Washington, DC

I lived in Washington, D.C. for 6 and half years in my 20s. While it can be a bit stuffy filled with politicians and lawyers, it was a great place to live for a time. Tons of free things to do, a rich history, and gorgeous nature nearby. Certainly a unique place with many different neighborhoods and pockets in addition to being one of the most culture rich cities I've been in the U.S. Unfortunately since this was awhile ago now and smartphones were only on the cusp of popularity, I don't have a ton of pictures, but that just means you'll have more of a blank slate to start from! This post only scratches the surface, as it's mostly from memory, less copious notes, and searching around the Google Map. Unfortunately many places have closed, but I'm sure many more have appeared. This is more or less a summarized neighborhood guide to help guide your adventures and noting some of my favorite things, some of which took me some time to discover.

My Favorites

1. National Mall & Chinatown

National Gallery of Art

Certainly the most notable, famous, and popular, this is the best place to start in my opinion. It has the highest concentration of tourist attractions and is also centrally located to get your bearings. Easy to get to by Metro from just about anywhere.

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See & Do

  • National Mall. Probably the most famous area, filled with museums, Smothsonians are all free, as well as tons of festivals and other outdoor gatherings over spring and summer. Great place to begin exploring. All of the museums are great, my particular favorites include: Natural History, Air & Space, National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn, American Indian, and Holocaust museums.
  • Capitol Building. Nearby capitol of the united states where congress does its thing. Go for a tour, it’s huge.
  • Washington Monument. You used to be able to go to the top, but that may no longer be the case. Either way, it’s a nice stop. It’s roughly a mile to walk from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, stopping at the WWII Memorial on the way. All are a must see.
  • Tidal Basin. One of my favorite more low key areas with the most excellent Jefferson Memorial. You can also spot cherry blossoms blooming in the spring.
  • MLK Jr. & FDR Memorials. Nearby but off the main path making them a fun short addition.
  • Chinatown. Great restaurants and entertainment. One of my favorite places is the National Portrait Gallery, especially the atrium which is great for just taking a break under the open room’s skylight. Also Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was assassinated. The Spy Museum and Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum are fun if you have extra time, but I wouldn’t say are a must.
  • Penn Quarter. Lower key but still in the middle of everything. So close to Chinatown, lines between the two are kind of blurred.
  • White House. Not sure what the tour situation is, but I never did more than walk by.
  • Kennedy Center. Performing arts, gorgeous building. Go for an event or go and just walk around.
  • Jazz in the Garden. Happens outdoors in the sculpture garden on the mall over the summer.
  • Cherry Blossom Festival. Exact dates vary depending on expected cherry blossom bloom in March/April, but the bloom is actually quite impressive, but what’s more fun in my opinion is the Japanese street festival that happens one of the several weekends.
  • Union Station. Main train and bus station, but a very cool and historical landmark as well. It’s still active with shops and food in addition to transportation. Worth a quick stop if you have some time.

Food & Drink

  • Zaytinya by Jose Andres. Mediterranean mezze (tapas).
  • Jaleo by Jose Andres. Spanish tapas.
  • Teaism. One of my favorite tea shops. Also serves food. Go downstairs to sit and hang out with the koi fish. Less crowded and more intimate than the Dupont location.

2. U Street

U Street (Photo Credit: Emma Barry)

When I moved to D.C. this was definitely an up and coming area, with a block of establishments surrounded by some sketchy areas and people. It grew up a lot during my time there and is one of my favorite areas in D.C. Great food, nightlife, bars, and quirky shops. Nearby Columbia Heights is an extension of the vibe as well and was just getting going when I left. You can find jazz, electronic music, rock music, hip hop, cocktail bars, and good restaurants. It’s very easy to get to the main strip, just hop off at the U St metro stop and walk a couple blocks towards 14th St. You can also find some happenings towards 16th St. My best advice is to go late in the afternoon to wander a bit, then stay for dinner and drinks. Wander into any place that looks good.

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Food & Drink

  • Busboys and Poets. Cool, unique restaurant for good food along with poetry, music, and other artsy happenings.
  • Ben’s Chili Bowl. Extraordinarily popular, though not my thing.

Drinking & Nightlife

  • Lost Society. Bar.
  • The Gibson. Speakeasy.
  • Cafe Saint-Ex. Bistro airport style.
  • 9:30 Club. Awesome rock music venue.
  • U St. Music Hall. Variety of live music, easy to walk by, as it’s just a door and venue is underground. Lots of electronic music and DJs on weekends, but also rock and hip hop shows. Not sure if it’s still open.
  • Twins Jazz. Jazz obviously. Also unsure if still open.

3. Dupont Circle & Adams Morgan

Dupont Circle (Photo Credit: Washington.org)

If you’re really interested in the best, hottest, most popular nightlife, not to mention some of the best food, look no farther than Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan. These are two separate neighborhoods, technically within walking distance but it’s pretty far. But they’re close enough for an easy cab ride. Dupont is more of a collection of things, including shops, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, namely along Connecticut towards M St.. One of my favorite hidden gems is the Mansion at O St located right in Dupont Circle. I would highly recommend this unique place Dupont is very easy to get to by Metro and has one of the longest escalators you’ll ever see. Adams Morgan is mostly bars and clubs, but restaurants and hookah are there as well. The National Zoo is nearby in Woodley Park if you happen to be there during the day, which I recall being free and quite nice. Not too big to take up your entire day. Adams Morgan is a good walk to the main strip across the bridge from the Metro stop, the main strip being along 18th St starting at Columbia Rd NW.

