“Washington is a town that creates myths for its own existence”- Karl Rove
“Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm” – JFK
FROM THE FIRST DAY that I arrived, I have loved Washington DC. A city built on a swamp, it’s beautiful and complex, with a rich history and of course a great political buzz. I also love the monuments and the museums that define the skyline and make-up every single available postcard. When I first arrived, I was so overwhelmed by being able to go for a run around the tidal basin, I couldn’t stop taking photos. One of my favourite views has got to be coming in to land at Washington National Airport, when the plane makes wide circles encompassing the Washington Monument and the Capital, as well as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, getting ever closer like zooming in through a camera lens.
However, there’s so much more to this great city, and it often gets overshadowed by all the imposing white marble. So here you have it, my top DC attractions that do not contain the words monument, memorial, or museum.
In this popular and eclectic neighbourhood, made very photogenic by the brightly coloured façades. you’ll find everything from vintage shops and hookah bars, to a gluten free bakery, and countless bars. Some of my favourite stops include Jack Rose for a rooftop terrace and up-market whiskey, Pitango for gelato (their dairy-free chocolate is to die for!), and for a real taste of what it’s like to be a student at 3am on a Saturday: Jumbo slice pizza. Madam’s Organ, a popular blues bar, is actually the site of the original Children’s Supermart store, opened in 1948, which later became known as Toys “R” Us. The Diner and Tryst both offer some wonderful brunch options for all types of foodies, including vegan and gluten free. There’s truly something for everyone in this quirky neighbourhood.
DC’s newest place to be, the revamped Wharf is chock-full of restaurants (especially fish), bars and general atmospheric bustle, in the summer, strolling along the piers surrounded by other people’s conversations feels positively Mediterranean. With the presence of The Anthem, the area has also firmly cemented itself into Washington’s music scene, and there’s always something going on. The area is also home to the Maine Avenue Fish Market, the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States, dating from 1805, where you can have your purchases cooked before your eyes. While the wares are no longer served directly from the fishing boats, it’s definitely still a world away from the big city – but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the smell!
A new take: While the historic and fashionable area of Georgetown itself needs no introduction, I’d like to emphasise some different ways to enjoy the neighbourhood.
The Georgetown waterfront is one of the oldest parts of the city. Now a park, it began life as a Colonial port and has transitioned via many roles including industrial hub and literal dumping ground. It presents a lovely view of the Kennedy Center and Roosevelt Island. Complete with several restaurants and coffee shops it’s great for an evening out, but also a summer picnic for the family. You can also grab a water-taxi here and take the scenic route across to the Wharf.
You can also get adventurous and (between April and October) head out along the Potomac itself. The Key Bridge Boathouse offers lots of different activities including kayaking, paddle boarding, workshops and tours.
Trails: Hiking and Cycling
There are also several beautiful trails ideal for running, cycling, or simply a quick walk allowing you to re-connect with nature before heading back to M street for some more shopping. Most notable are the C&O Canal Towpath, a waterfront dirt track which continues all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the Capital Crescent Trail which will take you straight to Bethesda, Maryland (and right to the front door of a lovely French coffee shop) in just over 10 miles of paved path. The C&O Canal also includes the Incline Plane, a stone platform and plaque marking the ruins of a boat elevator dating back to the 1870s, which was highlighted as the best of American engineering at the 1878 World’s Fair (along with the Brooklyn Bridge). It ran for 14 years, until a flood severely damaged the towpath and bankrupted the Canal Company.
Located just a few streets away from the Georgetown university campus and tucked into a corner between a brick wall and a hedge, they’re easy to miss. But for fans of the classic horror movie The Exorcist, the hunt is worth the dramatic view down this imposing staircase, the site of the film’s climax. I recommend visiting at night for full effect. Don’t worry about getting too scared though, there’s a petrol station at the bottom to bring you right back into reality, and it’s entirely possible you’ll run into one of Georgetown’s sport’s teams running up and down it.
