You Probably Know Washington; Now Meet the Real DC
Government and politics tell only part of the story of the nation’s capital. The part that’s typically covered by Washington correspondents.
But the larger part? That’s DC: a patchwork of neighborhoods both steeped in history and buzzing with new energy; restaurants that span the globe and the Michelin rating system; 2021 happenings and longstanding cultural icons—many family-friendly and free. And that’s the city we suspect you’ll want in on this summer and beyond, so read on for our guide to the highlights.
One of the first things any parent should know about DC? You’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect union of education and fun. In fact, so much of what makes this city edifying for kids also keeps them miraculously entertained.
One new case in point? Planet Word: a language immersion experience—and reportedly the world’s first voice-activated museum. Set in a historic school, it’s got a murmuring willow (kinder and gentler than anything you’d find at Hogwarts—but magical nonetheless—this tree speaks softly to you in hundreds of languages); a 22-foot talking wall that recounts the history of English; a gallery where you deliver famous speeches from a teleprompter; another where you dive into both singing and songwriting; and the list goes on.
Conversely, you’ll want to introduce the kids to an institution so longstanding, it’s actually celebrating its 175th birthday: The Smithsonian, with its 19 museums, various research centers and The National Zoo (in the aggregate, the world’s largest museum complex). As always, admission is free, and as of July 20, most Smithsonian museums in DC no longer require timed-entry passes. Clearly, you won’t want for choice, but if you’re looking for a one-stop-awes-all kind of experience, hit the National Air and Space Museum, whose iconic DC outpost reopens July 30th, when you can once again check out everything from rockets and spacesuits to a Hubble Space Telescope mirror. Of course, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute (which does still require timed entry passes) is another crowd-pleaser with its giant pandas, ruffled lemurs, spectacled bears, swamp monkeys and of course, bald eagles, just for starters.
If you need the kids to burn off some energy and see a lot of cool stuff in the process, know that DC is a super-bike-friendly town, complete with a Bike Concierge who’ll hook you up with the best tours and rentals. Even better: Even you’re in town on September 25, you can join the famed DC Bike Ride—a huge, car-free tour of the city’s most iconic sites, with kids as young as three allowed to participate.
Another sport you’ll want in on—at least from the stands? Baseball. There’s nothing like taking the family to a game at Nationals Park, where this summer will see the Nats hosting everyone from the Cubs to the Phillies to the Braves. Almost as important: You can pick up some only-in-DC delicacies—perhaps most famous, the half-smoke hotdog—at the onsite Ben’s Chili Bowl between innings.
A world of flavor
Even if you do have that half-smoke at the stadium, you’ll want to get to the original Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. This 62-year-old, family-run legend is essentially the spiritual starting point of any DC food tour, not just because the aforementioned half-smoke dog is considered the city’s signature dish, or because this is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in town—but also because Ben’s Chili Bowl is so famously woven into the fabric of the last century. A historic highlight reel would include, for starters, the owners’ donation of food to the 1963 March on Washington (when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech); the decision to stay open during the 1968 riots (when both law enforcement and activists famously ate here); and visits by every conceivable dignitary from Barack Obama to Pope Francis.
Once you’ve joined that list of visitors, you can take your restaurant crawl in any number of directions: stick with the down-home theme, take a turn for the global and/or upscale—or, as seems wisest, mix things up in keeping with the amazing array of options. With that last approach in mind, consider what follows the tiniest of tasting menus.
Another historic hot spot, Old Ebbit Grill is widely considered the oldest restaurant in town despite a succession of location changes since the original saloon’s founding in 1856. In the grill’s current (but still vintage Beaux Arts) incarnation around the corner from the White House, the 3 to 5 p.m. Oyster Happy Hour is as famous as the list of luminaries who’ve frequented the gorgeously burnished oyster bar. For a different take on the bountiful local seafood scene, head to Ivy City Smokehouse—recently accorded Bib Gourmand status (“good quality, good value cooking”) for the fourth year in a row by the Michelin Guide. To see why, check out specialties such as the smoked fish platter or the crab cakes.
If it’s a Michelin star (or two) that calls to you, know that this year’s guide—the fifth edition for DC—has brought five new awardees to the already impressive roster. Weighing in at one star apiece are the creative Colombian Elcielo D.C.; the Spanish-Kaiseki Cranes; the veg-forward Rooster & Owl; and paella pilgrimage site Xiquet. Then there’s Jônt, whose ingredient-driven tasting menu makes this only the third local establishment to join the local two-star list. (The previous inductees are the vaunted José Andrés tasting counter Minibar and the eclectic American Pineapple and Pearls).
