Weird, unusual, and hidden parts of Washington, DC?
May 5, 2014 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I've been reading Scouting NY ever since Slap*Happy's post about Willets Point and loving it the descriptions of bizarre landmarks, unusual neighborhoods, and hidden bits of history and culture in NYC. What are the equivalent places in Washington, DC?

I've seen this previous thread but I'm not looking at this from the angle of a tourist seeking off-the-beaten-path attractions - I live here. (Have still filed under travel because that seems to be the best place for city-specific questions.) I'm more interested in just learning about the more surreal parts of the city - think more anti-tourism or the things that no tourist in their right mind would go out of their way to visit. The only thing there that really occupies the same space as the Scouting NY stuff is A. Litteri and the rest of the Capital City Market/Florida Ave Market.
posted by capricorn to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (29 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If this is the sort of thing you like, you'll like this: "The Mini Golf Course at East Potomac is on the National Register for Historic Places and is listed as the oldest continuing operating miniature golf course in the country." also "the first mini golf course constructed by the NPS on federally owned land and the only mini golf course in DC." built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1930.
posted by jessamyn at 8:20 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

You may have to dig down a bit in to the specific areas you are interested in but the Road trip USA site has collections of tourist destinations including some of the older/odder ones.
posted by Captain_Science at 8:34 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: How about a walking tour of the abandoned (currently under redevelopment, but pretty weird and spooky right now) section of the St. Elizabeth's Hospital campus?
posted by decathecting at 8:38 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: How about the Boundary Stones? More geographic oddities from the same blogger here.
posted by clavicle at 8:39 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like to show people the Library of Congress' card catalog.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:39 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

The "Weird" series of books might be helpful..."Weird Virginia" also includes parts of DC and talks about various legends, ghosts, strange art etc....
posted by bessiemae at 8:44 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, I have no idea whether this applies to you, but if you live west of the river and haven't spent substantial time east of the river, you should hop a metro over to Anacostia or Minnesota Avenue and just get out and walk around a bit. There are whole sections of the city that are home to hundreds of thousands of people that a lot of folks who have lived for years west of the river have never seen or explored. I've been making an effort lately to just spend time in areas of the city I'm less familiar with, and it's been really rewarding.
posted by decathecting at 8:47 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wouldn't call it "weird", but the karaoke/nightlife at Eden Center is fun and fairly atypical for DC.

Also, Congressional Cemetery is great if you haven't been there yet. Leonard Matlovich's grave is there, along with J Edgar Hoover, and lots of other fascinating early ones (Native American diplomats, for example).
posted by susanvance at 8:48 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: I always like to point out the East Potomac Park "Mystery Building" when taking new people into DC via the Yellow Line. It's just sitting there, clearly visible from the Metro. A million people a day must drive by it on their commute, and nobody publicly acknowledges why it's there or what's inside. So very DC.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:15 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Kingman and Heritage islands are three miles from the US Capitol but are practically a wetlands wildlife refuge where I've often seen turtles and egrets, and few people.
posted by exogenous at 9:32 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: Maybe not anti-tourism, but off the beaten path a bit: Congressional Cemetery is always worth a visit. It is now the season when they do various tours.

Have you been to Roosevelt Island? You can get there via the Rosslyn Metro or by walking across Key Bridge to Rosslyn. If you walk across Key Bridge, you can see the last remnants of the old Aqueduct Bridge. Also in Rosslyn - the Deep Throat parking garage, the church/gas station, and the Arpanet historic marker.

If you go to Anacostia, you can see the big chair. (You can also go to the Frederick Douglass house, if for no other reason than the great view of DC from there.)
posted by gudrun at 9:43 AM on May 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh yeah, and very near the Iwo Jima Memorial in Rosslyn/Arlington, VA, but considerably less well known: Dark Star Park; another photo.
posted by gudrun at 10:06 AM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: Just to expand on the Boundary Stones. The first of those is at Jones Point Park in Alexandria. That whole area is awesome - boundary stones, The Jones Point Lighthouse, the basketball courts/trail under the Woodrow Wilson bridge, and the remnants of a WWI shipyard are all right there.

I haven't heard anything about if the Dupont Underground tour is still operating, or what the story is, but that seems like it might fit.

