Doing DC/Alexandria alone
January 30, 2013 11:38 AM   Subscribe

In April I'll be attending a weeklong conference in Alexandria, VA and will likely be traveling alone. I've never been to DC. What can I do (safely and cheaply) by myself?

I'll be staying at the Hilton in Old Town, where the conference is being held. My understanding is that this is pretty close to a major Metro station. I'm also probably going to do a night or two through AirBnB to extend my trip a little longer, but that will probably be in the same area.

Things I like: unique shopping, all manner of amazing food, thrift stores, walking along docks/beaches, bookstores (esp. feminist bookstores), animals (the natural history museum is on my list), people-watching, craft beer, comic book shops, places where I can just sit and read a book.

Things I'm okay skipping: bars, war history, architecture, art, restaurants where single people are out of place.

So, I'd like to hear your recommendations about places I could eat where I won't feel out of place if I'm alone, or things I can explore safely in the evenings/during the weekend. I'm a mid-twenties female with moderate big city experience. I'm good at navigating subways, less so with buses. I'd also appreciate a little guidance on the weather and how to dress appropriately for April.
posted by almostmanda to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
See I'd be all over the Smithsonian. It's free, and lots and lots to see.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:44 AM on January 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

The thrift store situation in DC is a travesty.

Most all of the museums are free.

The best way to handle the restaurant situation: lots of the trendy restaurants these days have a bar that serves a full menu. Go to the bar and order your meal there. No awkward sitting-alone-at-a-table required. I would head into DC for these restaurants, though.

There was an earlier AskMe about DC restaurants which you can read for suggestions. These were my suggestions.

If you're in DC on the first Friday of the month, check out the scene that night at Kellari.
posted by deanc at 11:45 AM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: Old Town will be a good place to people watch, lots of nightlife and cool shops there. Keep going east along the main drag and you'll hit the Potomac for a nice walk along the river.

Seconding the Smithsonian museums, they're all great and they're all free. The Smithsonian stop on the Metro comes out in the middle of the National Mall - there will be good people watching there, and lots of places to relax and read a book near the monuments.

The weather should be nice in the spring, though cool in the evenings. Bring layers.
posted by InfidelZombie at 12:13 PM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

You'll find almost everything you want (except the Natural History Museum) in Old Town Alexandria, and if you board a Blue line train at the Metro station, it will take you to the Smithsonian station. Walk across the Mall and you're in.
posted by Rash at 12:14 PM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: For April, your best bet is probably going to be layering. Unless you luck out and hit a particularly stable week, weatherwise, the temperature could be anywhere from light coat weather to t-shirt weather, sometimes over the course of the day. The humidity will also interact with the weather in interesting ways, so it's advantageous to be able to add or shed layers at need.

You stand a decent chance of overlapping with the Cherry Blossom Festival.

You can actually do quite well for food out in the suburbs (Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide might give you some ideas), but Ethiopian is worth coming into town for. "Little Ethiopia" around 9th and U would be worth visiting, especially as the U Street corridor and 14th Street south to Logan Circle has a fair number of interesting shops and boutiques. Churchkey is in the area, and has an impressive array of craft brews. It's also not far from Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle (good place to hang out and read a book). No feminist book stores leap to mind, but Second Story in Dupont and Idle Time in Adams Morgan are second-hand bookstores I enjoy.

Georgetown does still have some interesting little shops among the soulless corporate upscale nonsense and has waterfront walking.

If you'll be in town over the weekend, Eastern Market and Barracks Row would be worth a visit for shopping (there's a farmer's market/craft fair/flea market on the weekends, and some interesting shops in the area) and food (Peregrine for coffee/tea, Sweet Lobby for macarons and cupcakes, and Ted's Bulletin for upscale comfort food are particular favorites of mine).

I don't eat out alone much here myself, but it's common enough. I can't think of an actual restaurant (vs. a bar) that I'd suggest you not go to as a solo diner, outside of one of the family-style places like Carmine's. You should also feel free to call a meetup, if you'd like -- DC MeFites are pretty nice.
posted by EvaDestruction at 12:18 PM on January 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a great Farmer's Market in Old Town Alexandria on Saturday mornings, in the 300 block of King Street. George Washington's Mt. Vernon is right down the road, lots of busses go there.

If you'll have a car available, memail me.
posted by easily confused at 12:21 PM on January 30, 2013

For craft beer, you won't be too far from Rustico in Alexandria, or head into DC for a large number of options (Churchkey, Meridian Pint, etc.).

There is a trolley bus that runs along King Street that you can take to the waterfront in Alexandria, or just walk and you can catch your bookstores and shops along the way.
posted by exogenous at 12:23 PM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: There are tons of good restaurants in Old Town, and prices are generally lower than the touristy parts of DC, so I'd definitely eat before venturing over to the Smithsonian museums and stuff. Or if you do eat in DC, take heed of various suggestions and get out of the touristy areas for the best places and non-inflated prices.

