In this city spotlight, travel blogger Liz Bird, a longtime resident of Washington DC, steps outside the typical tourist guidebook and shares her personal tips and recommendations for how to best experience America’s Capital.
A Local’s Guide to Visiting America’s Capital
There is no end of guidebooks with useful information about DC’s many monuments and free museums. If you only have a few days in DC, you will be hard pressed to see everything in such a short time, so a guidebook should be sufficient.
However, if you’ve got the time and want to see a little more of what the city has to offer, here are some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up from being a longtime resident in Washington DC.
One of the things I like most about DC is that it’s a year-round destination, offering fun activities in every season.
- Winter – Bundle up and hit the National Mall for a visit to the National Christmas tree and the 50 State Trees. In early December, the tree lighting ceremony is held (Note – you have to enter a raffle for tickets). Nearby, the sculpture garden rolls out a ice skating rink for a chance to take a spin amongst the artwork
- Spring – Experience the beauty and excitement of the Cherry Blossom Festival. Bright pink flowers (a gift of friendship from the Japanese) cover the tidal bassoon and dot the grass surrounding the Washington and Jefferson memorials
- Summer – Escape the heat with a visit to one of the many free (and well air conditioned) Smithsonian’s. Grab a bottle of wine and enjoy free “Jazz in the Garden” each Friday at 5pm in the National Sculpture Garden
- Autumn – Enjoy the changing leaves and cooler weather with a stroll through the many monuments dotting the mall and beyond. This is also a prime time to visit the National Zoo, which is free to enter
It’s worth pulling yourself away from the Mall for a few days to fully appreciate the pulse of DC. Here are a few recommended neighborhoods in the DC area:
Friendly and fun, Dupont Circle is a great place to visit thanks to its somewhat central location and its variety of food and drink locations. Although more gentrified than its days of yore, it’s still got some old school DC charm.
There is also a farmer’s market held here on Sunday mornings year round. Plus, it’s a short walk to Massachusetts ave, where you can check out some of the area’s largest Embassies.
Chinatown Penn Quarter
Unfortunately, DC’s Chinatown isn’t much to write home about in terms of Chinese Culture. Dominated by the Verizon Center, home of the Washington Wizards, it’s still a great place to grab a meal or drink before catching a game or concert.
Although Adam’s Morgan used to be the final word in the DC bar scene, its popularity may have been its demise. Nowadays, the average Adams Morgan patron is most likely a college aged tourist or recent graduate home for the first time in four years. It’s not all bad news though, Ad Mo (as its sometimes called) still has some great spots worth checking out.
U Street/14th Street Corridor
U street is right now living its Hay Day. Right in the sweet spot between “up and coming” and “over gentrified,” this is the best place in DC for food, night life and unique shopping.
This up and coming neighborhood is home to some of the city’s best bars and its sure to provide a fun night out. Although there is no metro stop at H-Street, plans are being finalized for new streetcars. Right now, a free shuttle connects H-Street with the Chinatown metro station.
Expensive and commercialized, Georgetown is worth a quick gander but not an entire day. The main activities are shopping (all chain stores) and eating so if you are pressed for time it’s probably okay to miss.
Also worth checking out: Eastern Market, Capitol Hill, Waterfront (in South East)
Eating and Drinking
DC is a foodie’s paradise with hundreds of wonderful restaurants and bars scattered throughout the city.
- Vinotecha (U street) – Wine bar by day, pure brunch-y heaven by morning. Come for the pancakes, cheery atmosphere, and outdoor bocci court, stay (hopefully for several hours) for the $10 all you can drink Mimosa’s, Bellinis and Kir Royales
- Bourbon (Adams Morgan) – If the Ad Mo nights have now been overtaken by the frat rats and miniskirts, Bourbon Brunch is the rest of the District’s chance to reclaim their former darling. Good food, reasonably priced breakfast cocktails and a chance to see Adam’s Morgan sober
- Standard (U Street) – Only open in the warmer months, this outdoor BBQ joint has delicious food, good beer and really good homemade donuts. Grab a seat at one of the aqua picnic tables in the often crowded front garden and enjoy a taste pulled pork sandwich with a side of hush puppies
- Cork (14th Street Corridor) – You don’t have to be an epicure to love this wine bar/restaurant and its huge selection of wines. Try the avocado bruschetta to accompany your first glass
- Ping Pong (Dupont Circle) – Another restaurant whose popularity has spurred the creation of multiple locations, Ping Pong is a delicious modern dim sum bar. To order, you simply check off your picks from their extensive menu and then the small, steamy plates of dumpling goodness are served to your table
- Matchbox (Chinatown)– Although several locations have popped up around DC, the original Chinatown location is still my favorite. It’s known its delicious wood baked pizzas (my favorite is the Gorgonzola topped sliders)
- H-Street Country Club (H-Street) – This isn’t your grandmother’s country club. It may not even be your country club. This fun themed bar located in the up and coming H-Street serves delicious Mexican food and tasty margaritas, but the real draw is the 18-hole mini-golf course upstairs. Each hole is molded after a DC landmark, pitting bar touting golfers against a slippery reflecting pool
- Beer Garden Haus (H-Street) – For more fun, head down the street to the Beer Garden Haus, a German themed bar that features a festive atmosphere complete with polka music and waiters in lederhosen
- Dan’s Café (Adams Morgan) – This is the grand-daddy of all dive bars. Still cheap by DC standards, the place gets packed on the weekend, so arrive early. Shots are served in mustard squirt bottles and mixed drinks are handed out in buckets to patrons playing seedy bar games. In my opinion, one of the few fun bars left in Ad Mo. But beware – the bathroom can easily be confused as a bio-hazard
My recommendation for budget lodging is to stay outside of the expensive DC downtown area. Visitors can stay in Virginia for much less and still be within reach of the District.
The best place to stay in Virginia is Rosslyn in Arlington, Virginina. Rosslyn is nothing to write home about (unless you want to visit the Iwa Jima memorial), but it’s convenient and well connected to DC’s transportation network.
The popular Georgetown area is an easy walk from Rosslyn across the Key Bridge. The Circulator Bus, which is $1, also runs a loop every 10 minutes from Rosslyn to Dupont Circle with stops in Georgetown.
DC has an extensive and easy to use public transportation system. There is no reason why you would need a car or taxi to visit any of the sites in the city (or in the neighboring Virginia and Maryland areas).
From Dulles airport, the DC Metro system runs a bus (the 5A) for $6.00. If you decide to sleep in Arlington VA, you can take the Metro blue line from Regan National Airport for the normal metro fare.
The DC underground trains and the bus system are collectively referred to as the Metro. There are five major train lines, each named with a different color. (A silver line out to Dulles Airport is planned for the future).
Travel Tip: Unlike some subway systems, you have to swipe your card both entering and exiting, so make sure you hold onto your ticket or you can face a fine.
Relatively new to the DC transportation seen, bikeshare is the best way to get around the city in the warmer months. No membership is required, simply walk up to any station and swipe your credit card to rent a bike for the entire day (cost is currently $5).
When you are finished, you can return the bike at any station in the city – it doesn’t to be the same one. One caveat though, you must check the bike into a station (any station) every 30 minutes or you will face additional fees.
Travel Tip: If you are visiting a site, check your bike into a nearby station, enjoy your visit, and then pick up a new bike free of charge when you are ready to move on to your next activity.
Have you visited Washington DC before?
Share your tips and recommendations in the comments section below, we’d love to hear about your experiences!
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Photo Credits – some photos are from Flickr Creative Commons with approved sharing permissions at time of publication. To find credit source, simply click on the image.