As if by instinct, first time visitors to D.C. head for The National Mall, a comfortable, welcoming place, despite its vastness. You could easily spend an entire vacation here. America’s treasures and achievements are on display in awesome museums, lined one after the other down the lawn. National monuments and memorials are moving, accessible and touchable.
Washington, however, is a vibrant city with much more to see and do beyond the incredible Mall. The best way to really experience the “District” and get a true feel for the city is to visit its distinct neighborhoods, one at a time. Each has a unique character, with clusters of important places within walking distance of one another. You’ll discover special places, get a sense for the history and feel the flavor the city.
Distinguished government buildings in which the work of America’s democracy takes place, row houses and handsome homes, many expressing the wonderful architecture of the 19 th century, radiate from the U.S. Capitol, purposefully planned up on a hill by Pierre L’Enfant. Meander down “The Hill’s” charming streets on the way to see the Library of Congress, the Russell and Cannon Congressional Offices, and the Supreme Court Building. Celebrate women’s history at the Sewall Belmont House and Museum, one of the oldest houses on the Hill; wander through the ivy and lavender in the Elizabethan garden of the Folger Shakespeare Library and Garden; find shops and food in magnificent Union Station. Don’t miss the hustle, bustle, color and finds in Eastern Market, the last of Washington’s 19 th century markets to remain in continuous operation, at their outdoor Farmer’s Market and Arts and Craft Fair on Saturdays and the Flea Market on Sundays.
With the White House as its centerpiece, the downtown area is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the District, wonderfully combining the old and the new. Having undergone a renaissance, the area bustles with the activity of stores, over 200 restaurants and active night spots.
Centrally located Lafayette Square, a place with a long tradition of gatherings for causes, will give you a great view the White House, whose access is limited. Nearby are some of the city’s oldest Federal style buildings: the “Church of the Presidents,” St. John’sEpiscopal Church, the Decatur House, a wonderful house museum, and the unusual Octagon House, whose rooms are restored to the Federal period. While in the neighborhood, take time to see wonderful American art in the Corcoran Gallery, where you can lunch onsite in the Café des Artistes. Admire the grand Executive Office Building; stop by the Willard for sumptuous Afternoon Tea; walk a few blocks to the Old PostOffice Pavilion and Tower to browse the shops and munch in the food court; attend a performance in DAR Constitution Hall, the largest concert hall in D.C., or visit their museum of artifacts from early America.
Technically part of downtown, between Pennsylvania Avenue and New York and Massachusetts Avenues, with the White House on one end and the Capitol on the other, its recent revitalization has created a mixed-use hot place to be. Condos, apartments and hotels share space in renovated historic structures and newly constructed buildings with boutiques and trendy shops, fantastic restaurants, from fast food to super expensive, and theaters and galleries to create a renewed vibrancy. With tiny Chinatown at its heart, Ford’s Theater, the Petersen House, the popular International Spy Museum and the newly re-opened, spectacular National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are nearby. Contributing to Penn Quarter’s popularity is the nightly draw of the Verizon Center, an active sports and entertainment venue. Every Thursday, April through November, join locals at Freshfarm Markets to indulge in regional seasonal foods.
Between Lafayette Square and Georgetown, along the once marshy, sometimes misty, banks of the Potomac River, is one of the District’s oldest 19 th century areas. At one time very industrial, it was home to German, Irish and African-Americans who worked in the neighborhood gas works and breweries. Today the constant activity of students at George Washington University energizes the area and patrons are drawn in great number to stellar productions held on the various stages at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
You can admire an important collection of Western art in the impressive Organization of American States building, or tour the magnificent Department of State Reception Rooms by reservations only. In the summer, walk over to Thompson’s Boat Yard and try canoeing on the Potomac River.
Spend a day wandering down charming Georgetown on shady brick sidewalks admiring the remarkably intact collection of 18 th century architecture along the way. Established in 1751, it was a thriving tobacco port town on the banks of the Potomac River long before the capital city was created. Despite its inclusion into the District, it has retained much of its Federal era ambience and distinct character.
Georgetown is the place to be - fashionable, historic, picturesque, lively, intellectual and genteel. Elegant fashion, wonderful antiques, art, handcrafted accessories, and furniture fill unique shops. Visit historic house museums – the Old Stone House, the oldest structure in D.C., Dumbarton Oaks and Tudor Place. Be sure to check on tour times. A walk through lovely, formal Dumbarten Oaks Gardens is a rare treat; a ride on a mule-drawn barge along the C & O Canal, a special experience. Mingle with locals in Georgetown Market, an active market since 1865.
Fine restaurants tucked down quaint streets, serve everything from burgers and barbeque to soft-shell crab and oyster and champagne stew. Enjoy al fresco dining, nibble on scrumptious pastry at a neighborhood bakery, stop for delightful afternoon tea, indulge in elegant places with wonderful menus where the famous often dine. After dark, stop by one of Georgetown’s hot night spots, places to mingle, see and be seen.
With its splendid collection of mansions and row houses covering a wide breadth of important architectural styles, this fashionable neighborhood is a sight to see. Grand, elaborate homes line Massachusetts Avenue. commonly known as Embassy Row. Colorful flags announce the country whose embassy sits behind walls and formal gardens in mansions once belonging to the wealthy of America’s Gilded Age. Art aficionados browse through the largest collection of art galleries in the city; shoppers revel in eclectic boutiques; bibliophiles can get lost in wonderful bookstores. The Woodrow Wilson House, the only presidential museum in Washington, offers a glimpse into life in the capital in the 1920s; Visit the Phillips Collection, holding a treasure of impressionist art from Renoir, Van Gogh, Degas and more; stop in the trendy cafes, coffee bars and wonderful neighborhood restaurants; pause at the Arts of Ocean Navigation Fountain in DuPont Circle, lyrically depicting the Sea, Wind and Stars.