How can I best describe Washington, D.C.? The most powerful city in the world? Hollywood for ugly people? A federal district home to roughly 618,000 people that also drew nearly 18 million tourists to its monuments, memorials, and museums last year?
A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, I adopted the District as my home seven years ago, fulfilling a dream that I would one day live among the historic landmarks that thrilled me as a child. And although I am still captivated by many of D.C.’s tourist attractions (I’m looking at you, Arlington Cemetery and Supreme Court), I wanted to explore a more off-the-radar experience in my adopted home—one that embraces the cuisine, entertainment, and scenery that the District has to offer, while avoiding the trappings of an overwhelming tourism industry.
So, transplant or tourist, if you find yourself with time to spare in the District of Columbia, here are some budget-friendly ways to get the very most out of three days.
There’s no better way to spend a Saturday morning in Washington than perusing the stalls at Eastern Market, the city’s oldest continually-operated fresh food market dating back to 1873. Housed in and around a beautiful old brick building in the heart of Capitol Hill, Eastern Market suffered a devastating fire in 2007, but has since reopened and experienced a renaissance of sorts—and it’s still home to the best pancakes in town. Lines can be long at Market Lunch, located just inside the main building, but the blueberry pancakes are worth every minute. Just make sure you’re in line by noon, otherwise, no soup for you (225 7th Street S.E.).
The Prime Meridian
Hop on the Metro and take a ride to U Street, the corridor known as Black Broadway in its heyday. Once home to Duke Ellington and the nation’s largest urban African American community (until it was overtaken by Harlem in the 1920s), U Street was the epicenter of the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But today, the neighborhood has been revitalized as a hub for live music, global cuisine, and boutique shopping.
If you’re ready for a snack, pick up some simple, authentic, and tasty tacos at Taqueria Nacional (don’t neglect the refried beans, 1409 T Street N.W.), and bring your picnic to Meridian Hill Park, where you can eat amidst the fountains and lily pads. Bonus points if you bring a bocce set (16th and W Streets N.W.).
Although grazing at Meridian Hill Park could very well eat up your entire afternoon, a number of nearby shops offer wonderful opportunities for retail therapy. On the 14th Street corridor between U and P Streets, you’ll find high-end fashion and home décor at Muleh (1821 14th Street N.W.), charming vintage housewares at Miss Pixie’s (1626 14th Street N.W.), and funky and fun items for your kitchen and bathroom at Home Rule (1807 14th Street N.W.), just to name a few.
Washington, Je T’aime
As dinner time rolls around, consider snagging a sidewalk table at Le Diplomate, one of the newest and brightest additions to the 14th Street corridor. Open since the spring of 2013, Le Diplomate pays homage to the classic French café and brasserie, with delicious offerings that include a wonderfully executed steak frites, onion soup gratinée, and show-stealing breads and baguettes (1601 14th Street N.W., reservations recommended).
Not in the mood for French? The glorious thing about 14th Street is you have countless other dinner options at your fingertips. While Cork serves outstanding and inspired small plates (1720 14th Street N.W.), Ghibellina has, hands-down, the best happy hour in town (1610 14th Street. N.W.). And at Estadio, you’ll enjoy classic Spanish-inspired tapas, absolutely delicious kalimotxos, and re-runs of classic World Cup matches (1520 14th Street N.W.).
I Got 1905 On It
After dinner, ramble back to U Street in time to see the neighborhood come alive at night. In search of live music? Twins Jazz has been entertaining locals for over 20 years, while the historic Howard Theatre—a centerpiece of African American music and culture since 1910—recently reopened its doors. Drinks? American Ice Company is the place for outdoor picnic tables and mason jars, while 1905 has one of the city’s most relaxed rooftop bars. Late night food? Go no further than Ben’s Chili Bowl, the D.C. institution that has been serving its famous half-smoke sausages since 1958.
Ever since my first trip to Paris, I’ve spent countless hours wondering why American bakeries have been unable to replicate the taste and texture of French baguettes, croissants, éclairs, and macarons. There are those who have come close, and then there is Paul, an American outpost of the French family-owned bakery chain that has been producing some of the best bread and pastries since 1889. In 2011, the U.S. Navy Memorial plaza became Paul’s new American home, and it is now the Francophile destination for outstanding coffee, pastries, and quiches—complete with a patio view of the National Archives (801 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.).
Morning At The Museum
Of course, it seems strange to visit Washington without spending a day in at least one of the countless free museums the city has to offer. While I would encourage first-timers to brave the crowds at the unforgettable U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, savvy District visitors will find a world class art museum—without the crowds—at the National Gallery of Art. Don’t miss the French Impressionists, the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing, or the awe-inspiring portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, the only Leonardo da Vinci painting on display in the Americas (Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue N.W.).
