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Off the beaten path in DC: From a historic garden to a travel-inspired restaurant

August 8 2022
9 min read
Street in Washington, D.C.
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Each year, millions of tourists flock to Washington, D.C., to explore historic landmarks and immerse themselves in U.S. history.

The National Mall, the Capitol Building, the network of Smithsonian museums and dozens of other famous sites draw long lines of out-of-towners. But D.C. isn’t just museums and memorials; it’s a vibrant city with plenty of lesser-known attractions also worth seeing.

After racing from New York City to D.C. to determine the best mode of transportation between the two cities, we departed on our own 24-hour journey exploring off-the-beaten-path sites in our nation’s capital.

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Where to eat and drink

With only 24 hours in D.C., time was precious. We chose where to eat and drink intentionally, opting for eclectic, exciting options.

Oki Bowl

This noodle house offers more than just ramen. Its decor is enough to make any passerby stop in their tracks.

Peeking through the restaurant window, we were enticed by the vibrant contrasting colors and patterns all around the restaurant. Once inside, we felt enchanted by the quirky storybook decor, feeling as if we were Alice exploring a strange, magical Wonderland.

As we waited on our ramen, we sipped frozen fruit juices, marveling at the lamps, flowers, vines and birdhouses that hung from the ceiling above us. Before long, we noticed a Cheshire cat bobblehead staring us down from a nearby shelf.

If you do step into this whimsical restaurant, tread carefully with the menu; some options are spicy.

The chicken pop bowl wasn't as much of a hit as the chicken potstickers and miso ramen thanks to its unadvertised spice level that was too much for the spice-averse TPGer who ordered it. The intensity of the Tom Yum's heat was so high that it surprised the spice enthusiast who joined us for lunch — though she still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Take a page out of Alice's book and check what you're getting yourself into before choosing what to eat. Don't forget to also take a peek at the bathrooms — you'll feel like you've been transported farther down the rabbit hole.

Compass Rose

The tented seating area outside of Compass Rose sheltered us from a D.C. thunderstorm. (Photo by Halle Newman/The Points Guy)

This renowned restaurant aims to bring international street food experiences to the doorsteps of Washingtonians when travel isn’t on the agenda. It's a tapas-style restaurant and recommends seven to eight dishes for a group of four.

The Syrian-inspired roasted baby carrots and Tunisian chicken kababs were a hit with our group.

Related: 10 great cities for street food around the world

Unfortunately, the restaurant wasn’t able to make at least three of the dishes on the menu we wanted. So, call ahead if you have your sights set on anything in particular. However, trying new things is part of the fun here.

Making a reservation is also key if you’d like to sit inside. We didn’t and ended up at a table outside under cover despite the thunderstorm that was rolling through.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams on 14th Street. (Photo by Margaret Heffernen)

We couldn’t leave Washington without sampling Jeni’s ice cream. This Ohio-based company has a few delicious dairy-free flavors in addition to its traditional ice cream concoctions.

We sampled the Gooey Butter Cake and, unwillingly, the Salted Peanut Butter with Chocolate Flecks. Despite ordering the Salty Caramel flavor, the scooper got our order wrong. We only discovered the error after we left the area.

The dairy-free chocolate flavor was distinctly an alternate but was still really enjoyable.

While not a local ice cream shop, outposts of Jeni's are sparse in the Northeast. However, if you're interested in a local brand instead, try Dolcezza Gelato or Ice Cream Jubilee.

Tryst

This local brunch spot, which is a mix of a coffee shop, a bar and a lounge, gives off major Central Perk vibes. As such, it's been a staple of the Adams Morgan neighborhood since opening in 1998.

One classic you'll want to try here is the rooibos latte. A principal beverage in South Africa, rooibos tea is a red herbal tea variety made from an indigenous fynbos plant. In the last decade or so, the rooibos latte has become popular globally.

Tryst's take on the classic tea involves preparing the brewed tea with steamed milk as you would a regular latte to create a subtly sweet, earthy and frothy beverage. So, if you’ve been wanting to travel to South Africa, you can get your first taste here.

What to do and see

Dumbarton Oaks

This is not your typical D.C. museum. In Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks, which was founded in 1920, offers mazelike grounds to explore lush gardens.

We opted to simply wander around the beautiful gardens. However, if you're looking for more to do, there's an indoor section with art exhibits and archival collections that include Byzantine and pre-Columbian art and objects.

Related: Boston museum exhibit illustrates US history using quilts

We could have spent hours strolling the paths, sitting on shaded benches listening to the bubbling water fountain and watching little bunnies and squirrels forage.

Visitors should be aware that, as with many Southern estates established before the end of slavery, slave labor was used to create this one. The museum is conducting ongoing research into the lives of the people who were enslaved here to help remember them and provide insight into their experiences.

International Spy Museum

Here we embarked on a classified mission to collect clues, decode messages and complete activities throughout our journey through the interactive museum. While there were plenty of exhibits and artifacts to check out, the museum also served as a playground of sorts for the kids who ran around interacting with the hands-on exhibits.

There were lots of cool gadgets on display, from Enigma machines to the broken spectacles that Leon Trotsky’s murderer wore at the time of the crime. Visitors should block off at least two hours to visit the museum, but you could easily spend an entire afternoon here — if not an entire day.

Related: Disney debuts 'The Soul of Jazz' at Harlem's National Jazz Museum — and across cities in the US

If you’re looking for a quiet activity, this probably isn’t the spot for you. It does get pretty raucous with all the kids running around. However, if you have young kids (or even if you don’t and are just an espionage enthusiast), you'll have fun strolling through the exhibits, marveling at the curios and learning what your spy skills would be.

The Carousel on the National Mall

This carousel sits right in the middle of one of D.C.'s most famous attractions, yet its presence — and the history that goes along with it — often gets overlooked. Though it's currently inoperative due to maintenance, it remains a symbol of civil rights triumphs in America.

The day Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, young Sharon Langley became the first Black child to ride this carousel at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore. The amusement park was desegrated that day, and the carousel was later moved here to commemorate that day and be maintained.

Related: In Memphis, the National Civil Rights Museum honors a tragedy — and highlights an icon of midcentury travel

What to skip

The Gibson

The Gibson is an iconic D.C. speak-easy on popular 14th Street. The entrance is a black unmarked door between a garage door and a boarded-up storefront.

The drinks were a mixed bag, with some thoroughly enjoyed and others not so much. This experience wasn't terrible. However, if we could go back in time, we'd choose one of the other speak-easies in the area that have recommendations floating around on the internet.

DC Alley Museum

This looked like it would be one of the most exciting spots on our list, but we don’t recommend going during the middle of a weekday. As a solo woman, Michaela felt out of place. There were only a few other people there (not for the art), and it felt more like a deserted industrial complex.

Related: Shaker-inspired art on display at Albany International Airport and historic site nearby

The murals themselves were nice but nothing intricate. There weren’t all that many of them there, either. Michaela's visit to the “museum” lasted about five minutes.

Bottom line

D.C.’s typical tourist attractions are great, but the crowds can ruin the fun. If you decide to come during a busy season like mid-summer, we highly recommend getting off the beaten path for at least a portion of your stay.

We’ve rounded up a few options here, but once you start looking, there are tons of fun things to do in our nation's capital that you won't find on typical travel guides.

Neighborhoods like Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights are less tourist-centric and more residential, offering a number of good restaurants, nightlife venues and boutique museums worth checking out. We recommend starting with these areas during your visit.

Additional reporting by Halle Newman.

Featured photo by Getty Images/Glowimages RF
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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