DAY ONE: BE THE TOURIST’S TOURIST.
Lace up your sneakers and slather on some sunscreen. You’re in for a day of touring, sightseeing, walking—and more walking.
8:30 AM: Union Station
Your day begins at Union Station (50 Massachusetts Ave., NE), one of the city’s most popular destinations. This Beaux Arts-style train station is a bustling transportation hub, with the Red Line Metro, Amtrak, and Virginia and Maryland commuter trains making stops daily. It features three concourses: The top two house more than 100 shops and eateries, and the lower one features a food court and movie theater. In the marble foyer at the front of the station—a cavernous space with 96-foot vaulted ceilings—art and science exhibits and other public events take place throughout the year. Pick up a brochure at the visitors’ desk and take some time to explore the building before heading out for breakfast.
9 AM: Breakfast at Bistro Bis
A few blocks from Union Station is Bistro Bis in the Hotel George (15 E St., NW; 202-347-4200), a power-breakfast spot popular with Washington politicos. Enjoy a plate of eggs Benedict while you get a taste of DC hard at work.
10 AM: Tour the Capitol
Take a tour of the US Capitol and learn about the history of the building while you see it for yourself. After walking through the Hall of Columns, the rotunda, and the old Supreme Court chambers, it’s upstairs to where the action is: the House and Senate chambers. From the visitors’ gallery, you can watch history as it happens—see bills being debated, votes being counted, and speeches being given. But a word to the wise: Congress is on recess for the month of August, so if watching a bill become a law is important to you, don’t plan a visit that month.
Tickets are free but available only on a first-come, first-served basis at the Capitol Guide Service kiosk on the sidewalk on the Capitol’s southwest side (near the intersection of First Street and Independence Avenue, Southwest). Ticket distribution starts at 9.
• Insider tip: Lines for the ticket kiosk can be long, especially in the summer. If you’re a US citizen, you might try to arrange a tour with someone from your Congress member’s or senators’ office. It’s recommended that you call in advance of your trip to secure a tour time, but even if you don’t, it’s a worth a try just popping in and seeing if they’ll give you a tour on the spot. Often, they’re more than willing to accommodate—you are a voter, after all.
11:30 AM: Free Museums
Who says you need money to have fun? The ten museums along the one-mile span of the National Mall are all free of charge. There’s a museum to suit practically every taste, and because you’ll only have time for one, check out a map beforehand and pick one that appeals to you. We recommend hitting the National Gallery of Art—the 76-foot-long Alexander Calder mobile in the East Building is especially breathtaking—or the Natural History Museum, for a look at dinosaur bones, an insect zoo, the Hope Diamond, and more. The National Gallery comprises the two easternmost buildings on the north side of the Mall, along Madison Drive. The Natural History Museum is the third building on the same side, moving west. No matter which you choose, take a few minutes to wander through the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, which sits between the two museums.
For more free things to do in DC, click here.
1 PM: Lunch
By now, you’ll be starved and looking for a place to rest your feet. Central Michel Richard, one of the area’s most acclaimed new restaurants, is a short walk away at Tenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest (202-626-0015). Feast on bistro food gone haute: lobster burgers with crispy fries, fried chicken with mustard sauce, “faux gras” made from chicken livers whipped with butter. After all that walking, treat yourself to Richard’s signature “Kit Kat bar” dessert ($9). A word to the wise: The restaurant is pricey—sandwiches run $14 to $32 and lunch entrées $18 to $25—but if you’re here for only a few days, it’s worth the splurge.
A more wallet-friendly option is Aria Trattoria (1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-312-1250), located in the central plaza of the Ronald Reagan Building. In nice weather, grab a seat on the patio and take in the sights and sounds of this busy promenade while you munch on a grilled-vegetable panini with eggplant, zucchini, and portobello mushroom ($10). Or create your own pizza with toppings such as Gorgonzola, salami, and artichokes—a ten-inch pie costs $11 plus $1.50 for each topping.
For other ideas about where to eat, check out our guide to museum dining.
Don’t miss the National Archives (700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-501-5000), where you can see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and hundreds of other historical documents on display. The museum also hosts rotating special exhibits that have included a showing of the Magna Carta, audiotaped conversations of former Presidents, and videos on important historical periods, such as the New Deal era. Free.
