In an election year, all that red, white and blue might have you seeing stars, and stripes, for a D.C. vacation. The national’s capital overflows with iconic attractions and as a result, loads of tourists flock here to see them. You could battle the crowds or merely look for D.C.’s off the beaten path museums, gardens, views, eats and neighborhoods. Not only can these attractions provide a different picture of D.C., but you’ll also be treated to a more local experience in a heavily touristic city.
Just two blocks from the Smithsonian, you can’t get much more D.C. than the Willard. One of D.C.’s oldest and grandest luxury hotels, the Willard features 335 rooms blending contemporary luxury with historic charm. The Willard is also a bit of a historic relic to D.C. Established in the 1850s, the hotel has hosted nearly every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce in 1853. It was the spot where Martin Luther King finished his “I Have A Dream” speech while staying as a guest. Other famous guests have included Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, and Mark Twain.
Built in 1927 over the homes of John Hay and Henry Adams, the Hay-Adams provides 145 guestrooms with a stately boutique vibe. Located in the unofficial backyard of the White House, the boutique property remains in the heart of the action for tourists looking to explore the city. It is also the spot Obama stayed just before his inauguration. The Hay-Adams was also the site of D.C.’s first air-conditioned dining room.
The Drug Enforcement Agency Museum
D.C. is known for its wealth of museums but chances are, you haven’t heard of the Drug Enforcement Agency Museum. Dedicated to drugs, drug abuse, and drug law enforcement, the museum’s collection includes more than 2,000 objects from old patent medicine bottles to modern drug concealment containers. In addition, the museum claims 5,000 images from the late 1800s to present day detailing the U.S. drug history. You can learn about it all from the Columbian cartels to post 9/11 narcotics terrorism. The site is definitely one of D.C.’s more unusual with an emphasis on illegal drugs in America. Admission is free and you can visit from 10AM to 4PM from Tuesday through Friday.
President Lincoln Cottage
Most tourists to D.C. spend some time at the often-crowded Lincoln Memorial. While comparing shoe sizes with the large depiction of honest Abe is a quintessential D.C. attraction, you can also spend some time where Lincoln worked out of during the Civil War. Just outside the city limits lurks another Lincoln site few venture to see. The President Lincoln Cottage only opened to the public in recent years. Lincoln spent much of his time here instead of the White House during the Civil War. The cottage details Lincoln’s life and legacy while in the home. It is also where Abe most notably drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Tours cost $15 for adults.
The U.S. Department of State Diplomatic Reception Room Collection
You might think a space like the U.S. Department of State is off limits to a tourist’s prying eyes and for the most part, it is. However, on the 7th floor of the building, you can roam 7 rooms of the 42 room Diplomatic Reception Room Collection. Utilized by the Vice President, Secretary of State and members of the Cabinet to sign treaties, host meetings and entertain world leaders, the spaces are open for pre-arranged tours at no charge. On this fine arts tour, you can expect to see 5,000 objects of early American fine and decorative art from 1750 to 1825. Other notable artifacts on the tour include the desk where the Treaty of Paris was signed to end the American Revolution Thomas Jefferson’s desk where he ironed out his draft of the Declaration of Independence.
National Geographic Museum
If you always seem to be picking up a National Geographic magazine at new stands or you can’t seem to quench your wanderlust, then D.C. has a museum for you. The National Geographic Museum details the world and everything it contains. The wide range of changing exhibits have included exhibits detailing 5,00 years of Greek history to photography showings of National Geographic photographers, scientists, and explorers. Located in downtown D.C., only a few blocks from the White House, the museum is open daily from 10AM to 6PM.
Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens
Located in a northeastern D.C. neighborhood, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens tend to be another D.C. secret. The park and gardens boast origins in a 1926 act of Congress to preserve the forests, water quality and recreations value of the waterways of D.C. Open 362 days a year and with no park entrance fees, the lands offer one of D.C.’s most accessible park spaces without having to fork over a dime. Operating as a National Park Service site, the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens showcase the history of the country’s rivers and wetlands. Part of the original march in DC just across from the Anacostia River, you can expect to see ponds with lily pads, lilies, and lotus flowers along with a wealth of wildlife from blue herons to five different kinds of frogs. The best times to visit are in the spring and summer.
The Gardens at Dumbarton Oaks
Dumbarton Oaks sits at a high point in Georgetown. The 1801 brick mansion belonged to Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss. You might say the pair created their own bliss at the on-site gardens. While the mansion boasts a museum with a collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, the gardens lend a tranquil setting in the heart of the city to unwind after a day of sightseeing. The 10 acres of formal and informal gardens present hedge-lined walkways, cherry trees and magnolia blossoms to casual strollers. By forking over $10 for regular admission, you can see a wealth of flowers and plants without having to elbow others for a view.
When you want to eat in D.C., there are a wealth of well-known and crowded spots. However, on Barracks Row you will find plenty of casual bistros and pubs with good food and short wait times. Preserving and enhancing Capitol Hill’s historic 8th street, the neighborhood has developed a reputation for food and nightlife. You can find all kinds of cuisines represented here from Indian to soul food to Cuban. Barracks Row is not only just a great area of town to appreciate the D.C. culinary scene. You can also find shops along the oldest commercial corridor in the nation’s capital.
Pilgrim Observation Gallery
Most tourists to the nation’s capital know about the National Cathedral. However, many visitors don’t end up making the trek up to the Pilgrim Observation Gallery. While it might be difficult to find stellar views in D.C. thanks to an 1899 Act of Congress regulating building height, the National Cathedral boasts a 150 feet tall viewpoint with unobstructed 360-degree views. You can enjoy expansive city views and also spot landmarks thanks to signs on the site pointing out where they are. Open daily, you can take an elevator up to the Pilgrim Observation Gallery so you don’t have to really work for your views.
Monuments and Memorials at Night
One of the best views of D.C. comes from its many monuments and memorials. Luckily most of these are set up in close proximity to one another on the National Mall. As one of the most popular attractions in the city, your best bet for having a little peace and quiet with Lincoln and Jefferson is to visit them at night. You can see most of the well-known monuments and memorials on foot by walking at least 3 miles. Run by the National Park Service, the memorials and monuments of D.C. are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you don’t feel like walking, several tour companies like Old Town Trolley Tours offer nighttime tours of the D.C. monuments. You’ll stop at Iwo Jima Memorial, FDR Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, Vietnam Memorial and the Korean War Memorial, all under the cover of night and without the crowds.
Gravelly Point Park
If you love plane spotting or perhaps just the thrill of being a few hundred feet from planes taking off or touching down, head across the Potomac River to Gravelly Point Park. Built on a reclaimed landfill, the park offers walking and biking paths along the river. However, it is best known among locals for being a great place to plane spot. Just north of Reagan Washington National Airport, the park sits just 400 feet from the runway, proving for a hair-raising good time and a fine spot to bring your camera.
Love D.C. and know a few of its secrets, hideaways and off the beaten path attractions? Share your finds in the nation’s capital with us in the comments below.