During the summer, the world is your table — and dining alfresco means spreading a blanket over the plush green grass and producing a buffet of delicacies from your charming wicker basket. (Or pulling premade sandwiches out of a plastic bag, and commandeering the best-shaded picnic table from those kids who just ran off to chase a Frisbee.)
Here are six spots throughout the region where you can partake in picnic season, including a hidden gem along the C&O Canal and a fairy-tale like garden tucked away in the city.
There are a few designated picnic spots at the colorful, sprawling National Arboretum, a 446-acre property in Northeast Washington that feels like the District’s answer to Central Park. Head to the shaded tables that are just a short walk from the National Capitol Columns — wandering around is encouraged, but there’s a parking lot next to the picnic area for quick access, too. There are also a few tables behind the Arbor House, says Scott Aker, head of horticulture and education. Another set of tables is expected to return to the Visitor Center area this summer.
Aker notes that guests can’t barbecue or bring alcohol, and there’s no way to reserve space in advance. Also, trash and recycling receptacles are limited at the arboretum, so plan in advance to take your trash with you. After feasting, spread a blanket underneath, say, a pink dogwood tree for a post-lunch nap or explore park attractions like the kid-friendly Washington Youth Garden and luscious Fern Valley. Open daily. 3501 New York Ave. NE. Free.
You want to picnic, but you don’t want to prepare a picnic. Make-it-easy crowd, this one’s for you. While you’re welcome to bring your own food and (nonalcoholic) drinks to Hillwood Estate in Northwest Wahington, adjacent to Rock Creek Park, you can also borrow a blanket from the visitor’s center and take advantage of the on-site Merriweather Café’s to-go options: a chicken Caesar wrap for $8.50, for example, or a Mediterranean tuna salad for $9 that you can enjoy anywhere on the property. Same goes for the cafe’s selections of beer, wine and the particularly popular frosé, says Lynn Rossotti, director of visitor experience. “You can get everything you need when you arrive, and then just find a beautiful spot to settle in,” she says.
Heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post bought Hillwood in 1955 and spent years renovating both the mansion and grounds in an “exquisite, pristine” way that she hoped people would be able to enjoy for generations. The result is 13 acres of formal gardens, including a colorful, shaded lunar lawn, a Japanese-style garden and a whimsical French parterre. “The gardens are really beautiful year-round,” Rossotti says. “Eat on the expansive lunar lawn, or a find a secret, tucked-away spot that’s more quiet. It’s a beautiful oasis right here in D.C.” Closed Monday. 4155 Linnean Ave NW. Suggested donation $18 for adults.
If you like your turkey sandwich with a side of striking view, head to this sprawling park in Rosslyn that’s adjacent to the Marine Corps War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. The Netherlands Carillon — gifted to the United States by the Dutch in 1954 — stands 127 feet high and is adorned with 50 ringing bells. There are concerts with festive, live music from 6 to 8 p.m. every Saturday through Aug. 31 — upcoming acts include organist Gijsbert Kok on July 20 and carillonneur Doug Gefvert on July 27.
The grassy area that surrounds it offers a panoramic view of the city’s greatest hits: the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the curved top of the Jefferson Memorial. In the evening, a glowing mass of lights alerts visitors that the Nationals are in town and the stadium is occupied.
There aren’t any picnic tables at the park, so bring a nice blanket (and plan to carry out your trash): On a recent Saturday afternoon, a family had abandoned their setup for a game of Frisbee; a solo sunbather stretched luxuriously, reading a book. And a party of four was surrounded by twice as many coolers, clearly well-prepared for their scenic, grassy feast. Open daily. North Meade Street, Arlington. Free.
You hear the pigs before you see them. On a recent 80-degree Sunday afternoon, snorts and grunts led the way to the picnic area at Piscataway Park’s National Colonial Farm, home to dozens of rare breeds of livestock, such as hog island sheep. A handful of shaded picnic tables are arranged in the midst of the fenced-in fields, offering the chance to dine in the esteemed company of massive pigs lolling in the mud, dozens of sheep, vocally talented roosters and even a few escaped piglets.
Piscataway, part of the National Park Service, feels like a rural retreat: It’s silent, save for the chatty animals, and you won’t have any trouble snagging one of the picnic tables. In addition to the few in the farm area, there are tables next to the visitor’s center and by the ruins of Marshall Hall, a mid-1700s mansion. (Leave your alcohol at home and bring fully prepared food — this isn’t a fancy grilling destination.)
The park is across the river from Mount Vernon but far less crowded; savor the striking view of George Washington’s homestead from one of the docks, and then explore Piscataway’s hiking trails. Open daily (National Colonial Farm is closed on Monday). 3400 Bryan Point Rd, Accokeek, Md. Free.
Hop off Canal Road onto a one-lane road that curves through an 1800s stone tunnel, underneath the C&O Canal. Roll down the windows and listen for the babbling brook. Emerge from the tunnel, and there’s a secluded park and patch of the Potomac River that feels like it’s all yours.
Though it’s only a couple miles from bustling Georgetown, Fletcher’s Cove — located at mile 3.1 on the towpath — might as well be in a sparsely populated part of, oh, West Virginia. There are a dozen picnic tables scattered across the river banks, mostly shaded by large, thick trees. On a recent weekday evening, only one was occupied by a grilling couple. (There’s a charcoal grill at nearly every table.)
Plan to spend the day: Fletcher’s Boathouse rents kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, rowboats and hydro bikes. And if you didn’t pack enough food, there’s a snack bar with the usual fare (an orange Creamsicle for $2.50; a hot dog for $2.75). Open daily. 4940 Canal Rd. NW. Free.
Around 100 years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the famous landscape architect, designed the gardens that would light up the 59 acres surrounding Washington National Cathedral. The most rigorously cultivated is tranquil Bishop’s Garden. “It’s a really special, unique place, designed within the model of a medieval garden, so there are aspects that have been incorporated from some of the great cathedrals and estates of Europe,” says Carrie Tydings, a member of All Hallows Guild, the group responsible for maintaining the Cathedral’s gardens and grounds. “And of course there’s a wide variety of plants, flowers, shrubbery and wonderful old trees,” like the plentiful pink and red roses.
While outdoor dining is permitted, follow the golden rules of picnicking closely here: Treat the area with care and respect, and take out what you bring in. Tydings recommends exploring Bishop’s Garden’s nooks and crannies for one that most appeals: “There are little tucked away places where you can escape, if you want some R&R or time to clear your mind,” she says. Or spread a blanket on the large, grassy space that’s behind the Episcopal Church House, and then take a walk through the five-acre Olmsted Woods. Open daily. 3101 Wisconsin Ave NW. Free.