What to do in DC
June 4, 2012 5:29 PM   Subscribe

You're a local in DC and you have a weekday off. What do you do?

I've got the day to hang out in DC tomorrow - hooray! I've got to leave from Union Station at about 3, but I have the whole morning to do whatever (I'm staying near Union Station, so it's easy to get around on the metro from here - I don't mind traveling on the subway to get around).

What is the one thing that I shouldn't miss when I'm in town? I'm not super into touristy stuff, but would definitely go to a museum or monument if it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience kind of thing. I have been to the Capitol building and disliked the tour - I'm not really a guided tour group type. I've already been to the Air & Space museum and really liked it, but I don't want to go again. Also, I'm not interested in the Spy Museum for whatever reason (I think it's the high price of admission) but could probably be persuaded if it really is the coolest thing ever. I do not like zoos.

I'm thinking along the lines of coffee shops, bookstores, eclectic shopping, maybe a good place to hang out with my laptop and work for awhile... just something fun and a little different than what I would normally do at home. (I'm an information scientist by trade and an ex-archivist.) What in the DC area is just a do-not-miss experience?

I looked at the old threads and they were mostly food- or tourism-related. I have a few ideas as backups from those threads but I'm really looking for more off-the-beaten-path suggestions.

posted by k8lin to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (28 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Get your morning coffee at Tryst in Adams Morgan (18th and Columbia NW) or Chinatown Coffee Co. (4th and H NW) Eat lunch at the Museum of the American Indian (Independence and..something.)

Visit Busboys and Poets (many locations) and Kramerbooks (Connecticut and Q NW) for bookstores.

If you have time for drinks, check out Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan (on 18th, a block or so down from Tryst) - they have a great beer selection.
posted by downing street memo at 5:35 PM on June 4, 2012

Maybe hang out at Busboys and Poets for a while, then wander around U St/14th St for a bit. If you need oddball gifts for anyone, wander up the hill to Columbia Heights to the Museum of Unnatural History. Kramerbooks is mentioned above, but if secondhand is more your style there's Second Story Books, also in Dupont Circle.

If you want to tap into your archivist past you can come down to the Holocaust Museum and I can show you how we do what we do. Drop me an email if you're interested.
posted by arco at 5:39 PM on June 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

A selection of Kano Kazunobu's fantastic paintings for the Zōjōji Buddhist temple are on display at the Freer Gallery through July 8.
posted by ThisIsNotMe at 5:40 PM on June 4, 2012

ThisIsNotMe has it right, the Freer and Sackler Galleries. they're also having an exhibit of Hokusai's prints. I heard somewhere they are so fragile now that after each exhibit they have to store them in the dark for years afterwards. This exhibit is at the Sackler
posted by FatRabbit at 5:45 PM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Coffee: Peregrine Coffee on the Hill (or 14th st NW I guess, although it's not as great).
Bookstore: Second Story Books in Dupont. (Seriously.)
Shopping: Sorry, not my bag, really.
Laptop and work (?): No. You can do that at home.

There are way worse places to see than the National Archives and the Museum of American History (Star-Spangled Banner, Muppets). I'm a sucker for the National Gallery myself, which is where I go when I'm bored during a day off or whatever. Freer is also amazing.

You can do worse than the Museum of the American Indian for lunch. The food is amazing. There are also a billion awesome food trucks around (today I had fantastic Korean BBQ bulgogi tacos, for example). Or, for that DC experience, feel free to grab a half-smoke from a vendor.

Basically, I'd send you to other neighborhoods, but you don't have that much time. I'd rather you experience as much as possible, which means lowering travel times.
posted by General Malaise at 5:45 PM on June 4, 2012

The National Building museum was interesting and, if I remember correctly, had a kickass gift shop with lots of fun stuff to browse through.

Lunch at the museum of the American Indian would be nice. I also love wandering through the nearby Botanical Garden because I love the way it smells and also all the orchids.

When I have free time in DC I always end up drifting happily through the National Gallery and maybe getting gelato at the cafe between the two buildings.
posted by PussKillian at 6:20 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Capitol Hill's two used bookstores are worth a visit, and they're even somewhat close to Union Station. Capitol Hill Books is a fun mess with books piled everywhere, including the bathroom. Riverby books is a lot classier.
posted by Xalf at 6:26 PM on June 4, 2012

The National Building Museum isn't free any more, though I think the impressive lobby still is.
posted by Xalf at 6:28 PM on June 4, 2012

If I'm a local in DC? Annapolis. Seriously. I'd drive to Annapolis. Or Baltimore. I'm sick of DC.

