Intrigue in Washington is usually the stuff unearthed by special prosecutors or investigative reporters. But we’re more interested in another kind of intrigue — the kind found within objects and places hidden in plain sight. Not at the Smithsonian — that would be too obvious. These are the kind of curiosities that reveal themselves to you on a stroll through a park, or in a dark basement restaurant, or on the corner of a neighborhood street. The kind that connect you to a Washington of old, or a Washington of weird. Come on a scavenger hunt to find some of the city’s most unusual attractions.
The Barbie Pond
The Barbies are always having a party, either half-naked or elaborately clothed. In patriotic ball gowns, pilgrim costumes, shamrocks as fig leaves or maybe just bunny tails, they gather ’round the miniature pond in front of their Dream House, sometimes engaging in some, um, rather grown-up scenarios. Life in plastic: It’s fantastic for the Barbie Pond, as the campy neighborhood attraction is called. It started in 2014 with just a few Barbies lounging, but now the home’s owner, who has turned his front garden into an Instagram sensation, has collected hundreds of dolls. The display changes every month, usually to reflect holidays. But because it’s an odd Washington spectacle, the Barbies can’t help but spoof political events. A recently popular tableau re-created Melania Trump’s “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket — not the kind of first lady Barbie that Mattel would sell.
Find it here: 1454 Q St. NW.
The list of banned words
A handwritten sign at the secondhand shop warns bibliophiles that certain words and phrases — “totally,” “like,” “awesome,” “oh my God” — are forbidden. Utter within earshot of Jim Toole, a retired Navy rear admiral, and prepare to suffer his wrath. The likable curmudgeon, who opened Capitol Hill Books in 1995, has been known to lecture customers for their poor word choices. Tongue-in-cheek labels are scattered throughout the three-story labyrinth: “Ron Dies” is written on a sticky note inside a copy of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (spoiler alert: he doesn’t), and a small sign near the coffee-table section informs readers that the oversize books are great for “emergency kindling, step-stools and intellectual peacocking.” Despite the store’s recent sale to a cohort of millennials — Toole’s former employees — its signature sassy signage is staying put.
Find it here: 657 C St. SE.
Newton’s apple tree
Looking for cosmic inspiration? Take a note from Sir Isaac Newton and cozy up under this apple tree, a descendant of the one whose fruit ostensibly clunked the famed English mathematician on the head and inspired him to develop the theory of gravity in 1687. A sapling of the hardwood, which was originally rooted near Newton’s childhood home, was nurtured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and planted on the campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in 1957. Cared for by the park’s diplomatic neighbors, the tree twin continues to blossom and bear fruit in the summer. Don’t miss the bronze plaque, which states: “Science has its traditions as well as its frontiers.”
Find it here: Sandwiched between the Embassy of Bahrain and Embassy of Singapore on the 3500 block of International Drive NW. The tree is unrestricted, so you can drop by any time. (A second tree lives on the new NIST campus in Gaithersburg, Md.)
The dinosaur signs
Washington’s most mysterious dinosaur fossils weren’t discovered by a swashbuckling paleontologist, but by workers laying a sewer pipe in 1898. Their excavation uncovered a section of dinosaur vertebra, which scientists determined was from a new species dubbed Creosaurus potens — a 30-foot-long predator weighing more than 2½ tons. In 1990, local paleontologist Peter Kranz proposed a much catchier name: Capitalsaurus. To mark the 100th anniversary of the fossil’s discovery, elementary school students petitioned the D.C. Council to name Capitalsaurus the city’s official dinosaur. The bone isn’t on public display — it’s held at the National Museum of Natural History — but its legacy can be found on the block where it was discovered: a fanciful sign depicting Capitalsaurus chasing a smaller dinosaur, and a street sign designating this stretch of F Street SE as Capitalsaurus Court.
Find it here: First and F streets SE on Capitol Hill.
The neon bathroom
A simple teal door leads to a neon fantasyland. The black-lit bathrooms at Oki Bowl DC, a cozy Georgetown ramen shop, are covered in toys and decorations scavenged by artist Wirat Assawamahasakda, who wanted the washrooms to mimic the look and energy of a nightclub. The first bathroom has an under-the-sea theme, complete with a cascading pirate ship and artificial jellyfish tank, while the second is fairy-tale focused and features a unicorn and rotating princess carriage. “People love to play with the art and engage with it,” Assawamahasakda says. Both lavatories used to feature working radios, but after several extended patron dance parties, the staff decided to cut the cord. Bathroom selfies, however, are highly encouraged.
