This year, I resolve to …
… expand my cultural horizons.
Take in an exhibit at a foreign embassy
It’s easier than you think to peek inside the grand buildings of diplomatic missions: Many of them have free art galleries and cultural centers that you can see during the embassies’ regular business hours. For example, the Mexican Cultural Institute (2829 16th St. NW, right) is currently featuring “Delimitations,” an exhibit of photos of the original, 1821 U.S.-Mexico border (on display through Jan. 28). Meanwhile, the Embassy of Australia (1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW) is showcasing works by aboriginal artists (through Feb. 7), and the Embassy of Japan is celebrating the Year of the Rooster with an exhibit of dolls, cards and paintings (through Jan. 31) at its cultural center (1150 18th St. NW).
Make sense of modern art
If contemporary art — the kind where everyday objects are just plopped on pedestals — leaves you puzzled or vaguely annoyed, an hour-long lecture at the Hirshhorn (Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW) might change your mind. Every Friday at 12:30 p.m., curators and other experts, including scientists and musicians, give their unique takes on current exhibitions and entertain questions, including, “How’s this Jackson Pollock different from what my kids do?”
Go to a random Millennium Stage performance
Every day at 6 p.m., the Kennedy Center (2700 F St. NW) puts on a free performance. The genres range widely — you might see a rising-star stand-up comedian, an avant-garde play or a band that sells out stadiums in Portugal but is practically unknown here. The day’s performance may not be exactly your taste, but who cares? It’s free, and the surprise is half the fun.
… get outside more.
Looking for birds is a lot like Pokémon Go, but without the drain on your cellphone battery. Walk with the expert birders of the DC Audubon Society and you’re likely to see all sorts of feathered creatures, perhaps even the District’s famous bald eagles. (And here you thought the only wildlife in the city were pidgeys and rattatas.) Their next outing is set for Jan. 28 at Fletcher’s Cove (4940 Canal Road NW, 8 a.m., free).
Be one with the trees
Thanks to its temperate clime and international citizenry, D.C. is home to about 350 species of trees from around the world, and naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley is friends with them all. Go on a tour with her in the woods or around D.C.’s urban canopy and you’ll become acquainted with natural wonders like the living fossil we call the Gingko tree, or the cinnamon-colored bark of the crepe myrtle. On March 4, she’ll lead a free tree tour of the Capitol grounds (10 a.m.-1 p.m., preregistration required).
Ice-skate on the C&O Canal
Yes, it’s possible. And yes, it’s legal. All you need is a pair of ice skates and a few days of bone-chilling temperatures to freeze at least 4 inches at the top of the canal’s slow-moving water. How to know if it’s safe to go? For starters, skating is allowed everywhere except for sections where the water is wide, so stay away from the area between mile markers 12.6 and 13.4, aka between Great Falls and the Billy Goat A trail. Look for other people — ideally who are heavier than you — skating on the canal, and proceed with caution.
… support local arts.
Laugh at an Underground Comedy show
With a lineup of eight free shows held weekly, Underground Comedy has become Washington’s laugh leader. Veteran D.C. comedian Sean Joyce is the man behind the laughter, booking and promoting the stand-up showcases (and often performing, too). Each show, at bars like The Big Hunt (1345 Connecticut Ave. NW; Wednesdays & Thursdays, 8 p.m., Fridays & Saturdays, 11:30 p.m., free) and The Wonderland Ballroom (1101 Kenyon St. NW; Sundays, 8 p.m., free), features some of D.C.’s best rising comics. It’s also getting popular: Kevin Hart recently featured Underground Comedy on his Comedy Central stand-up series “Hart of the City.”
See a performance at GALA Hispanic Theatre
For four decades, GALA Hispanic Theater (3333 14th St. NW) has been staging a mix of classic and modern plays in Spanish and English, along with a range of dance, music and spoken-word performances. Originally birthed out of D.C.’s Back Alley Theater in the ’70s, Gala moved to its permanent home in Columbia Heights in 2005. Now a national home to Latino arts, GALA is in the midst of a strong season that includes the upcoming U.S. premieres of “Yo tambien hablo de la rosa (I Too Speak of the Rose)” (Feb. 2-26) and the Spanish version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” (April 20-May 21), both of which offer English surtitles.
