In Washington, it can be difficult to power down. Even if you don’t work in politics, there’s always something happening that you have to pay attention to, or there’s another date or play date to plan. But there are times — and especially times like now — when the healthiest, most important thing you can do is escape, even if it’s just for a few moments.
The District has enough places to see and be seen. These are some of our favorite places to be alone: to sit, to think, to get lost in nature, to escape. They’re all in the city proper — some are even located right in the middle of everything — but they offer enough seclusion that you can find some respite from daily life, for as long as you need.
Just outside the shadow of the Capitol, tucked into a corner of its sprawling front lawn, is a secret hideout: a small, hexagon-shaped building called the Summerhouse. The hobbit-like structure, which features nearly two dozen stone seats, provides shelter from the elements — and from the sensory-overload trappings of a busy tourist area. The fountain in the center generates a soothing soundtrack, enhancing the tranquil spirit of the place. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whom Congress tasked with improving the Capitol Grounds in 1874, designed the Summerhouse in response to complaints that visitors couldn’t find a place to rest as they trekked around the Capitol. More than 100 years later, it still fills that need. — Angela Haupt
Find it here: West Front Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, off Northwest Drive.
Adams Memorial at Rock Creek Cemetery
By their nature, cemeteries are places for quiet reflection. But the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery invites even deeper contemplation. A dense copse of trees surrounds a small plaza, screening it from acres of graves. On one side is a circular granite bench, facing a statue of a mysterious shrouded figure, known only as “Grief,” sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. As a piece of art, it is celebrated enough that a copy sits in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But the overall effect is much more: Commissioned by writer Henry Adams after his wife Marian’s suicide, the isolated spot remains a haunting and enigmatic place to sit, and think. — Fritz Hahn
Find it here: Section E of the cemetery, Rock Creek Church Road and Webster Street NW.
The most romantic and dreamy location in Rock Creek Park , that 1,700-acre dagger of green space that cuts into D.C.’s rigid street plan, is the Rapids Bridge. Standing in the middle of this pedestrian-only footbridge, built by the National Park Service in the 1930s, you can enjoy an “anywhere but Washington” view: Look downstream, look upstream, pause and think about the water washing over rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old, shaded by tall trees. Visit on a weekday afternoon, or on a weekend when Beach Drive is closed, and the rushing water and the feeling of being surrounded by elemental forces is the self-care that urban dwellers require. — Fritz Hahn
Find it here: Off of Beach Drive NW in Rock Creek Park.
The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps north of Dupont Circle share a nickname with the famous baroque steps of Rome, and if you squint, you could maybe, possibly see a resemblance. What they do share is functionality. The hill between S Street and Decatur Place NW is, according to the National Register of Historic Places, “one of the area’s most dramatic grade changes.” A road would be too steep for the slope. This graceful, curving staircase is not. What’s most surprising about these Spanish Steps is coming upon them: How out-of-place they feel, with a lion’s head fountain and planted terraces right in the middle of a quiet Kalorama side street, as if they were the sole surviving traces of a landscaped, Meridian Hill-like park. Even on weekends, the only company you might have sitting on the steps is a couple posing for engagement photos — which is probably the way the neighbors like it. — Fritz Hahn
Find it here: 1725 22nd St. NW.
Francis A. Gregory Library
Like most libraries, this Southeast outpost is a welcoming sanctuary where the public can reliably expect quiet. But the stunning, glass-sheathed Francis A. Gregory Library is otherwise in a league of its own. David Adjaye, the architect behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture, designed the building, and it’s a study in geometric contrasts. There are diamond-shaped windows; playful colors, like a pink ceiling; and a tranquil outdoor terrace where the library borders forested parkland. Claim one of the fluorescent armchairs in the rear corner of the first floor, the part of the building that’s farthest away from the busy street and affords the best view of the woods, and curl up with a book or your thoughts. — Angela Haupt
Find it here: 3660 Alabama Ave. SE.
Garden at the Old Stone House
Tucked between a Vietnamese restaurant and a trendy clothing store on Georgetown’s main drag, the ever-bustling M Street NW, is the oldest standing building in the District. The Old Stone House was built in 1765, and the National Park Service opened it to the public in 1960. There’s a charming English garden behind a white picket fence, and the almost always unoccupied benches offer an ideal place to pause. Find a spot in the back, where you’re surrounded by flowering plants and trees. It’s like relaxing in someone’s well-manicured — and deserted — backyard, worlds away from the buzzing city. — Angela Haupt
Find it here: 3051 M St. NW.
The Kennedy Booth
Booth No. 1 at Martin’s Tavern is the most singular restaurant seat in Washington. The table has a hard wooden bench only on one side, meaning the diner (or two skinny diners) sitting at “the rumble seat” is essentially facing a worn, nicked-up partition. From this seat, tucked inside the front door of the Georgetown restaurant, the occupant has a view of the bar and the dining room, but the one-sided arrangement makes a strong, unspoken request to be left alone. Perhaps that’s why the booth was favored by celebrated Georgetown resident John F. Kennedy, who is said to have preferred sitting here after church, and was observed writing his inaugural address on a yellow legal pad over breakfasts. Did JFK get the inspiration to “Ask not what your country can do for you” on this bench? No one knows. But if you want to get some work done, or just enjoy a burger in solitude, “the Kennedy Booth” still delivers. — Fritz Hahn
Find it here: The booth closest to the entrance at Martin’s Tavern, 1264 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
The gardens at the Franciscan Monastery
Think of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land as the original biblical theme park: The gardens of the Brookland monastery, founded at the end of the 19th century, were designed to give Americans a way to see the holiest sights of the Holy Land — the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, the Chapel of the Ascension, the Grotto of Gethsemane — without the arduous journey. It remains a place for prayer, but even if you’re not the most religious, there’s a peace and stillness to be found along the paths that wind through the woods or in the benches arranged before a replica of the Grotto at Lourdes. — Fritz Hahn
Find it here: 1400 Quincy St. NE.
The Lerner Room
There’s only one outward-facing window on the upper floors of the Hirshhorn, and it’s a doozy. The panoramic aperture — which interrupts the Brutalist facade of the doughnut-shaped museum like the visor of a medieval helmet — looks out from a third-floor gallery that has one of the most impressive views of Washington. Take a load off your feet on one of the comfy couches and gaze north upon the National Museum of Natural History, the National Archives and the National Gallery of Art. There’s not much else to distract you; just five black rectangles painted in ink directly on the walls: a conceptual work by the Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo. Think of it as the Hirshhorn’s answer to the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room. — Michael O’Sullivan
Find it here: Third floor of the Hirshhorn Museum, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW.
Editing by Camille Kilgore; Design by Joanne Lee; Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti.