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The vast majority of visitors to Washington, DC, know the best hits before they ever set foot here: the Capitol Building, the White House, the Washington Monument and so on. Visit them all and you’ll have an educational, action-packed weekend, sure. But you’ll also be completely drained and still won’t have any real sense of the city or what it’s actually like to live here.
Instead, we suggest you do as the locals do and eschew the standard top-10 lists. To experience the real DC — a living, breathing city with selling points that aren’t enshrined on US currency — add the following must-dos to your itinerary.
1. Listen in on Juicy Conversations
When news broke in September that a New York Times journalist had gotten his scoop by overhearing it in a popular downtown steak restaurant (BLT Steak, which has a great dry-aged New York strip, by the way), Washingtonians were surprised by the indiscretion but not the setting. Spotting politicians and members of the media elite is a time-honored pastime, and insiders know their chances are highest at restaurants like Cafe Milano, which is has attracted Republicans and Democrats alike since it opened the same day Bill Clinton was elected into office in 1992.
Steakhouses tend to attract the big fish — be sure to scan the dining rooms at Bourbon Steak, The Palm, and Charlie Palmer Steakhouse before sitting down. Of course, the best way to maximize your chances of spying a famous-for-DC. person is to monitor where they’ve recently been spotted in Politico’s Playbook Power Briefing.
2. Underground Art Is Literally Underground
After years of stalled projects and a short-lived reimagining as a food court in the 1990s, the abandoned 1940s-era trolley station hidden underneath bustling Dupont Circle finally reopened this year as an art space and performance venue. Spanning a cavernous 75,000 square feet, Dupont Underground’s recent exhibitions include an interactive sound installation by artist Eric Dickson and a sprawling, electric-colored collection of contemporary and historic graffiti murals.
3. For Legit Asian Food, Look to the Suburbs
Priced out of the city, Chinese immigrants long ago fled DC’s minuscule Chinatown (little more than a few flashing neon signs with Chinese characters) and headed to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church, Virginia, is the old-school haunt of choice for those seeking juicy, lacquered duck expertly carved tableside. It remains a favorite of President George H. W. Bush, who still visits from time to time with a Secret Service detail.
Over in Maryland, arrive early on weekends to Gaithersburg’s New Fortune for frenetic dim sum service complete with steam-spewing carts conveying translucent shrimp-filled har gow dumplings and parcels of lotus-leaf-bound sticky rice. Also of note: Arguably the best Vietnamese fare is found in the Eden Center, a Falls Church strip mall home to dozens of shops and restaurants slinging enormous bánh mì on crisp baguettes and fragrant bowls of rich phở overflowing with thin rice noodles.
4. Relive Favorite Big- or Small-Screen Exploits
For all the TV shows and films set in Washington, DC, a fraction are actually filmed here. (Veep and House of Cards, for instance, mostly roll camera in nearby Baltimore.) Locals will point you toward exceptions that don’t include exterior shots of DC monuments and buildings: The stone steps that drop precipitously off the corner of Prospect Street and 36th Street down to M Street in Georgetown, where characters in The Exorcist met their untimely end; The Tombs, a rathskeller-style bar housed in a 19th-century townhouse, which served as the backdrop for critical scenes in St. Elmo’s Fire; and Ben’s Chili Bowl, a U Street institution that’s popped up in both the 1993 drama The Pelican Brief and the 2009 political thriller State of Play.
5. Give a Lesser-Known Monument Some Love
The perpetually thronged downtown monuments to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln get most of the tourist attention in DC, but city residents seeking solitude know to trek out to Theodore Roosevelt Island, an 8.5-acre speck of land in the middle of the Potomac River. The island, which features a memorial plaza anchored by a towering statue of Teddy and plenty of wooded hiking trails, permits no cars or bicycles; it’s accessible by a short footbridge from Arlington, Virginia. Of course, you can just rent a kayak from the Key Bridge Boathouse and paddle on over.
After you’re done, make sure to check out the newest museum on the National Mall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is drawing impressive crowds even by DC standards.
6. Go to (Fish) Market
Even locals often don’t know that on the Southwest Waterfront, just under Interstate 395, you can find the oldest continuously operating fish market in the US. Founded in 1805, the Maine Avenue Fish Market — also known simply as the Wharf — is 17 years older than New York City’s Fulton Fish Market. From the floating barges that line the market, you can procure sweet blue crab by the bushel, freshly shucked oysters and all manner of clams, shrimp and fresh fish. If the market doesn’t quite look like it fits its surroundings, you’re right — it doesn’t: The main building was set to be razed in the 1960s, but vendors dug in and refused to leave, citing a loophole in their leases that allowed them to stay put for 99 years.
7. Noticing a Theme?
Everyone loves a good theme bar, but Drink Company — the bar group behind lauded cocktail haunt Columbia Room — takes things to another way-more-intense level. That Game of Thrones-themed pop-up that went viral a few months ago, with its eerily realistic wall of faces from the show’s House of Black and White? That was them. Previously, the space hosted an ethereal cherry-blossom pop-up; a Super Mario pop-up complete with animatronic piranha plants and green warp pipes; a Christmas-themed Miracle on Seventh Street; and most recently, the spooky Pub Dread for Halloween. Don’t leave town without checking out what Drink Company is up to.
8. Shop It Up
When eating and drinking and touring the monuments has fully sucked away your life force, DC offers plenty of top-notch retail therapy to aid in your recovery. Find anything from on-trend patterned cotton throws to small-batch tonic at the fashion-forward Salt & Sundry, which now counts three locations around town, or hop over to beauty den Take Care in Georgetown for all manner of facial serums, body scrubs, hair masks and more. If you’re able to haul home something larger, don’t forget to go treasure hunting at Miss Pixie’s, 14th Street’s beloved vintage furniture shop.
9. Don’t Forget About Ethiopian Cuisine
Washington, DC, is home to the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia, so naturally the Ethiopian dining options are stellar. Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant has been a U Street fixture for more than 25 years, and for good reason — try the butter-spiked kitfo, a kind of beef tartare, to understand why. Elsewhere in the city, Chercher Ethiopian Restaurant and Mart slings fantastically rich yebeg wat, a thick stew of spiced lamb, while Ethiopic offers all the classics in an elevated, modern setting on white-hot H Street.
10. Sip Your Way Across Town
The recovery of the District’s booze scene lagged in the decades that followed Prohibition, but that’s mercifully changed thanks to a recent proliferation of distilleries within city limits. New spots include ANXO Cidery in the up-and-coming Brightwood Park neighborhood; the tasting room houses three massive wood casks from the Chianti region and a pair of 1,000-gallon, stainless-steel fermenters. Because cider is legally classified as wine, ANXO is technically the city’s first licensed winery since Prohibition.
There’s also One Eight Distilling, which in September released Rock Creek Whiskey, the first made-in-DC bourbon since Carrie Nation swung her hatchet. The strong stuff is available around town in local bars and restaurant, or you can drop by the distillery for a taste. If gin is more your speed, New Columbia Distillers — which in 2012 earned the distinction of being the first distillery of any kind, period, to open in post-Prohibition DC — puts out Green Hat gin, a herbaceous and peppery expression with notes of coriander, sage and fennel. It remains the best way to enjoy the gin rickey cocktail, invented in the capital city in the late 1800s.
Feature photo by uschools / Getty Images
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