before making a pit stop. In warm weather, the waterfront bars lining Georgetown’s Washington Harbour provide some of the best people-watching in the city, thanks to legions of well-dressed singles on the prowl -- some of whom tie up their boats at the dock before heading to Sequoia for a beer on the patio. If you’re looking for bold-faced names, the place to go is Cafe Milano, an expensive restaurant where regular Placido Domingo is honored with a 15-foot mural. Martini lovers can head for the Bourbon Steak restaurant and bar in the tony Four Seasons hotel, where celebrity spottings -- including Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey -- are a regular feature, and the cocktails are some of the finest in town.
Just across Rock Creek Park is Dupont Circle, a vibrant neighborhood that is the center of Washington’s large gay community; a popular nightlife destination with lounges and bars and clubs catering to all stripes; home to many embassies and the city’s diplomatic community; and filled with small galleries and the newly expanded Phillips Collection, America’s first modern art museum.
The Phillips is known for its huge French Impressionist collection, which includes Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Admission to the permanent collection is free on weekdays. A short walk away, 14th Street has become an exciting corridor of independent galleries, mostly located within a block or two of the intersection with P Street. The Transformer Gallery, Irvine Contemporary, Hemphill Fine Arts and the Adamson Gallery are all worth a visit, and the latter two share a building at 1515 14th St.
To get to Dupont from Georgetown, you can catch the handy Circulator shuttle bus on M Street. Just make sure it’s going to Dupont Circle instead of Union Station.
Dinner is easy to come by, thanks to a long list of restaurants. Pizzeria Paradiso attracts long lines for its well-made pies, topped with an array of fresh ingredients, and one of the city’s better (small) beer bars. While the Palm is pricey, the steakhouse is always filled with famous-for-Washington politicians, reporters and talking heads, and the aged New York strip wins plaudits, too. And possibly no restaurant in the neighborhood feels quite as lively as Bistrot du Coin, a buzzing French restaurant with good steak frites, a long wine list and service that some readers describe as “typically French” -- i.e. hit-or-miss -- but it’s worth it just for checking out the variety of French and Francophile patrons who stroll into the bar.
For after-dinner drinks, Dupont Circle can suit any taste. ChurchKey (back near the galleries on 14th Street) offers 50 draft beers and 500 more in bottles, plus five traditional cask-conditioned ales. The popular Veritas wine bar has dozens of choices by the glass. And Russia House lives up to its name with a staggering selection of imported vodkas, which can be served in cocktails or straight up as chilled shots. (Look for Eastern European diplomats and members of the Washington Capitals hockey team enjoying a night out.)
In terms of sheer buzz, no neighborhood of nightspots comes close to the revived H Street NE corridor, dubbed the Atlas District after the restored Atlas Theatre. Destroyed in the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination, this once-popular shopping and dining area started attracting hip bars and restaurants five or six years ago, and now it seems a new one opens ever few weeks. The vibe is more Williamsburg (Brooklyn) than Capitol Hill -- look for edgy dives, laidback neighborhood hangouts, a bar with its own nine-hole indoor mini-golf course, an enormous German beer garden, clubs offering a mix of DJs, live rock or burlesque shows, and pubs that range from traditional English to Irish-with-a-Jewish-deli. (One word of caution: Parts of the neighborhood can still be sketchy, especially late at night, if you venture off the main drag. )