Alaska dork needs help! Cool things to do in DC Oct. 27-Nov. 2?
October 14, 2009 8:29 PM   Subscribe

Woohoo! Several idle days in Washington DC! I desperately need wise counsel; Please please please tell me about cool things to do!

I'll be attending a conference just outside DC (Leesburg, VA, to be precise) from Oct. 27 to Oct. 29.* Then, from Oct. 30 through mid-day Nov. 2, I will have FOUR WHOLE DAYS with absolutely nothing to do in our nation's capital! I would LOVE to get ideas!!!

Here's some things to get started -

(1) I'm way more interested in seeing cool, quirky metropolitan-type stuff than I am in the usual monuments, etc. I love trying new things and expanding my horizons. I love music, I like meeting people, but I'm also perfectly happy doing things by myself.

(2) To that end, I won't be staying in a Holiday Inn etc, but lining up a room or even just a couch through a website I found. I should be able to get a place pretty close to downtown.

(3) I am used to doing a lot of walking -- and really looking forward to it! I doubt if I'll have any other transportation aside from public transit.

(4) I'll be there over Halloween.

(5) Hmm... should I worry about being mugged? Don't have to worry about that in Alaska. Now that I think about it, I guess things to avoid would also be helpful.

So how 'bout it? Festivals? Art shows? Tai Chi at dawn? Awesome little places to eat? (I esp. love street vendors, unusual ethnic foods, etc.) Should I make a sign and go protest and/or support some random government policy? Demand to see my legislators? I've never had a martini before -- who makes a great one? What should I bet on if I see one of those street guys with the cups and ball? Should I carry a can of spray paint in case I feel the uncontrollable urge to "tag" something? Get drunk and start a fight between Republicans and Democrats? Listen to some crazy speaker and subscribe to his intriguing newsletter? Anything to see at sunrise? How about midnight?

Sorry to sound so excited! But what can I say, I am! Help me fill every waking moment with memorable awesomeness!

- AJ

* Even during the conference, I'd love to know about awesome things to do in the evening.
posted by Alaska Jack to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (30 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
You will need a car to get to DC if you're staying in Leesburg and want to do anything outside normal work hours. Leesburg is about 50 miles west of the District - it's a little further away than "just outside".

No place you will want to go as a tourist is even really remotely dangerous. So, don't worry about that.
posted by downing street memo at 8:44 PM on October 14, 2009

Best answer: For the metropolitany stuff, just walk around Eastern Market, Dupont Circle, or Georgetown. You could easily devote a day to each. Maybe a nice weekend morning in Eastern Market. Honestly there's nothing really interesting about the day to day legislative process that isn't touristy. But you can wander around the senate/house office buildings. Or see some die-hard protesters in front of the Supreme Court or north of the White House. I guess hit Adams Morgan on Halloween if you feel like seeing drunken crowds.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:59 PM on October 14, 2009


What should I bet on if I see one of those street guys with the cups and ball? Should I carry a can of spray paint in case I feel the uncontrollable urge to "tag" something? Get drunk and start a fight between Republicans and Democrats?

1) You won't find this unless you travel back in time to the 1920s, 2) don't do that, and 3) find a bar on K St. and hope for the best.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:05 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I know nothing about the DC area so apologies if this is a silly suggestion, geographically, but I was there for a conference a year or so ago and had amazing fun going to a variety of dances at Glen Echo. Often live music, very welcoming to beginners, and great for filling those boring conference evenings. And hands-down the coolest space I've ever danced in.

