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Visitors’ Guide: Five Days in Washington, DC
In town for a five-day vacation? We help you take in all the sights, entertainment, dining, and more as possible.
Day 1: The Mall by Day, the U Street Corridor by Night
Breakfast: Le Bon Café
Grab a seat at one of the outdoor tables at this cozy Capitol Hill cafe for a plate of French toast, a waffle, or a made-to-order egg sandwich; or pick up a croissant or bagel to enjoy on the road.
Visiting the Capitol takes a little planning. Tour slots are free and can be booked online as late as the day before, and a small number of same-day tickets are available at the information desks on Emancipation Hill. The basic tour includes a short history lesson and an introduction to the building. The House and Senate galleries are also open to visitors, but you’ll need to arrange separate passes ahead of time through your senator or representative. The Visitor Center is also open 8:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday, and you can stop in to the exhibit hall, the cafeteria, and the gift shops any time.
Next Stop: Visit the Library of Congress
Next to the Capitol sits the largest library in the world, where more than 500 miles of bookshelves house books, photos, maps, and other items. In 1814, the original building and its contents were burned by the British, and since Thomas Jefferson offered his own collection as a replacement, the main building now bears his name (Adams and Madison are the other two buildings in DC). More than 151 million items are housed in the library, and free tours are offered between 10:30 and 3:30 on weekdays and between 10:30 and 2:30 on Saturdays.
Pennsylvania Avenue, Southeast, near the Capitol, abounds with lunch options. Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn has made a home at Third and Penn, where he runs burger joint Good Stuff Eatery and casual pizzeria We, the Pizza, both in converted rowhouses with patio seating out front. At Good Stuff, make sure to pair your burger with a milkshake (we suggest the toasted marshmallow). At We, the Pizza, you can opt for a slice or a full pie—we can’t resist the spinach and artichoke.
For a longer-lasting sit-down meal and a glass of wine, head to Sonoma, a few doors closer to the Capitol. This restaurant’s charcuterie and extensive wine list are highlights, but the creative salads and pizzas are also worth a try.
PM: Take In Art for Free at the National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art’s West Building is home to one of the world’s best collections of paintings, sculpture, and more dating from the 13th to the 20th century. Highlights include pieces by Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne, and the only Da Vinci in the Western hemisphere, “Ginevra de’ Benci.”
The I.M. Pei-designed East Building, meanwhile, houses mostly modern and contemporary pieces, including a huge Calder mobile that hangs from the ceiling and works by Picasso, Pollock, Matisse, and Mondrian. The Gallery’s sculpture garden also sits on the Mall (next to the West Building), serving as home to works by Louise Bourgeois and Sol LeWitt.
Next Stop: The Newseum
This seven-level complex opened in its current location near the Mall in 2008, notable for the First Amendment quote emblazoned on its facade. Inside, you’ll find 15 main exhibition galleries covering major events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11 attacks. Other not-to-be-missed highlights include the Pulitzer Prize Photo Gallery, the NBC News Interactive Newsroom—which allows guests to read the news themselves from a teleprompter—and the views from the sixth-floor terrace. This is not a Smithsonian museum, so a two-day pass costs $21.95.
Happy Hour: The Source
There’s nothing Washingtonians love more than a good happy hour, and celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s the Source created a menu with that in mind. The Source (which is in the Newseum) makes it possible to squeeze dinner out of a few specials. Monday through Saturday from 4 to 6, you can get three dishes—like shrimp tempura rolls, pork-belly-stuffed bao buns, and miniature bánh mì—from the downstairs lounge’s izakaya menu for $20.12, and beer and sake are, of course, available to wash down the cheap snacks.
Dinner: 14th Street
The 14th Street, Northwest, area is awash with new, interesting restaurants and bars; you may have trouble choosing just one. Some options include Pearl Dive Oyster Palace for exceptional fresh seafood and El Centro D.F. for a menu that’s entirely gluten-free. For small, shareable plates, try Estadio, which offers great Spanish tapas near Logan Circle; or Bar Pilar, where the options change seasonally but always include strong vegetable and pork dishes.
