I get asked all the time about what I recommend people do when visiting DC. So it’s high time I do a series of posts on my recommendations of what to do and where to eat if you are visiting. One post could not even scratch the surface of what there is to do here, so I’m going to break it out into multiple posts. Honestly, the restaurant scene here is insane, so I am recommending places to eat near the places I’m recommending you visit to make it easier for your planning.
It’s rare to find chain restaurants in DC Proper (thank god!). There are definitely lunch/fast-food places that are more chainish but for the most part we have local restaurants. My husband and I could probably eat at a different place for dinner every night for three months without repeating, and they’d all be amazing.
You would think that someone who lives in DC would have gone to every museum, seen every monument, gone on every tour, etc., but typically the people who live here have probably walked the mall with their families a few times, and been to events in museums, but they probably haven’t actually spent the afternoon actually walking around the museums or taking an actual tour.
My in-laws were in town last week, so my husband and I took some time off to spend with them, and take them on some tours we’ve never been on. My husband has some friends in government/politics so we were able to get private tours of the White House — the West Wing and the East Wing — and also a private tour of the Capitol (he’s been there, I hadn’t). If you have any connections to the White House or the Capitol, use them for your tours. You actually cannot get a tour of the West Wing of the White House without a connection. I’m still a bit in awe that I stuck my head into the actual Oval Office. It was pretty surreal. You can contact your state Senators and Representatives about East Wing and Capitol tours.
I will write more posts on what you should do and where you should eat while in DC, but here is a list of some of the things I recommend seeing if you’ve never been to DC, and some places to eat near them that I recommend.
One main thing to note is that a lot of the dinner places I’m recommending you will need a reservation for dinner. You can always try to eat an early dinner to miss the crowd (people here eat late) but to be safe, if you want to hit up a really good restaurant, even on a Tuesday, get a reservation for dinner just to be safe. Sometimes it wouldn’t be big deal, but other times you’d have to wait an hour. You can always go there for lunch if they are open, but I would check to make sure the restaurant is open during lunch hours.
THE NATIONAL MALL & THE MONUMENTS
If you’ve never seen the monuments and walked the National Mall, you really must do it. The Mall is basically the T-shaped area where the White House, Washington Monument, The Lincoln Memorial, and the Capitol building are. There is a ton of green space, walking paths, and the other memorials — the Vietnam Memorial, Korean War Memorial, and the World War II Memorial.
If you walk around the Tidal Basin you’ll see the FDR Memorial, the MLK Jr. Memorial, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. It is definitely worth the walk, and if you are here during the two weeks in the spring when the Cherry Blossoms come out (which is right now!) it’s absolutely GORGEOUS, but also jam packed with a zillion people (during any nice day there will be tons of tourists). If you want to see the Cherry Blossoms with less crowds, I recommend going as early in the morning as possible. Like literally at sunrise and the first few hours of daylight. There will be less people around.
My extra special local tip is to go to the Lincoln Memorial at night. The lighting is stunning and it has a much bigger impact at night. The Jefferson Memorial is also beautiful at night. Also, less crowds at night. We almost always take friends and family to the Lincoln at night.
How long will walking this take? Well, a while if you want to hit the entire mall and around the Tidal Basin. But it’s a gorgeous walk if it’s a nice day. It will probably take you several hours if you are just walking (and not necessarily going on tours). So eat before you go, bring a granola bar and water (there are refreshment stands on the mall but only get a snack there if you absolutely have to), and plan to eat right afterward because you’ll be hungry. You can also rent a bike from Capital Bikeshare and I always see people on segway tours. The only problem with using a bike or a segway is that you can’t really get up close. You cannot abandon your bike and walk up the steps of the Lincoln. Your bike will get stolen. So if you want to see things up close and personal — walk.
There aren’t really a lot of restaurants right by the mall. If you end your walk at the White House, there are more restaurants around there, but here are a few ideas for eating near the National Mall:
Metro Center / Chinatown — A few blocks north of the east side of the National Mall (the grassy area between the Washington Monument and the Capitol) is what is called Metro Center/Chinatown. There are tons of restaurants in this area for you to choose from. Some of my favorites are Raskia if you like Indian, Chef Geoff’s is a local chef (Geoff) with dependable American food, Zaytinya for upscale Mediterranean, Matchbox is good pizza with multiple locations around town, Graffiato is one of Mike Isabella’s restaurants (from Top Chef) and if you like Prosecco — they have it on tap, and Le Pain Quotidien is a dependable lunch spot.
Near the Capitol — Again, there aren’t a ton of restaurants right near the Capitol, you can either walk a few blocks or if you are tired from walking you can hop on the metro at Capitol South and get off at the very next stop, Eastern Market, there are lots of restaurants on 7th and 8th Streets SE. My favorites being Ted’s Bulletin, Acqua Al 2, and Roses Luxury.
Food Trucks at Farragut Square — Farragut Square is only a few blocks north of the White House and during the week at lunch it is lined with food trucks. If the CapMac (mac & cheese) food truck is there, that’s my choice. Some people aren’t a fan of food trucks, but it’s quick and cheaper than a restaurant and if you are looking for a “local experience” that would be one. Any of the food trucks that have a line typically means that it’s good.
If you’ve never been to DC, there are a few museums I recommend: the National Air & Space Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world. I’ve actually never been but I hear it’s amazing. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is heavy yet very very good, and I personally love the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Art and the Sculpture Garden. There are so many museums you could literally go to them for weeks, so you just have to find the ones you are most interested in. These are just the ones that I recommend on your first trip or if you don’t have a lot of time. All of these museums along with dozens of other museums are on or near the National Mall.
WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL
One thing I highly recommend going to see, even though it’s a little out of the way, is the Washington National Cathedral. It’s the sixth-largest cathedral in the world (the world), second-largest in the United States. Most people assume it’s Catholic, but it’s actually Episcopal. You can tour it on your own, but I recommend taking a tour so you can learn all of the interesting things about it. It’s absolutely BEAUTIFUL inside, and is astounding how many different rooms and areas there are inside. I felt like every time I turned a corner there was another room with a gorgeous mosaic.
Try to pick a sunny day to go so you can see the light coming in through the stained glass windows.
So there is my first post in a series of posts about Washington DC. I wanted to tell you the things that I felt you should see if you are only here for a few days, that I think are worth seeing, and great places to eat near them. Obviously there are so many other museums and things to see, but I’ll get to those in later posts — stay tuned!
Feel free to weigh in on your thoughts and recommendations in the comments!