Unfortunately, I have no idea how you'd get there without a car.
posted by obliquicity at 9:15 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

"(1) I'm way more interested in seeing cool, quirky metropolitan-type stuff than I am in the usual monuments, etc. "

If you get better transport than shank's mare, go help the Giant get back to D.C.
posted by paulsc at 9:20 PM on October 14, 2009

Best answer: The main guide I use for finding out about the awesome local things going on the daily "About Tonight" posts on DCist. You also might want to check out the websites of some of the think tanks- they're always putting on interesting talks that are annoyingly scheduled during the work day. It looks like the only Supreme Court oral arguments while you're in town will be 10am on Nov 2nd, though I'm not sure what time you'd need to actually arrive. My personal favorite place to wander in DC is Teddy Roosevelt Island, though that's less of a tourist attraction than a great park. And there's always a ton of stuff showing at the Kennedy Center- if you're on a budget, their Millenium Stage performances are free. To say nothing of the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoological Park.
posted by gsteff at 9:24 PM on October 14, 2009

This may be too mainstream but when I was a teen I absolutely loved the Smithsonian. It was the highlight of the DC trip, by far. The Air and Space Museum, in particular, is not to be missed, should you have any interest in that sort of thing. Honestly, it's really the only thing that stands out in my mind now, years later.

Re: Mugging. Situational awareness is the best preventative there is, keeping you out of trouble before you get into it. Be aware of what's going on around you, listen to your instinct if you feel something off about a person (or group or situation). If things get really sketchy don't hesitate to walk into a place that's open (like a bar), call 911, or simply run. But I think, with common sense, you won't have much to worry about and will have a great trip.

- AJ
posted by 6550 at 9:37 PM on October 14, 2009

I'm assuming we are talking here about stuff to do in DC during your free days AFTER the conference, because there's no way you will zip back and forth between Leesburg and DC -- with or without a car.
So if you are planning to stay in Leesburg for the conference, I'd recommend you enjoy it -- and then for your holiday get a different place near a metro stop in DC or Northern Virginia (Arlington or Alexandria). Arlington (Clarendon) and Alexandria (King Street) have active walking-around scenes of their own.
Check out the Washington Post before you come and when you are here, for its calendar of events. I see you'll be free on the weekend, and the Post's Friday & Saturday papers have weekend listings -- shows, museums, events.
Ditto the Washingtonian for arts & events, including best bars and restaurant reviews. They appear to have a Halloween Guide.
The Washington City Reader has an edgier version of the arts & events guides above.
posted by Bet Glenn at 9:59 PM on October 14, 2009

Best answer: I know for sure they don't have Ethiopian food in Alaska, so you should go have some in DC (the metro area is home of the largest Ethiopian diaspora in the US). I recommend Etete right off the U Street Metro stop, but there are lots of other restaurants in that area too, including Ben's Chili Bowl.

Even though you're not a big museum or monument person, you should go check out the FDR Memorial. It's kind of a long-ass walk from the main part of the Mall, but it's very tranquil and lovely. There's also a cool skateboarding exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian.
posted by calistasm at 10:20 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you don't mind walking, you can have lots of fun just wandering around D.C. following your mood and checking things out. I would say that you definitely want to spend at least one day doing your own walking tour of the monuments to soak in the atmosphere and people-watch on the Mall.

I usually start at my favorite memorial - Jefferson - and chill there for a while. Then I do a loop through Lincoln, Korea, Vietnam, WWII, Washington Monument, the Butterfly Habitat and Sculpture Garden, and on to the Capitol (with maybe a stop in the Botanical Garden). Walk south from the Capitol past the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress and down Pennsylvania Avenue towards Seward Square. Stop to eat somewhere around there - I recommend Good Stuff Eatery. Depending on if you stop at places on the Mall for a while or not (there is always stuff going on, be it kite flying/demonstrations/soccer games/impromptu concerts, etc. in addition to all the museums) it can be lunch or it can be dinner. After eating, either continue SE to the Eastern Market metro, or go back W and go to the Capitol South metro.

Another day, you should do Dupont Circle and Georgetown - just wander around, people watch, stop at a cafe for a while, check out the vendors, and listen to people talk. Don't forget to window shop for a bit at Dean & Deluca's in Georgetown. Have lunch at Pizzeria Paradiso - both the Dupont and Gtown locations are good. I also recommend spending some time at the Zoo if you like that sort of thing. I like the National Cathedral too. If you are so inclined, you might consider doing a "Spy in the City" adventure at the Spy Museum.

What not to do: Don't schedule a visit to the Holocaust Museum at the beginning of the day. It's better if you have plenty of time to both visit and reflect afterward. Don't bother with Chinatown - it's booring. For the love of all things holy don't stand on the left of the escalators in the metro. Walk on the left, stand on the right.

