Things to do in DC area?

My friend, his girlfriend, and I are taking a trip to DC next week. We have plans for the obvious things (national mall, national zoo, white house, two or three of the Smithsonians (the ‘main’ one, air & space, possibly portrait gallery.)

But what are some things that are less obvious that we could do? We will have a car, though if things are easier to get to with public transportation we’ll use that (and is there some kind of ‘tourist/short-term’ transit pass available?)

And we also have no clue about places to eat…I mean, we could just wander around and go to whatever we find, but if there are some “must eat at” places we’d like to go there.

Thanks in advance!

Parking in the city is a nightmare - take the Metro.

Udvar-Hazy in Chantilly, VA is fantastic. This is the addition to the Air and Space Museum.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing was a good tour - interesting stuff.

The Holocaust Museum is pretty incredible as well.

We enjoyed the trolley tour - you can hop on and off all day, and if you get a good driver, it can really be fascinating.

We visited Arlington National Cemetery as well - the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns is good to see.

The Old Post Office is the tallest building in DC - you can get some great panoramic shots from the clock tower.

What’s the ‘main’ Smithsonian museum? They have a headquarters, but all there is to see there is a visitor’s center.

There are tons of great walking tours. Two summers ago, I took a totally free one of the monuments on the mall, which was very well done.

ETA - if you’re the sort of person who likes to see Major Historical Documents, you can see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution at the National Archive. I thought this pretty cool.

I don’t know if they still offer it, but they used to do a walk down tour of the Washington monument twice a day. A ranger would take the group of people up in the elevator to the top, and then through a locked door that leads to the interior staircase. as you walked down, he explained about the building of the monument and the carved blocks (1 for each state, and several from private companies)
When you got to the bottom, you could then take the elevator up to to the top to look out the windows.

And hardly any line to get in, as opposed to the Washington Monument. The elevator to the clock tower is in the basement, next to a short exhibit about the history of the building; there’s also a food court with free live music at noon on weekdays.

What kinds of places are you looking for?

For inexpensive-to-medium-cost fare there’s the strip in Adams Morgan and everything along U Street. On U Street I like Busboys and Poets. Vinoteca is a decent wine bar and bistro. If for some reason you find yourself in Mt. Pleasant you have to go to Haydee’s. Downtown I like Chef Geoff’s across from the Warner Theatre on 13th. In Chinatown the place you want to go to is Eat First. For really expensive seafood I’ve enjoyed Johnny’s Half Shell (between the Capitol and Union Station).

What kind of food do you like? Cheap food, middle of the road, or nice restaurants?

On the low end of the scale, Ben’s Chili Bowl is on U and 12th, try a half smoke sausage and chili fries for artery clogging fun. Also look out for the trendy food trucks that roam around business areas – one features Korean-inspired tacos, another lobster rolls, and many other options.

More middle of the road, there are quite a few Ethiopian restaurants, my personal favorite is Etete, which is on 9th and U St.

In terms of nice places, I really enjoy Brasserie Beck. They feature Belgian food with a HUGE beer list (Rochefort 10 is consistently on the short list of the world’s best beers, but it costs $12 for a small bottle), and entrees run around $25-30. It is near New York Avenue and K St – or at least somewhere around there.

I would suggest looking into a tour of the National Cathedral. It’s out of the way, but I think it is really cool. There is a Darth Vader gargoyle, among other attractions.

I think it’s worth a drive over to embassy row, just to look at all the places. Nowhere else in the USA is going to have anything like the collection. Its fun to compare the sizes of say, the British embassy, with some other nations that just have small row houses.

I hear good things about the Segway tours. Covers a lot of ground without all the walking.

For food - depends on what you like really. You can get almost any nationality of food you’ve ever wanted to try in DC. Try the Adam’s Morgan area for some offbeat food or the area around Chinatown, which you can walk to from the mall. Too many good choices to even begin.

It has been years since I have seen the main Air and Space Museum on the Mall, but I assume it is still more…tourist friendly. The Udvar Hazy Center has many more planes/spacecraft with fewer “interactive” exhibits. It is a must-see for the fact-based nerdy types.

My wife and I also enjoyed the Library of Congress.

First off, I second the use of the Metro. There are plenty of park & ride stations outside the beltway, and you’ll be best served to park there for the day, and then take the Metro - particularly when you visit the mall.

Next, I also second visiting the Udvar-Hazy air and space museum (out by Dulles). If you saw the latest “Transformers” movie (“rise of the fallen”), the scene where the XR-71 Blackbird transforms into the transformer-who-needs-a-cane takes place in the Udvar-Hazy museum.

As to the mall itself, some lesser known museums that I really enjoyed:

  • The International Spy Museum. This is a couple of blocks off the mall (easy walking distance), and was awesome. We underestimated the size of the place, and only allotted 2 hours (should allow for at least 3). So we kind of had to whiz through (unfortunately) the more recent stuff. Highly recommended

  • The Newseum. This is across the street from the National Gallery. Fascinating and again, highly recommended. They have recently (within the last few years) redone this museum, and it is awesome.

  • National Museum of Crime and Punishment Again only a couple blocks off the mall (easy walking distance). Enjoyable, but perhaps not as interesting as the others. But there are some cool exhibits.

Not sure about the weather but if it’s nice, a drive along Skyline drive in the Shenandoah’s would be nice (weather permitting).

