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President John F. Kennedy once quipped that Washington, DC was a city that had “Northern charm and southern efficiency”. He would hardly recognize it today. Since I arrived to attend law school, the city has become a vibrant, cosmopolitan metropolis. New gyms, cafes and shops have replaced the older downtown. While still not the “city that never sleeps”, night life has continued to grow from the arts scene and live theater, like the “Woolly Mammoth”, to the long-time jazz club at Blues Alley. (Of the latter, Dizzy Gillespie famously said “Now THIS is a jazz club.”
My first memory of the city was a family trip as a 12 year old. Rather than the White House and Capitol, what stuck in my mind was the National Cathedral and the Islamic Center and Mosque. They were two of the most exotic buildings I had ever encountered in my youthful travels. I do also remember the Lincoln Memorial vividly. I must confess it was not for its impressive architecture or stirring speeches carved into the marble walls. Like a classic “National Lampoon” vacation film, our family car circled the monument 7 times before succeeding in getting out of the travel circle. Part of the fabled city plan by Frenchman L’Enfant, they still confound many visitors who try to drive in DC.
While visiting the best-known sights and national monuments can make for a great trip, some of the more interesting places and things to do don’t revolve around the fact that the city is a nation’s capital. Here are my five alternate ideas for a DC trip.
- Make it an active workout if you can avoid mid-summer’s heat. Even if the Smithsonian or other indoor sites are closed, you can create a self-guided tour on a bike. Check the Internet for locations for bike rentals and docking stations. You will see them around the city. In some places, there are bike lanes. However, watch out since traffic can be very hazardous. One of my favorite routes has been going from Georgetown across Memorial Bridge past the airport to Old Town Alexandria, VA. (Really watch out coming off the bridge, as cars don’t yield, and there are no stop signs.) For boating, some enthusiasts like to try the paddle boats at the Tidal Basin, Jefferson Memorial. For a real boating adventure, you can launch a kayak farther upriver in Great Falls. The Potomac can be treacherous though as each year a few drownings occur. If you want a short hike to the falls, themselves, you will find a welcome hot dog/refreshments stand on arrival. There is also a small museum that tells the story of the C&O Canal. For more formal dining, you can drive back down MacArthur Boulevard towards Washington for a formal dinner at the Old Anglers Inn. It has some of the best fine dining in the Metro area. For a budget-friendly option, they have a outdoor beer garden with hamburgers and sandwiches.
- Get a glimpse of the whole world that the foreign embassies offer. Stroll up Embassy Row/Mass. Ave. past the Cameroon’s enchanting castle to the 20th-century Finland’s modern embassy. In the last 5 years, almost every embassy has added a bust of their founding fathers or leading patriots. One example is the immense sculpture in front of the Bulgarian Embassy on a tall pedestal. My dog barked wildly when confronted with this enormous “human”. As you make your way up Embassy Row, you can view a range of life-sized figures from Gandhi to Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. In the spring, there are two Saturdays where embassies have open houses. This gives you the chance to walk through national exhibits, sample local dishes and hear lots of diverse music and maybe even dance. For dancing, the Dominican Republic is the most popular as crowds try out the local rum and dishes and meringue and salsa in the street out front.
- Take a tour of the city’s “old(er)” buildings. The Old Stone House on M St, NW, Georgetown is said to be the oldest building in DC. Even if it is closed, you can walk by and view much of it from the sidewalk. Near the White House, a few 19th-century ornate bank buildings remain intact as well as across from the White House an impressive Gilded Age mansion, now the Renwick Gallery. Historic houses open to the public include, among others, the Frederick Douglass House, Tudor Place where George Washington descendants lived at one time, and of course, Mount Vernon. In addition, to the 18th-century house, itself, the tour includes the expansive grounds and gardens overlooking the Potomac River.
- Take advantage of DC’s multiple parks and green spaces. With 1,754 acres, Rock Creek Park, founded in 1890 as a national park, extends 12 miles starting at the Potomac and ending in suburban Maryland. It is a frequent spot for hikers, joggers and bikes. On weekends, parts of the park are closed to cars so joggers, bicyclists and roller blading. I have rented a horse there in the past, but check before you go since the stables may not still be available. Beyond Rock Creek Park, there are numerous small parks that dot the city. On Mass. Ave., you can take advantage of the shade and sit at the Kahlil Gibran Park. For a larger park, the National Arboretum is open without charge all year-round. With its wide array of flowers and trees, it is great for selfies. However, take a GPS! Twice when I visited with a friend, we were almost locked in for the night! Sounds impossible? While there are several gates, without warning, they start locking them around 4:30 PM. That is just the time when the Visitor’s Center closes, and certain gates are locked. Both times we drove round and round trying to find an unlocked gate. (In Rock Creek Park, if you go sightseeing along Beach Drive, you will have an amble chance of getting lost but albeit with no locked gates. There are few, if any signs so it can be impossible to find the District of Columbia!)
5. Spend a night out on the town in Adams Morgan. This has been one of the few late night parts of town. While it is largely a Spanish-speaking community, there are bars and cafes from every part of the world from Ethiopia to Egypt to Argentina. More informal than Georgetown, it makes for a lively night out. For a stroll through the neighborhood, try a walking daytime tour covering Meridian Hill Park and the neighborhood’s most historic spots.
Some other options not always part of a DC tour:
- Korean War Memorial
- National Zoo
- National Women’s Museum
- Phillips Art Gallery
- Tudor Place
- Dumbarton Oaks
- Rock Creek Cemetery
- The Sixth and I Street historic synagogue in Chinatown
- Haines Point for golf, miniature golf, strolling and biking
- Ferry from Old Town to the National Harbor, MD.[