You are very unlikely to have to fear for your safety anywhere most people travel. Just keep your wits about you like you would in any big city, and you should be fine.

Have fun!
posted by gemmy at 10:44 PM on October 14, 2009

For ethnic food recommendations, try Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide.
posted by gudrun at 10:48 PM on October 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Every sunday in Meridian Hill Park from 3pm to 9pm there is a very large and enthusiatic drum circle. It's been going down for more than 50 years.
posted by phrontist at 11:54 PM on October 14, 2009

You can see ranters and hopeless causes in the park across from the White House on a daily basis. If you visit the Capital, check out the Botanic Gardens on Capital Hill, a nice refuge and appropriate use of 30 minutes to see the interesting plants. The is a fine place to tour, and they have a wonderful garden to stroll though. See if you can find the Star Wars gargoyles.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:27 AM on October 15, 2009

Best answer: Originally written in 2005 -- and it's been 10 years or so since I've lived in DC but I do go back with some frequency for work -- which is all to say these places still exist but the vibe might be different.

So I used to live in adams morgan -- the best part of the city. Head up to 18th and Columbia. You can get there from Dupont Circle. Take the 42 bus up conneticut or walk. On 18th you've got a whole bunch of restaurants and a couple cafes. Coming up 18th, you'll find Asylum, which was at one point, pre-yuppy remodel, a REALLY great bar. Now it's good (eat the fries, drink a shiner bock or a dog fish head) but not as great. Madams Organ is classic. Tryst is my first great cafe discovery though it's a little loud (FREE internet now -- also I tend to think it's too loud, too crowded, and too obnoxious these days). On Columbia Road, around the corner from the McDonalds there's MixTec. It is KICK ASS. Eat mole sauce and guacamole. MMMMM.

On U Street, the other great part of the world, there's a mix of good stuff. The 9:30 club ( is a fantastic venue. It's almost entirely perfect in every way. Then there's Ben's Chilli Bowl -- a greasy spoon diner that is faaaantastic. U Street has become seriously gentrified and yuppified so it's a bit trendy trendy now.

Dupont's got some good stuff. Dupont Upper: Childe Herald on Conneticut (1 block from the metro) is good. The downstairs is a weird bar and eatery -- I've never been upstairs. Classic for a mixed inappropriate crowd filled with interns. 2 blocks up is teaism -- at R and conneticut -- good tea. Dupont Lower: on 19th, Buffalo Billiards - classic gigantic poolhall.

Cleveland Park has the Uptown Theater - a one screen super movie theater. It's cool. There's also Atomic Billiards, a good kitchy poolhall.

Georgetown -- Thomas Jefferson between K & M there's a tiny indy coffee shop called Baked and Wired (this is across the street from where I work), they have fantastic fantastic baked goods and are a pretty decent (but not great) cup of coffee. Other than that it's far too trendy to bother much with (expensive) and the food isn't great. The canal is pretty cool.

Museums, as you might have figured out, are free. Cool one's: air and space (planetarium shows, though not free, are fun), hirshorn (modern art), freer gallery (a lot of it is underground -- great great buddha's, eastern art, and room from whistler's house), natural history (the gem room, and the orkin LIVE bug gallery YAY). National Gallery of Art should not be missed but it's HUGE. The Hirhshorn (modern) is more manageable and fun.

Worthy addition for 2009 is Cork -- on 14th. Wine bar and excellent upscale food stuff. Recommended if you want a fancy dinner and/or a good glass of wine.

And generally speaking DC is safe but you want to be aware of you are. Southeast is not a good part of town (historically) but there is relatively little that would take you into that quadrant as far as interesting tourist attractions go.
posted by countrymod at 7:05 AM on October 15, 2009

You'll want to go to Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. Iconic.