3:30 PM: City Views at the Old Post Office Pavilion and Clock Tower
Skip the lines at the Washington Monument and take in a view of the city from downtown DC’s second-highest point: the clock tower at the Old Post Office Pavilion (1100 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-289-4224). This free tour is one of DC’s best-kept secrets. The observation deck provides 360-degree views of the city. The tower is home to the Congressional Bells, a gift from Britain for our country’s 200th birthday; they ring on Thursday evenings and special occasions.
5 PM: Happy Hour
Just down the street is the Round Robin Bar at the Willard InterContinental (1401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-628-9100), a swanky cocktail spot where Washington’s power players rub elbows around the circular mahogany bar. It’s not cheap—cocktails range from $12 to $15, and the cheapest beer will set you back $6.50—but you’re paying for the atmosphere and a chance to taste a bit of history; it was here that Henry Clay introduced George Washington to the mint julep in the early 1800s. You can try the famous drink—made the way Washington liked it with Maker’s Mark, mint, sugar, and branch water—for $15.
6:30 PM: Dinner
Adjacent to the Willard, Café du Parc (1401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-942-7000) channels Paris in the heart of DC. Dine on such French classics as pâté en croûte, roast chicken, and mussels steamed with white wine and garlic. Nothing beats a table on the charming patio on a nice evening—except maybe the excellent mille-feuille for dessert.
8 PM: Nightlife in Adams Morgan
DC’s Adam’s Morgan neighborhood—18th Street, Northwest, between U Street and Columbia Road—is DC’s nightlife mecca, with plenty of spots to sip a drink, grab a snack, listen to music, or dance the night away. The neighborhood has two personalities: Sunday through Wednesday night, it’s relatively quiet and the bars fill up to comfortable levels, mostly with neighborhood residents out for happy hour; Thursday through Saturday night, the strip transforms into a frenetic scene packed with college kids and twentysomethings out to party.
For an unpretentious dive bar with a decent beer selection, check out Toledo Lounge (2435 18th St., NW; 202-986-5416). Knock back a few at one of the two dozen or so tables inside, and if it’s warm, try to snag one of the coveted patio seats out front. You can people watch to your heart’s content.
Down the street is Club Heaven and Hell (2327 18th St., NW; 202-332-8899), a two-level joint where the upstairs bar (Heaven) caters to high-energy danceaholics and the downstairs bar (Hell) to a brooding billiard crowd. The highlight of Heaven is the Thursday-night ’80s dance party, which packs in a tight crowd. In Hell, the appeal is the dim lighting and relative quiet, which means it’s easier to have a conversation. Hell’s pool table is a bonus.
Across the street is the Reef (2446 18th St., NW; 202-518-3800), an aquatic-themed restaurant with cozy booths, a large bar with ample seating, and high tables overlooking 18th Street. The biggest draw is the aquariums throughout the place, which hold hundreds of colorful fish that give the room a glow at night. If it’s warm—and not too crowded—check out the upstairs roof deck for great nighttime views of the city.
Bars on 18th Street stay open late, so if you’re taking the subway back to your hotel, remember that it stops running at midnight Sunday through Thursday and at 3 AM on Friday and Saturday nights. The closest Metro stop to Adams Morgan is Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan on the Red Line.
1 PM: Lunch
It’s off to Penn Quarter for the rest of the day—but first, lunch! To give your wallet a break, go with something cheap and casual, like the new ecofriendly On the Fly cart (Southwest corner of Eighth and H sts., NW) for sandwiches, salads, wraps, parfaits, and more. You can’t miss it—it’s big and green. Or try a salad or sandwich at Chop’t (730 Seventh St., NW; 202-347-3445) for something fresh and healthy (or not—if you go for the smoky bacon dressing).
From the National Postal Museum, walk a block south on North Capitol Street and turn right onto E Street, Northwest. Follow E until you get to Seventh Street, Northwest, Penn Quarter’s main thoroughfare, where you should turn right. Chop’t is 2½ blocks north on Seventh. The On the Fly cart is half a block north and one block west of Chop’t at Eighth and H.
2 PM: Take Your Pick
Penn Quarter has several museums, but you won’t have time to see them all. We recommend hitting either the International Spy Museum or Madame Tussauds wax museum.
