The Ducks go to Washington
August 1, 2022 10:04 AM   Subscribe

We're taking our first trip to DC! We'll be there for 8 nights in late August/early September. We're looking for recommendations from DC natives or frequent DC visitors for cool things to do that fly under the radar (and conversely popular things we should avoid).

We're flying into BWI Saturday morning and out the following Sunday night and plan to take MARC or Amtrak to and from DC. We'll be on foot or Metro- no car. We're staying near the White House and the Farragut Metro stations. We could be persuaded to take a day trip by rail outside of DC. Any weird quirks or pitfalls to our choice of transportation?

We've already put in requests for Capitol, White House and all other available tours with our Senator, plan to take in a Nationals game (versus the A's...battle of the basement dwellers, but it'll be fun) and of course hit the monuments and the Smithsonian Museums. But what else should we fill our days with? We're fairly nerdy and love learning about history, science, how things work, etc. and are not much for nightlife. We'd rather explore on our own than join a big tour group, unless that's the only way to visit a particular site/museum/event.

Things we enjoy:
Museums (history, science, art)
Architecture (especially 'behind the scenes' tours)
Walkable urbanism/cool neighborhoods & towns
Getting our National Parks Passport stamped

Things we don't really care about:
Fine dining & drinking
Fancy shopping
Extreme heights

We're comfortable (and happy with!) lengthy walks but we're not going to be exploring any wilderness areas. We are aware of the heat and humidity in DC and are prepared to wilt and/or find inside stuff to do during the worst heat/humidity of the day.

We are beyond sad that we won't be able to go to the National Air and Space Museum (closed through "Fall 2022") but that'll just provide us something to visit next time.
posted by Gray Duck to Travel & Transportation around Washington, DC (42 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Visit the C&O Canal somewhere along its length- either in Georgetown or farther out, toward Carderock Park and Great Falls Park. Maybe there are bike rentals in Georgetown? A ride to Great Falls along the canal path is prpbably just an hour or 2.
posted by TDIpod at 10:10 AM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

It's a bummer about the National Air and Space Museum, but you should consider checking out their related Udvar-Hazy Center. It's a bit of a drive (25 miles outside of DC), but I found it equally as amazing. It is just packed with amazing aircraft, including the Space Shuttle Discovery, a Concorde, a SR-71 Blackbird, and just tons and tons of other stuff.
posted by a faithful sock at 10:19 AM on August 1, 2022 [10 favorites]

I'm not a resident. But, the National Building Museum is the one that has surprised me in a good way a few times as a tourist.
posted by eotvos at 10:20 AM on August 1, 2022 [6 favorites]

This scratches a particular itch that might be unique to me, but I enjoyed taking a walk around Dupont Circle and trying to see as many embassies as possible. We did it after dinner and it was a pleasant way to spend an evening after a day that had already been filled by touristy stuff.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:24 AM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

There are a million cool art museums in DC and the surrounding area that you might not know about if you stuck to the Smithsonian ones (which are also great obv). Many of these are also wonderful architectural and garden sites:
American University Museum
Dumbarton Oaks

In terms of walkable urbanism, I highly recommend checking out the U St area, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant.
posted by derrinyet at 10:26 AM on August 1, 2022 [4 favorites]

Udvar-Hazy is well worth the schlep if you're into aviation. There are tons of great in-town options for hiking and nature -- you could spend days in Rock Creek Park, and the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are terrific too.

You might enjoy wandering around the area around Union Market. Lots of interesting food and some cool shops over there. And I have always wanted to go on a walking tour of the architecture of Southwest DC (near-ish the Nats ballpark) because there's some very interesting mid-century buildings down there.