Where are you staying? If you are staying in the suburbs, I will echo the advice to get around the city by Metro. There is not a whole lot of parking near the museums.

Adams Morgan and U Street are going to be where the nightlife are. Adams Morgan tends to run younger and drunker than U Street. H Street NE is where the hipsters go, but it isn’t as convenient to the Metro and is a bit rougher around the edges.

Ben’s Chilli Bowl is a must. For a nice dinner that’s not cheap but not, like, 10-year anniversary nice, try Jaleo, a tapas place on E and, maybe 7th. It’s a great place to just hang out and eat and shoot the shit with a couple friends.

Of the Smithsonians, Air & Space is the most popular museum in the world for a reason, and Udvar-Hazy is also awesome, although probably both on one trip is too much unless you’re serious aerospace or space geeks. Other museums I’d recommend are American History and, if you’re interested in art, the Freer. It’s a weird and fantastic collection of both 19th century Western art (esp. Whistler and his contemporaries) AND all sorts of Eastern art from various time periods. Whistler and his group were very influenced by Eastern art, so when Charles Freer started collecting those guys, he got into Asian art as well.

Also the Phillips Gallery (a private museum in Dupont Circle) has an excellent collection of both Impressionist and Modern art, as well as older stuff, which is exhibited to try and highlight how the masters influenced modern artists.

I can’t agree with the recommendation for the Spy Museum. It has its points of interest, but mostly I found it mediocre – which is too great a sin to overcome for a museum that charges admission (not cheap, either!) in a town that has so many excellent free museums.

Definitely try to plan your day’s itenerary. The Smithsonian museums on the Mall are Metro accessible, as are the private museums cormac mentions. The Phillips is a bit of a walk and it’s better to drive. Udvar-Hazy is out in the boonies and you need to drive.

Parking in D.C. is actually pretty reasonable for a big city. There’s little parking down on the Mall (not none). But there’s plenty of parking two blocks off the Mall in the business area – the best thing to do is the Metro, but if you need to drive for some reason you can park in one of the garages – it’ll be $10-12 all day on a weekend, $20 on a week day. It’s also not too hard to find street parking if you’re willing to be patient, but those spots are usually two hours, so if you want to spend a whole day it’s better to either Metro or find a garage.


Important note: during rush hour (700-930AM, 400-630PM) street parking is illegal pretty much everywhere. I’m only partly exaggerating. Also during these times many streets/lanes change direction, often with little or no obvious signage indicating this.

As I’ve told people many times, DC is not that big. Once you’re downtown, you’re pretty much within reasonable walking distance of almost everything you’d want to see. Everything else is a short Metro or cab ride away.

To make my usual offer, if you’re going to be in D.C., we could do a Dopefest for you. What are the precise dates that you’ll be in town and where will you be staying.

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. As for food price, it will mostly be mid-range, but one or two nights we might do a finer restaurant.

We’re going to be in a hotel in New Carrollton, MD, which also provides a free shuttle to and from the Metro line in New Carrollton, so that’s a plus.

But now I’m wondering how to get from the Baltimore airport (BWI) to my hotel…BWI’s webpage says I can take a MARC train on the Penn line, and it goes to that same station, but the MARC page says it only runs Monday-Friday, and I’m getting in tomorrow (Sunday.)

So…yeah, how to get from BWI to the New Carrolton Metro station easily, and preferably cheaply?

B30 Express Metrobus. $6 one-way. It’s the only game in town (unless you want to blow $100 on a cab). Then take the Metro to New Carollton.

[I think this is still there]Depending on how morbid you are, you might take a drive over to Walter Reade and visit the Army Medical Museum. They have gross-out stuff like amputated limbs in jars of alcohol dating back to the Civil War, expos on such fun topics as VD in the military, and serious educational stuff about the progress of military medicine. We found it fascinating.

U Street is indeed the happening place these days. M Street in Georgetown I always found a bit ghetto (lots of sneaker shops) and too young, but Clyde’s is good for casual bar food and 1789 for old school French.

Folger Library if you like Shakespeare. Library of Congress main reading room (still open?) if you like impressive libraries and/or have some particularly rare out of print book you’ve always wanted to read but couldn’t find/afford.

Union Station is kind of a big mall but it’s a nice mall, with several good restaurants/bars embedded, and a beautiful space.

Old Ebbet Grill is classic insider-Washington dining.

Cool, thanks. The Metro’s online tool also said I could also get off at Prince George’s Plaza Metro station, and then take the F4 bus to New Carollton, rather than staying on the Metro the whole time…seems a little faster and slightly cheaper.

My friend and I were probably going to purchase the 7-day unlimited MetroTrain passes…but those are only for the rail, right? I would still need cash for the busses?


The National Museum of the American Indian is the Mall’s newest Smithsonian museum (opened in 2004), and is IMO well worth a visit - remember that all Smithsonian museums have FREE admission (including the National Zoo!), so it never hurts to at least check out each one if you have the time. The NMAI is right next to the Air and Space Museum if you’re planning on going there.

Also, the cafe in the NMAI has, quite possibly, the BEST food of any of the Mall museums. It’s a lot of Native American-styled cuisine ranging from Pacific Northwest cedar-planked salmon to buffalo sirloin to traditional Central American tamales and black bean soup. Everything is good there but beware that it’s not cheap - probably $25 per person if you include dessert and drinks. But it’s a nice splurge and definitely not a very common type of restaurant cuisine.