Post-Dinner: Explore the U Street Nightlife
If you’re looking for live music, you couldn’t be in a better neighborhood. Options include the 9:30 Club, which is consistently voted one of the best music venues in the country by Pollstar; dance/electronica venue U Street Music Hall; and the New Vegas Lounge, which has live Motown and blues on weekends.
Day 2: Monuments, Museums, and a Show at the Hamilton
Breakfast: Cafe du Parc
Try breakfast at one of Washington’s top 100 restaurants in the historic Willard InterContinental hotel. Buffet and à-la-carte selections are available daily upstairs, or you can pick up a house-made pastry and a cup of Illy coffee to go on the first floor.
AM: Monuments Tour
A half-mile stroll down 15th Street from the Willard will bring you to the Washington Monument. From there, you can walk around the Tidal Basin (about two miles total) or stay on the Mall, depending on how far you’d like to walk and what you’re looking to see. This area includes:
Tip: Though the monuments look close together on a map, the walk can turn from enjoyable to exhausting in a hurry. Consider checking out some of them by night (FDR and Lincoln are particularly pretty in the evening) to avoid the long walk and Washington’s punishing summer heat. Or if you’re a runner, a morning jog around the Tidal Basin can be a great way to see Jefferson, FDR, and MLK.
Lunch: Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian
We know, a museum cafeteria isn’t what you had in mind, but the stations here serve up dishes inspired by the ingredients and cooking of five Native American groups. Think bison strip loin or mole-braised chicken prepared with herbs from the museums garden, or grab some chicken tenders for the kids if you must. The full menu (including beer and wine) is available until 3 PM.
PM: The National Air and Space Museum
Air and Space, the most popular museum in the country, holds the world’s largest collection of air and spacecraft along with interactive flight simulators, a planetarium, and an Imax theater, to name a few highlights.
Just beyond the Mall entrance is the Milestones of Flight entry hall, which runs through the history of aviation with Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and the North American X-15—the first aircraft to break Mach 4, 5, and 6—as well as the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia.
Don’t miss the Golden Age of Flight gallery, which includes Howard Hughes’s H-1 racer, or the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight wing on the second floor, which celebrates people who achieved significant “firsts” in flight.
Nearly as popular as the Air and Space Museum, Natural History sits on the Mall and houses more than 126 million items. Highlights include a 13-foot Fénykövi elephant from Angola that sits under the central dome of the rotunda, the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond in the Gems and Minerals gallery, and a Imax theater that shows nature movies on a six-story-high screen. Admission, as with all Smithsonian museums, is free; for $6, you can also visit the Butterfly Pavilion to view hundreds of live butterflies and moths.
For everything from Dorothy Gale’s ruby slippers to the original Star-Spangled Banner and Thomas Edison’s 1879 lightbulb, stop by the National Museum of American History. The first floor focuses on transportation, technology, and innovation, and includes the first car ever driven across the country. On the second floor, don’t miss the original Greensboro lunch country from the 1960 sit-ins, and on the third floor, make sure to stop by the “American Stories” gallery.
Walk Past: The White House
Tours of the White House are hard to come by and must be planned well in advance, but anyone can walk by, marvel, and snap a photo in front of the famous home without prior arrangements. And across Pennsylvania from the northwest corner of the President’s lot, you’ll find the Blair House, which plays host to visiting dignitaries. Check for a foreign flag hanging by the door to figure out who might be staying inside, and maybe even catch a glimpse of his/her motorcade.
The W Hotel’s rooftop bar, P.O.V., has panoramic views of DC and beyond (and is open year-round, unlike many other local rooftops). At $15 apiece, cocktails aren’t cheap, but you can sip slowly while lounging on a velvet banquette.
The Willard has a claim on history as few other local establishments do: It’s literally where lobbying started during the Grant administration—and more recently where Jon Stewart’s team stayed during the comic’s rally on the Mall. So it’s little surprise that Round Robin, just off the lobby, is a classic too, offering the area’s best mint julep.
Dinner: Old Ebbitt Grill
This Washington institution provides a bit of history along with excellent oysters and a solid cocktail list. In business for 156 years, Old Ebbitt is famous in equal parts for having the best Bloody Mary in Washington and for hosting presidents Grant, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Post-Dinner: Take in a show at the Hamilton
This 15,000-square-foot music venue offers table service (the kitchen is open till late) and attracts a solid lineup of local performers and the occasional big name. Ticket prices vary; information is available through the Hamilton’s website.