It's great that you don't care about extreme heights, because we have a (very annoying) height limit in DC! Very little danger of getting higher than ~8 stories up in this town.
posted by fancypants at 10:28 AM on August 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

One notable thing about DC that doesn’t get adequately explained to tourists is just how isolated the major museums and monuments are from the places where people live and go about their daily business. Honestly I think this separation, along with racism, is part of the reason why some outsiders can be so shitty about the idea of DC statehood—they just conceive of DC as a land of government offices and history and not a living, breathing community.

All of this is my roundabout way of suggesting the following places, which are neat in and of themselves and also get you into actual DC communities:

-Anacostia Community Museum: Small museum with a rotating set of exhibits on Black history/culture/art in DC. You might want to get a ride share out, not because Anacostia is especially dangerous (people will try to tell you otherwise, do not listen to them), but because the bus route is convoluted and the building can be easy to miss. It’s part of the Smithsonian, so free admission.

-National Arboretum: No idea what’s blooming this time of year, but I’ve never been at a time when it wasn’t gorgeous. Accessible by bus but not especially near metro trains.

-Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens: Again, no idea what’s in season right now but they have beautiful lily pads and related plants.

-National portrait gallery/American Art museum: This may be my favorite of the Smithsonian museums, but it tends to fly under the radar since it’s not on the mall with the heavy hitters. They have an especially good collection of folk/outsider art if you’re into that. The building also has a lovely light-filled atrium that’s a good place to sit and rest.

-For neighborhood walking/people watching/eating I recommend going to Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, DuPont Circle, or the Eastern Market area of Capitol Hill. If you go to Mount Pleasant, I particularly recommend getting pupusas. (A sort of Salvadoran corn pancake, filled with cheese and optional pork or beans, topped with cabbage slaw). I was first introduced to pupusas in DC, and until I found a local source where I live now they were about the only thing I missed after moving away.

Have fun!
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:32 AM on August 1, 2022 [10 favorites]

Seconding National Building Museum and Rock Creek Park!
posted by Maecenas at 10:33 AM on August 1, 2022

Seconding Glenstone! One of the most incredible collections of modern art you'll ever see, and in an unbelievable architectural and natural setting too. You will need to get tickets in advance and it's a bit of hike to get to without a car, but you can take the bus. And if you enjoy tax boondoggles, there's quite the story there too.
posted by fancypants at 10:34 AM on August 1, 2022 [4 favorites]

Visit the monuments at night!

You should check the schedule for planned Metro Track Work. The DC Circulator is another good option for visitors.

If you are interested in trains, the B&O museum in Baltimore is worth it.
posted by oceano at 10:35 AM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

My favorite Smithsonian art museum is the portrait gallery. It's not exactly a hidden gem, but it is away from the Mall and feels a bit off that main path, and because it's portraits, it's a great mix of art and history and sociology.

Eastern Market is a nice neighborhood to walk around, with cute shops, restaurants, beautiful old architecture, etc. If the weather isn't too hot, walk from the Mall - go east on Independence and then south on 6th. I used to live in the neighborhood and loved to gawk at the beautiful, stately old rowhouses.

Dupont Circle up through Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant is good for walking as well.

Public transit is great in DC. Don't be afraid to take the bus as well as the subway.
posted by lunasol at 10:38 AM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Forgot one: the Phillips, which is fantastic if you like modern and contemporary art.
posted by derrinyet at 10:41 AM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Any weird quirks or pitfalls to our choice of transportation?

If you're not aware, if you're standing on the escalator, the etiquette is to stand on the right and only one person per step so that people can walk on the left.

2nding the National Portrait Gallery. It's also open later than the rest of the Smithsonian.

If you like Rothko you should definitely go to the Phillips Collection.

I personally find the Spy Museum a bit kitchy but a lot of people like it.

The Usvar-Hazy is great but would basically consume a day in and of itself. There's an IMAX theater there so you might stay for a movie after the museum.

I know you said you're not interested in fine dining but if you're interested in interesting dining, DC has a lot of fantastic ethnic restaurants that are unpretentious but delicious.