I like the Titanic memorial for obscure and kinda weird memorials in D.C. - I came upon it completely by accident, and it's a lovely location for a riverside lunch.

Fort Marcy Park is well-preserved Civil War fort, and is also where Vince Foster's body was found. From there, you can access the Potomac Heritage Trail, which is great for a long riverside hike.

If you do go to Rosslyn to visit the weird stuff there, also take a quick look at Freedom Park, which is a nice oasis, despite missing the cool stuff that used to be exhibited there.

I assume you have been to Gravelly Point, but if not you should.
posted by gemmy at 9:04 PM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not very secret, but I always liked the St Thomas parish church ruins in DuPont Circle. 18th and Church Streets.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 9:35 PM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: I just thought of an example myself, the property at 2737 Cathedral Ave NW, which is the only empty lot I've ever seen in Woodley Park. A sign says it belongs to the Embassy of the Republic of Benin. I found a 2000 document saying the embassy used to be located there, then they outgrew the space and intended to use the property as an annex. I guess they ended up demolishing it instead.

Self-linking but here's what it looks like.
posted by capricorn at 7:54 PM on May 7, 2014

Best answer: I plug this in every discussion about off-the-beaten-path DC stuff, but hike the Circle Fort Trail. At one point there were plans to make it into a greenway all around DC, but that got axed somewhere along the line and now there's just this one 8-mile segment east of the river. There's an entrance not far off the Minnesota Avenue metro station.
posted by ActionPopulated at 12:22 PM on May 9, 2014

Best answer: One of my favorite things to show visitors is the outside echo chamber/dome outside the Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue. Just walk up to the Embassy and make a right into the little rotunda thing. Then start jumping around or speaking. The acoustics are very very surprising. It's a great place to sometimes spot people practicing their singing, or just acting like goofballs. The closer to the middle of the rotunda, the louder the effect!
posted by tittergrrl at 9:23 PM on May 9, 2014

Best answer: The Capital Columns at the Arboretum are pretty cool. The bits that they didn't move to the arboretum are still inexplicably sitting in the woods at Rock Creek Park.

Contact your Senator's office, and arrange a tour that takes you on the silly little subway under the capitol. Ask them to show you the ruins of the ornate bathrooms in the basement of the Capitol. (Also, if you have insane amounts of political clout, get the Architect of the Capitol to take up up into the Dome. You almost definitely won't be able to do this, but if the opportunity ever presents itself, DO IT.)

I think that you can arrange for a tour of the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant (the largest and most advanced wastewater treatment facility in the world).

The ride along the Capital Crescent Trail and C&O Towpath could make you forget that you're in a major metropolitan area. Not exactly a secret, but most people haven't done it...

The Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, though still incomplete, also takes you through some fairly central parts of the city that you've probably never seen. (The Anacostia Watershed Society rents out canoes and kayaks, which is always a fun afternoon activity. Despite its reputation, the Anacostia is definitely a better place to paddle than the Potomac)
posted by schmod at 8:42 AM on May 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I thought of a few more, all under the heading of unusual and quirky places to shop:

Capitol Hill Books

Exotic Planterium and Card & Comic Collectorama

Monarch Novelties (Honestly I'm scared to go in here. If I'm going to go, I need a DC MeFite to hold my hand.)

And Transcendence-Perfection-Bliss of the Beyond isn't actually weird, but the weird name and the apparent origin of the name (something to do with this dude) make it qualify.
posted by capricorn at 10:19 AM on May 15, 2014

Response by poster: Oh hey, not to threadsit, but the story behind Monarch is actually really interesting too. It is an example of one of my favorite modern urban phenomena, nail houses.
posted by capricorn at 10:27 AM on May 15, 2014

I've lucked into Monarch being open, it's pretty fun. I have an excellent button from there that says "US Capitol Drinking Champion." Let's have a meetup at Churchkey and go sometime, it's right up the street.
posted by troika at 10:38 AM on May 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seeing capricorn's post reminded me: The Mansion on O Street is quite fun as well. We went for a moustache happy hour (I only see a regular happy hour on the site at the moment, though), and it was a blast. Waaaaay cooler than you would imagine - it's a house full of secret doors, books, and cool stuff. And they do jazz concerts and fun tours, etc.
posted by gemmy at 11:18 AM on May 15, 2014

Best answer: I can't believe I forgot to mention the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Although it's not old and abandoned (and no longer technically in DC -- it moved to the new Walter Reed campus in Bethesda), it's easily one of the coolest local attractions that nobody has ever heard of.