Catch a backroom concert
While Gypsy Sally’s in Georgetown and The Hamilton downtown routinely host established and up-and-coming bands in their main spaces, both venues also have smaller rooms that showcase D.C.’s emerging artists for free. At Gypsy Sally’s (3401 K St. NW), the backroom vinyl lounge hosts a rotating roster of local singer-songwriters and acoustic bands on most nights (as well as a Tuesday open mic showcase). The Hamilton (600 14th St. NW), meanwhile, stages free, late-night concerts in the restaurant’s loft space on most Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. Expect to see regional mainstays like the high-energy Electric Peacock Dance Band (Saturday) and the funk and soul band Moonshine Society (Jan. 14 & 27).
… get out of the D.C. dining bubble.
Hunt for rare Italian treats at a family deli
No need to wait a year for chef Nick Stefanelli’s giant Italian market to open at The Wharf — the D.C. area has several homey shops packed with treats. We’d start at the Italian Store (5837 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 3123 Lee Highway, Arlington), a family-run shop that stocks carb-loaded Italian standbys (fresh pasta, sliced meat and cheese, the killer Milano sub sandwich), hard-to-find snacks (traditional taralli, breadsticks that you’d find on the table of any restaurant in Italy) and wild-card giftable items (Baci chocolates or a mysterious Italian mouthwash that comes in a can).
Try some of D.C.’s best Sichuan food — at a hotel
These days, you can say you’ve eaten a D.C. dinner inside a Bedouin tent or on the roof of a Michelin-starred restaurant. But you could also wander right into the side entrance of a quiet Days Inn on New York Avenue to experience a unique meal. Panda Gourmet (2700 New York Ave. NE), attached to the hotel, offers traditional Chinese takeout fare, but half of its menu is dedicated to dishes from the Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces in central China. The dishes featuring a variety of meats and veggies (or frog!) are doused in a fragrant chili oil that’ll leave your lips numb. Cool down with Shaanxi biang biang noodles: chewy flat noodles dressed simply with spices and scallions.
Sample more international dishes — not just street food
Move beyond the current D.C. dining trend of restaurants with “unique takes on international street food” and get fully immersed in some of the cultures those restaurants celebrate. Go somewhere cozy and family-owned, like Fettoosh (5100 Wilson Blvd., Arlington), one of Ballston’s best-kept secrets, which claims a Moroccan dish as its house specialty. Imagine a pot pie that strolled through a cupcake shop and you’ve got bastilla, a stew of savory chicken or vegetables with onion, all wrapped up in crispy, flaky phyllo and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Top off your meal with some mint tea, served from a silver pot, no less.
… see more sides of D.C.
Take a crack at the glass ceiling
The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality Monument (144 Constitution Ave. NE) was home to the National Woman’s Party for nearly 90 years. Here, suffragettes plotted to get women the vote; later, the NWP used the location as a headquarters as its members advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment. You can see artifacts like congressional voting cards listing how members of Congress felt about the 19th Amendment and a nifty pin shaped like a jail door, an example of the ones given to women arrested for picketing the White House.
Get high on information at the DEA Museum
The Drug Enforcement Administration museum (700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington) has more than 2,000 objects dealing with drugs, both legal and illegal. The exhibits include “Illegal Drugs in America: A Modern History,” which examines the legal, moral and criminal effects of drug addiction and trafficking, and “Good Medicine, Bad Behavior,” which takes a look at the current epidemic of prescription drug abuse. They also accept donations of paraphernalia, if you’re looking to get rid of your college-era bong.
Feel like a giant among bonsais
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, part of the U.S. National Arboretum (3501 New York Ave. NE), celebrates itty-bitty trees. The Japanese art form of bonsai and the Chinese art of penjing are all about sculpting the tiny plants into shapes that have deep symbolic meaning. The three pavilions house around 150 plants in a serene, Asian-inspired atmosphere that will Zen you out as only miniature plants can.