Day 3: Penn Quarter and Georgetown
The Penn Quarter location of this local teahouse-restaurant hybrid opens at 7:30 AM during the week and 9:30 on weekends, and serves up interesting twists on standard breakfast fare. Think sourdough waffles, cilantro scrambled eggs, tea-cured salmon, and a solid beverage selection—or Irish oatmeal for the less adventurous.
Starting out in Penn Quarter will put you in the neighborhood of the two art museums not located on the Mall. The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture houses both: the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, which are separated by a glass-roofed courtyard.
The American Art Museum concentrates on domestic art between the Civil War and the present, while that National Portrait Gallery looks at the art of portraiture and at portraits of a range of notable people from Pocahontas to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fred Astaire, and Rosa Parks.
If You Have Time: The International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum—founded by a Korean War codebreaker to provide some insight into the spy trade—includes an hour-long interactive experience called “Operation Spy,” during which visitors become US spies searching for a device that triggers a nuclear bomb. Tickets to the Spy Museum are available at spymuseum.org and are $19.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids (though children six and under are admitted for free).
Penn Quarter is home to an ever-expanding list of restaurants among Washington’s 100 Very Best, which tend toward small plates great for lunch. Try Jaleo for Spanish tapas and sangria, and Proof for meatballs with goat cheese agnolotti.
PM: Take the Metro to Foggy Bottom and shop in Georgetown
There’s something for everyone in Georgetown, and our neighborhood guide offers the full rundown. Some standouts you can’t find just anywhere: British import AllSaints Spitalfields, vintage spot Annie Creamcheese, and boutiques such as Relish, Wink, and Charm. Other popular clothing chains include Anthropologie, J.Crew, and Madewell, in addition to home decor and art shops.
Next Stop: Walk, Bike, or Kayak Up the C&O Canal
Between M Street and the river, you’ll find a stretch of the C&O Canal, which operated for nearly 100 years helping merchants deliver goods to towns along the Potomac. Thompson Boat Center at the eastern end of Georgetown rents kayaks and bikes by the hour or the day, and both provide a great way to see the canal. Or if you prefer a slower pace and a lower price tag, you can always walk.
Happy Hour: Georgetown Waterfront or the Kennedy Center
Alternatively, head over to the Kennedy Center for a drink on the roof terrace and a free 6 PM performance on the Millennium Stage.
Dinner: Pizzeria Paradiso
This Neapolitan-style pizzeria on Georgetown’s main drag (M Street) opens Monday through Saturday at 11:30 AM and Sunday at noon, and it’s informal and relatively inexpensive. Adult-friendly highlights of the lengthy menu include the spicy Atomica with salami and red pepper, the Genovese with pesto and potatoes, the standard Margherita, and the Bottarga with egg and mullet roe.
Day 4: The National Zoo, the Phillips Collection, and dinner on Barracks Row
Breakfast at Firehook
Begin your day with coffee and baked treats at this Washington mini chain by Cleveland Park Metro. More than ten different kinds of bread are baked fresh daily, and the menu includes everything from flaky cinnamon bear claws to blueberry-studded muffins. There’s even a spacious patio out back for breakfast al fresco in fine weather.
AM: Explore the National Zoo
Just down Connecticut Avenue from Firehook is the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, home to 2,000 different animals from more than 400 species. The indisputable stars are the two giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who are on loan from China through 2015. Other highlights include the Great Cats exhibit featuring Sumatran tigers and African lions, a Great Ape house, and Amazonia: a 15,000-square-foot rainforest exhibit with a 55,000-gallon aquarium.
Next: Take a Walk Through Rock Creek Park
The National Zoo sits inside Rock Creek Park, which, at 2,100 acres total, is more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park. While walking the trails outside of the zoo though, you might come across its public golf course, horse center, tennis courts, and boat center, as well. Mostly it’s the best spot in town for a long, shaded, relatively serene stroll.
