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Washington’s Hidden Gems
Many of the best things to do and see around Washington are not on the tourist maps.
Few cities have as many can’t-miss sights as Washington. But beyond the signature monuments, museums, and landmarks is a layer of equally impressive but less familiar attractions. We asked dozens of Washingtonians, including readers of our Web site, to tell us about their favorite things to do or see in the area beyond the obvious tourist destinations. Here are our 62 suggestions for treasures that may not have cherry-blossom status but still very much merit a visit.
See a Google map of our hidden gems list and, if you think we left some great place/activity off our list, let us know. Send us an email at email@example.com.
Explore all things Vietnamese … at Eden Center, a small mall in Falls Church where visitors should come hungry. Along the outdoor walkways lilting with Asian pop, you’ll find delis specializing in bánh mì (crisp baguettes layered with pâtés, grilled meats, and terrines); pho houses; restaurants for bánh xèo (an oversize stuffed crepe) and bun (noodles bowls); and coffeeshops filled with dapperly suited men whiling away the afternoon. 6763 Wilson Blvd., Falls Church; 703-204-4600.
Slip into a speakeasy … for bar whiz Todd Thrasher’s locally inspired cocktails at swankily Deco PX. Thrasher’s easy-to-down drinks include local homages such as the Smoker’s Delight, a post-smoking-ban creation made with Virginia tobacco and bourbon, and a yuzu-accented spin on Washington’s native cocktail, the rickey. There’s a no-standing rule, so reservations are essential for the 32 seats. And like any proper speakeasy, there’s no phone number; go to eamonnsdublinchipper.com to book a table. 728 King St., Alexandria.
Put your pinky in the air … at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, where the art of afternoon tea is alive and well. Weekends in the serenely plush Fyve restaurant, you’ll find a lovely spread of scones, pastries, and delicate tea sandwiches. The regular assortment is $38 per person. To get a jump-start on happy hour, you can add a glass of Champagne for $4. 1250 S. Hayes St., Arlington; 703-415-5000.
Slurp to your heart’s content … at the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival. For more than 40 years, this Leonardtown festival has brought out the bivalves raw, stewed, grilled, fried, on the half shell—“any way you like ’em,” as its slogan promises. Held annually on the third weekend in October, the festival includes a National Oyster Cook-Off featuring top chefs as well as an oyster-shucking contest.
Crack into a bushel of crabs … at Cantler’s Riverside Inn, which sits on an inlet off the Chesapeake Bay (many locals arrive by boat). There can be a bit of a hassle factor—the narrow, twisted road to get there, the crowds, the wait for a new shipment of crabs—but you’ll be rewarded with some of the sweetest, meatiest steamed crustaceans around. 458 Forest Beach Rd., Annapolis; 410-757-1311.
Indulge your sausage craving … with a pilgrimage to the joyously chaotic Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909) for a chili-smothered half-smoke, as close as DC gets to a regional dish. If we’re talking the area’s best sausage, that award goes to Robert Wiedmaier’s boudin blanc at Marcel’s in Foggy Bottom (2401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-296-1166). It’s both impossibly rich—foie gras, pheasant, and cream will do that—but also unexpectedly light. The boudin may hail from France, but Wiedmaier has made it all his own.
Have a hip-shaking dinner … at Marrakesh, the signless Moroccan restaurant near the Washington Convention Center, where the menu hasn’t changed in decades. But the family-style food, while good, is beside the point. The best reason to come is for the experience: relaxing against silken pillows, marveling at the belly dancers who shimmy through the room (and might pull you up with them), and lingering over mint tea. 617 New York Ave., NW; 202-393-9393.
Have a midnight feast … at the raw bar at Clyde’s of Gallery Place, where you can cobble together a plateau de mer of East and West Coast oysters, shrimp cocktail, littleneck clams, and chilled lobster on the cheap. The entire selection of shellfish is half off Sunday through Thursday 11 pm to 1 am. Much more interesting than diner pancakes. 707 Seventh St., NW; 202-349-3700.