If it's a nice day and you're up for something eclectic, you could go on a tour of the George Washington Masonic Memorial (giant building at the end of King St, looks like a cathedral). The view from the top is worth it by itself. Some of the exhibits you'll see on the way up are a bit hokey, but not in a bad way. It's probably the best view of the DC area from anywhere save the Washington Monument, and that's not open right now.

There are docks to walk along on the Old Town waterfront and lots of people-watching on King Street and its adjacent streets full of small shops and restaurants. If it's especially nice weather there are several places where you can rent bikes and take them up or down the riverfront path, which is fun.

As for what to wear in April ... your guess is as good as mine. Temperatures in the DC area were in the 60s yesterday, and they're predicted to be in the low 30s later on this week. April could very well be the same way. Last year it was unseasonably warm, but this year it's reverting back to something more like the mean, with frequent ugly sleet/snow/mix. If it's early April I suspect it won't be shorts weather, and I'd come prepared for rain. (Both Old Town and DC have pretty terrible drainage with large puddles when it rains; choose your footwear appropriately. Also, Old Town has cobblestone streets in some places and I've seen people faceplant on them, you might want to keep that in mind as well.)

Although you need a car or a bus to get to it, Port City Brewing Company -- Alexandria's only brewery -- is just up the road from Old Town. It's pretty new and not really on the tourist circuit, but worth visiting if you're into beer. I went there a few weeks ago, expecting the usual 10 minute brewery tour ("here are some big tanks, here's a bottling machine, here's the beer, we're done") and instead spent something like two hours hanging out with the brewmaster, talking about and drinking beer. Awesome place.

If you rented a bike you could pretty easily bike there (staying almost entirely on multiuse paths, actually) although the path isn't illuminated at night so the return trip might be iffy unless your bike came with a light.

And if you're into animals, check out the National Zoo, it's always fun. (And unlike some zoos, I've never felt bad for the animals there.) The National Arboretum is also a nice spot to relax and read, but it's a bit off the beaten path (part of its appeal). Depending on the weather it may not be in full vigor in early April, but it could be really nice. If the weather is bad, the Botanic Garden right on the Mall is a nice place to step inside. It's basically the "plant zoo".
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:50 PM on January 30, 2013

Politics & Prose is one of the last indy bookstores - the kind of bookstore where you tell someone you're buying a book for your 7 year old niece who likes x, but not y, and they can give you million and one options because they know and have read the books around them.
posted by anya32 at 12:53 PM on January 30, 2013

More votes here for the National Zoo and / or the Smithsonian. Two of my favorite stops when I'm visiting.

If you're a sportsballs fan, both the Nationals and Capitals will be playing, and tickets can usually be found for reasonably low prices with a little legwork.

Teaism is a good spot for food and a book, and if you're looking for lunch options, I've been hitting the food trucks at Farragut Square lately when I've been in the District for work.
posted by BZArcher at 1:13 PM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: There are several upscale consignment shops in Old Town, but the one thrift store I know of is run by the Prevention of Blindness Society.

Check out Misha's if you're into coffee (and lovely pastries...though those sell out fast). They also have a community bulletin board that might have ideas for interesting things to do.

The whole King Street area is safe, especially on nice evenings when lots of people will be out for a walk down to the river.

Oh, and Brabo Tasting Room is a great place to eat at the bar!
posted by JoanArkham at 1:32 PM on January 30, 2013

The Zoo has Pandas. If you haven't seen them before, you should see them now!
posted by soelo at 2:08 PM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: Thrift store (Prevention of Blindness), comic book shop (can't recall the name, but it's there), used bookstore (likewise.. same side of King St as the comic book store and a few blocks south of Misha's), good coffee shop(s) (Misha's, Killer ESP) can all be found just a few blocks up King St from the metro in Old Town. Otherwise thrift shopping around the district is not worth bothering about, you'd have to go way out to the suburbs.

Bookstores: Bridge Street Books in Georgetown is fantastic. Politics and Prose, of course. Busboys and Poets off U St has a pretty good selection of progressive/lefty books and then there's the bar/restaurant, too. U St in general is a good place to people watch and hang out, there are tons of places. Maybe try the Brixton? Marvin? And stuff can get expensive in DC so just be ready for that. Visit an Ethiopian restaurant there - Dukem maybe, Etete. ChurchKey is great for interesting beers, though often very crowded.

I don't find single people are out of place at most restaurants if they have a bar - just eat at the bar instead of taking a table. I do this all the time, so do lots of people especially weekday evenings after work.