Admittedly, I haven't been since they relocated, but the exhibit that holds the bullet that killed Lincoln is worth the trek up to Bethesda all by itself (and I say this from an educational and scientific perspective -- the exhibit is a great glimpse into the medical practices of the 1860s, and the museum plays up the scientific aspects of its exhibits far more than most others do today).
posted by schmod at 6:42 AM on May 20, 2014

Best answer: One last one: If you know any White House staffers, ask them if you can go bowling. There's a bowling alley under the White House, and it's surprisingly easy for staffers to reserve it and bring guests in. I know a large number of people who have done this.

It's substantially easier than getting a dome tour of the Capitol.
posted by schmod at 11:18 AM on May 20, 2014

Best answer: Yeah, seconding the Capital Crescent Trail. The Dalecarlia Tunnel is pretty darn cool.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 4:09 PM on May 26, 2014

Oh, and I can't believe I forgot about (and that nobody else has mentioned) the National Building Museum! When the hubs and I lived there, it was one of our favorite places to go, and to bring visitors. It's right at the Judiciary Square stop.

The building itself is fascinating. From the NBM website:
From the design of the roof to the ingenious ventilation system that created a continuous flow of fresh air throughout the building, the Pension Building is a marvel of engineering. An ingenious system of windows, vents, and open archways allows the Great Hall to function as a reservoir for light and air.
The stairwells, where the steps are really deep and very shallow, were designed that way to make it easier on injured Civil War veterans -- early accessibility.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 4:22 PM on May 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a maze at the NBM this summer, also
posted by troika at 6:44 AM on May 27, 2014

Best answer: I'm more interested in just learning about the more surreal parts of the city - think more anti-tourism or the things that no tourist in their right mind would go out of their way to visit.

A few to start with:

Blue Plains. The southern-most tip (an area formerly known as Fox Ferry Landing) is owned by the National Park Service, and accessible by walking across the border from Oxon Hill Farm Park in Maryland. It's an open, largely unvisited space with views of Alexandria, and contains the graves of 6 Nazi saboteurs executed at the DC jail (the site is marked by a memorial tablet put up by the American Nazi Party in the 60s).

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens - should be a tourist magnet, but because of its location is often almost empty. Thousands of lotuses and water lilies (including day lilies which open together early each morning) and a boardwalk extending out into the last intact Anacostia marsh.

Buzzard Point Marina - small community of mostly live-aboard houseboats, and the last gasp of the old, seedy, middle-finger-to-mainstream-DC Buzzard Point community. Bring lunch and a beer, sit at the picnic tables, and watch the water.

Woodlawn Cemetery - abandoned and a ruin for ~30 years, it is being slowly (slowly) restored. You can now occasionally go on tours as well.

Tucked away behind an apartment building on Q St., NW is another ruined cemetery, Mt Zion. It's a vestige of the same community that founded the Union Burial Society of Georgetown cemetery off of MacArthur Blvd., NW. It, the adjacent Battery Kemble Park, and the Conduit Road Schoolhouse are all quiet reminders of the long shadow cast by the Civil War this neighborhood.

Other cemeteries worth visiting: Rock Creek, Battleground National, National Capital Hebrew, Glenwood, Mt. Olivet.

Keep an eye out for tours of the Smithsonian greenhouses, which happen a few times a year. They're beautiful, and adjacent to the ruins of one of DC's reform schools, the Junior Village.

In the woods near the intersection of Oregon Ave. and Military Rd., NW is Fort DeRussy, a civil war fortification that the Park Service is allowing largely to revert to nature. If you go, stop by and see a show at the tiny planetarium at the Rock Creek Nature Center.

Finally, though it's neither surreal or off-the-beaten path, if you're checking out Litteri, you owe yourself a visit to Mangialardo and Sons.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:04 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For anyone still following along, I'd like to self-answer again since I just found the DC's Hidden Places series on Urban Turf, which highlights 1-2 block streets around the city.
posted by capricorn at 6:53 AM on September 8, 2014

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