Relax the Ethiopian way … by spending Sunday afternoon at Sidamo Coffee & Tea, where Yenu Desta, the co-owner’s sister, hosts a free, incense-filled coffee ceremony with freshly roasted and ground beans. 417 H St., NE; 202-548-0081.
Sample the best in street Fare … from the Fojol Bros., a madcap quartet of jewel-turbaned twentysomethings—sometimes on roller skates, always behind fake mustaches—who rove downtown DC doling out Indian stews, garlic-ribbon chips, and ginger-lassi popsicles from a dinged-up 1950s Chevy van. You can follow their whereabouts at twitter.com/fojolbros, but if they’re parked anywhere nearby, chances are you’ll hear them blasting a dance-friendly indie-pop soundtrack.
Kick back over a Manhattan … at the Off the Record bar at the Hay-Adams Hotel, one of the power establishment’s favorite places to unwind. Leave any cravings for rose-petal martinis at the door and put yourself in the hands of affable longtime bartender John Boswell. He gives classic cocktails their due—and makes an especially mean Manhattan. 1 Lafayette Square, NW; 202-638-6600.
Marvel at Fabergé eggs … and the largest collection of 18th- and 19th-century Russian imperial art outside Russia at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens. Spring brings a bonus—4,000 azaleas, lilacs, dogwoods, tulips, crabapples, and other flowering spectacles along with a Japanese-style footbridge, a French parterre, and a rose garden. 4155 Linnean Ave., NW; 202-686-5807.
Go sleuthing … at the National Cryptologic Museum, which sits next to the National Security Agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade. Staffed by NSA employees, the secret-stuffed museum houses thousands of cryptologic artifacts—including a World War II–era Enigma encrypting machine—and is the only public glimpse into the agency’s tight-lipped world. 8293 Colony 7 Rd., Fort Meade; 301-688-5849.
Trace your family tree … at the Daughters of the American Revolution library, one of the nation’s best genealogical-research centers. Housed in the Beaux Arts–style Memorial Continental Hall under a skylit atrium, the soaring library includes published family histories; county, Bible, cemetery, birth, marriage, and death records; military rosters; census data; and more. Nonmembers pay a $6 daily usage fee. 1776 D St., NW; 202-879-3229.
See George Washington and his generals … at Anderson House, home to the Society of the Cincinnati, founded by the officers of the Continental Army and Navy and run by their descendants. The society’s museum offers tours of the Gilded Age mansion as well as changing exhibits that feature armaments, artifacts from Revolutionary soldiers, and a superb collection of paintings and sculpture by artists such as Gilbert Stuart and Charles Wilson Peale. Tours are Tuesday through Saturday 1 to 4 and by special arrangement other times. 2118 Massachusetts Ave., NW; 202-785-2040.
Sit in Albert Einstein’s lap … at the National Academy of Sciences building. The 12-foot-tall bronze memorial to the scientist is in the southwest corner of the academy’s grounds atop a 28-foot map of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. Papers in Einstein’s left hand include mathematic equations summarizing some of his significant scientific contributions: the theory of general relativity, the equivalence of energy and matter, and the photoelectric effect. 2101 Constitution Ave., NW; 202-334-2000.
See the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln … and learn about wartime medicine at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Established during the Civil War and housing more than 25 million artifacts, the museum is located on the Walter Reed Army Medical Center campus but is relocating to a new building in Silver Spring next year. 6900 Georgia Ave., NW, Building 54; 202-782-2200.
Hear great music amid great art … in the intimate music room of the Phillips Collection, where, in a tradition dating to 1941, a classical performance takes place each Sunday from October through May. This month’s performers include the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Ricardo Morales, and pianist Thomas Pandolfi. The space is small and seating is first-come, first-served, so the museum recommends arriving at least an hour before the 4 pm start time. 1600 21st St., NW; 202-387-2151.