If you are near monuments and memorials, stop by the small, stunning D.C. War Memorial, SW of the World War II Memorial. You will probably be surprised by the D.C. memorial's disrepair and neglect, but restoration is in the offing. It is a beautiful, beautiful place.
posted by jgirl at 7:14 AM on October 15, 2009

Best answer: Perhaps you wouldn't find it to be too cold out on the water that time of year - there's a river tour from Georgetown to Alexandria (and a water taxi from Alexandria to National Harbor, if you find visiting The Awakening hugely compelling. But there's really nothing else of any interest going on in National Harbor) that's admittedly on the cheesy side, but still pleasant. It's as good a way as any to get between two quaint, extremely gentrified areas.

Go to Peregrine Espresso at Eastern Market for coffee one morning and check out the market. I've also heard murmurs that The Fridge is worth a visit.

Dupont, U Street, and Adams Morgan/Mount Pleasant are all within walking distance of one another (if you're a good walker) and offer nice architecture and good people-watching. Wandering around those neighborhoods would be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

I'm guessing the Halloween scene on H Street in the Atlas District is going to be more interesting than the one in Adams Morgan, and the Atlas District is the place to go for nightlife if you're interested in checking out an area that's only in the early stages of gentrification. It's a little harder to get to by public transport, and requires maybe a little more alertness than other neighborhoods mentioned. The H Street Country Club is probably worth a visit if you make it over there, and I hear good things about Little Miss Whiskey's. If you like Belgian beer, mussels and frites, you must go to Dr. Granville Moore's.

Seconding the recommendations to check out the Hirschhorn (and sculpture garden) and the Sunday drum circle at Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park. Definitely keep an eye on DCist for events in the city. Also, you can pretty easily and cheaply get to Baltimore on a weekday (and only on a weekday, sadly) on the MARC train if you find yourself running out of things to do in DC.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:44 AM on October 15, 2009

Best answer: It sounds like you haven't spent much time in a city, and I (who grew up in rural WV but now live in the DC area) understand your excitement. Some of the "city experiences" you may want to try are:

-- It's so OMG TOURISTY that people will throw things at me for recommending it, but consider doing one of the double-decker tourbus things soon after arriving. (I linked to one of them, but there are others, including that Godawful duck thing.) You will get to see all the big-time DC monuments and tourist touchstones and, basically, get them out of your system. Then, if there are any sites in particular that you want to explore, like the Vietnam Memorial, you can do it later that night. (Side story: when I went to London while in college, I intentionally didn't do a bus tour because it was so OMG TOURISTY, and I regretted it because I didn't feel like I saw much of the city's highlights. Ever since, I always try to do one of those tours, and/or a walking tour, and I've never regretted one.)

-- Related to the first part above, try to go to the monuments at night instead of during the day. They're much more impressive.

-- Definitely go to Ben's Chili Bowl (1213 U St NW; across from the U Street metro exit) for lunch, and order a half-smoke. Once you're done, walk around the corner to Busboys and Poets (2021 14th St NW), which is the kind of lefty bookstore/coffeehouse that you won't find in Anchorage. (I assume.) In fact, just wander around the U Street corridor for a while, perhaps looking into the history of jazz in that area.

-- If you're interested, other bookstores to seek out include Kramerbooks in DuPont Circle and Politics and Prose, which is a little out of the way but has terrific author events most every night.

-- Like beer? Go to the Brickskeller.

-- If you're a churchgoing person, regardless of the denomination, you might consider going to a Sunday service at the National Cathedral. It's an impressive experience. Or, if you're Catholic, go to the National Shrine. Or, if you're a heathen, you can visit either place to see the architecture. (Or to point and laugh at the believers, but that's just rude.)

-- Definitely seek out an Ethiopian place (in U Street or Adams Morgan are good bets), but note that most of the best ethnic food in DC is actually out in the suburbs. Tyler Cowen's guide, linked earlier, can help you if you want to try a specific cuisine, but look for things near Metro stops or you'll find yourself wandering in a suburban drearyland.

-- I always recommend this in threads like this one and nobody (except Jessamyn, hi!) ever takes me up on it, but even if you don't have the time or inclination to go through the main exhibit here at the Holocaust Museum at least stop by and come up to the fifth floor to (1) say hi to me at the library reference desk, and (2) see the amazing, sweeping view from the glass walkway at the Tidal Basin end of the Museum. It's a unique view of several DC landmarks.