In the North West corner of the city, sits a favourite spot for wealthy families who were looking to build mansions in the early 1900s. Originally called Millionaires Row, most of the houses have since been taken over by DC’s large contingent of diplomats. In 1974, following some controversy about demolition in the area, it became protected, its formal name being the Massachusetts Avenue Historic District. It’s a lovely walk, along wide roads with plenty of gorgeous architecture to admire and who doesn’t love a good game of “which flag is that again?”
Free walking tours are available. There is also a free open day that takes place each year on a Saturday in May, where the Embassies open their doors to the public; hosting events, providing traditional food and drink, and exploring some aspects of their national cultures. The entire neighbourhood takes part and it’s a wonderful occasion to witness.
Where trendy meets historic, Dupont Circle was constructed in the 1880s and quickly became a popular neighbourhood for the wealthy. Following World War II, the area struggled, but it was revived in the 1970s and became known for its bohemian atmosphere, similar to New York’s Greenwich Village. In 1975, a local bookshop (Lambda Rising), ran the world’s first gay-oriented television advertisement. Today it includes such sights as the Sunday morning Farmers Market, the Board Room (a bar for people who want to re-create a cosy night at home), and Kramer Books (a bookshop containing a restaurant).
One of the historical oddities of the area is a 12-storey apartment block built in the 80s. It dwarfs the area, drove residents mad, and ultimately led to the imposition of the city’s famed height restriction. While many believe the rule to be aimed at preserving the imposing nature of the monuments and the capital, the reality comes down to angry neighbours, which I find makes it that much more endearing. While the subject of considerable wrath, and the catalyst for not one but two acts of Congress, I shall be forever grateful to the Cairo for ensuring that DC stays unique among major US cities in its walkability, and lack of looming high-rises.
When the Dupont Circle Streetcar station opened in 1949, it was the first underground station in DC. Shut down in 1962, it served as a potential nuclear shelter during the early years of the Cold War, until 1975 when the tunnels were sealed off and abandoned. After a failed stint as a food court in the 1990s, the tunnels were opened to the public in 2016, with guided tours now available. As with metro tunnels everywhere, art has crept in, but here it has done so in a uniquely organised manner. Dupont Underground is a self-described cultural organization aimed at developing a multidisciplinary platform for creative expression, transforming the tunnels into a public infrastructure to support creative exchange, contemporary art, and an ongoing conversation about the city. They run exhibitions and host events such as comedy nights and concerts, where the unique acoustics of the environment make for a truly inimitable experience.
For those who need a break from the city, it turns out you don’t actually have to leave. In the 1930s, landscape architects transformed the patch of neglected, overgrown farmland that sits in the Potomac between Georgetown and Arlington, into Theodore Roosevelt Island. Comprising 88 acres of trails, swamp and general wilderness, it was designed to mimic the natural forest that used to cover the island, and nowadays you’d never know the difference. It’s beautifully ungroomed, great for running, hiking and admiring the view while pretending that you don’t live in a capital city.
[Though there is technically a memorial to the President near the entrance to the island, you can totally ignore it without sacrificing any part of the experience, so I’m bravely declaring that it still belongs on this list]
Its accessible by footbridge from the Mount Vernon cycle path, and there’s parking available there. Bikes are not allowed (its enforced, I learned the hard way as a foolish tourist), though dogs are welcome.
Just outside of DC proper, in a lovely park next to Washington National Airport, is a unique and quirky spot used for plane watching, acknowledged as one of the best in the United States. Though I always associated airports with harsh, concrete environments, most often in the middle of nowhere, Reagan is nestled against the Potomac. This only serves to enhance the escapist atmosphere that comes with sitting on the grass watching planes come swooping in to land, the roaring engines echoing in your ears and stealing the air from your lungs. Great for a Sunday afternoon, the park has a very relaxed, family friendly atmosphere, surrounded by joggers, cyclists, and children. I know of at least one successful first date that took place there. It’s easily accessible along the Mount Vernon Trail cycling path.