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Drinking & Nightlife

  • Russia House. Great vodka selection, rarely crowded. It’s one of my favorite bars in D.C. and where I always go to meet friends when in town. At least as the first stop.
  • Eighteenth Street Lounge. Another favorite, as I love lounge bars. Often had live music on the outdoor patio.
  • DC Improv. Comedy.
  • Madam’s Organ. Eclectic bar, well known.
  • Tryst. Lounge bar with coffee and drinks.
  • Dan’s Cafe. Dive bar.
  • Jack Rose. Cool cocktails and craft beer. Bit of a walk from the main strip.

4. Eastern Market

National Arboretum Bonsai

If you’re into farmer’s markets this area of D.C. is for you. Fresh food market, restaurants, and people watching. Really nice area easy to get to by Metro. Belga Cafe is a good Belgium restaurant. Not too terribly far away is the National Arboretum which is one of my favorite nature places. It’s gorgeous, large, and easy to find some quiet and solitude. Capitol Hill is nearby which isn’t really worth much exploration, but if you have extra time and want to explore the small bar scene, it’s very local. A combination of politicians and local D.C. folk which can be kind of fun.

5. Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park

My favorite nature destination in D.C. proper. Large park with winding roads, rivers, and quiet grassy spots if you look hard enough. I loved coming here to sit on the grass or near the river to just chill out, relax, and read.

Other Considerations


Georgetown (Photo Credit: DC Stock Photos)

Very wealthy area of D.C. also where Georgetown University is located. M St. is the main drag and there is also the waterfront. No Metro stops here unfortunately so you’ll need to cab or ride share. Plenty of expensive shops, restaurants, and nightlife.

H Street

H Street (Photo Credit: TripSavvy)

I always considered the H St corridor in NE to be the younger brother of U St. It’s got a similar vibe, but less people know about it, or at least did at the time. The main event was the annual H St. Festival which was always great fun. Quirky events and drinking spots.

Embassy Row

Embassy Row (Photo Credit: Rebecca Christeson)

Possibly my favorite annual event in D.C. is embassy week, where almost all of the embassies from each country open their doors for all to visit and explore. They are mostly concentrated on embassy row, but some are located a bit farther away. There are quite a few, some of which are absolutely magnificent. I remember Indonesia, Peru, and the U.K. being my favorites. It’s all free, some serve food, some alcohol, and some have events. I went every year.

General Tips

  • Getting There. The two closes airports are Regan (domestic) located in Arlington just over the bridge and Dulles (international), about 30-45 minutes out in Northern Virginia. Washington Flyer used to service from the Dulles airport into the city, though there may be different options now. It was pretty direct and inexpensive as I remember it. Megabus is a great, inexpensive, semi-direct option if you're coming from New York, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. There may be other cities serviced as well.
  • Getting Around. There is no need to rent a car. In fact you shouldn't, it will just be annoying to find parking. D.C. has one of the best public transportation systems in the country, specifically the Metro (subway). Not as good as London of course, but it goes all over and is very easy to use. Consider a Metro card if there for more than a couple days. The tunnels are very cool, and while the running joke is that there's always "track work" causing delays, just pay attention to the notices. At one point there was an app to see when the next train is expected for a given stop, tell you how to get where you're going, nearest metro stop, fares, etc. Not sure that still exists, but there's probably something. Buses are pretty good too for filling in the gaps where the Metro doesn't stop directly. They have also extended the Metro out to Northern Virginia, which I heard was expected to eventually connect to Dulles airport.
  • City Layout. D.C. is organized into quadrants, each of which then have their own neighborhoods. You will often see streets suffixed with NW, NE, SW, and SE which indicates the quadrant. It's mostly a grid system with numbers and letters. State named streets are oriented diagonally and get confusing, so stick mainly to numbered and lettered streets to get around more easily.
  • Accommodations. I lived in Arlington on the Virginia side of the D.C. area which I also thing can be convenient for visiting D.C. if you stay in a neighborhood like Clarendon or Rosslyn right by a Metro stop. If you want to stay in D.C. proper, maybe consider Chinatown or Eastern Market.
  • Demonstrations. Depending on what's going on in the world, there may be demonstrations which will crowd certain areas, namely the National Mall up to the Capitol Building. This could affect public transportation as well as your ability to cut through crowds to various attractions.
  • Events. Pay attention to sporting or other entertainment events, especially if multiple events are going on in a single day, as the metro will be packed and may delay where you're going.
  • After Hours. One of the coolest things in D.C. is when they open up certain museums after hours for parties open to the public. I found them always to be fun. Sometimes for holidays like Halloween, or just some random weekend. You don't always get to see all of the museum, but usually some of it. There are always drinks and sometimes light food.

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