-- In terms of safety: stick to the touristy areas or the crowded areas (Adams Morgan, U Street) and be sensible, and you should be fine.

Don't hesitate to e-mail me if there's anything in particular you'd like to know. I'm a librarian; I like answering questions!
posted by arco at 9:03 AM on October 15, 2009

Best answer: Sorry to sound so excited! But what can I say, I am!

Glad to hear that - I love DC, + you picked a good time to visit:

Movies: Noir City DC and the Spooky Movie Festival are happening at the beautiful AFI Silver Theater, and the Brit Noir series is at the National Gallery of Art. Go see "Shakedown" or "Night Editor" at the AFI and hit the Quarry House for burgers and beers, or "They Drive by Night" at the NGA - after which you can walk up to the Hill for dinner and drinks at the great Tune Inn.

Music: Some more schedules to check out: DC9, Velvet Lounge, Black Cat, Twins Jazz, Library of Congress. My pick would be Vic Chesnutt, who is playing the Black Cat w/Fugazi's Guy Picciotto on 10/30. If you go, stop by Polly's for a beer beforehand (hopefully it will be chilly and they'll have the fireplace going), or get a big, cheap, delicious falafel platter at 24 Seven.

Food: Street food is not our strong suit, but the burrito and coffee cart at 17th and K is worth a stop if you're in the neighborhood. Our best street-eating is from carry-outs: get lunch at Greek Deli and Catering and walk it over to Farragut Square, or hit Mangialardo's for a sub and eat it on a bench at Congressional Cemetery (walk it off afterward with a self-guided tour.) For coffee: Chinatown Coffee Company, Peregrine Espresso, Patisserie Poupon, and M.E. Swing. A few more bars: Marx Cafe, The Saloon, Martin's Tavern, Looking Glass Lounge, Townhouse Tavern, and The Raven. The sandwiches at Bread Line are among the best you'll ever have.

Art / Exhibits: Anne Truitt at the Hirshhorn, Falnama: The Book of Omens at the Sackler, A New Deal for Artists at the American Art Museum, and Camilo José Vergara at the National Building Museum (one of the most beautiful public spaces in DC.)

A few more: The Japan Information and Cultural Center has a free screening of "Mushi-shi" (10/30), two virtuosos of Persian classical music are playing for free at the Freer (10/30), Free Art and Coffee talk at the American Art Museum (10/31), tarantuala feedings at the Natural History Museum (every day!), Day of the Dead festivities at the Museum of the American Indian (ongoing), tour the conservation lab at the Portrait Gallery (11/2), and (a little pricey, but if you want to treat yourself on Halloween) the D.C. Preservation League's Cemetery Bus Tour is a chance to see a spectacular and historically important ruined cemetery that's usually off-limits to the public, Woodlawn, with some serious history geeks.

Another librarian here - MeFi mail me if you have any questions :)
posted by ryanshepard at 9:09 AM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and avoid the Spy Museum - it's a overpriced, mindless tourist trap.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:15 AM on October 15, 2009

Oh, and I meant to add in my Eastern Market section (though its nearer the Potomac Avenue Metro station), if you like absinthe, or want to find out if you like absinthe, Wisdom is worth a visit.

For other bars with a single-liquor specialization, if your theoretical tour of U Street/Dupont/Adams Morgan happens in the late afternoon or early evening, you can route it through Russia House (vodka) above Dupont and/or Bourbon in Adams Morgan.
posted by EvaDestruction at 9:22 AM on October 15, 2009

Best answer: DC is pretty safe. I'd even say that anyplace within a few blocks of a metro stop is safe, regardless of how "bad" of a neighborhood it is. Metro is some of the cleanest public transportation (but it also doesn't go everywhere you'd like it to.)

I've always like the idea of "Coffee with Constituents" but it looks like you may be out of luck. May be worth giving a call. Also being from a small state, you have pretty good odds of getting some free tickets to the house or senate gallery but it looks like they want more advanced notice.

