Whether Washington D.C. brings to mind power and patriotism or political strife and pork barrel spending, the nation’s capital attracts more than 20 million visitors each year. Tourism is second only to the federal government as Washington’s primary industry.
Interesting and learned people take a spin through Washington’s revolving door to work at embassies, think tanks, trade associations, World Bank, military, and government offices. No wonder Washington is so rich in diversity, culture and conversation.
Whether this is your first trip or your fifth, it’s now time to wave to the usual monuments while you’re on your way to destinations and experiences that are not on the brochure.
For almost 10 years, Washington Walks guides (teachers, writers, actors, and–since this is Washington–attorneys) have been leading groups around the Nation’s Capital, rain or shine, $10 a head. Their family-oriented White House Un-Tour (with scavenger hunt) was born when public tours–once a source of pride to all administrations–died after September 11, 2001.
With a focus on First Families as well as the men in the Oval Office, guides ask and answer questions such as: Which founding father anonymously entered the architectural design competition and lost? Why was the West Wing added? Who put a pony in the elevator?
Offered April through October, some of the two-hour walks are designed exclusively for families. You can also choose from specific neighborhoods tours, themed tours such as African-American history, hauntings or grand hotels, or private excursion. 202-484-1565, www.washingtonwalks.com
Even residents are surprised to learn D.C. is second only to New York City in its number of theater seats. A lack of a central theater district helps to maintain the secret. There is plenty of variety here, from predictable Kennedy Center offerings to Woolly Mammoth’s controversial edge.
In the summer, though, many Washingtonians pack a picnic basket (and a bottle of wine) and head to the sloping lawns of Wolf Trap, America’s National Park for the Performing Arts. This 100-acre property in suburban Virginia was donated along with funds to build the 6,800-seat Filene Theater. Half of the seating is under a soaring Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine structure. Its open sides invite breezes from the rolling hills.
From May to September, almost 100 events include entertainment of all types: Tony Bennett, Travis Tritt, and the Temptations, opera, ballet, and Irish dance. For most performances, a round-trip shuttle serves the West Falls Church Metro. 1645 Trap Road, Vienna, Virginia, 703-255-1900; for tickets 703-255-1868, www.wolftrap.org
During one of Washington’s many hot and steamy afternoons (from 2 p.m.-6 p.m. to be exact), you can escape to 10 acres of shady garden rooms at Dumbarton Oaks. Along with the summer resurgence of perennial borders, June blooms include clematis, roses, and grandiflora magnolia; July and August bring day lilies, fuchsia, gardenias, agapanthus, and oleanders. Turn a corner and you might see a Roman-style amphitheater.
When Robert and Mildred Bliss purchased this hillside property in 1920, they looked out at cowpaths and farm buildings. The grounds were transformed by Beatrix Jones Farrand, a landscape gardener who was inspired by English, French and Italian gardens. Farrand’s other commissions included Yale University and the private gardens of John Rockefeller, Jr.
The 19th-century Federal-style mansion on the grounds belongs to Harvard University. This museum houses Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and artifacts as well as rare books, and is under renovation until late September.
Gardens open daily except Mondays, 1703 32nd Street, NW, 202-339-6401, www.doaks.org
Hillwood Estate, Museum & Garden
While they usually stop by the White House, most tourists rarely venture out to Hillwood Estates, Museum & Garden, a museum estate off of Connecticut Avenue north of the Zoo. Part of the reason could be that reservations are recommended (but not required) to enter the grounds, which are in an upscale neighborhood that borders Rock Creek Park.
Hillwood is one of the homes of Post Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who bought the 36-room Georgian mansion to display her world-class collections of imperial Russian and French fine and decorative arts. She always intended for it to be a museum after her death.
Besides the lovely gardens – French, Japanese, friendship, and lunar lawn, there is a greenhouse full of exotic orchids. In the mansion, guided or audio tours present thousands of notable items: Fabergé eggs (there are 90 Fabergé pieces), chalices, icons, and liturgical vestments from imperial Russia; Beauvais tapestries; and Sèvres porcelain.
Don’t let the reservation suggestion deter you: they are designed to make it easier for visitors and can often be obtained same day, but you can also just show up. Visits can start with an excellent orientation film in the Visitors’ Center and end with an elegant borscht and quiche in the café – with a detour into one of the best museum gift shops in town.
4155 Linnean Avenue, NW, 202-686-5807, www.hillwoodmuseum.org
Oak Hill Cemetery
Down the street from Dumbarton Oaks, with Montrose Park and a real Lover’s Lane in between, is Oak Hill Cemetery. Founded in the 1840s, many of Washington’s A-list are buried here. You might walk in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both of whom buried children here.
Wear your walking shoes. There are countless interesting mausoleums on these very hilly acres; one of particular note is modeled on the Temple of Vesta in Rome. This sacred ground ranks as one of the finest Victorian garden cemeteries in the nation and has some of the oldest trees in the city. Nineteenth-century funeral sculpture lines the walkways of the terraced hillsides. Close your eyes and listen for the rushing waters of Rock Creek, which you can see if you wander far enough.
