Insider’s Guide to Washington, DC: 20 Surprising Things to Explore
We’re talking about Washington, D.C. today. My favorite topic! (Speaking of favorites, check out the post on my all-time favorite DC annual event.) But seriously, I’m always amazed by how much this city has to offer. Every time I talk about it, I can’t help but gush about its hidden treasures. I feel incredibly blessed to call this place home and have had the chance to uncover plenty of off-the-beaten-path spots that most visitors never get to see. Yes, the city is famous for its historic landmarks, political institutions, and museums, but there’s so much more to explore beyond the typical tourist attractions. So, if you’re looking to experience something truly unique and unexpected during your visit, here are just 20 recommendations that will make your trip one-of-a-kind and have you falling in love with D.C. just like I have.
My Top 20 Recommendations
Wander around the Anacostia Community Museum
First up is the Anacostia Community Museum, a lesser-known Smithsonian museum located in the historic Anacostia neighborhood. The museum’s exhibits showcase the history, culture, and contemporary issues of urban communities, with a particular focus on Black experiences. It’s a must-visit for anyone interested in learning more about D.C.’s diverse communities.
Walk through National Arboretum and Visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum
For biking enthusiasts like myself, the National Arboretum is an unmissable attraction. This living museum boasts over 446 acres of stunning trees, shrubs, and plants from all over the globe. While walking through the Arboretum, you’ll encounter one of its most fascinating features – the historic columns from the original Capitol building. After the building was destroyed by the British in 1814, these columns were salvaged and moved to the Arboretum’s Ellipse Meadow in the 1980s. They provide a unique and captivating contrast to the beautiful surroundings.
Located within the Arboretum is the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which is a peaceful and beautiful retreat from the bustle of the city. Be sure to explore this exquisite museum that houses a magnificent collection of miniature trees from Japan, China, and North America.
Explore the offbeat side of Dupont Circle
While this neighborhood is known for its upscale shops and restaurants, there’s also a quirky side to Dupont Circle that’s worth exploring. Visit Kramers, a beloved independent bookstore that’s also a restaurant and bar, and grab a drink at the Board Room, a bar with over 500 board games to choose from.
Explore abandoned tunnels at Dupont Underground
Once you’re done playing some board games, head over to the former trolley station that has been transformed into an underground art space, known as Dupont Underground. Visitors can explore the abandoned tunnels and discover a variety of art installations, from sculpture to photography to immersive exhibits. Check their website for current exhibits and events.
Vibe with the locals during drum circle at Meridian Hill Park
Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park by residents since the 70s, is located in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. The 12-acre urban oasis features a beautiful scenic overlook, stunning fountains, sculptures, and well-manicured terraced gardens. I love this park because it’s the perfect spot for a picnic or a lazy afternoon reading a book. Plus, every Sunday at 3 pm, the park transforms into a vibrant drum circle with local musicians and dancers showing off their skills.
Get a bird’s eye view of the city at the Old Post Office Pavilion
Head to the Old Post Office Pavilion and take the elevator to the top for a panoramic view of the city. It’s a great way to get your bearings and appreciate the grandeur of D.C.’s architecture.
Take a Peaceful Stroll through the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Located in the northeastern part of the city, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is a 700-acre park is home to beautiful water lilies, lotuses, and other aquatic plants. Take a peaceful walk around the ponds or rent a paddleboat to explore the waterways. Before you head over, check out the National Park Service website to confirm hours of operation.
Explore D.C.’s Vibrant Mural Scene
D.C. is home to a thriving street art scene that’s constantly evolving and always worth exploring. Taking a walking tour or using a self-guided map is a great way to discover some of the most stunning and thought-provoking pieces scattered throughout the city. One of my personal favorites is the vibrant and colorful mural in Adams Morgan, created by local artist Aniekan Udofia. The mural, titled “The Diverse City,” depicts a diverse array of people and cultures that make up the fabric of D.C., making it a perfect representation of the city’s unique identity.
Discover the Wonders of the Night Sky at the Rock Creek Park Planetarium
Escape the city lights and explore the stars at the Rock Creek Park Planetarium. They offer a variety of shows, from family-friendly to more advanced astronomy programs. Don’t miss the “Sky View” program, which uses a star projector to recreate the night sky.
Take a stroll through the historic U Street neighborhood
Known as the “Black Broadway,” U Street is home to trendy bars, restaurants, and music venues. Take a stroll down the street and admire the colorful murals, get weekend brunch at Ben’s Next Door (personal recommendation is the Catfish and Grits), and catch a live show at the iconic 9:30 Club.
Uncover the Stories of Famous Americans at the Congressional Cemetery
This may seem like an odd recommendation, but the Congressional Cemetery is a fascinating and beautiful place to visit. It’s the final resting place for a number of famous Americans, including J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa. Take a self-guided tour to learn about the history and stories of those buried here.
Visit Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Hirshhorn Museum is a modern art museum, located on the National Mall, has an impressive collection of contemporary art and sculpture. Don’t miss the outdoor sculpture garden, which features works by artists like Auguste Rodin and Jeff Koons.
Visit the Franciscan Monastery
Tucked away in the Brookland neighborhood, the Franciscan Monastery is an unexpected oasis of peace and tranquility. The monastery’s gardens are stunning, with vibrant flowers, fountains, and even a replica of the Holy Land. Take a guided tour of the church and learn about the history and architecture of this peaceful sanctuary.
Catch a show at the Howard Theatre
This historic Howard Theatre in the U Street Corridor has played host to some of the biggest names in music, from Duke Ellington to Prince. Check out the schedule for upcoming shows and experience the energy of D.C.’s vibrant music scene.
Explore the Flea Market at the Festival Grounds at RFK
Truth be told, I prefer the flea market near RFK stadium over many of the other more popular flea markets in the city. This flea market just has all of the right elements–good music, good people, in a lively and bustling atmosphere. It’s truly one of a kind and perfect for any lover of vintage and unique finds.
The number of vendors vary from weekend to weekend, but on the most glorious days there are over 100 vendors selling everything from antiques, furniture, clothing, and jewelry to art, books, and collectibles. And don’t forget about the food! The food alone will have you anticipating flea market day.
Just make sure to bring cash, as some vendors don’t accept cards.
Take a scenic bike ride along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail
This 20-mile trail winds along the Anacostia River and offers stunning views of the city skyline. Pack a picnic lunch and stop at one of the many parks along the way for a peaceful break. I recommend bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the parks along the way. This is also a super popular area for bird watching in the city. If you’re into that, make sure you bring your camera.
If you have extra time while you’re in the area, as a hidden gem of the city, Kingman’s Island is worth the detour. It’s a serene spot and one of my favorite places to go on early Summer mornings on the weekend for a short meditation or just a moment of quiet contemplation.
Visit the Mansion on O Street
This quirky museum is filled with secret doors, hidden passages, and eclectic collections of art and memorabilia. Explore the 100+ rooms and hallways of the Mansion on O Street and try to find all of the hidden treasures.
Visit the Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens
Once the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, a wealthy socialite and art collector, Hillwood Estate is located in Northwest D.C. The estate features an impressive art collection, stunning gardens, and a greenhouse filled with exotic plants.
Sample local brews at a D.C. brewery
Washington, D.C. has a thriving craft beer scene, with dozens of local breweries and taprooms to choose from. Take a tour, taste some unique brews, and meet some of the passionate brewers who call D.C. home. Bluejacket in Navy Yard is one of my favorites.
Bike the Capital Crescent Trail or the C&O Canal Path
This 7-miled paved trail runs from Georgetown to Bethesda and is a great way to explore the city’s neighborhoods and parks. Capital Crescent Trail holds a special place in my heart since it was one of the first I biked after moving to the city, and it remains one of my favorites to this day.
The trail’s beauty is simply breathtaking, and there are plenty of stops along the way to rest and take it all in. For example, Fletcher’s Cove is an excellent place to enjoy a picnic while soaking up the scenery. And if you’re in the mood for some shopping or dining, Bethesda has plenty of options to explore.
For those who want a more challenging adventure, the C&O Canal Path is an excellent alternative. This 184.5-mile dirt and gravel path stretches from Georgetown to Cumberland, Maryland. The scenic route offers beautiful views of the Potomac River and a chance to spot some wildlife along the way.
Trust me, you’ll feel completely immersed in nature, making it easy to forget you’re in the heart of the city. As a local, I often tell people that not experiencing one of these trails in DC is missing out on one of life’s simple pleasures.
Is there a point where the Capital Crescent Trail and C&O Canal Path intersect or are they the same trail?
I had this question for a long time, and it was challenging to tell them apart at times. Depending on where you begin, the trail markings might not be visible. However, these two trails run parallel for a section and intersect near Fletcher’s Boathouse. The Capital Crescent Trail leads to the north and west towards Cumberland, while the C&O Canal Path leads to the north and east towards Bethesda. But simply put, you’ll know you’re on the C&O if you’re on gravel or dirt.
I hope these recommendations inspire you to explore beyond the typical tourist spots. How many of these 20 unexpected activities have you done in DC? Let me know if any of these recommendations inspire you to try something different!