The International Spy Museum (800 F St., NW; 202-393-7798) tells the story of international espionage, both real and Hollywood style. The museum requires a good amount of reading—a lengthy placard accompanies almost every exhibit and item on display—but you’ll get to see some real-life spy gadgetry, such as a pistol disguised as a tube of lipstick, alongside some of Hollywood’s renditions, like the 1964 Aston Martin outfitted for James Bond. Tickets range from $15 to $18, depending on age; children under age five are free.
Another option is Madame Tussauds (1025 F St., NW; 202-942-7300), a quirky please-touch wax museum filled with lifesize replicas of past and present celebrities and politicians. Among four exhibits—with themes of history, celebrities, and sports, and a behind-the-scenes look at Madame Tussauds—you’ll witness Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, break the Watergate scandal with Bob Woodward, walk the red carpet with Julia Roberts, and check the green with Tiger Woods. As you can imagine, this place is chock-full of photo ops. Tickets are $18 for adults (over age 13) and $12 for children (ages four to 12); under age four is free.
• Insider tip: A $1 service fee is tacked on to tickets purchased online for Madame Tussauds, so we recommend purchasing them directly from the museum when you arrive.
4 PM: National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum
Don’t miss the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, located in the old Patent Office Building at Eighth and F streets and housing both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Portrait Gallery (202-633-8300) features exhibitions on America’s presidents and history; prominent cultural, scientific, and political figures of the 20th century; and performers, composers, and athletes of more recent acclaim. The American Art Museum (202-633-7970) is devoted to art and artists of the United States from Colonial times to the present. Both museums host traveling and temporary exhibits—such as the Portrait Gallery’s 2008 exhibition on American hip-hop culture—so there’s usually something new to see. Before you leave, stroll through the glass-enclosed Kogod Courtyard between the museums, which includes two 32-foot-high ficus trees and 16 black-olive trees as well as a café. The glass canopy was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster.
8 PM: To the Theater!
Penn Quarter has a number of options for a night at theater. The Shakespeare Theatre Company performs the Bard’s classics as well as works by other playwrights at Sydney Harman Hall (610 F St., NW) and the nearby Lansburgh Theatre (450 Seventh St., NW)—collectively known as the Harman Center for the Arts—almost every night except Monday. Evening shows begin at 7:30 or 8; call 202-547-1122 or check the Web site for more information.
Another option is the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (641 D St., NW; 202-393-3939), which has made its name developing, producing, and performing new plays. Some of them are world premieres; others have played recently in other cities but are making their DC debut. Tickets range from $24 to $57, depending on the date and time of the show and where you’re sitting. Learn more about this season’s plays here. Performances Wednesday through Saturday start at 8, on Sunday at 7.
If film is more your style, head to E Street Cinema (555 11th St., NW; 202-452-7672), an eight-screen theater featuring independent and foreign films, documentaries, and classics. Part of the national Landmark Theatre art-house chain, it serves beer and wine, among other concessions, and has an espresso bar. Tickets are $9.75; showtimes vary, so check the Web site before making plans.
DAY THREE: A DAY AT THE MONUMENTS
Visit museums in the morning, but then it’s outside for fresh air and a walking tour of the monuments.
8:30 AM: Breakfast
For breakfast, head to Teaism (800 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-835-2233), an Asian-inspired teahouse near the White House in Lafayette Square, for cilantro scrambled eggs (or tofu) and hearty Irish oatmeal with fruit. Be sure to grab one of the hefty salty oat cookies for the road—they have something of a cult following among Washingtonians.
9:30 AM: Plan ahead! Grab a Picnic Lunch
You’ll be spending the day on the southwest side of the National Mall, where the pickings for lunch are slim. We suggest hitting Breadline (1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-822-8900), a short walk from Teaism, and packing a lunch for later. The lunch rush at this popular spot can be chaotic, but because you’re going in the morning you’ll find no lines and will have your pick of fresh salads and sandwiches on excellent bread. Try the prosciutto with watercress, mascarpone, and fig jam on walnut-raisin bread; egg salad on olive bread; or a takeout bowl of greens with such toppings as Persian chicken or lentils and feta.
From Breadline, it’s on to the Mall. Head east on Pennsylvania Avenue—you’ll cross in front of the White House—and then turn right onto 14th Street. Take 14th about three blocks to the southwest corner of the National Mall.