Glimpse 20th-century American life …through the collection of Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information photos tucked away in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room in the Library of Congress’s Madison Building. The more than 100,000 black-and-white prints taken between 1935 and 1945 were part of a government effort to document American life through everyday moments—children waiting for a meal at a shabby kitchen table, a taxi driver polishing the hood of his car. 101 Independence Ave., SE; 202-707-6394.
See the city in sepia tones … through rarely seen prints, engravings, and documents dating to the 1700s at Kiplinger’s Washington Collection. Look for a George Munger watercolor of the burned Capitol after the 1814 attack by Britain and a handbill advertising that Charles Lindburgh will be coming through Georgetown. By appointment only; call 202-887-6547 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. 1729 H St., NW.
Enter a Dan Brown novel … when you step inside the mysterious Scottish Rite of the Freemasonry’s House of the Temple, featured in Brown’s The Lost Symbol. Finished in 1915, the society’s sphinx-guarded national headquarters features 33 exterior columns and, inside, a series of grand staircases, an Egyptian-hieroglyphics-dotted atrium, and a wooden-and-purple-velvet throne in an inner sanctum. Tours are Monday through Thursday 10 to 4. 1733 16th St., NW.
Find the da Vinci …in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, site of “Ginevra de’ Benci,” one of Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest works and his only painting in the Americas. The hazel-eyed Ginevra is a beauty but, unlike Mona Lisa, hasn’t even the hint of a smile. Sixth St. and Constitution Ave., NW; 202-737-4215.
Peek at Michelle Obama’s produce garden … at the semiannual White House Gardens and Grounds Tours, self-guided tours that offer the public access to the otherwise off-limits South Lawn, Rose Garden, Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, and Children’s Garden. You can snap photos of the pretty magnolia canopy, which shaded President Obama’s “beer summit,” and glimpse from a distance the First Lady’s produce garden. Tickets for the April 18 and 19 tours are distributed on those mornings on a first-come, first-served basis.
See “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” … the 19th-century log cabin on the property that was home to Josiah Henson, a slave whose autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. The cabin won’t be open on a regular basis until 2012, but tours are offered several times a year. 11420 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-650-4373.
Trek up 365 steps …into the US Capitol dome with your favorite member of Congress as trailblazer. Guided tours of the Capitol, which include the iconic rotunda, can be reserved through a congressional office or via the Capitol Visitor Center’s online reservation system. But the dome can be ascended only with a member of Congress as escort.
Go back to the future … with a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House. The “Usonian” residence, commissioned by journalist Loren Pope in 1939 for $7,000, represents Wright’s vision of an affordable home for a modern family. The structure—made of wood, glass, brick, and concrete—was relocated in 1964 from its original spot in Falls Church to the grounds of Woodlawn Plantation. US Rt. 1 and Va. Route 235 S., Alexandria; 703-780-4000.
Go monument-hopping at night … stopping first at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, where 19 stainless-steel soldiers appear to come to life with white spotlights capturing their expressions. Next, see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, where the statues, walls, and waterfall are especially evocative in the moonlight.
Slip behind closed doors … on a tour of the Pentagon. Led by personnel on active duty, the 1½-mile tour of the labyrinthine building includes the Hall of Heroes and the 9/11 Memorial Chapel. Tours can be arranged through the Pentagon Tour Web page, House and Senate offices, and foreign embassies.
Get in the holiday spirit … by joining those who flock by the busload to see a spectacular Christmas display at the former home of the late Bishop S.C. “Daddy” Madison. The Tudor-style mansion off DC’s 16th Street, Northwest, is decked out for the holidays between December 1 and January 6 with acres of toy soldiers, a life-size manger scene, and a riot of lights. The house is decorated by members of the United House of Prayer for All People church that Madison headed for 17 years until his death in 2008. 1665 N. Portal Dr., NW.