The Lincoln book tower
At 34 feet tall and made up of more than 6,800 books, the Lincoln Book Tower at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership has almost as many biographies of the 16th president as the average dad’s library (kidding!). The center sits across from the theater and next door to the Petersen House, where, after being shot, Lincoln was carried and eventually died. Unveiled in 2012, the tower is a testament to Lincoln’s enduring place in American thought and literature. A spiral staircase surrounding the tower gives visitors a 360-degree view of the collection, which include such works as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and Eric Foner’s “The Fiery Trial.” Don’t worry about a fire hazard: The “books” are actually made from aluminum, with the covers of 205 real titles printed on.
Find it here: 511 10th St. NW. Tickets are $3 in advance; there are limited quantities of same-day tickets free at the box office.
A soaring Mexican mural
Aztecs and Quetzalcoatl, Columbus and Hidalgo: Climb the stairs in the Mexican Cultural Institute, and you’ll find yourself looking at the history of a country as you never have before. Painted by Mexican artist Roberto Cueva del Río over eight years beginning in 1933, the dazzling mural winds its way up the institute’s staircase, stretching three stories tall. The panels exemplify the tradition of Mexican muralism and depict moments in the country’s history, from its settlement by the Aztecs, to the landing of Christopher Columbus, to the dawn of the nation’s transition from agrarianism to industry. Cueva del Río was only 23 when he began the work, at the recommendation of renowned painter Diego Rivera, in what was then the city’s site of the Mexican Embassy. This is one history lesson that requires you to watch your step.
Find it here: 2829 16th St. NW.
The Big Chair
Stroll down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE far enough, and you’ll soon be struck by a slightly incongruous sight: a really big chair. Measuring 19½ feet tall, the Big Chair, as it’s known, was originally constructed in 1959 as an advertisement for the local Curtis Bros. Furniture company. They took the promotional stunt even further the next year, when the company hired a woman to live in a 10-square-foot glass enclosure on the chair’s seat (she lasted 42 days). In 2005, the 4,600-pound original chair was dismantled — built out of mahogany, it had begun to rot after decades of exposure to the elements. An exact replica made of aluminum was unveiled the next year. At the ceremony, Charles Curtis, who first proposed the Big Chair promotion, spoke about how his creation had survived the 1968 riots and said that the new version “will stay there for 100 years.” Today, it stands not as a symbol of a defunct furniture store, but as a neighborhood rallying point and monument to Anacostia’s history.
Find it here: Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and V Street SE.
The doodle that went viral
Before there were memes, there was Kilroy. The ubiquitous war doodle — a baldheaded, long-nosed man peering over a wall who is reminiscent of the unseen neighbor, Wilson Wilson Jr., in “Home Improvement” — was often scrawled on ships, tanks and walls by American GIs during World War II. The scribble, often accompanied by the phrase “Kilroy was here,” served as a morale booster to troops overseas when servicemen reached a new location and discovered that American soldiers had already passed through. In a wink to its origin story, which has long been shrouded in mystery, the National Park Service hid the doodle in two places at the Mall’s World War II Memorial. See if you can spot them, among the pillars and throngs of tourists.
Find it here: No luck finding Kilroy on your own? Spot him near the Pennsylvania marker in a walled-off area at the back of the memorial (Lincoln Memorial side), above the metal grating. Another Kilroy marking is hidden opposite the golden gate (facing the Washington Monument).
The Capitol stones
The sandstone, granite and marble blocks were once part of the east facade of the U.S. Capitol, where they stood for decades as a witness to history. But when the 1958 renovation of Washington’s grandest building began, these stones, which date to the reconstruction of the building after it burned during the War of 1812, were dumped near an unnamed trail in Rock Creek Park. The rocks are piled high, like an ancient ruin; some have gathered moss and feature decorative elements like cornices or inscriptions by the builders. It’s best to experience the site with the reverence of a peaceful place, a bit like a cemetery — after all, it’s the final resting place for the stones that housed democracy.
Find it here: Go through the parking lot of the Rock Creek Horse Center and into the woods past the farthest outdoor ring. The stones appear on Google maps, but there’s no sign to tell you which way to go once you’re on the trail (which may be covered in horse poop) — so it’s best to use your phone to navigate the 10-minute walk.