Kramerbooks is a bookstore like many others, with an attached bar/cafe. Unless you're shopping for books or want to try finding a seat at the bar, it's not a very exciting destination. Might as well go sit and drink coffee at Books-A-Million that's on the other side of Dupont Circle.

Busboys is light dining with an attached multicultural book nook. You can eat a nice wrap and take in the walls spattered with counterculture slogans. It's very slick. If you're there in the evening, you can take a chance on a slam poetry reading. You like slam poetry, don't you?

The Museum of Unnatural History is an education non-profit with a gift shop. The gift shop sells nice gag gifts that benefit the non-profit, but it has all the ambiance of an old cellar. It's also kind of a longish walk from U St., I suggest taking the metro. The pupusas next door are pretty good.

Tryst is a longish walk in another direction and is not really metro-accessible. They have a long menu of mildly upscale brunch food. Be aware that the place is packed with tables and chairs to accommodate the largest possible number of visitors.

I do recommend one of the smaller Smithsonians, as suggested above. Not natural history, and definitely not aerospace. Heaven forfend! Try the Freer, Sackler, Renwick, the portrait gallery, the castle, the botanic garden, etc. They are restful, usually spottily attended, and surround you with that old-world splendor. But it's probably difficult to summon up enough energy to take in more than one at a go.
posted by Nomyte at 6:29 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was just in DC last weekend and we spent most of the trip avoiding the crowds by sticking to art galleries. Being a first-time visitor to the city, I'd never even heard of the Hirshhorn Museum but it was easily the highlight - there is a really interesting exhibit there right now called Suprasensorial.
posted by something something at 6:38 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to grab a coffee on the Hill (Peregrine as suggested above) and want company, MeMail me. I'm free tomorrow.
posted by k8t at 6:42 PM on June 4, 2012

Since you're staying near Union Station, I'd highly recommend walking to Eastern Market. It's charming and very much a distinctive DC neighborhood. To me, it feels more like a part of the South than any other part of DC, thanks to its lush gardens and wide streets. You can browse the market (the food market is open during the week though the crafty stuff is only on the weekends), stroll around and admire the gorgeous rowhouses and gardens, linger with a latte at Peregrine Espresso or Le Pain Quotidien, and page through used books at Capitol Hill Books. There are also lots of interesting stores to check out along Pennsylvania Ave and Barracks Row.

From the Union Station area, I think the most interesting and pleasant way to get to Eastern Market is by walking down to the mall and maybe making a stop at the Botanical Gardens and then walking through the Capitol grounds. You could also stop in at the Library of Congress to see its gorgeous reading room and whatever they have on display. Eastern Market's basically a straight walk down Pennsylvania Ave from there.
posted by zahava at 6:48 PM on June 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Two options:

Walk over to Eastern Market and wander around. Then go to Capitol Hill Books and maybe grab coffee at Peregrine.

Or, take the metro over to Dupont Circle. Go to Books for America and get coffee at Filter. Then go read and people-watch in the circle or, if you're feeling museum-y, check out the Philips Collection.

Capitol Hill Books and Books for America are hands-down the best used books stores in DC--Capitol for its enormous and quirky collection, and Books for America for its great selection, especially in fiction.
posted by sashapearl at 6:48 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I second going to the smaller Smithsonian art museums - personally I love the Hirshhorn. Actually even the National Gallery of Art (both buildings) are sparsely attended unless there's some major touring exhibit going on. I love staring at old portraits in the West Building mainly to see what people used to wear.
posted by research monkey at 6:50 PM on June 4, 2012

Oh, and if you happen to be in the Dupont Circle area and need a pick-me-up, do stop by Teaism for tea and a meal or snacks.
posted by research monkey at 6:54 PM on June 4, 2012

Duh, I forgot about the Folger, which has a brand new exhibit in the main hall.
posted by arco at 7:07 PM on June 4, 2012

The National Archives. Tha National Gallery.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:47 PM on June 4, 2012

There is shopping and The National Postal Museum in Union Station. Be sure to grab a bottle for the train trip home at Union Station Liquors, everyone else is.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has an exhibit on the Art of the Video Game.

