Lots of people like to make lists of places to go/things to do in DC*, but the problem is that a lot of them aren’t feasible in the short time that most people have to visit because more than a couple things need a lot of time like museums, are places where you need to wait for tickets, or you need to contact your Senator or Representative to get a special tour. There’s plenty to do in DC, but lists are easy. I’m going to give you a plan. A crazysexycool tour of the city as if you only had 24 hours to do it.
To be honest, while I’ve been to most of these places, I’ve never done them on a schedule like this. I don’t know about you, but we’re assuming some highly improbable things about my stamina. It’s entirely possible that I would need a nap before noon, but the main point is to list all these fun places to visit.
7:30 AM. Union Station. (R, F, C) We start here because I live nearby and this is probably your most likely gateway into the city regardless of how you’re traveling. There’s a Metro stop, two Circulator bus lines start here, Amtrak runs through here, there’s a direct line to BWI Airport, most of the bus lines stop here (or will soon) or nearby, and there’s a huge parking garage. This place is my second home. We’ll meet in the main hallway and talk about the gorgeous ceiling and the shields covering up the naked roman centurions. Also plenty of places to grab a snack and coffee if you need to fortify yourself, but you should hold out, we’ll be eating soon enough.
From here we’ll take the Circulator through Capitol Hill neighborhood. I am tempted to walk. I do this one almost every day, but we’re going to do a lot of that, so we’re going to conserve our energy. We’ll pass by The US Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the US Capitol.
7:55 AM. Eastern Market. (R, F, C) We’ll get dropped off a few blocks away and then make our way up “DC's oldest continually operated fresh food public market,” filled with longtime local butchers, grocers, bakers, and other shop owners. On the weekend, it plays host to the biggest outdoor flea market in the city, featuring all kinds of arts and crafts and foods. Eating at the Market Lunch is tempting but the line is a beast on the weekends. If you need a snack we can grab one at the “Fine Sweet Shop,” although I like to get something from Calomiris Fruits & Vegetables because they like to throw in a free fruit with whatever you purchase.
9:30 AM. Walking through Capitol Hill.(R, F, C) Via Pennsylvania Ave. SE. We’ll pass by many of the places where congressional staff grab their lunch or meet for happy hours.
Highlights include what people affectionately refer to as the “Money Shot” fountain.
We’ll be back, so we don’t need to dilly dalley. Although I believe there’s always time to say hello to the ducks in the Capitol Reflecting Pool.
10:00 AM. United States Botanic Garden.(R) Not very big, but pretty and relaxing. I once spent an hour trying to track down a frog which just turned out to be a recording they play for atmosphere.
10:30 AM. The National Museum of The American Indian.(R, F, C) I used to work here, so I can do this tour in no time flat. Since most people start glazing over about halfway through, we’ll stick to the top floor where we can talk about Nazis and their intersection of Native culture. Plus my favorite exhibit: “The Hurricane.”
11:00 AM. Lunch at the Mitsitam Café at NMAI. I’m not being biased when I say this is the best place to eat on The Mall. It’s just a fact. We’re eating a little early because this place gets slammed after 12 pm by tourists and locals alike. It’s that good. I recommend theFive Region Sampler Platter which gives us a taste of 5 dishes, but there’s enough variety to satisfy whatever you’re craving.
11:45. Walking down the Mall.(R, F, C) A time honored tradition. We’ll go out through the luscious landscape of NMAI. We’ll pass the National Air & Space Museum. I worked inside there too. I’ll tell you about it from the outside. You’ve probably been anyway. Also, there’s the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum along the way. Great places, but take too long to really appreciate. However, there’s an outdoor sculpture garden for both. The Hirshorn one gets forgotten these days because of its newer, sexier counterpart next to NGA**, but still worth going through. The NGA garden does have the fancy fountain which is turned into an ice rink in the winter. We can soak our toes for a bit if you’re starting to feel it. After that we'll keep moving down the Mall passed the Smithsonian Castle and the Freer Gallery of Art (ASIANS!) on the left and the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History on the right.
