Visiting DC — Some Tips from Doug
The Washington, DC area has been home to my father’s family for generations. Its leaf-and-brick atmosphere, youthfulness, international diversity, and endless walkability offer visitors many chances to explore the completely unique city that extends well past the National Mall. Here is a small list of museums, restaurants, and bars I’ve long loved that can pull you out of downtown and into the future state of New Columbia.
DC is the rare city where the big-ticket tourist items are all, nearly without exception, actually excellent. They are also all free. Try renting bikes to glide between the Vietnam War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and Tidal Basin. If you are coming with children, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and Museum of Natural History are both first in their class. For all ages, I especially recommend :
The Museum of African American History and Culture
DC’s newest Smithsonian institution is also one of its best. Allow several hours to go through the museum’s carefully crafted historical narrative, which is designed both for families and for adults who think they already knew African-American — which is to say, American — history.
The U.S. Botanic Garden
I would call this gem a European-style conservatory, except I’ve not yet been to a European conservatory I liked as much as this one. A gasp of tropical fresh air to refresh and calm you before plunging back into the crowds.
The American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery
The more popular National Gallery is indeed terrific — their Chardins and Bouchers are better than those in the Louvre — but this two-museums-in-one package is the best celebration of art in the city. Vernacular art, American gilded-age romanticism, New Deal modernism, and George Catlin’s jaw-dropping portraits of Plains Indian leaders all thread together naturally. And Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway can’t be missed.
MOVING OFF THE MALL
The National Zoo
This is an extremely good zoo which also is free. It’s walking-distance from the Omni Shoreham hotel and the historic Adams-Morgan neighborhood.
The Philips Collection
A not-free private museum is a hard sell in DC, but the Philips is lovely — and I say that even though I don’t care for their most famous piece, Renoir’s Boating Party. I’d point you instead to their portions of Jacob Lawrence’s impossibly affecting Migration Series, and their group of Washington Color School paintings. Off Dupont Circle, you can also walk in any direction from the Philips and find beautiful homes and cute shops.
Becky and I could hardly get this far without suggesting that you stay an extra night and go see a play — DC hosts the best group of U.S. theaters outside of New York. I once worked at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and think they’re terrific; Studio Theatre, Folger Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre, and Arena Stage also often do good work. We’ll update this with specific recommendations when their seasons are announced.
EATING AND DRINKING
DC is a very young city, hosting people from all over the country and world, who all like to go out, but mostly aren’t making six-figure salaries. As a result, it’s a terrific city to go out in. New places open up all the time, so check out Eater DC or Washington City Paper for more fresh tips — for long-standing classics I love going back to, read on.
Oyamel / any José Andrés restaurant
For a local celebrity chef, DC could not have done better than José Andrés, who is both a great restaurateur and genuinely good human. Penn Quarter — you’ll be here if you see a play at Woolly Mammoth or Shakespeare — hosts his central group of restaurants. I like Oyamel (Oaxacan cuisine) the most; they are all great. In the same neighborhood, Rasika also does terrific upscale Indian food.
The DC area hosts one of the largest Ethiopian & Eritrean diasporas in the world, and a fantastic collection of Ethiopian restaurants. New ones pop up all the time, but U Street’s vast Dukem still reigns supreme. If you haven’t had Ethiopian food before, its warm and slightly-spicy flavors will enthrall literally any human (as long as you’re OK eating with your hands!).
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Less a restaurant than a DC landmark, but also their half-smokes (a regionally specific kind of chili dog) are delicious. No visit to DC would be complete without coming here.
If you are traveling with children to the Zoo, you should get lunch a few blocks up at Vace’s. It’s over-the-counter, by-the-slice pizza. You can’t sit down. They don’t have a website. Just trust me on this.
Probably the best craft-beer-devoted bar I’ve ever been to, with an absurdly long list of weird and classic ales & lagers from all over the world. Just tell their servers what you like and they’ll help you navigate. Do consider sampling the offerings of DC Brau, the excellent local brewery, or Dogfish Head, the foundational brewery just a couple hours east of the city.
A good, casual bistro upstairs, with a bar downstairs that on weekends nails the rare bar-with-dancing combination with ease. Nice for going out if a club is not really your speed (and honestly, in DC, it shouldn’t be.)
Looking Glass Lounge
Just a perfect bar: sort of hip, sort of dive-y, neighborhood-centered, with a great group of people you might actually start chatting to. Every city should have a Looking Glass. Very few do.
For late-night fried goodness. N.B.: the original is close to the reception venue…