Of course, to serious foodies, a neighborhood vote of confidence carries just as much weight as an internationally recognized rating—and nowhere is that truer than in DC, where you’ll find vibrant communities whose culinary roots span the globe. Home to the largest Ethiopian population outside Addis Ababa, DC has a few historically Ethiopian neighborhoods, but the one most commonly considered Little Ethiopia—with the culinary chops to match—is the section of U Street where you’ll find Dukem, among other must-try spots.
For their part, Salvadorans make up the largest Latino/a/x community in DC, and outside El Salvador itself, you’d be hard-pressed to find better pupusas and curtido than you will in the neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights. For a taste of both, stop into Gloria’s Pupuseria in Columbia Heights and Haydee’s Restaurant in Mount Pleasant (where you can pair the house pupusas with Mexican dishes, too). Or simply launch a food crawl through the Adams Morgan globe-spanning culinary scene at the iconic El Tamarindo, the longest standing Salvadoran-Mex restaurant in town.
If you’d plan an entire trip around eating, a) you’re in good company as foodie travel continues to trend, and b) you should consider timing your visit to this summer’s Restaurant Week—August 9-15—when dozens of DC’s top restaurants will be offering multi-course brunch and lunch menus for $22 per person, and multi-course dinner menus for $35 or $55 per person if you’re eating on the premises (and those doing to-go meals will offer special rates as well).
Though DC may not immediately top your mental list of global arts and culture capitals, consider that this city is home to—just for starters—our National Gallery of Art (where you’re barely in the door before you’re transfixed by the monumental mobile that serves as a starter course to one of the world’s largest Calder collections); The Kennedy Center (where several of the most historic performances of the century have taken place before presidential audiences); and Black Lives Matter Plaza (where the eyes of the world were trained for some of the most defining moments of 2020).
It goes without saying that culture-curious travelers will visit those spots at a minimum—in fact the Kennedy Center is making waves with The Reach, a new extension that blends experimental theater, immersive learning and collaborative spaces amid stunning architecture. But summer visitors will have plenty to add to that initial list. Music fans won’t want to miss the iconic DC JazzFest (September 1-5), when the lineup of more than 20 concerts, interviews and events will include everyone from big-name soloists such as virtuoso violinist Regina Carter to acclaimed ensembles such as the Grammy-winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
This is also a big summer for the visual arts here. Highlights include The Phillips Collection’s centennial celebrations (check out Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century through September 12); Georgetown Glow’s return engagement with dazzling new light installations (book TK recommended “light safari” through September 26) and the July reopening of National Museum of African Art, among other celebrated museums that have been shuttered for the past year.
For their part, cinephiles won’t want to miss the outdoor festivals that include Films at the Stone at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (through August 19); Sunset Cinema at the Wharf (through September 2) and—always a crowd favorite—the Library of Congress Summer Movies on the Lawn (through August 5).
History buff heaven
With its famously abundant and ever-growing roster of monuments, DC immerses you in history when you’re out for so much as a run on the Mall. (The latest addition you’ll see there—celebrated as much for its design as its historical lessons thanks to starchitect Frank Gehry—is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial.)
Of course, real history buffs will want more than a jog-by, and DC obliges with all manner of historical tour. If you’ve already done the major monuments by day (as probably goes without saying for this kind of traveler), gain a gorgeous new perspective on them with a Monuments by Moonlight Tour, a trolley tour that not only takes you to some of the city’s most evocatively lit memorials—from Lincoln’s to Martin Luther King Jr.’s—but also shares some of the backstories you’ve almost certainly never heard. There’s one involving a 19th-century politician’s body part at The National Museum of Health and Medicine, but any additional detail beyond that would be a spoiler.
To take in local history on foot, consider joining one of Washington Walks’ renowned historical neighborhood tours. During the aforementioned summer session of the Georgetown Glow (through September 26), consider Washington Walks’ companion Georgetown Waterfront Walking Tour: Because many of the light installations will be staged in alleys, this tour looks at the fascinating history of the local laneways—in addition to the art itself, of course. But lovers of local and national history will also want to consider the company’s popular Women Who Changed America and Embassy Row tours (note to Walt Whitman fans; though scheduled Whitman-themed tours won’t resume until fall, you can book them—or any of the company’s tours—privately over the summer).
Of course, arguably the best DC history is the kind you make yourself during your wanderings through this vibrant, beloved city.