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Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
Lisa Marie Thalhammer's "Love" mural in Blagden Alley.

A local’s guide to Washington, D.C.

Lisa Marie Thalhammer's "Love" mural in Blagden Alley.
  • By Austin Graff
  • Photos by Melina Mara

To know Washington is to peel back its suit: The briefcases and blazers the rest of the world sees are just covers for a vibrant, creative community. Whether it’s the food scene — one of the country’s best — or murals tucked away in historic alleys, the city D.C. residents know is quirky — and inspiring.

After you sit in on a Supreme Court hearing, you can explore an eccentric mansion with over 70 hidden doors. Once you’re done reading the oldest book in the Library of Congress, you can take a wine tour through a haunted cemetery. There’s kayaking, urban hiking, rare-book hunting, brunching and rich history beyond the white buildings.

Meet Austin Graff

Austin has lived in Washington since 2007. He grew up as an American in Russia, attended boarding school in Germany, has lived in Kazakhstan and China and has traveled to more than 60 countries.

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H Street corridor
H Street NE is where native Washingtonians mingle with transplants over a beer or two (or three or four). You can experience chicken curry ramen at Toki Underground, old-school murals down alleys, late-night chess pie at Pie Shop and a nightcap on an outdoor patio at Hill Prince. Then you’ll be ready to stumble back to your Airbnb in a historic rowhouse just off the main drag. Find this neighborhood.
Capitol Hill/Hill East
Tourists who comment on the lack of children in Washington have obviously never been to Capitol Hill/Hill East, where runners dodge strollers. There are several boutique hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and Airbnbs among the rowhouses occupied by lawmakers, lobbyists and lawyers. Find this neighborhood.

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Call Your Mother deli
The people waiting outside Call Your Mother will probably tell you they’re waiting for the best bagel in the city. This “Jew-ish” deli in the Park View neighborhood combines New York and Montreal styles into one bagel. Pro tip: Ask for half plain cream cheese, half seasonal jam; it works best on the sesame bagel. Remember to snap a photo outside in front of the pastel mural by local artist Marcella Kriebel.
BTW: The deli now has other locations on Capitol Hill and Georgetown.
Call Your Mother deli, 3301 Georgia Ave. NW. Washington, D.C. 20010
Open City
Originally located in Woodley Park, a neighborhood stuck in the 1960s in all the best ways, Open City is an upscale diner that puts a spin on American breakfast classics. Love hash browns? Order an entire bowl of them with two sunny-side-up eggs on top. If French toast is your thing, you can have it with hazelnuts. They have 18 breakfast entrees on the menu all day, every day. They also serve their own blend of Common Grounds coffee, made specially for their sister shop, Tryst.
BTW: It’s about a half-mile from the National Zoo — a good place to walk off that fried chicken and waffle.
Open City, 2331 Calvert St. NW. Washington, D.C. 20008
A Litteri
Across from Union Market, the city’s largest food hall, you’ll notice an Italian flag painted on a doorway in a row of industrial buildings. Inside are tight aisles crammed with gnocchi, spaghetti and pappardelle. In the back, you’ll find an unassuming deli selling subs (or hoagies, or grinders, but let’s not get political). If you don’t want to build your own, stick with the classic Italian. In a city where food prices can be steep, a quality whole sub for $9.95 is a steal.
BTW: This place arguably has the best selection of Italian wine in the city. If you need a recommendation, ask the owner.
A Litteri, 517-519 Morse St. NE. Washington, D.C. 20002
Deli City Restaurant
This cash-only deli makes a sizable pastrami on rye bread using the same recipe that the owner’s father and great uncle did in the 1950s. It’s now a sit-down and takeout place, out of a small building in a still very industrial part of town. (There’s not much for pedestrians here; driving is your best bet.) Adding to its charm, the decor inside is stuck in 1979, the year the place opened at this location. In an expensive city like Washington, the classic sandwiches here cost only $8.50. Order the half-sweet-and-half-unsweetened iced tea and the homemade bread pudding made fresh daily. If you go more than once, the servers will remember your name.
BTW: After lunch, drive to the nearby National Arboretum, a huge, world-class garden space and civic treasure that also contains old U.S. Capitol columns. The cidery Supreme Core, from Baltimore, is just outside the arboretum.
2200 Bladensburg Rd. NE, Washington, D.C. 20018
So you can’t name a single country in the Balkans? The quality of Ambar’s food may change that. The tapas-style menu at this flagship location includes leek croquettes, stuffed sour cabbage and drunken mussels. While most restaurants in the city sell cocktails for more than $10, Ambar prices them at $5-6, no matter what you order during their weekday happy hour. (Beer and wine are $6.) If you’re going in a group, plan to order three plates per person.
BTW: If you’re really hungry, order the unlimited tapas menu for $40 per person (dinner only).
Ambar, 523 Eighth St. SE. Washington, D.C. 20003
Don’t let Gravitas’s prices scare you. Yes, chef Matt Baker offers only a tasting menu that starts at $78 for four courses, but broken down, that comes out to under $20 a dish for some of the most inventive food in the city. The restaurant is housed in an old tomato-packing factory in industrial Ivy City. Vegetarians are in luck because half the menu is for them. Gravitas’s wine menu is impressive, but opt for the cocktails instead. Each glass comes with a fancy garnish, such as the origami butterfly on the “Southern Butterfly.”
BTW: Make a reservation for the early evening, leaving time to stop by Republic Restoratives, one of the only female-owned distilleries in the country. They offer bottle pick-up service daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Gravitas, 1401 Okie St. NE. Washington, D.C. 20002
Amsterdam Falafelshop
Even if you’re not on your way back from the bars, Amsterdam is worth a late-night stop. The original location, in Adams Morgan on 18th Street, is small, but it’s a quick eat. Pick a falafel pita or bowl, then go crazy with the 22 topping options, from pickled cabbage to hummus. If you happen to be on 14th Street NW, you’ll find a location there, too.
BTW: No matter how full you are, order the fries. They come salty and are best with Dutch mayo from the side counter.
Amsterdam Falafelshop, 2425 18th St. NW. Washington, D.C. 20009
This H Street NE spot pulls double duty. The bottom floor is a Chinese street-food shop, with bar and window seating only. The chef makes pot stickers, bao and skewers right in front of you. When you’re ready for a drink, head upstairs to the bar, where the city’s bartenders hang out. Because of that, order the “bartender’s choice” to give them the opportunity to show off their skills.
BTW: The “triple delight” pot stickers and cheeseburger bao are their bestsellers.
Copycat, 1110 H St. NE. Washington, D.C. 20002
(D.C. illustrator Jillian Blazek for The Washington Post)
  1. Break out the walking shoes and skip the Metro. The city is one of the most walkable places in the country. Walking allows you to discover the unexpected and win your Fitbit challenge group, too.
  2. See the museums after hours. The National Gallery of Art hosts free live music and performances monthly.
  3. Use the 80/20 rule: Spend 80 percent of your time off the Mall and 20 percent on.
(D.C. illustrator Jillian Blazek for The Washington Post)