Go to the Library of Congress and get a free Reader Services Card. A free memento of your trip to DC, plus it's a quiet place to work on your laptop, and they have a gift shop.

See the Supremes at the Supreme Court of the United States. Stop by the gift shop and buy the pencil with two erasers that looks like a gavel.

The US Botanic Garden is right near the US Capitol.

Grab a drink at Bullfeathers.
posted by Rob Rockets at 7:57 PM on June 4, 2012

Another vote for Eastern Market. Easily my favorite spot in Chocolate City.

Also another vote for the Botanical Gardens.

You can walk to both of these places from Union Station.
posted by bardic at 9:35 PM on June 4, 2012

We went to the Newseum in DC during a visit last summer. It dramatically exceeded my expectations - a number of very good exhibits with a lot of depth. The gallery of newspaper front pages from the past several decades was excellent and we could have spent a couple hours in there. There's a great view of the capital building from the terrace, too.
posted by pkingdesign at 10:32 PM on June 4, 2012

You've gotten some great advice.

Another vote for Eastern Market, which I adore for the weekend jewelry and reclaimed furniture/decorations. As others have said, it's a nice walk through federal DC to a lovely neighborhood. if you plan the route properly, you can also walk by the Supreme Court and Library of Congress and wander in if you have time.

I take all visitors to the National Building Museum, also a short walk from Union Station. It is the most underrated museum in DC, with (as others have said) a magnificent atrium and awesome gift shop. In addition to specials like the Lego exhibit and items focused on architecture, it also has a great long-running, evolving exhibit focusing on both federal DC and neighborhood DC.

Both Peregrine Coffee (near eastern market) and Chinatown Coffee (near national building museum) make the best lattes around. Only Peete's on the west coast compares.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 12:21 AM on June 5, 2012

Drat, there was supposed to be a link to Towering Ambition: Lego and Washington Symbol and City.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 12:22 AM on June 5, 2012

I vote for Capitol Hill Books and Peregrine Coffee (Eastern Market), though I've only seen the latter on holidays, so I don't know if it's a hangout type place.

Am I the only one hoping k8t and k8lin meet up for some kind of supernatural MeFi k8* synergy?
posted by knile at 12:26 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

We went to the Newseum in DC during a visit last summer.

I've heard just about nothing but good things about the Newseum; the two "complaints" I've heard were (a) there's too much to see in one visit, and (b) it's not the cheapest (but that's probably the only reason point (a) can exist).
posted by inigo2 at 5:00 AM on June 5, 2012

American History Museum at the Smithsonian.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:04 AM on June 5, 2012

Here is another vote for Eastern Market and Capitol Hill Books!

You definitely have to stop in the Folger Library too. Their new exhibit is opening today. It's on the way from Union Station to Eastern Market.
posted by apricot at 7:35 AM on June 5, 2012

I actually find the Botanical Gardens a little disappointing - they are far from the best botanical viewing in the city.

I second most of the other recommendations above, but want to underscore the Folger and Peregrine Coffee.

You can't go wrong on the mall, of course.

If you want to get off the beaten path, walk the other direction from Union Station and hit up H Street, NE. There's a great coffee shop on 4th and H, and then another coffee/wine bar called Sova further down around 11th and H. Other than restaurants and theaters/clubs, though, this neighborhood is definitely in "transition," so don't go North of H just to wander. Do go South, though, and you'll end walking through beautiful old city up into the Eastern Market everyone's mentioned!
posted by jymelyne at 11:59 AM on June 5, 2012

Well, I had a great day! All told, I walked almost 5 miles and had a great time.

I started with a stroll to the Capitol, and then hit the Botanical Gardens, which I really loved, especially the Orchid room. Then I went to the Museum of the American Indian for a small bite, and it was really good (as I expected based on the multiple recs I've seen here).

Then I wandered over to Capitol Hill books and Eastern Market and poked around for a bit. I also met k8t for coffee at Peregrine - the k8* synergy was in full force; turns out we work in similar worlds, and we had a fun time. The latte was amazing.

Then I walked up 7th street to the apartment where I was staying and booked it to Union Station, just making my train.

Thanks for a spectacular day! Now I have a big list of stuff to hit next time I'm in the city, too. Thanks, mefites. :D
posted by k8lin at 2:15 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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