Hold your breath … through a silent precision drill by the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon, a 24-man rifle platoon that executes calculated and polished routines. The best time to catch the squad is during an evening parade held Friday at 8:45 (arrive no later than 8), May through August at the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I streets, Southeast, or during Tuesday Sunset Parades, 7 pm at the US Marine Corps War Memorial (a.k.a. the Iwo Jima memorial) in Arlington.
Take refuge on a secluded island … as you stroll the 2½ miles of woodsy trails that loop around tranquil Theodore Roosevelt Island. Native Americans used the 89-acre island in the Potomac River as a makeshift fishing camp, but today the only full-time residents in the national park are deer, turkeys, foxes, eagles, and a statue of our 26th President. Accessible from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
Float on a lazy river … looking for cranes, hawks, and herons as you glide by in a tube. The Harpers Ferry area, where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, offers many tubing options, from flat-water trips for kids and families to adventurous whitewater rides with Class I, II, and III rapids. Several tour operators are based near Harpers Ferry, including River Riders (800-326-7238) and River & Trail Outfitters (888-446-7529).
Look skyward … at pirouetting airplanes and helicopters in the three-day Joint Service Open House air show, held each May at Andrews Air Force Base. The Blue Angels or Thunderbirds wow spectators with their sky-mastering tricks. There’s also a traditional parachute jump commemorating D-Day, and historic planes are parked on the tarmac for visitors to discover.
Sail the Chesapeake Bay … aboard a skipjack, a historic sloop-rigged oyster-dredging vessel that’s the state boat of Maryland. Fewer than 50 skipjacks survive today, and some—like Captain Wade Murphy’s Rebecca T. Ruark, the oldest working skipjack on the Bay (410-829-3976)—are available for charter. Another operator is Captain Ed Farley, who sails the H.M. Krentz (410-745-6080).
Get up early … to see the gorgeous waterlilies at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, where morning is the best time for flower viewing (the gardens open at 7), with lily pads dotting the marsh along the Anacostia River. Waterlilies start blooming in late May, and some offer changing blossoms through mid-August. 1550 Anacostia Ave., NE, between Douglas and Ponds sts.; 202-426-6905.
Find a golden-winged warbler … on one of the DC Audubon Society’s bird-watching expeditions. The group has documented sightings of as many as 101 species in the area in a single day. Every January, volunteers walk along the C&O Canal, from Georgetown to Cumberland, and count all the birds. A $20 annual membership gets you invited to all the Washington-area trips. 202-547-2355.
Get swarmed by butterflies … at the “Wings of Fancy” exhibit at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton Regional Park. Every year from May through mid-September, a hundred species of butterflies fly freely throughout the enclosed conservatory, landing on your shoulder one moment (don’t swat!), whirring by to check out the various nectar plants the next. 1800 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton; 301-962-1400.
Get subterranean … at Virginia’s Luray Caverns, one of those places you know are there but maybe haven’t managed to get to. Just west of Luray, it’s the most popular cave in the eastern US—a maze of stalactites, stalagmites, ten-story ceilings, and mirrored pools. Don’t leave without hiking to the cave’s most famous attraction and listening to the hum of the Great Stalacpipe Organ. 540-743-6551.
Stop and smell the Hyacinths … at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, a horticulturist’s mecca with hundreds of plants in flower beds and ornate hanging baskets, a cherub-topped fountain, and cast-iron benches. The curved garden is tucked between the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and Hirshhorn Museum, so it’s often overshadowed by the two imposing buildings. But this Mall oasis, which almost became a parking lot, is a year-round treasure.
Hear the rustle of wings … at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Cambridge, Maryland. It’s open all year from dawn to dusk, but from late October through early February, tens of thousands of geese and ducks stop here on their way south. The marshland is home to a breeding population of American bald eagles. 2145 Key Wallace Dr., Cambridge; 410-228-2677.