I didn't know if this is too close to the type of nightlife you're not interested in, but you might see if there's any interesting looking concerts in Adams Morgan.
posted by Candleman at 10:43 AM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

I’m not a nightlife person, but I had a lovely time wandering Adams Morgan on a Friday night in late summer and doing some people watching. I found a cafe that was open late with some outdoor seating on 18th St, drank some lemonade, and appreciated the vibe without quite participating in it.
posted by A Blue Moon at 10:43 AM on August 1, 2022

Also with the Phillips, they are requiring tickets that you have to get ahead of time unless you have a membership at a different museum with reciprocal rights.
posted by Candleman at 10:47 AM on August 1, 2022

Seconding Dumbarton Oaks. It's sort of like the somewhat less eccentric DC version of the Gardner Museum in Boston.
posted by praemunire at 10:47 AM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Old Town Alexandria (VA).

Classic Bookstores (with associated eateries) in DC are Busboys and Poets, Politics and Prose, and Kramers Books. There's also the Library of Congress.

The greater DC area has the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, so I would recommend trying Ethiopian food.

After an nth year hiatus, there are once again canal boat tours in Georgetown.
posted by oceano at 11:11 AM on August 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

Do see the Postal Museum. Skip the Spy Museum.
posted by sjswitzer at 11:40 AM on August 1, 2022 [6 favorites]

The National Postal Museum is just next to Union Station (where your Amtrak or MARC will take you), and it is so much fun! Way cooler than it sounds, definitely recommend. It's a Smithsonian, so free.

Rock Creek Cemetery in Petworth is really nice to walk in and is the final abode of some historic folks. Keep an eye out for Evelyn Davis's memorial (which she commissioned herself years before she passed), it's great. The cemetery is really close to President Lincoln's Cottage, which we heard was pretty cool but never ended up getting to, despite living close by. To get to those, you'd probably want to take a bus; if you take the metro it's gonna be a 20-30 min walk from either the Georgia Ave or Ft Totten Metro stations. I did the former a lot, and the walk is mostly on a bigger road (New Hampshire) by rowhouses, not much to see, and it's up a hill. I only did the latter once or twice, but I don't remember it being that nice a walk either. NB the cemetery is kinda close to Rock Creek Park, as you might expect from the similar names, and that is also a really nice place to be, but it'd be 40-60 min on foot, and I don't think there's a bus or metro connection that would be any faster, so despite the proximity you probably wouldn't actually want to do both the Rock Creek things on the same day.
posted by solotoro at 11:44 AM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Beaten to the punch on the postal museum while editing!
posted by solotoro at 11:44 AM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

As a museum fan--one of the things visitors maybe right away is how massive it all is--just on the mall there are something like a dozen major Smithsonian museums. Plus several more (like the National Gallery) that are technically not part of the Smithsonian (but also right on the mall, and free). You could spend your whole week there without getting to most of it.

Architecture (especially 'behind the scenes' tours)

Yeah, I'm with everyone else, put the Building Museum on your list. And sign up for a tour there. Maybe I've just been lucky, but the couple times I've done that the tour guides have been great. It's a neat old building. The temporary exhibits are often good too.

On the walk from there back to the mall, don't miss the canoe sculpture outside the Canadian embassy.

Agreed on the Portrait gallery and American art. I also like the Asian and African art museums, which you might overlook as they're in a spot underground behind the castle--interesting architecture.

The African American museum is relatively new and really interesting. Their cafe is one of the better places to eat in the Smithsonian. The main exhibit can be intense.

Likewise the Holocaust Museum, which is worth a day.

The Udvar-Hazy Center is indeed amazing, and possible by transit, though that's time consuming:

The Air&Space on the mall is great but really was sorely in need of updates so I'm glad they're renovating.

All of the museums also have events and temporary exhibits, I'd recommend spending some time on their websites to see if there's anything of special interest to you going on during your stay.
posted by bfields at 12:10 PM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Do you like cemeteries? The Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill is a cool place to wander.

