Washington DC is a quintessential US city with a rich history that makes any trip to visit worthwhile. One could easily spend a week or more there exploring its national treasures, from the Capitol to Arlington Cemetery to the Lincoln Memorial. I’m choosing to focus on the non-traditionally historical elements of this fair city, as I think that there is an incredible amount of interesting food and art to explore here, on top of your usual tourist stops. Read on for my Washington DC travel guide!
Where to Stay
The Carlyle at Dupont Circle – This boutique hotel is part of the Kimpton family, and is every bit the offbeat and funky vibe that they strive for. It’s an excellent location for exploring Logan Circle, and provides the perfect launching point for going south to downtown or west to Georgetown. It also has a fun and crowded bar if a nightcap is in the cards for you.
Mason & Rook – In the heart of Logan Circle, just off of the bustling 14th Street, Mason & Rook is a tiny boutique hotel that is an excellent hideaway while visiting the city. It has a modern, no-frills feel, but amenities such as a rooftop pool make it worth your while, and it’s a pretty good deal for a Kimpton hotel to boot.
Where to Eat
Rose’s Luxury – One of the best meals I’ve had in a long time was at the incredible Rose’s Luxury. Get there early to wait in line for a meal time – I’d say pre-5pm is a necessity. But oh, is it worth it. The lychee salad and family style Japanese fried chicken are essentials, but don’t miss the grilled cucumber, brussels caesar, off-menu cacio e pepe pasta, and eggplant tarte tatin for dessert (if it’s available). The cocktails are inventive and they have a funky wine list to boot.
Grace Street Coffee – This little coffee counter tucked away on a Georgetown side street is the perfect spot to stop and caffeinate (and retreat from the masses while shopping in the area).
Bad Saint – The tiny, 20-seat Filipino restaurant is one of the best, and most interesting, dining scenes in DC right now. They have a great selection of natural wines, and the ever-rotating menu is fresh and inventive. Don’t miss the “lechon” suckling pig, “kinilaw” ceviche, and “laing” shrimp and bittergreens coconut curry.
Le Diplomate – A DC classic, this old-school French bistro is the spot for escargot, steak frites, and one pretty delectable burger. Cap it off with a good red and some profiteroles for the table, and don’t forget to make a reservation. Brunch is also delicious here, and you can get their epic warm shrimp salad and crispy fries during the day as well.
Emissary – Now this is an all-day cafe with style. Each room has lots of nooks and natural light, and I love the bar in the back for either a coffee or a glass of vino later in the day. Everything is simple and unfussy here – think breakfast tacos (they make their GF corn tortillas in-house) and a massive lentil and avocado bowl for brunch.
Baked and Wired – The quintessential cupcake spot, right in the heart of Georgetown. I prefer this place to Georgetown Cupcakes, and it has a fun and funky atmosphere to boot. Get the “dirty chai” cupcake (my personal favorite). Also, avoid it on the weekends if you can, it gets packed.
Little Serow – Unfortunately another spot that you need to line up early for, but one that is wholly worth it. The authentic Northern Thai menu is served family style from a set menu, and each dish is more delectable, and spicy, than the next. The menu changes weekly, and you can check back on Tuesdays to view the updated version. It’s worth every penny ($65) and is one of the best meals I’ve had in DC.
Slipstream – This little all-day cafe near Logan Circle is the perfect place to post up with a cappuccino and avocado toast to read or get some work done, and they also serve a mean breakfast sandwich.
The Line – This incredibly designed hotel is literally a feast for the eyes. The two-level bar and restaurant is the perfect place to perch for a pre-dinner apertivo, or a nightcap. Even if you only come for one drink, I highly recommend this spot.
Blue Duck Tavern – Meat-lovers rejoice! This is a steakhouse-style restaurant that caters to your kind. Get the duck breast, it’s a no-brainer, and continue to raise your cholesterol with a smattering of meat-focused starters, such as the beef tartare and foie gras creme brulee. Note to self: work out the next morning.
District Doughnut – With two locations now, this doughnut shop is pure gold. Don’t miss the blueberry, milk chocolate, and dulce de leche flavors.
Farmers Fishers Bakers – The ultimate Georgetown waterfront brunch spot, featuring one hell of a buffet set-up on the weekends. I surprisingly gravitated towards the excellent fried chicken, but there is also something to be said for their ooey-gooey cinnamon rolls. And don’t miss the bloody maries.
A Baked Joint – The sister restaurant to Baked and Wired, this all-day restaurant is away from the Georgetown masses and is an absolute favorite for breakfast and lunch. Their homemade biscuits are some of the best I’ve ever had, and the biscuit breakfast sandwich is not too big of over-stuffed, it’s juuuust right. Don’t miss the OMG s’mores bar and their amazing assortment of baked goods as well.
Hanks’s Oyster Bar – Right on the newly hip Wharf, this oyster bar has amazing sunset views, and a raw bar that can’t be beat. Skip the rest of the menu, and focus on drinks and oysters at this spot.