Capitol Hill Books
It’s arguably the most Instagrammed storefront in D.C., but the real shots are inside. As you enter the small rowhouse on Capitol Hill, one packed from floor to ceiling with used books, take note of the list of words “not spoken here” (“awesome,” “OMG” and “problematic” are just a few millennialisms at which the former owner cringes). You’ll then notice snarky commentary written on notecards reacting to the books on display. Novels are upstairs, sociology is in the basement and foreign language is in the bathroom.
BTW: Try their “grab bag” where you tell the store about yourself, and they fill a bag of books catered to your taste. You have to order ahead, and the cost is $50.
Capitol Hill Books, 657 C St. SE. Washington, D.C. 20003
Congressional Cemetery
Congressional Cemetery has been dubbed “the hippest cemetery in America,” and it lives up to the title. Located in Hill East, it was America’s first national cemetery, established in 1807, with several V.I.P. eternal residents, including former D.C. mayor Marion Barry and several congressmen. Once in disarray, the cemetery started promoting itself as a dog park and charged people for it. To this day, it has a long dog-walking wait list. Beyond hosting the city’s pets, the cemetery has tours with wine, horror-novel book clubs, yoga and free live music on Sundays in the chapel.
BTW: If you want to be the coolest (or creepiest) kid on the block, you can rent a crypt for a small event or party.
Congressional Cemetery, 1801 E St. SE. Washington, D.C. 20003
Eastern Market
The longest continuously operating market in the city, Eastern Market is considered the town center of the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. Inside the large brick building are stands selling fresh produce, cakes, dumplings, flowers and fish. The very last stall is Market Lunch — ironically, a popular breakfast spot. People stand in line for over an hour to pay cash for blueberry buckwheat pancakes. On the weekend, the outside turns into a large flea and farmers market. A Turkish woman who sells jewelry to celebrities and a Maryland artist commissioned by the White House are just two of the vendors you’ll meet.
BTW: Eastern Market’s North Hall hosts weekly events, including fitness classes, tango nights and religious sermons.
Eastern Market, 225 Seventh St. SE. Washington, D.C. 20003
Frederick Douglass House
The Frederick Douglass House, now part of the National Park Service, was the private home of the 19th-century abolitionist. The house gives historians much to geek out about, but its location will entice everyone to visit. Located in historic Anacostia, the house is on one of the highest hills in D.C., providing a clear view of the city’s skyline. If you’re looking for that perfect shot for social media, this is your spot.
BTW: With a clear view of the Mall, it’s also a great spot to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Frederick Douglass House, 1411 W St. SE. Washington, D.C. 20020
Temporarily closed
Kingman Island
This man-made island in the Anacostia River was twice proposed to be a theme park. Lucky for us, that never panned out: It’s 40 acres of nature trails over wooden bridges and under mural-covered overpasses. You won’t find many tourists there, but you’ll see locals picnicking, kayaking, hiking and birdwatching; the island has more than 100 species of resident and migratory birds. Every spring, the island hosts the Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival, attracting D.C.’s more eclectic crowd for a day of live music, craft beer and people-watching.
BTW: The island offers free canoe tours throughout the year.
Kingman Island, 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE. Washington, D.C. 20002
Mansion on O Street
This quirky museum in Dupont Circle is five interconnected townhouses with over 100 rooms. Most people pay $25 to explore the building trying to find all 70 of its secret doors, but the average visitor uncovers only 10 (just to set your expectations). Each themed room is cluttered with knickknacks, from poetry books to signed guitars, all of which are for sale. The mansion doubles as a hotel, offering visitors the chance to rent any room they find fascinating.
BTW: They host a chef’s table three to five course dinner in their outdoor garden.
Mansion on O Street, 2020 O St. NW. Washington, D.C. 20036
Austin Graff
Austin has lived in Washington since 2007. He grew up as an American in Russia, attended boarding school in Germany, has lived in Kazakhstan and China and has traveled to more than 60 countries.
Melina Mara
Melina is a Washington Post photographer based in the District and spends her free time climbing, skiing, traveling and exploring. Her work is inspired by memories of her father, a CBS cameraman, and her passionate and loving Italian mother.