Nthing the Postal Museum--I go to DC pretty frequently and the first time my friend said we should go I gave him the side-eye, but I had so much fun there.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:33 PM on August 1, 2022

The African American museum is relatively new and really interesting. Their cafe is one of the better places to eat in the Smithsonian. The main exhibit can be intense.

I am disappointed in myself that I didn't include this one! In my defense, it opened after we moved. But yes, it should definitely, definitely be on the list, and imo should get a bigger time budget than others of similar size; it takes some absorbing.

Another good one for food (and generally) is the Museum of the American Indian.
posted by solotoro at 12:45 PM on August 1, 2022

The glass exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, Preston Singletary's Raven and the Box of Daylight, is spectacular. Here's a podcast about it.

I agree that the cafe is good too.
posted by marguerite at 12:48 PM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

I KNOW you don't have a car, so this won't be worth the effort, but for anyone else reading, if you do have one, and need some respite from the heat and a place for kids to run around, I can't recommend a place more than Brookside Gardens, the Montgomery County, MD botanical gardens. Free parking, free entry, down in a bit of a valley and always 10-15 degrees cooler-and gorgeous. There's a whole kids garden....anyway, amazing!
posted by atomicstone at 12:52 PM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

The National Building Museum this summer has created a Shakespearean theatre, with related exhibits, and is doing a special production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Get tickets to the play from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

For nature, I love Kingman Island. Also, if you like quirky outdoor activities, the National Park Service offers free roller-skating at Anacostia Park.
posted by decathecting at 1:06 PM on August 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

Nthing Udvar-Hazy. IMO it is better than the Air & Space Museum. I know you said no tours, but when I go back I will do a tour there b/c I followed one around and listened in as best as I could and it was great! Led by volunteer veterans.
My favorite art museum is the Renwick Gallery, very close to the White House. Unusual and very interesting exhibits and not a huge place so you can do it in an hour if you like.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 1:20 PM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

IMO the cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian is the best on the Mall. Highly recommended, as well as the museum itself, of course.
posted by suelac at 1:21 PM on August 1, 2022 [3 favorites]

For architecture, the Octogon Museum is worth considering and off the beaten path.
posted by Candleman at 1:36 PM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

I know you said no extreme heights, but the Old Post Office Clock Tower is one of the hidden gems of DC, not super tall, and a great way to get a view of the city - is 270 feet too high? It is very close to the Mall and the National Museum of Natural History.
posted by gudrun at 1:44 PM on August 1, 2022

Speaking of the Oakland A's: they are also playing against the Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Given that you're flying into/out of BWI, thought this may be of interest as it gets you back into the BWI area the night before your flight.

* Sep 1 - Sep 3: Baltimore Orioles against Oakland A's

I also see two concerts at the MCI/Verizon/Capital One Arena:

* Mon, Aug 29, 8:00 PM - An Evening with Michael Bublé (looks fairly available)
* Sat, Sep 03, 8:00 PM - Twenty One Pilots - THE ICY TOUR (limited tickets)

Should you choose to go to Stephen L. Udvar-Hazy (recommended), note that it is 26 miles from DC and located right outside of IAD airport. Should be easily able to get an Uber/Lyft as it is so near the airport. Here are other options for travel from the Smithsonian in DC. The onsite restaurant appears to have been replaced with a Shake Shack.

Finally, since you're going to be around the National Mall, here's a link to the National Park Service event list for the following locations: CALENDAR

Doesn't appear to be much BUT on Friday, September 2 there is the V-J Day Observance at the World War II Memorial from 11:00 am - 11:30 am. Details
posted by bacalao_y_betun at 1:48 PM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

Missed the edit window: Correction on ballgame dates -
* Sep 2 - Sep 4: Baltimore Orioles against Oakland A's
posted by bacalao_y_betun at 1:57 PM on August 1, 2022

Haven't seen anybody mention Arlington National Cemetery yet - it's just across the river from DC.
posted by COD at 2:58 PM on August 1, 2022

If you like books, libraries, or architecture, the Library of Congress is right next to (surprisingly) the Capitol building, and is gorgeous inside. Its free, but you have to sign up for passes ahead of time.
posted by Inkoate at 5:28 PM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

the kennedy center's millennium stage offers free concerts all summer long:
posted by Foie G Biv at 7:06 PM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

I've yet to actually do one of the various neighborhood heritage trails start to finish, but I do read the placards whenever I can, and they're interesting.