I'd tell you to visit H St/Atlas District in NE as well, but you'd have to cab it or take the X2 bus. Seconding the recommend for Eastern Market/Barracks Row on 8th St NE, there are a lot of neat little shops in and around Eastern Market itself as well as on 8th and Pennsylvania Ave surrounding, and Peregrine Espresso is fantastic. And if the weather's nice it would be a nice walk to and/or from if you go past the Capitol on your way to Pennsylvania Ave.
posted by citron at 2:41 PM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: Agree with the recommendation for Barracks Row. Interesting shopping and restaurants. Eammon's in Old Town is really fun - tiny, really great fish and chipper, good stuff. Northern Virginia, Annandale to be specific, has tons of good Korean food - I'm not sure what's close to the Metro. Check out The Washingtonian's Cheap Eats for ideas too. Lots of people travel to the DC/NoVA area for business, so someone eating alone isn't a big, weird deal - the recs to sit at the bar are spot on. DC has a terrific theater scene - any interest there? Coriolanus will be at the Shakespeare Theater, and Arena Stage will have The Mountaintop.
posted by ersatzkat at 3:43 PM on January 30, 2013

For comic book stores in the DC area, there's really only one choice: Big Planet Comics. They have a store on U Street -- that's probably the most Metro accessible to you, unless you want to go out to Bethesda, which you probably don't. (Admittance of bias: I know the people that run the Big Planet stores, but I liked the stores before I knew any of them.)

U Street has some decent boutiques and vintage stores, but DC really doesn't have a shopping culture, sadly.

There is all kinds of good beer almost anywhere. If you do U Street, I'd recommend Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights (if it's nice you can walk, but it's only one Metro stop away). They have a broad, interesting selection of beer and good food, and if you sit at the bar, it's cool if you're solo.
posted by darksong at 6:43 PM on January 30, 2013

really only one choice: Big Planet

Au contraire, mi amigo -- ride the Red Line out to Wheaton and visit Carl at the Barbarian. (But admitedly, that's on the opposite side of town from Old Town Alexandria.)
posted by Rash at 7:32 PM on January 30, 2013

Get your DC bike share card. You can bike from Alexandria down the Mount Vernon Trial, up the WO&D trail or cross over to DC and go up the C&O towpath. Don't miss the Smithsonians.
posted by humanfont at 7:35 PM on January 30, 2013

A lesser known thing to do: The French Embassy has regular events that are open to the public. Dress up, Call Uber, go to a fancy cultural event at an embassy in a private car.
posted by empath at 7:45 PM on January 30, 2013

Best answer: La Madeline at 500 King St might be quite close to your hotel, it's kind of like a French cafeteria, okay, not-so-expensive food and fine for a single diner.

Down at the Potomac waterfront you may notice a big, cubic pre-war building -- it's the Torpedo Factory, now an arts center.

At the other end of King, Kadin2048's right about the Masonic thing -- if you've ever been inside for the tour you know it makes anybody's top-ten list of Weird DC. It's kinda hard to walk to, though.
posted by Rash at 9:26 PM on January 30, 2013

Link to that last --
posted by Rash at 9:29 PM on January 30, 2013

Seconding Eastern Market. There's even a Metro stop for it.

Good shopping and food, and a really nice neighborhood.
posted by bardic at 9:48 PM on January 30, 2013

There is also a relatively small comic book shop in Alexandria, Aftertime Comics, right on King St., although I haven't been there in a couple years, it looks like they are still there.
posted by noonewilleverloveyou at 2:23 PM on January 31, 2013

Rash: "if you board a Blue line train at the Metro station, it will take you to the Smithsonian station"

Sometimes, the wait for the Blue Line can be crazy -- if that's the case, Archives is on the Yellow line (which you can take from Alexandria), and is two blocks from the Smithsonian museums on the Mall.

Capital Bikeshare is indeed a great way to see the city, and they now have stations in Alexandria. It's a bit of a ride to get from Alexandria into DC (it'll probably take you a bit longer than Bikeshare's "free" 30-minute period), but it's safe and easy. You'll get some of the best views of the city along this ride, and the weather in April can be fairly mild. Better still, you can explore the city and ride Metro home -- no need to return the bike to Alexandria.

As for museums, I always think that the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum don't get enough love -- they consistently put up some of the most interesting exhibitions in DC. It's a short walk off the mall. (The National Gallery of Art is on the mall, but is not part of the Smithsonian. Also worth a visit.) Even if you don't like art, you can quickly browse through each of these to see if anything catches your eye -- admission is free, and odds are you'll be walking past them anyway.

The National Building Museum is also unique, and worth a visit if you're into architecture.
posted by schmod at 8:39 AM on February 19, 2013

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