Hear cannons roar …as you watch the Civil War’s epic battles reenacted throughout Virginia—from the Battles of Spotsylvania on May 22 and 23 (9010 Old Battlefield Blvd., Spotsylvania; 540-507-7090; spotsylvania.org) to the First Battle of Bull Run, commemorated at Manassas National Battlefield Park on July 17 and 18 with military demonstrations and encampments of Union and Confederate troops (6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas; 703-361-1339). Check virginia.org for more listings.
Spot a heron … from the boardwalk observation tower at Huntley Meadows Park. The 1,425-acre Fairfax County wetland is home to more than 200 species of birds as well as forests, wildflower meadows, and a two-mile trail. Carved into Huntley Meadows by an offshoot of the Potomac, it also offers prime viewing of wildlife. 3701 Lockheed Blvd., Alexandria; 703-768-2525.
Walk among bluebells … at Bull Run Regional Park, which has the largest stretch of Virginia bluebells on the East Coast. In early April, just before leaves emerge on the trees, the bluebells soak up sunlight from the forest floors. Once temperatures rise, the spectacular woodland flower is in peak bloom for about two weeks. A 1½-mile Bluebell Walk takes place April 18. 7700 Bull Run Dr., Centreville; 703-631-0550.
Search out J. Edgar Hoover . . . along with John Philip Sousa, photographer Mathew Brady, and dozens of political leaders at Congressional Cemetery. The graveyard—also a popular dog park—goes back to 1807, predating Arlington Cemetery as a final resting spot for luminaries, from a Vice President to a silent-screen star. On November 6, the US Marine Corps Band marks Sousa’s birthday with a concert at his grave. 1801 E St., SE; 202-543-0539.
Get starstruck … in Rock Creek Park, where you can peer through telescopes to see stars and planets with the National Capital Astronomers. The free program is held one Saturday a month, April through November—the first is April 18—shortly after sunset. Gather at the field just south of Military and Glover roads, Northwest. 202-895-6070.
Brush up on your McEwan … at the PEN/Faulkner Reading Series. Held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the evening program draws luminaries such as Susan Orlean, George Saunders, Ian McEwan, and Walter Mosley—and that’s just this spring’s lineup. Authors read excerpts from their work, answer questions, and sign books. 201 E. Capitol St., SE; 202-898-9063.
See fancy footwork … at GALA Hispanic Theatre’s annual Fuego Flamenco Festival, which features exhilarating flamenco dancers and musicians straight from Madrid. The festival, which takes place each fall, is presented in collaboration with the Embassy of Spain. This year’s will be November 19 through December 5. 3333 14th St., NW; 202-234-7174.
Sing Hallelujah … with the SBC Chorale at Southern Baptist Church Praise and Worship Center. The award-winning seven-member gospel group has twice been named the region’s top small group at How Sweet the Sound, an annual contest to find the country’s best church choir. You can hear the members’ powerhouse pipes belt out gospel standards, from traditional to contemporary, at some Sunday services. 134 L St., NW; 202-842-1953.
Shiver at the evil Sweeney Todd … or thrill to another musical by Stephen Sondheim. Nobody does Sondheim like Shirlington’s Signature Theatre. The composer/lyricist himself has come down from New York to see artistic director Eric Schaeffer’s inventive takes on his work. Sweeney Todd—this season’s Sondheim offering among Signature’s varied productions—runs through April 4. Next spring it’s the revue Side by Side by Sondheim. 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; 703-573-7328.
Swing to a red-hot blues legend … in DC’s Adams Morgan. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Bobby Parker has performed with such musical greats as Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and longtime friend Carlos Santana. Legend has it Parker was a favorite of John Lennon’s. At 72, he still heats up a room with his lively R&B, performing at Madam’s Organ on the last Saturday of every month. 2461 18th St., NW; 202-667-5370.