A Pizza So Nice, They Named It Twice
Once you’ve worked up an appetite for lunch, take a detour through Georgetown, the historic port city established in 1751. Although it has since been folded into the greater District of Columbia, Georgetown remains a bustling shopping district, a swanky residential neighborhood, and the illustrious home of Georgetown University. It also lies only two miles south of Cleveland Park, where the city’s most delectable Neapolitan pizza awaits you at 2 Amys. Try the simple, perfect, Italian-government-certified margherita extra—or if you’re feeling a bit more sinful, the pepperoni is the best around (3715 Macomb Street N.W.).
Just Please Don’t Say “Ignite Your Natitude”
Some say D.C. will never be a baseball town. Oppressively hot summers? Check. A transient crowd that has been known to root for the visiting team? Check. But that was all before the 2012 Washington Nationals. For the first time since their inaugural season in 2005, the Nats played like a team destined for the World Series—and although they didn’t get there, the season was a promise of great things to come. And if you get to the box office early on game day, the hottest ticket in town may only cost you $5 (1500 South Capitol Street S.E.).
After the game, you’re only a few short blocks from Rose’s Luxury, chef-owner Aaron Silverman’s thrilling new addition to the formerly uninspired dining scene on Capitol Hill. Whether it’s the rosebud in your whiskey, the fried potato skins in your butter, or the delicate meringues that bring your meal to a close, the delight is in the details at Rose’s—and the flavors are out of this world (717 Eighth Street S.E.).
Nights In White Marble
D.C. virgin or veteran, no trip to this city is complete without a stroll around the memorials on the National Mall, and there’s no better time to do it than after sundown. With the structures bathed in light and the temperatures bearable, you’ll see the capital’s most famous landmarks at their very best. The Lincoln, Vietnam, Korean War, and World War II Memorials all conveniently surround the Reflecting Pool, but consider crossing Independence Avenue to check out the trifecta on the banks of the Tidal Basin—the memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—as well.
Political Animal (Crackers)
Nestled in the heart of charming and quiet Woodley Park is Open City, the neighborhood’s favorite diner and coffeehouse. Thanks to its patio overlooking Rock Creek Park and freshly baked scones and pastries, Open City is the corner breakfast joint everyone wishes they had. And besides tasty, traditional breakfast dishes, you’ll even get animal crackers to go with your coffee (2331 Calvert Street N.W.).
Billy Goat’s Gruff
A mere 13 miles outside of D.C. is Great Falls Park, an 800-acre refuge on the banks of the Potomac River. Park your car across the street from the Old Angler’s Inn (10801 MacArthur Boulevard, Potomac, Md.), and walk along the C&O Canal towpath to the Billy Goat Trailhead—an aptly named 4.7-mile path that climbs up and around boulders along the scenic Potomac gorge. Note to early-risers: The views are the best in the morning when the sun is still low.
Back in town, take an evening stroll through one of Washington’s most recently resurgent neighborhoods less than two miles from the Capitol—the Atlas District or H Street Corridor. After decades of decline, new restaurants, bars, and other businesses have flooded back into the neighborhood, including Toki Underground, a Taiwanese-style ramen and dumpling house. With less than 30 stools in what feels like an effortlessly cool treehouse, Toki Underground’s dedicated patrons know to show up for dinner early or risk an uncomfortably long wait for pan-fried dumplings and the Toki Hakata Classic ramen (1234 H Street N.E.).
A Concert With A View
As the sun sets beyond the Washington Monument, stroll back to the west steps of the Capitol to catch a free twilight performance by the U.S. Navy Band. In one of Washington’s best summer traditions, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force Bands perform free weeknight concerts at various historic locations around the city. And there’s nothing wrong with a little night music to bring this long weekend to an end.
A Few Notes
I know I said that this post would focus on how to enjoy the District away from the millions of tourists who flock here each year. But a word to the wise: If you have time to see 1) Arlington National Cemetery or 2) Oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court, try to make it happen. The experiences are worth the crowds.
TITLE: Cherry blossoms bloom on the Tidal Basin | SATURDAY: Flowers for sale at Eastern Market; Ben’s Chili Bowl | SUNDAY: The National Gallery of Art; a light installation connects the east and west wings of the National Gallery; Nationals Park; the Jefferson Memorial | MONDAY: The Billy Goat Trail; Toki Underground; the U.S. Navy Band on the Capitol steps.