Murals DC also has a self-guided tour of U St murals, or you might want to put your own tour together with their map.

The sculpture gardens at the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn are favorites of mine.

(Also, since Baltimore got mentioned, I gotta say - the Streetcar Museum and the National Visonary Art Museum are delightful.)
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:44 PM on August 1, 2022 [4 favorites]

I particularly recommend getting pupusas. (A sort of Salvadoran corn pancake, filled with cheese and optional pork or beans, topped with cabbage slaw).

20+ year Mount Pleasant resident here - sitting on the patio at Don Juan w/some papusas + a cold beer is a pretty reliable summer pleasure around here. There are also 2 good taquerias and a solid-by-the-slice pizza place on the other side of the plaza (i.e. a stone's throw away) and tables there where you can eat if other people in your group want something different.

If you decide to get Ethiopian while you're here (and you should), 9th St., NW south of U is where it's at - Habesha Market and Chercher are both excellent.

Also, since Baltimore got mentioned, I gotta say - the Streetcar Museum

Closer to DC (in tiny Coleville, MD) is the National Capital Trolley Museum, which has an interesting collection of working cars - including some of the last functional original DC streetcars - and you can go for a ride on their 1 mile loop track. It is not easily transit accessible, though, ironically.

We'll be on foot or Metro- no car.

Don't rule out Metrobus - point-to-point, it's often the fastest + cheapest way to get around DC. WMATA's Trip Planner and Next Arrivals tools are useful for weighing your options on the go.

RE: museums + architecture, the Sackler Gallery (on the Mall) currently has a fascinating small exhibit up about the surviving ceramic elements of ancient Korean wood frame buildings and what they can tell us about those structures. It's also very dark and cool down there, if you need a break from the summer heat.

The Haupt Garden next to the Freer/Sackler, behind the Smithsonian Castle, is a green, flower-spangled oasis in the generally sun-blasted vicinity of the Mall. There is a (somewhat overpriced, but very convenient) cafe inside the Castle if you need some cold drinks while hanging out there.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:55 AM on August 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'm somewhat surprised the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History is not polling higher here. IMO it is a must do if you can get in. Yes, it is intense, rightfully so, but an absolutely incredible experience. Entry is by timed ticket only, made available daily on a rolling basis (just looked and the soonest available is Aug 29). However, same-day passes are made available at 8:15am, and if you are online and ready with your preferred time right when it goes live, you can probably secure tickets. This is much better than the 6:30 am release time I had to be up for. Get tickets for as early as possible - it gets crowded quickly but if you start early you can be ahead of the crowds. Plan to be there all day and give yourself some time afterwards to process.

I will second Hillwood and Kreeger which combine your interests in art, architecture, and park-like settings. Unfortunately the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is closed for rehabilitation, otherwise that would be a good pair with the Anacostia Community Museum.
posted by Preserver at 8:49 AM on August 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the National Zoo yet. The main entrance is only a couple of stops past the Farragut North station, and it's both a great zoo and a lovely park/outdoor space. If you get a day that's not a billion degrees, it's definitely worth checking out (I'd avoid going during the weekend, though -- way too many screaming children).

Seconding the Library of Congress. Seems like people often skip it in favor of the Capitol/White House/whatever, but it's so cool.