Get dazzled on U Street … at the beautifully restored Lincoln Theatre. When the Lincoln opened in 1922, the neighborhood was known as Washington’s black Broadway. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald jammed there. Today the Lincoln hosts special productions, jazz performances, the DC Jazz Festival, and works by emerging playwrights. This month Arena Stage brings Sophisticated Ladies, a tribute to Ellington’s music, to the Lincoln, where it should feel right at home. 1215 U St., NW; 202-328-6000.
Break for lunch with Bach … at the Church of the Epiphany’s Tuesday concert series. The weekly noontime recitals feature top classical musicians from the area, including the Washington Bach Consort (April 6 and May 4) and faculty from the Levine School of Music. It’s free, but small donations are requested for the 50-minute concerts. 1317 G St., NW; 202-347-2635.
Awaken your inner Whitman … at a reading by the US poet laureate,who every year reads from his or her work at the Library of Congress. On May 20, poet laureate Kay Ryan closes the institution’s literary season in the library’s Coolidge Auditorium. First St., SE, between Independence Ave. and E. Capitol St.; 202-707-5394.
Live out your baseball fantasies … by watching your son or daughter stomp home plate at Nationals Park. At some Sunday home games, kids ages 4 through 12 are invited to take to the field to participate in a fun run of the bases.
Feel the spray …of ice chips flying off Alex Ovechkin’s skates at a practice of the Washington Capitals. The NHL team runs drills and scrimmages at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. Practices—free and open to the public—are held at 10 am on game days, 11 on mornings following games, and 10:30 otherwise. 627 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington; 703-243-8855.
Spike a volleyball … or just watch a game at one of the six outdoor courts bordering the Potomac River between the Lincoln Memorial and the Kennedy Center. The courts were designed by former Energy Department analyst Roger Morris in the late 1970s as a way for burned-out bureaucrats to unwind. The pickup play is normally fours and doubles, and the high-profile setting often attracts an eclectic group of fit international players, making for some great people-watching.
Tee off … on the second floor of the two-tiered driving range at the East Potomac Golf Course at Hains Point. Considered one of the nation’s top driving ranges, the top-floor stalls give you views of the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, and Reagan National Airport while you practice your swing. 972 Ohio Dr., SW; 202-554-7660.Other
Find a haven of tranquility … at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, the capital’s version of Calvary. Built in 1899 to be a stateside Holy Land with replicas of shrines around the world, the monastery is surrounded by a pretty garden, a Rosary Portico, and 15 miniature outdoor chapels that chronicle the lives of Jesus and Mary in mosaic. Join a guided tour for a peek at the Roman catacombs tucked beneath the monastery, or walk the quiet 44-acre grounds at your leisure. 1400 Quincy St. NE; 202-526-6800.
Stir your soul … by listening to the dynamic preaching of Reverend H. Beecher Hicks Jr., senior minister at the 6,000-member Metropolitan Baptist Church, which holds worship at 1400 First Street, Northwest, but is building a $50-million church in Largo. Hicks was named one of the country’s 15 greatest black preachers by Ebonyin 1993.
Explore the Koran …at the Islamic Center on Embassy Row. The mosque’s palatial exterior only hints at the grandeur inside. Tiles from Turkey adorn the walls, Persian rugs cover the floor, and a massive bronze chandelier from Egypt is the room’s centerpiece. The center is open to the public daily 10 to 5. Women are required to wear a head covering. 2551 Massachusetts Ave., NW; 202-332-8343.
Get naked … and get hot—really hot!—at a sizzling sauna party at the Finnish Embassy. The sweaty soirees are by invitation only, but if you’re lucky enough to get the nod from a member of the official “Diplomatic Finnish Sauna Society of DC”—guests tend to be from the media and PR worlds—you’ll enjoy one of Washington’s most unusual evenings: cocktails, dinner, and then hot times in the embassy’s authentic 190-degree Finnish sauna—first the ladies, then the men.
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