The gatekeeper’s three-story house is a brick and sandstone miniature Italianate villa. Not far from that is a small Gothic Revival chapel built in 1849 by James Renwick, Jr., the architect of the Smithsonian Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Open to the public weekdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sundays 1 p.m.-4 p.m.; cameras and backpacks prohibited. 3001 R Street, NW, 202-337-2835, www.oakhillcemeterydc.org
The National Cathedral, built on Washington’s highest point, has a panoramic view of the city and its environs from its towers. The center tower is as tall as a thirty-story building, and at 676 feet above sea level it is the highest point in the District of Columbia.
Talk about something for everyone: a charming Children’s Chapel is completely miniaturized. In a crypt on the lower level is Resurrection Chapel, with glittering mosaics that depict scenes from scripture.
Among their long list of tour offerings are gargoyle tours. For a behind-the-scenes look, participants must be at least 11 years old and able to climb lots of stairs. Another tour ends with tea in the Pilgrim Observation Gallery. Docents rarely miss pointing out the stained glass Space Window with a bit of lunar rock imbedded within.
The Cathedral has a full schedule of organ demonstrations, choir rehearsals, and concerts. Rose lovers find the Bishops Garden. The three shops (the main museum shop, the Herb Cottage, and the Greenhouse) stock jewelry, crèches, books of the spirit, and gardening items.
Looking for an unusual place to spend the night? When not in use for conferences, rooms and suites of the Gothic-style Cathedral College are available to the public. 3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW, 202-537-6200, www.cathedral.org
Ann Hand Souvenirs and Gifts
Ann Hand eagle pins and American flag brooches are seen on the lapels of everyone who’s anyone in Washington; she is popular on both sides of the aisle. Snap up jewelry inspired by national landmarks and military branches, as well as beautiful non-themed jewelry and accessories at either of her two shops.
The person next to you is probably a staffer from the White House or Department of State or Defense, buying gifts for the boss or a foreign dignitary. If an eagle sitting on a fat white pearl isn’t your thing, great souvenirs include the American Charm Bracelet and the Cherry Blossom Pin. The Georgetown store is managed by Ashley Hand, Ann’s granddaughter, and her youthful influence brings trendier offerings to Hand’s classic lines. 2900 M Street, NW, 202-333-1529 and 4885 MacArthur Boulevard, NW, 202-333-2979, www.annhand.com
Cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian
This Smithsonian museum’s Mitsitam Café opened to — and continues to receive — rave reviews. Imagine that: delicious, healthful and culturally appropriate food that is inexpensive to moderately priced. Set up food-court style, each station demonstrates regional preparation techniques and ingredients found in traditional and contemporary dishes. Menu items include Native American dishes from throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America, and the Great Plains.
Too bad the National Museum of the American Indian hasn’t generated as much buzz as its cafeteria. Opened in 2004 on the last available open space on the National Mall, exhibits explain historic events and introduce modern artwork. Multimedia presentations, live performances, and hands-on demonstrations bring the Native American people’s history and culture to life. 4th Street & Independence Avenue, SW, 202-633-1000, www.nmai.si.edu
At Busboys and Poets in the hip U Street/Logan Circle area it’s an understatement to say they attract a diverse crowd. You might walk in and see actor Rupert Everett, an art show mounted by Iraq Veterans Against the War, a poetry reading, live jazz performance, or film screening (Films That Matter!). This combination of coffee shop, bookstore, restaurant, and lounge is at its core a gathering place for writers and activists. It is especially busy on Open Mike Tuesdays. It opens daily at 10 a.m., closes at midnight weekdays and 2 a.m. weekends.
2021 14th Street, NW, 202-387-7638, www.busboysandpoets.com
Politics and Prose is a lot more tame, but this fiercely independent bookstore is a must stop on every famous author’s book tour: Bill Clinton and JK Rowling are two examples from the weekly calendar. Authors of substance and style, sometimes both, read from their new bestsellers at this community center and coffeehouse. The almost-nightly events focus on politics, government, the media, and public policy, but the owners also love to promote a great mystery, novel, or cookbook. 5015 Connecticut Avenue, NW, 202-364-1919, www.politics-prose.com
The Newseum re-opened its doors in October 2007. After opening in Arlington, Virginia, the educational and inspirational museum of journalism had welcomed more than 2.25 million visitors. So popular so fast, they closed it and started on a downtown D.C. space three times the original size. 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., 888-639-7386, www.newseum.org
By Ann Cochran for PeterGreenberg.com.
Learn more about the city with these articles on PeterGreenberg.com:
- 10 Photography Tips for the Icons of Washington, DC
- Capital Green: Washington DC’s Eco-Tourism Cred
- America’s Accessible Heritage
- Sen. Harry Reid, Smelly Tourists and the Capitol Visitor Center