I also agree that African American History should be absolutely top of your list. I finally went last fall and it's every bit as incredible as everyone says.
posted by catoclock at 9:49 AM on August 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

This is probably already on your radar, but just in case: the memorial walk around the tidal basin loop is lovely and well worth it. My recommendation is to start at the MLK Memorial, then move on to the FDR Memorial (which is my favorite Memorial along with Lincoln's and everyone I've taken there has loved it too - it's deeply inspirational) and then on to the Jefferson Memorial. That way you get to experience the FDR Memorial chronologically.

You can get (cheap) tickets to go to the top of the Washington Monument - it was under renovation for well over a decade and finally opened up a few years ago. I know you said you don't love heights, but if you can bear it it does offer spectacular views of all of DC.

There are so many amazing museums on the mall. My favorites are the American Indian and African American, but they all have great things to offer. Both their cafes are really good, but be aware that many of the cafes in the museums / Capitol have limited menus because of Covid. As others have said, if you're into aviation, Udvar Hazy is well worth the schlep! I've been to the Spy Museum twice, before and after it moved to its current location, and I liked it better before, when it was smaller. But if you're interested in spy stuff, it's well worth a visit (though you have to pay for tickets).

The Metro is clean and really easy to use, and you can always Uber if needed. You'll be just fine without a car.
posted by widdershins at 2:23 PM on August 2, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Lincoln Memorial has an undercroft that was supposed to open for tours this year, but I have no idea what the past couple years have done to that plan. If you want NPS passport stamps the National Mall and Memorial Parks unit is a bonanza and they have a lot more stamps at the Washington Monument than indicated on that page. Rock Creek Park is also an NPS unit and the Nature Center has the full assortment of stamps. Rock Creek Park also has two long, well blazed trails as well as a number of spur and side trails connecting them like rungs of a ladder. You can design your own loop hike by going as far as you like up one trail and then back down the other.

The museums can be overwhelming so it’s best to have a plan. I’ve lived here over 20 years and I still haven’t seen every part of the National Gallery of Art. Glenstone is cool and you don’t need a ticket if you get there by bus, but that will be an all day project. If you go, take a water bottle because you have to walk a lot of the grounds to see everything and some of it is in full sun (and you won’t be able to control that if you’re dependent on the bus).

One useful clarifying question: what kinds of museums do you like? For instance there’s not much point going to the Hirshhorn if you don’t like modern art. The building is architecturally significant, but due to restoration work you can’t actually see the exterior. It’s been wrapped in a giant piece of art that conceals the scaffolding, and that’s neat, but it’s also maybe not what Brutalism’s seven fans want to see. For that matter Glenstone is all contemporary and mostly large format in galleries constructed to show specific giant pieces. I dug it, but I wouldn’t argue with somebody who didn’t. Natural History is cool but it will be overrun with young children. American History has some interesting parts and also a bunch of random artifacts they sometimes don’t curate well. Speaking of random artifacts not curated well, let me tell you about a large part of the National Museum of the American Indian. There’s a couple galleries in it I thought were well done, but when I went they hadn’t figured out how to help the individual tribes showcase their stuff. Maybe that’s better now, but I’ve never felt the desire to find out. (Also I hate the building, but I seem to be alone in that).

For museums you have to pay to see, I liked the Phillips Collection but I haven’t been in ages. The best thing about Dumbarton Oaks is the gardens, but it’s best to check the calendar to make sure stuff is in bloom. And if you like visionary/ “outsider” art and you want a side trip to Baltimore, definitely hit up the American Visionary Art Museum.
posted by fedward at 5:59 PM on August 2, 2022 [4 favorites]

The Peacock Room is supposed to reopen in September. It’s beautiful, and it’s stunning if you’re lucky enough to be there when they open the windows.

Also if you want to lean in to being overwhelmed by art, make sure you prowl the Luce Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It’s in the main building (the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture), not at the Renwick, which is SAAM’s other building.
posted by fedward at 6:38 PM on August 2, 2022 [2 favorites]

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