Lunch: Tryst at the Phillips
The latest local restaurant to occupy a museum, Adams Morgan mainstay Tryst just opened inside the Phillips’ cafe space. Enjoy the art while snacking on small plates such as pesto orzo and tomato bruschetta, or enjoy full-size quesadillas and hearty sandwiches and salads.
PM: Visit the Phillips Collection
The Phillips Collection is a nearly 100-year-old modern art treasure trove located in a red-brick former residence. Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” is considered the crown jewel of the collection, but you’ll also find works by Matisse, Monet, and others, hung in diverse groups so as to “converse” with one another.
Then: Grab Gelato or a Cupcake and Take a Break in Dupont Circle
After all that walking around, you deserve a break. Take a load off in picturesque Dupont Circle, but not before sampling the gelato at Dolcezza, where flavors range from avocado honey orange to cappuccino. If it’s too cold for frozen treats, stop by Hello Cupcake instead.
Dinner: Barracks Row
Didn’t quite get your fill during the game? We’re not judging, and you’re in luck. There’s a free shuttle from Nats Park to Barracks Row, where options are plentiful. Try Ted’s Bulletin for old-fashioned comfort food, Senart’s Oyster & Chop House for seafood and strong drinks, Montmartre for French bistro fare, or its sister joint, Seventh Hill for wood-fired pizzas.
Day 5: Virginia: Arlington Cemetery and Old Town Alexandria
Breakfast on the Move
Grab a light breakfast at or near your hotel before taking the Metro out to Virginia. Be mindful while planning your day that Metro fares go up during rush hour, but trains heading out of the city tend not to be too packed. You can’t eat or drink on the train, so make sure to either finish your breakfast before you get there or keep your food wrapped up to eat later.
AM: Visit Arlington National Cemetery
Metro’s Blue Line stops at Arlington National Cemetery, providing users of public transit the opportunity to visit the 624-acre grounds, which have been in operation since 1864. Open seven days a week, 365 days a year beginning at 8 AM, the cemetery hosts more than 4 million visitors annually. Notable attractions include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—the guard for which changes every hour on the hour in a ceremony worth the visit—as well as the final resting places for several presidents and other famous names, including JFK and Jackie O.
Next: Take Metro to King Street and Tour the George Washington Masonic Memorial
Just off of Old Town Alexandria’s main strip sits the George Washington Masonic Memorial. Built in the 1920s, the privately funded memorial is open to the public seven days a week. General admission ($5) allows visitors access to the first- and second-floor exhibitions; taking the guided tour ($8) means access to the tower exhibits and observation deck, as well.
Husband and wife Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong deliver some of Old Town’s best food at six spots in the neighborhood. Our reviewers love the crabcake, fried green tomatoes, chicken-liver mousse, and Key lime pie at the Majestic. For a quick, filling meal of fish and chips, Eamonn’s—where fried cod is served in a paper bag—is second to none. Dessert options such as fried bananas and candy bars are also hard to pass up.
PM: Shop in Old Town
Old Town Alexandria’s brick-lined streets (particularly King Street, which runs from the Metro station to the water) are home to dozens of boutiques selling clothing, jewelry, home decor, children’s apparel, art, and much more. It’s easy to pass an entire afternoon popping into and out of the shops. The Old Town Alexandria Boutique District, started by one of The Washingtonian’s 2012 Women of Fashion, is a great resource for those hoping to plan their stops in advance.
Then: Take a Stroll Down the Waterfront
On both sides of the Torpedo Factory, several parks are scattered along the Old Town riverfront. They provide trails for walking and shaded benches for rest and views of the Potomac River, and you can stay for as long or as short a time as you’d like, or until the need for a drink strikes. You can also take in some art at the nearby Torpedo Factory Art Center.
Happy Hour: Grape & Bean
Rustic wood and cork accents give Grape & Bean (four blocks from the water on South Royal Street) the feel of a subterranean wine cellar. Wines there can be ordered by the glass or the bottle, and charcuterie boards and gourmet sandwiches like the truffled egg toast are great options for those happy hour hunger pangs.
A few blocks farther from the water is Vermilion, a romantic spot right at home amid Old Town’s historic charm. A playful menu offers “frickles”—fried pickles with green goddess dressing—alongside pan-roasted snapper with blue crab imperial and beurre blanc.
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