10 AM: Freer and Sackler Galleries and US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Spend the rest of the morning at the Freer and Sackler galleries and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Take an hour to walk around the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave., SW) and the Freer Gallery of Art (Jefferson Dr. at 12th St., SW), which together make up the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art; the museums are connected by an underground exhibition space. In the Freer, don’t miss the Peacock Room, a blue-and-gold dining room painted by James McNeill Whistler; it was once part of an 1876 London townhouse owned by a wealthy ship owner.
Around the corner is the Holocaust Museum, a solemn but educational journey through a tragic period in world history. You’ll want at least two hours to take in the whole place. The permanent exhibition tells the chronological history of the Holocaust,starting on the fourth floor with Hitler’s rise to power and working its way downward. The exhibition ends with a video of Holocaust survivors sharing their stories. Because the permanent exhibition can be disturbing for children, the museum has developed “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story,” a fictional account of the Holocaust about a boy name Daniel that draws from the stories of survivors. This exhibition is meant for elementary- and middle-school kids.
All three museums are free, but you’ll need a pass to visit the Holocaust Museum. It distributes a limited number of timed-entry passes on a first-come, first-served basis for use the same day.
8 PM: Dance the Night Away
Now that you’ve eaten, it’s time to stretch your legs. Just a block away is the Black Cat (1811 14th St., NW; 202-667-7960), a nightclub and live-music venue popular with local hipsters. Downstairs, you’ll find the Red Room Bar, a dimly lit spot with a well-stocked bar of microbrews and imports, Belgian beers, bourbon, Scotch, and more. Strike up a conversation with a stranger; or if you’re more bold, challenge someone to a game of pool. You can also play pinball or play DJ for the night on the jukebox.
Adjacent to the bar is the club’s Backstage, a small performance space that hosts lesser-known bands of all stripes, from punk and indie to garage bands as well as soloists. The stage also features spoken-word events, film screenings, and DJ dance nights.
Upstairs is the main concert space, a 7,000-square-foot venue that hosts national touring acts, popular local bands, and monthly DJ dance events. The upstairs bar has a smaller selection than the one downstairs, serving predictable—and high-price—beers and mixed drinks. There are a few tables and chairs in the back for conversation, but most people crowd near the front, where the band plays.
The no-cover Red Room Bar is open from 8 PM to 2 AM during the week and 7 PM to 3 AM on Fridays and Saturdays. Doors open for the Backstage at 9, and the act goes on at 9:30. Door times for the Mainstage vary; check the Web site. Tickets for shows on both stages are required and can be purchased from the box office (cash only) starting at 8 PM or through Ticketmaster.com.
12 AM: Midnight Snack
Before calling it a night, there’s one more place in the neighborhood to check out. Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St., NW; 202-667-0909) has been a favorite of Washingtonians since 1958, when legends such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, and Martin Luther King Jr. frequented the spot. The most famous dish at this diner-style comfort-food joint is the chili half smoke, DC’s signature sausage swimming in Ben’s warm chili. It’s reportedly Bill Cosby’s guilty pleasure.
This busy late-night hotspot is open until 2 AM Monday through Thursday and 4 AM Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, it closes at 8 PM.
DAY FOUR: FIND LOCAL FAVORITES
Now that you’ve spent a few days touring, it’s time to see why many Washingtonians love to call this city home.
9 AM: Breakfast
Market Lunch (306 Seventh St., SE; 202-547-8444) is a local favorite in DC’s Eastern Market neighborhood (closest Metro is Eastern Market on the Orange and Blue lines). After a fire in April 2007 ripped through the historic Eastern Market building, Market Lunch and other vendors, which had been housed there, moved across the street to a temporary tented hall. Market Lunch’s long communal table with seating for 30 survived the blaze, so its cafe-meets-diner atmosphere is still in tact. The line tends to be long, especially on weekends, but it usually moves fast. Even if you have to wait a few minutes, the fantastic Blue Buck pancakes, made with blueberries and buckwheat, make the wait worth it. Open Tuesday through Sunday.
1:30 PM: Phillips Collection
Take in art at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St., NW; 202-387-2151), the country’s first museum of modern art. Among the American and European artists represented in its 2,500-piece permanent collection are Renoir, van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne. In addition, the gallery hosts temporary exhibitions, which in 2008 include “Degas to Diebenkorn: The Phillips Collects” (through May 25), featuring nearly 100 works by European and American artists, and “Brett Weston: Out of the Shadow,” a retrospective featuring Weston’s photographs from the 1920s through ’80s.
