Looking for recommendations on things to do in DC & the surrounding area
March 23, 2017 1:16 AM   Subscribe

In April, I'm going to be going to DC and the surrounding areas with my dad for a week. What are some must-see things to visit there, and along the way back to Massachusetts? We're definitely going to tour the museums (as I love to see art up close and my dad's a history buff) but other than that we're a little fuzzy on the particulars. More details under the cut.

I was last in DC about a decade ago, but I remember it somewhat -- we'll likely go around and see the major monuments again but I mainly want to go through the museums while they're still around and I can get to them, you know?

On the topic of which museums: I've always been more fond of the art-centric ones (we saw a Rodin exhibit in Salem last year that was beautiful) over the kitschy ones (my dad took my brother and sister to DC a few years back and was completely unimpressed by the spy museum). I'm open to any suggestions, really, especially if there's any standout exhibits present at the times we'll be there.

For entertainment/food: I don't drink and can't drive so places to eat should be more family-targeted than bars, though I'm open to anything. I do always love to try some good boneless buffalo tenders when they're on the menu, if that helps.

We'll be there the 12th to the 16th, will stop by Gettysburg from the 17th to the 18th, and will be in the Valley Forge area from the 19th to the 20th before heading home (we'll probably drive near/through New York City on the way, just because I haven't been since I was tiny and want to at least winshield-tourist some skyscrapers). My dad has a few suggestions in mind, but anything in those areas or along the way that's standout to you all would be appreciated. Thanks in advance!
posted by flatluigi to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The National Gallery of Art is really great, and I think the East Wing is open again (worth it just for the architecture, frankly). I did a (free) tour there once where we just walked around and looked at 4 or 5 specific paintings and the guide talked about composition and color and style. It was fantastic.

The Portrait Gallery also tends to have some cool stuff. The Phillips Collection is quite good as well (not free, though, except I think on Friday afternoons).

The new Museum of African American History is supposed to be good but pretty hard to get tickets for, so plan ahead if you want to try and make it there. (I think they release some every morning but I'm not quite sure how it works.)

Mt. Vernon is worth a visit mostly because it's interesting to see how the fabulously wealthy (Washington owned a double-digit percentage of the colonies' total wealth, I read somewhere) lived at the time. They covered an entire room with green paint because it had just been invented and they thought it was super cool.
posted by ropeladder at 2:38 AM on March 23, 2017

I'm from the area, although I haven't lived there in a number of years. The obvious art museums are the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn. There are some smaller ones that I love as well, if time permits. The American Art Museum is a favorite of mine. It's in the same building as the National Portrait Gallery, and it's worth stopping by even if you're just on your way to the Gallery Place Metro station. There is a very well curated permanent collection along with very good exhibits; when I was there in December they had a great exhibit of folk art and an exhibit of works by Noguchi.

You may also want to check what's at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, which are the Asian art collections. I'm also a big, big fan of the National Museum of African Art, which has had some amazing exhibitions in the past. It doesn't tend to get a ton of visitors, but it's worth seeing what's there.

As for food, if you want authentic D.C., or at least a meal that is representative of the city in my mind (although that area has rapidly gentrified), head to U street for Ethiopian food. It's easily accessible by Metro as well.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:47 AM on March 23, 2017

The Hirshhorn has the Yayoi Kasuma exhibit until May. They release tickets every Mon at noon. I was just there and loved it.

Old Ebbitt Grill is in that area, and it's always a solid choice.
posted by inevitability at 4:56 AM on March 23, 2017

Carve out the time for the African American History Museum, for sure.

The National Gallery waterfall cafe is nice! I am a DC resident and I go there sometimes just for fun.

The Dumbarton Oaks museum and grounds might be very nice in April. You can tour them and then walk down to Georgetown for lunch and enjoy that gorgeous neighborhood in the spring.

I don't know if they still do this, but you used to be able to do a 10 minute peek at Supreme Court oral arguments - you can check their calendar to see if there are arguments when you are here. Then you can stop by your Congressperson's office to drop off a letter! Lobbying is for everyone! After that you can have lunch on Pennsylvania Ave SE and eavesdrop on staffers/lobbyists.
posted by yarly at 5:12 AM on March 23, 2017

Sadly, the Freer is currently closed for renovations. Even if you won't be able to compare it to the Peacock Room in person, it's worth checking out Darren Waterston's Filthy Lucre.
posted by evoque at 6:14 AM on March 23, 2017

I really enjoy the oft-overlooked National Building Museum. Also, the National Arboretum is a lovely spot if you're into trees and flowers and that kind of thing.
posted by slogger at 6:24 AM on March 23, 2017

We went last April, with four kids, and I must say that Mount Vernon surprised me in a very good way.

My AskMe here, and a follow-up question about bike tours -- which was pretty great for almost all the people in our group, some of whom were older -- is here.

Contact you senator's office now and get them to arrange tickets for tours of any .gov buildings (including the Archives) that you might want to visit. You have to supply all sorts of personal data and there's still no guarantee. :7(

The White House Historical Society museum (a block or two east of the WH itself) is super good and free, with a nice gift shop. The Boy Scouts monument on the east edge of the WH grounds just south of the WH is super weird.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:27 AM on March 23, 2017

My wife and kids loved the Postal Museum, though I was less enthusiastic about it. *shrug*
posted by wenestvedt at 6:27 AM on March 23, 2017

I'll second the National Portrait Gallery, which is a favorite of mine.
posted by walljm at 7:25 AM on March 23, 2017

Art wise, beyond the regular ones, the US Capitol is beautiful, and well worth a visit if you haven't done it before. The tours about the art are very interesting. If you contact your representatives, one of the internets might take you down to the Burmidi hall or the Great Experiment halls, which are often not on the standard tour.
There is a wealth of thought into the art and design of the building that is just amazing.