Free museums are amazing, and pretty unique to DC. No one is ever too cool to go see some stuff that was on the fuckin' moon. Also if you can get a car, and would like to see Japanese tourists posing in front of The Enola Gay head down to the Udvar-Hazy Center.

My personal art bias is for American 20th & 21st century. If you wanna go see some stupid european baroque shit, check out the NGA West. Actually, I kid, this is a pretty fab collection as well.

Things to avoid: don't wear a T-shirt with your home state on it, cary a camera, water bottle or fanny pack. Combine this with standing on the left side of the escalators and you will instantly earn ire of everyone around you.
posted by fontophilic at 10:07 AM on October 15, 2009

One more suggestion: If you want to get out and see the neighborhoods on foot, Cultural Tourism DC offers some great self-guided tours. Come on up to Mount Pleasant for a walk!

If you do, there's top-notch Korean food at Adam Express, and the Raven is a good spot for an post-walk beer.

The Civil War to Civil Rights tour does a good job of summoning up interesting ghosts in a part of town that's quickly being sterilized by development. Yellow Arrow's Capitol of Punk tour is good for that, too.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:12 AM on October 15, 2009

Visit Dupont Circle on Halloween and watch (or participate in) Trick-or-Treating on Embassy Row.
posted by oceano at 12:09 PM on October 15, 2009

Response by poster: Wow - this is so awesome! Great responses! I'm just getting off work now and have to run home, but I am going to go through these VERY carefully tonight. If you have any more, keep 'em coming!

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 4:41 PM on October 15, 2009

If you have any more, keep 'em coming!

If you go to see arco, don't miss the Holocaust Museum's great Nazi propaganda exhibit.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:59 PM on October 15, 2009

Here's the right link for the USHMM exhibit:
posted by ryanshepard at 6:01 PM on October 15, 2009

Definitely DC By Foot. It the most memorable part of my trip and it's free (Tip based touring) plus you get to walk. =D
posted by CZMR at 8:46 PM on October 15, 2009

If there is any way to get into the city that first night (27th), the annual High Heel Drag Queen Race is crucial, but it sounds like you may not be able to get into town in time for that.
Most of my fav spots have been recommended already at this point, but I will say that I like Black Cat over 9:30 club and I love holding big creepy bugs at the Natural History Museum.
About Capitol Hill things: the reason the website linked above says to request tours waaaay in advance is that specifically White House tours are rather difficult to come by. Capitol tours, however, are generally easily arranged through a Congressional office with just a few days' notice or just by waiting in line at the new Capitol Visitor's Center (on the East/Supreme Court side of the Capitol). Gallery passes are also available pretty much whenever if you stop by your Senator/Rep's office - caveat being that the Senate gallery is only open when the Senate is in session (I think the House gallery is open to the public regardless, but obviously it's more interesting if there's actually something going on in there). If you do stop by your Senator/Rep's office, things that are cool include: signing the guestbook, partaking of free pocket Constitutions or edible goodies (if your state has them - non-Alaska examples include Iowa popcorn, Virginia/Georgia peanuts, etc.), sharing political opinions with a staffer - even unhappy opinions as long as you do it reasonably politely. Less appreciated: demands to speak to the Senator/Rep - these folks do have pretty packed schedules. Ask nicely though and there's always a chance you'll get lucky.
I also nth Ben's Chili Bowl.
posted by naoko at 11:29 PM on October 15, 2009

Ethiopian for breakfast. Seriously. It's delicious, nutritious, filling, and reasonably cheap. Avoid Adams Morgan, only eat near U Street. The best restaurants also have small selection of groceries for sale.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:26 AM on October 16, 2009

Response by poster: OK, just a followup. As it turns out, I had much less time in DC that I was hoping for, about two full days. So what did I do? Mostly, I walked EVERYWHERE. Following the suggestions above, I ate at Etete and Ben's Chili Bowl, checked out the drunken Halloween celebration at Adams Morgan, Visited the Renwick Gallery, went all over the U Street/Dupont Circle area, visited Meridian Park, and just generally had a marvelous time. There was definitely a certain someone I wish I was sharing it with, but otherwise was fine just tromping around by myself. Thanks everyone!

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 8:49 PM on November 5, 2009

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