Admission to the permanent collection is free Tuesday through Friday, though contributions are accepted. Saturday and Sunday, it costs $10 for adults, $8 for college students and seniors. Visitors under 18 are free. Ticket prices for the temporary exhibits vary but usually cost around $12.
3 PM: Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle
A short walk south from Dupont Circle is the Cathedral of St. Matthew (1725 Rhode Island Ave., NW; 202-347-3215). The building draws inspiration from Roman and Byzantine architecture and dates to the late 1800s. It held its first mass in 1895. Anchored by a 35-foot mosaic of St. Matthew, the interior is decorated in marble and semiprecious stones. It has been the site of several famous funeral ceremonies, including a Mass in 1957 for Senator Joseph McCarthy and, more famously, the state funeral of President John F. Kennedy on November 25, 1963. The church doesn’t offer tours, but the clergy welcome visitors who want to look around or take a break from busy city life.
3:45 PM: Shopping in Georgetown
Next, you’re off to shop in Georgetown. From Dupont Circle, Georgetown is just a short walk west on scenic P Street (about a mile). If you’re not up for the walk, catch the G2 bus at 20th and P streets and ride to Wisconsin Avenue and P Street. Bus fare is $1.35.
Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, Georgetown’s two main arteries, are home to many shops and boutiques. Retail chains such as H&M, Urban Outfitters, and J. Crew have found homes here along with smaller boutiques such as A Mano (for leather goods) and Wink (known for carrying designer jeans).
Georgetown University begins at 37th Street. Take time to tour the campus, where you’ll see Gothic-inspired architecture, views of the Potomac River, and, during the school year, students bustling between classes. You might even catch the Hoya spirit.
5:45 PM: Happy Hour, Georgetown Style
There are plenty of places in Georgetown to sip predinner drinks. Our pick is Mie N Yu (3125 M St., NW; 202-333-6122), a trendy Middle East-inspired spot that offers interesting fusion drinks such as Emperor’s Nectar (peach-flavored vodka with white-cranberry and blood-orange juice) and the Dancing Shiva (Bulleit bourbon, sweet and dry vermouth, mint, an orange slice, and a splash of bitters). If you’re going during the week, the after-work menu offers drink and food specials at the bar. The Marco Polo martini, made with Centenario tequila, Cointreau, lime, and sours, is just $4.25; red and white wine are the same price. Appetizers such as fried calamari or crab with cream cheese, sambal, and Japanese mustard cost $2 to $4. The after-work menu is available Monday and Tuesday from 5 to 7 and Wednesday through Friday from 4 to 7.
For more ideas of fun, food, and shopping in Georgetown, check out our neighborhood guide.
11:15 AM: Shop Old Town
Make your way east through Old Town Alexandria by checking out the boutiques and shops along the King Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. If antiquing is your game, stop by Golden Rhodes (1305 King St.; 703-535-5560), which stocks 19th-century antiques and mirrors, or the 5,000-square-foot antique megastore Random Harvest (810 King St.; 703-548-8820). For clothing, American in Paris (1225 King St.; 703-519-8234) sells gowns, dresses, suits, jeans, and accessories by European designers, while Diva (116 S. Pitt St.; 703-683-1022), a designer consignment store on a side street, features shoes, clothing, and accessories by Prada, Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Burberry, and more. There are also stores with home furnishings and gifts for pets.
1 PM: Late Lunch
Take a late lunch at Restaurant Eve (110 S. Pitt St.; 703-706-0450) for excellent cooking at a bargain price. The “Lickity-Split” lunch special lets you pick any two items on the menu for $13.50. Go for two savory courses, a main and a dessert (such as the best pink birthday cake you’ve ever tasted), or even a salad or sandwich along with one of sommelier Todd Thrasher’s delicious cocktails. The deal is available only on weekdays at the bar.
2:30 PM: Take a Walk on the Waterfront
From Restaurant Eve, head east on King Street toward the Potomac River and take a walk along Alexandria’s waterfront. Or, if you’re too stuffed, sit at one of the many benches on the pier (near King and Union streets) and take in views of DC from across the river. For a good walking loop from the end of King Street, turn left on Union Street and walk four blocks to the north side of Founders Park. The park has a nice walking path that goes right along the river and ends at the marina and pier near King Street, where you began.
This article is part of Washingtonian's Visitors' Guide. For more articles like it, click here.