Compass Rose – An ode to the all the street food of the world, Compass Rose is a small-plates style spot off of 14th Street that somehow makes a wide variety of cuisines work harmoniously. Favorites were the lamb curry and gado gado, and note that they are great at accommodating gluten and dairy allergies. The ambiance is dark, funky, and as my father put it “a bit like Haight-Ashbury in the 60s.” Rock on, DC.
Iron Gate – I would unilaterally recommend this spot during the warm weather months, as the biggest draw is the airy bar in the front that opens up onto a trellis-covered patio. The brunch has delicious hits such as olive oil-fried eggs and an incredible spinach salad. Skip this spot in the winter – the back, indoor dining room is slightly depressing.
Officina – Another brand-new spot in the famed Wharf area, Officina is a multi-level building that’s heavy on the scenes aspect. The rooftop has an incredible view, but you’re paying for it – think $18 glasses of rose and similarly priced cocktails. The food in the main dining room is pretty standard Italian fare (the sides are the best things on the menu) but again, it feels like you’re paying for the real estate with every bite.
Union Market – This food hall in northeast DC is great in theory, but not my favorite in execution. None of the vendors blew me away from a food perspective, and the 14th Street location of Salt & Sundry is much more worthy of a visit. The one saving grace is the outdoor picnic benches and pingpong tables, which make it fun for grabbing a drink and sitting al fresco for happy hour with a group.
Maketto – This Asian fusion H Street spot has lovely ambiance, outdoor seating, and a surprisingly good wine list (get the natural rosé from Inconnu by the glass), but the highlight here is that during happy hour, you get a free app with your drink purchase at the bar. I’d say get that glass of natural wine, the shrimp shumai, and then go elsewhere for dinner.
Chercher – For incredibly delicious and incredibly cheap Ethiopian food, look no further than Chercher. You’ll need to walk in and potentially wait, and this is a decidedly no-frills spot, but the flavors, spices, and variety of dishes that are served atop their injera (GF available too) are worth coming back for every time.
The Wydown – My new favorite cafe on 14th St, this is the place to stop into for your coffee fix, and they happen to have a small selection of breakfast sandwiches and basked goods too if you need to grab something on the fly.
Calico – This Blagdon Alley bar (go early to check out the surrounding street art) is the place to go to drink outside in the warm weather, at a spot that doesn’t feel too young. It has a few different areas with tables and nooks and standing room, and a beautiful central bar to boot. Plus they have a delightful lavender lemonade you’ll want to sip all summer long.
What to Do
Hirshhorn Museum – This beautiful modern art museum is a must-see while in DC. There is a pretty significant permanent collection, and the outdoor sculpture garden is stunning on a sunny day.
National Arboretum – If green spaces are the name of your game, head to this incredible, sprawling park featuring all things nature. It’s a great place to hike around on a sunny day, and the Japanese Gardens, original columns from the US Capitol building (standing Stonehenge-like in a barren field), and seasonal flower gardens are lovely to behold.
Explore Georgetown – To say that the Georgtown neighbohood is idyllic is an understatement. You can easily while away a day exploring the waterfront on foot, or renting bike if you are feeling adventurous. Don’t forget to stop at Baked and Wired for a cupcake and Grace Street Coffee for a caffeine pick-me-up along your stroll.
Renwick Gallery – This incredible gallery space is an offshoot of the Smithsonian and features a rotating roster of really interesting experiential art. The cherry on top is that admission is 100% free, all of the time.
National Building Museum – An architecture lover’s fantasy. Right near the Renwick, this museum is not too big and can be done in about an hour, if time is an issue. There is a paid admission to exhibits, but it is worth it.
Explore Logan Circle – The area north of Logan Circle, if you head up 14th Street is absolutely lovely, and one of the liveliest areas in DC if you ask me. There are blocks of excellent eateries, and a really cool selection of shops as well. My favorites are Little Leaf and Salt & Sundry, which feature an eclectic mix of decor and home goods. Plus, Le Diplomate is there, and there’s no way you’re missing that.
Visit Alexandria, Virginia – Take the Metro out of the city and check out the lovely suburban center that is Alexandria. I recommend grabbing brunch (there are TONS of quaint spots on the main drag), checking out the farmers market, and strolling along the oldest street in the country.
National Museum of African American History and Culture – This museum is truly well-done, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting DC. Note that it is free admission, but is very challenging to get into, and during the high season (aka summer) there are no walk-in tickets. They release tickets in advance in three month batches, or you can log onto their site daily at 6:30am to claim tickets for that day.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon – The place where Washington spent the majority of his life was actually a beautiful working farm on the shores of the Potomac River. Book tickets in advance and you will be assigned a time slot for entry, which takes the guesswork out of planning your day.
A note on the International Spy Museum – This museum was just redone and is now located right next to the Wharf, and so I was excited to check it out on my most recent visit. I found this to be one of the more disappointing museum trips in recent memory, however. The experience felt disjointed and overwhelming, and there was a lack of cohesive narrative that made it feel, overall, piecemeal. With all of the places you can visit in DC for free (this museum costs $25), I would recommend skipping it.