If you are up for some history:
Went to the African American History Museum last time I was in DC, and it was incredible. One of the most interesting, thoughtful, and powerful museums I have visited.

National Building Museum is nice. I love their exhibit about DC, and their guided tours about the building itself are very interesting.

Food wise, there are a lot of great places. Do you have a specific budget in mind?
posted by troytroy at 8:02 AM on March 23, 2017

Seconding trying to see Kusama's Infinity Rooms at the Hirshhorn. If you can't get tickets beforehand, you are allowed to wait in line the day of, though I do not know how successful people are or how long that takes. Be aware there are additional lines inside the exhibit for some of the Rooms but there is a lot you can see just by wandering around. The Hirshhorn is worth a wander through anyway, of course, even if you can't get in for Kusama.

If you are interested in spending time in a different neighborhood, consider taking the Red line to Dupont Circle. The Phillips Collection is one of my very favorite art museums though it is private and NOT free. You will be in time to catch their Lautrec exhibit! There are two great bookstores in that neighborhood, Kramerbooks and Second Story. There are loads of places to eat and Kramerbooks has a cafe. The circle itself has a pretty fountain and if the weather is nice, it is a wonderful place to just stroll and people watch.
posted by juliplease at 8:08 AM on March 23, 2017

Oh, and I meant to add a Dupont-specific food recommendation: Scion!
posted by juliplease at 8:11 AM on March 23, 2017

DC's museums right now are off-the-charts amazing, which means that there are also off-the-charts lines.

The Hirschhorn is my absolute favorite museum in DC but they are being absolutely mobbed due to the very popular infinity mirrors exhibit. Like, all the passes gone in 30 seconds every Monday at noon, multi-hours lines to get in. If you will be here on a weekday, I would see if you can line up first thing when they open.

Similarly, the Museum of African-American History and Culture is very difficult to visit at the moment. They release same-day timed passes daily at 6:30am, and some walk-up passes daily at 1pm. If either of these museums are a priority for you, try to do them on your first day or two so you have a second shot. I would absolutely not try these on a weekend, as they will be extremely crowded.

I also love the (paid) Phillips Collection, a gem of a modern art collection. Very achievable to see it in a few hours, with great gallery talks. That's in Dupont Circle. There are also some historic house tours in that neighborhood, like the Heurich House Museum, if that's your thing.

Seconding Dumbarton Oaks, likely to be extremely beautiful and blooming then.

The Library of Congress is also a stunning building and they have a good tour.
posted by foodmapper at 8:42 AM on March 23, 2017

I'll remind you that there are good art museums in Philadelphia and New York. Also places like Winterthur, and the Brandywine along your route.

But what got me to comment was what you said about peering at the skyscrapers in NYC. Thing is, NYC is damned hard to drive through. The actual through highways (e.g. Rt 95 across the GW Bridge) are nowhere near the skyscrapers.) The tunnels drop you on the city streets a long way from a quick escape route. If I were determined to do what you suggest, I might try Route 278 across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (awesome in itself!) , then Route 278 North through Brooklyn. Thence to either the Tri-Borough bridge or the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. I'm sure there are MeFi's who can suggest the right place to get off the highway for views of Manhattan and, hopefully, lunch at an arch-NYC eatery.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:59 AM on March 23, 2017

I was able to get same-day Museum of African American History tickets by going online sharp at 6:30 am. It took me 10 hours over 2 days to see almost everything ( I skipped some of the interactives).The first day I had a huge protein breakfast before I came in and didn't eat lunch.
posted by brujita at 9:10 AM on March 23, 2017

It's not the most direct route from DC to Gettysburg, but it's also not completely out of the way, and I < heart eyes emoji > the Walters Museum in Baltimore if your tastes run toward pre-Modern and non-European art (and also free!)
posted by drlith at 9:27 AM on March 23, 2017

The Washington Botanical Garden, on Capitol Hill, is a great way to seen weird and neat plants in an interesting setting. It is also refreshing to see this in conjunction with other museums.

The National Arboretum, located several miles northeast of downtown DC, has fine outdoor plants and trees, plus a bonsai and penjing museum. Good for pleasant walks and drives.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 10:25 AM on March 23, 2017

Library of Congress should be a must see for you both. It has unique architecture and great exhibits on both art and history, plus is near the Capitol.

The National Museum of the American Indian is quite unique and also a must see - definitely one of my favorites, and has great exhibits on both art and history. A great food cafeteria too :)

Since Dad is a history buff I would also recommend the National Archives, where you can see the Constitution.

And echoing that the National Gallery of Art is really wonderful, both the art and the building itself, as is Dumbarton Oaks in spring (especially since the cherry blossoms are already nearly over this year). I also think Union Station is worth a quick visit, since they just finished renovations.
posted by veery at 1:35 PM on March 23, 2017

The Zoo in DC is pretty good, if you're into that.
posted by Mr. Big Business at 10:01 AM on March 24, 2017

Surprised no one has suggested visiting the Renwick Gallery, which re-opened not too long ago after a major renovation. It's a delightful and relatively small museum that showcases contemporary craft and decorative arts. Some of the pieces have been designed specifically for the space. It's right by the White House.

The Sackler Gallery is still open and worth a visit, even if the Freer building is closed. And, of course, check out the National Gallery.

For food, there's plenty of options. Hard to recommend without knowing where in the city you'll be.
posted by waninggibbon at 1:08 PM on March 28, 2017

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