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Travel Guide: Washington D.C

March 19, 2010

When you think of Washington D.C, “travel hotspot” may not come to mind exactly, but there is a whole other world besides the field-trip destinations to explore. While history buffs may be the prime target for tourism (and there are plenty of ways to delight your inner nerd) if you look beyond the Mall and its monuments, there are hundreds of ways to see the city that are both educational and entertaining. Not to mention that it’s actually pretty affordable, as long as you maneuver around the show-horse destinations where our nation’s leaders go to impress. You can spend days strolling around Northwest with its beautiful architecture, quiet streets and inspiring historical relics, but if you need any specific suggestions, here are some ideas to get your started.

What to Do

It may be obvious, but no D.C guide would be complete without a few Smithsonian Museums. They are completely free, after all, and are varied enough to suit any taste. Two personal favorites are the National Museum of American History and the National Gallery of Art. The American History museum has a nice balance of fun pop history (like Julia Child’s kitchen, Dorothy’s red shoes and beautiful trains) and more serious history (Lincoln’s tophat, the Greensboro lunch counter and Edison’s light bulb). Even if you’re not an art fan, the Gallery’s building itself is a sight to see with its marble columns, peaceful rotundas and spiral staircases. But the collections themselves are expansive and varied, and if you’re in town before August there’s a breathtaking exhibit, “From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection” which is a must-see. It may not have the benefit of being free, but the Newseum is one of the best museums out there. This space, dedicated to the history and celebration of journalism, is incredible. Leave a whole afternoon for this one because the five floors of exhibits are full of fascination. All facets are covered here, from ancient newspapers to The Daily Show to Pulitzer Prize winning photography. If you’re not all museumed-out, the International Spy Museum is a fun way to spend a day. The spy artifacts are surreal, (it’s hard to look at them and not think they’re props from a Bond movie) and the history of espionage is intriguing. While I didn’t participate in it, there’s also a more interactive option called Operation Spy. For a more unique experience, definitely check out the Mansion on O Street. While it is technically a hotel, this coo-coo-crazy place also offers self-guided tours and treasure hunts through its halls. Think of it as your eccentric aunt’s house gone down the rabbit hole: the hotel is a series of five interconnected townhouses with over 100 themed rooms (log cabin, The Beatles, fifties diner) and (here’s the best part) 32 secret doors and passages. Every room is covered with quirky antiques, memorabilia and art for sale and is elaborately decorated with influences from every artistic period. Indulge your inner-child’s craving to explore in this wacky alternative. When you’re feeling a bit more grown up, check out what D.C’s thriving jazz scene has to offer. I suggest HR-57 for its down-to-earth atmosphere and BYOB option.

Where to Shop

The two best neighborhoods to spend a day shopping in are Georgetown and Dupont Circle. Both of these areas have character, pretty streets to stroll along, and a nice combination of high and low end stores. Georgetown is a trusted staple. The main thoroughfare, M St, has all of the high street mainstays you’ll find in any shopping district, but you can still find pieces of old-school charm among the name brands. Annie’s Creamcheese (3279 M St) is a drool-worthy vintage shop with secondhand designer goods on one side (I once found a Dolce and Gabbana dress I had clipped from an ad and put in my scrapbook on these racks) and more affordable consignment pieces on the other. There’s a wide range of styles and eras represented here, so flipping through the racks is like a hands-on fashion museum. Nido (1425 Wisconsin Ave.) has some interesting things to offer in its’ funky vibe store. Poppy (3235 P St) has a small collection of interesting jewelry and also offers custom-made services. And if you’re feeling like torturing yourself, check out the shops on Cady’s Alley for some beautiful, but pricey, furniture stores. Dupont Circle is much more sprawling and, depending on the direction you choose, can be hit or miss. I had good luck along the Connecticut Avenue spoke. There I found a lovely, quirky home goods store called Coffee and the Works (1627 Connecticut Ave) whose small space is packed to the brim with both practical and silly kitchenware. Farther along the way, I came across one of the most impressive thrift stores I’ve encountered, Secondi (1702 Connecticut Ave). It’s a bit more sophisticated than Annie’s, but it also boasts an impressive collection of high and low clothing and accessories. From there, venture a bit out of the way to Red Onion Records and Books (1901 18th St). This place is well worth the trip, a mecca for lovers of used books, records, CDs and DVDs alike. Come for the ridiculously low prices, stay for the simple joy of spending time in a cozy basement enclave chatting with kindred spirits.

Where to Eat

Speaking of neat bookstores in the Dupont Circle area, combine your love of paperbacks, Pinot Noir and pastries at Kramerbooks & Afterwards Café (1517 Connecticut Ave). This place is more for those who describe themselves as “literati” instead of “bookworm,” but the concept sure is enticing. For delicious, authentic soul-food, the place to go is Oohs and Aahs (1005 U St) in the U Street corridor. Served piping-hot and in Styrofoam containers, this food is the real deal, and if you don’t get the mac n’ cheese as a side, you’re insane. Another take on soul-food-esque barbecue, with more of a nightlife flair, is Madam’s Organ (2461 18th St) in (get it?) Adam’s Morgan. It’s listed primarily as a jazz and blues music venue, but the food is far beyond bar food. If you’re in the mood for a dinner-and-a-movie night, I suggest Chadwicks (3205 K St) in Georgetown. They serve the usual pub fare, but the added bonus is they also offer discounted movie tickets ($7.50) that can be used at the theater down the street. Finally, although you can’t get a meal there (or should I say you can’t exactly get a healthy, well-balanced meal there), Georgetown Cupcakes (3301 M St) cannot be left off this list. Yes, it’s another one of those gourmet cupcake shops that are all over the place nowadays, but there’s something special about this one. They have some great, unique flavors without going too over-the-top like chocolate banana, lemon berry and peanut butter fudge. Get a half-dozen because you won’t be able to choose just one.

Fancy a Day Trip?

If you’re feeling the need for some fresh air, Alexandria, Virginia is a lovely day trip. Take the yellow line on the Metro to King Street, or the Virginia Railway Express to spend some time in this small, historical city. Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate, is its claim to fame. Roam around the grounds, tour his mansion and visit the museum to get a taste of what our founding father’s life was like (and what a life it was). Then, head back to walk around Old Town Alexandria, which has plenty of boutiques and little eateries to explore. Walk along the Potomac River and even catch a ghost tour. It’s a perfect way to spend the day if you need a little escape from urban life.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jamie permalink
    March 31, 2012 1:55 pm

    Great info, ever go to any of these places? This just came through my Twitter feed and though it would be a great addition to your list.


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