The bonsai that survived Hiroshima
One of the trees at the Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Museum stands small as a symbol of resilience. The bonsai, a Japanese white pine that’s nearly 400 years old, was grown within two miles of where U.S. forces dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. It was gifted to the United States in 1975, but the museum’s curators didn’t realize the connection until 2001, when the grandsons of the man who donated the tree came to visit and told the story of how it had survived the bomb blast and radiation. It makes one think about how a miniature tree could survive the blast, and how it’s become a monument to the people who did not. World War II wasn’t the first war the bonsai had endured — and probably isn’t the last, either.
Find it here: The museum is on the grounds of the National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave. NE.
The Joan of Arc sword
Jeanne d’Arc rushes forward on her horse, her eyes gazing heavenward in prayer. Her right arm is raised to strike as she brandishes — well, nothing. France’s great heroine, described as a liberator on the pedestal of her statue in Meridian Hill Park, has been rendered weaponless. Again. Joan of Arc, a gift from the women of France to the women of America, was unveiled in 1922. Her 3½-foot bronze sword went missing a decade later. It has been replaced (and stolen again) multiple times over the years, occasionally with flowers. After leaving Joan unarmed for two decades, the Park Police finally welded a new sword into place in 2011. It lasted until 2016, when it was stolen (and eventually replaced). Like Saint Joan, the police continued to come up empty-handed. A suggestion: Next time, give her a functional lightsaber to ward away the thieves.
Find it here: 16th and W streets NW. The Joan of Arc statue is on a plaza above the park's cascading fountains.
The moon rock inside a cathedral
For decades, visitors at the National Air and Space Museum have lined up to touch a piece of another world: a fragment of a moon rock brought back to Earth by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972. But there's another lunar rock that can be contemplated in much more serene surroundings. At the heart of a beautiful stained-glass window at the Washington National Cathedral is a 3.6 billion-year-old piece of basalt rock, weighing just over seven grams and sealed in a nitrogen-filled glass container. This sliver of the moon — the only one NASA has given to a nongovernmental organization — was collected during the Apollo 11 moonwalk in 1969 and presented to the cathedral by astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin five years later. It’s in the center of a colorful swirl of stars and orbits that span three lancet windows, offering a meditation on the heavens and man’s place in the cosmos.
Find it here: The south side of the nave at Washington National Cathedral, 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
Most replicas of famous sites can’t match the original, but hidden under the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America is a re-creation of Roman catacombs, from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, where early Christians were buried. Created in the early 1900s, the narrow passageways under the monastery are lined with niches that, in the ancient world, would have served as resting places for martyrs and other faithful, as well as grottoes and chapels. The effect is eerie and slightly claustrophobic, which sets the stage to see the real relics of two martyrs brought from Rome: the body of Saint Benignus, a Roman soldier beheaded for being a Christian, and the arresting figure of Saint Innocent, a child whose body was discovered in the Roman catacombs. He lies inside a glass coffin, wearing a wig and a wax mask with a smile. A palm frond — the sign of a martyr — is clutched in his hands. In Paris and Rome, catacombs are a tourist attraction. Here, the quiet and unhurried atmosphere lends itself to reflection.
Find it here: 1400 Quincy St. NE. Access to the catacombs requires a guided tour, which is offered daily.
The Prince call box
If you’ve wandered through the District’s oldest neighborhoods, you’ve probably noticed police and fire call boxes on street corners. Introduced in the 1860s, they found new life in 2000, when the city began a decade-long program that turned the rusting cast-iron hulks into canvases for hyperlocal art, filled with sculptures of long-gone buildings or portraits of notable residents. Last year, a new work appeared on Capitol Hill: The box itself had been painted purple, with gold highlights. Inside, a picture of the late Prince Rogers Nelson was surrounded by bouquets of blue and gold flowers. But where did it come from? Why Prince? An attempt to track down the box’s artist went nowhere. Calls and emails to arts and civic organizations turned up nothing. In some ways, the anonymity makes it better. Instead of a government-approved box, it’s a very personal gift from a neighbor to the city. It’s a tribute to Prince. And it is funky.
Find it here: At Fifth and G streets SE.
Designed by Katherine Lee. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg.