At some point, we’ve all been asked for advice on visiting our hometowns, from providing tips for acquaintances and colleagues to playing full-on tour guide and host for visiting family and friends. And, odds are you’ve asked people in your circle the same thing when traveling. Why? Having insider knowledge makes for a richer, easier, and more enjoyable trip – you’ll see and experience things you won’t read about in guide books, eat at the best-kept local hotspots, and maximize your time and money.*
In that spirit, we’re taking a break from our Asia-focused programming to bring you something different: a weekend guide to our home of almost 10 years, Washington, DC. Arguably the seat of political power worldwide, the US capital has so much more to offer than stuffy politicians. Stunning architecture, world-class historical sites and museums, ample parks and gardens, and a rapidly blooming food scene make it a top destination whether you’re a solo traveler or have a spouse, kids, and/or friends in tow.
Here’s how to make the most of a weekend in DC:
Welcome to Washington! For the quintessential DC experience, there is no better place to stay than the Hay Adams. Overlooking the White House, this colonial masterpiece is pure 5-star perfection, and you’re liable to see many a big wig walk through the doors. From the food to the surroundings to the amenities to the service, no detail is overlooked, and you’ll pay for the privilege (from $305).
For those looking for something a little less formal, the W is a great option – walking-distance to pretty much everything, a fabulous rooftop bar with views of the Treasury building and Ellipse, a great steakhouse (J&G), and hip surroundings (from $275). Another decent choice is the Capitol Hill Hotel, ideally suited for exploring the Capitol, Library of Congress, Supreme Court, and National Mall – plus, nearby Pennsylvania Avenue offers plenty of dining options and watering holes, packed with underpaid Congressional staffers every happy hour of the week (from $195).
If you’re on a budget but still want a decent location and stylish digs, take your pick of the Kimpton boutique hotels: Helix, Donovan House, Topaz, Madera, Palomar, Rouge, George, or Hotel Monaco (varies, from $140/night). I like the Donovan House (hello, rooftop pool!) and Hotel Monaco – the latter is home to the lovely and yummy Poste Bistro (if you’re there during decent weather, don’t miss the patio for drinks).
*NOTE: All room rates reflective of current internet pricing for summer 2014.
For pre-dinner drinks, the capital is your oyster: as I mentioned, the rooftop bar at the W has great views and is convenient for downtown hotels (reservations recommended), as is the Round Robin Bar at the classic Willard Hotel, which claims to have invented the term “lobbying” as well as the mint julep, though I’m not convinced about the latter. If you’re looking for a serious cocktail experience, don’t miss the award-winning, reservations-only Columbia Room. With just 10 seats, this is a connoisseur experience: $69 gets you three cocktails plus a small plate of nibbles, though you can also order à la carte (book as far in advance as you can if you are picky about timing). If you can’t get into the Columbia Room or don’t want to drop the cash, try its host bar, the Passenger. A word on attire: DC is a proper town, so err on the side of dressing smartly. And, no, I don’t mean suit and tie – just put in some effort (i.e. no gym clothes, please).
For dinner, worship at the altar of Jose Andres – hyper-successful restaurateur, one of the world’s best chefs, and DC’s biggest food celebrity. Take your pick from Spanish tapas at Jaleo, Middle Eastern mezze at Zaytinya (my favorite), tacos and antojitos at Oyamel, or spring for the holy grail of molecular gastronomy in DC, minibar. Don’t forget the AMEX and your reservation … made months in advance.
Drag your butt out of bed and head to Capitol Hill, home to Eastern Market and our old stomping grounds. Built in 1873 and ravaged by a massive fire in 2007, it’s since been meticulously restored to its former glory and is the city’s oldest continually functioning public market. Weekend breakfast at the counter is not to be missed – the crab cakes are to die for, and “the Brick” sandwich, loaded with your choice of meat, egg, cheese, and sauteed potatoes, will surely kill any lingering effects of the previous night’s libations. Work off your breakfast browsing the weekend flea and farmers’ market stalls just outside the market building. If you’re a fiend for caffeine or just need a pick me up, Peregrine Espresso a few doors down on 7th Street is the spot to do it.
I know you just had a massive breakfast, but trust me, you will want to make room for Good Stuff Eatery, home to one of the city’s best burgers courtesy of former Top Chef Contestant Spike Mendelsohn. Spike’s Sunnyside with a fried egg on top is where it’s at, accompanied by an order of village fries spiked, if you will, with thyme and rosemary. Don’t forget to sample all of the four dipping mayos: mango, Old Bay, Sriracha, and chipotle (the latter two are my favorite). If you can manage room, I’ve heard the toasted marshmallow shake is swoon-worthy, but I’m already loosening my pants after the burger and fries. If you’re feeling fancier, try either Spike’s French bistro two doors down, Bernaise (my pick: duck confit with frites; H’s pick: croque madame with frites), or Sonoma just up the street for wonderful pizzas, sandwiches, and handmade pastas.
Now that you’ve eaten half your weight, waddle down the road like President Taft and take your pick of nearby attractions: the U.S. Capitol, Library of Congress, or Botanic Gardens. While it would be tough to hit all three in an afternoon, you can probably manage two. Oh, and admission is free. You can thank the American taxpayers for that (including yourself if you are one).
Head to Wanderrlust’s favorite picnic spot for sunset: the steps behind the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the Potomac River and Arlington National Cemetery. If you’re smart, you will have picked up goodies for a picnic earlier in the day at Eastern Market. Revel in your gluttony as aspiring athletes sweat it out running the stairs. (Note: Drinking in public is illegal in DC, so consume wine or your beverage of choice at your own risk. However, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., revered hero in DC: “[O]ne has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”)
Everyone in the know will tell you the best time to see the monuments is at night, and there’s no faster or more enjoyable way to do it than via bicycle, which is easy as pie thanks to the city’s bike share program. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s pretty simple: grab a bike from one of the 300+ stations in the DC metro area (a swipe of your credit card is all you need) and take to the streets. Return your bike when finished at any station (the bikes are red, and the stations are everywhere – you can’t miss them). The first 30 minutes are free, so now is the time to channel Lance Armstrong, with wine as your performance-enhancing drug. Celebrate the end of an amazing day with a drink and a cigar if you’re so inclined at Shelly’s Backroom downtown, where the big wigs have their own private humidors. You may see a famous face or two.
If you can, hold off on breakfast (this is brunch territory) and visit the National Mall, which is in fact not a shopping mall but home to the largest museum complex in the world: the Smithsonian. Our favorites are the American History Museum and the Air and Space Museum, which is especially kid-friendly.
Follow your museum-hopping up with brunch at one of DC’s best institutions: Old Ebbitt Grill. While the crab cakes are world-famous, it’s their eggs Long Island (fried oysters on a bed of steamed spinach, scrambled eggs, and English muffins topped with a Dijon hollandaise) that make me come back again and again. I never order anything else. I swap fries in for the breakfast potatoes, with a side of ranch for dipping. Breakfast of champions, no? Reservations recommended unless you’re the “eating at the bar” type (if so, let’s be friends). The Tabard Inn, where we held our rehearsal dinner, also does a fabulous brunch (don’t miss the homemade doughnuts) in a lovely garden setting. So there you have it – your weekend guide to DC. Obviously, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list – DC is a great town, and it’s impossible to see, do, and eat everything in two days. Heck, I think this agenda is pretty ambitious, but it’s always good to have options, right?
DC locals, I’m curious: what are you must-see and -dos? Your current hot spots for food and drink? The more suggestions, the merrier as far as I’m concerned. Our readers will thank you.
Peace, love, and happiness –
*A word of caution: who you’re asking for advice matters, so make sure you choose someone who’s taste you trust and/or someone who really understands you and your interests. This goes not only for people you know but travel magazines, shows, and bloggers as well. I recently read a Q&A with a travel blogger and self-proclaimed travel “expert” who was asked about restaurant recommendations in a certain city. The blogger’s response? “Oh, when I was there, I had some friends who were locals and showed me around. I suggest you do the same! See, explore, discover – that is the best part of travel!” Um … totally unacceptable answer in my eyes. If you get an answer like this, run or click away pronto.