12:40 PM. The Old Post Office Pavilion.(R, F, C) A neglected landmark, but has my favorite view of the city from atop the clock tower. I don’t understand why people go through all the trouble to get tickets and wait in line to go up the Washington Monument. You don’t have to do either for the OPO. Maybe it’s shorter, but the OPO has wide open views in all directions. It’s so criminally overlooked by tour operators that it’s pretty easy to go up even when the food court on the bottom level is packed at lunch time. Plus, if we have time, we can throw some quarters down at the only coin operated arcade in the whole freakin’ city. Btw, we’re not going to see a public bathroom or any accessible food or drink for the next few hours, so this is your last chance for a pit stop for awhile.
1:10 PM. Hit the Metro. Go to the McPherson Square stop. Get out, then hit up the Circulator to take us up to 16th & Columbia Rd, NW. We could take the Metro all the way up, but the bus gives us a better view of the city. We can talk about all the massive changes along 14th street over the last few years. If you lived here 10 years ago, you would not recognize the area which took forever to recover from the ’68 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
1:40 PM. Columbia Heights We’ll get out and walk down the 16th Street and see some historic churches. 16th Street is unofficially known as the Avenue of Churches. There are well over 100 on the street from downtown to Maryland. There are embassies (including the handsome Embassy of Mexico) since 16th leads directly to the White House and was originally envisioned to be the city’s Embassy Row.***
1:50 PM. Malcolm X Park. Actually it’s unofficial name. Officially it is Meridian Hill Park. This is where local DC chills out on the weekends. It’s located next to one of my favorite hang outs on Tuesday nights, The Jam Cellar in the Josephine Butler Parks Center. Late Sunday afternoons it is home to DC’s legendary drum circle. Even without the people or the music, you can see one of the city’s most dramatic fountains.
2:20 PM. Catch a cab. After relaxing for a bit we’ll find one on 16th St.
2:30 PM. Khalil Gibran Memorial. I’ve never been here, so this is an excuse for both of us to see something new. The reason is that it’s pretty inaccessible via public transportation. Even riding by on a car, it’s easy to say “What’s that?” and then forget two seconds later. I’ve always thought this looked like a cool place to visit.
2:50 PM. Embassy Row. A long stretch of Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest DC is home to a huge number of embassies, ambassador homes, chancelleries, and annexes. We’ll make our way southeast on the road just for a short part of it. The Khalil Gibran Memorial is located opposite the massive British Embassy complex with red phone booth and a statue Winston Churchill. We’ll also pass the Embassies of South Africa, Bolivia, Brazil, and the former Embassy of Iran. We’ll turn off by the Embassy of Italy, then go up the street which dead ends. You’ll have to trust me on this next step. Across the street from the home of an unnamed former first lady and hidden next to the entrance to Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, we’ll find a very little used back door entrance to . . .
3:05 PM. Rock Creek Park. Actually since no one is supposed to go back here, it’s hard to know what exactly this area is supposed to be. It could very well be part of Dumbarton Park or maybe Montrose Park or even the Embassy of Denmark. Did I mention you’ll need hiking appropriate footwear for this part? It’s a little rough. It barely qualifies as a trail, but eventually clears up and we’ll run into local runners and neighbors familiar with this hidden oasis. I can’t take credit for finding this one. It was part of a DC Walking Town tour I went on a few years ago. Theoretically, we’ll pop out on R St. Although I’ve never gone out that way, so we both may be in for a bit of an adventure . . .
3:35 PM. Oak Hill Cemetery. And then end up at another place I’ve only passed by a few times, but comes highly recommended from friends. It’s a very gothicy cemetery with many elaborate headstones and mausoleums. A bit of a maze from reports, so we’ll take our time here.
4:30 PM. Mt Zion Cemetery. I think we should also pay our respects here. I have been through here a few times. It’s pretty small and easy to miss. It’s an almost forgotten cemetery for black residents from the turn of the 19th century. It’s not maintained at all compared to its more elaborate neighbor. It’s pretty sad because of that. Heads stones have been knocked over and many are too weathered to be read anymore.
4:45 PM. Dupont Circle neighborhood. (R, F, C) Walk down Q Street, NW over the Dumbarton Bridge.**** I’m leaving the next couple of hours a little flexible. We’ll be eating at Moby Dick House of Kabob which is my favorite place to eat in the city. I found the original hole in the wall in Georgetown while I was in college, but now they’re a small chain around the area. It’s counter service Persian food, so it won’t take long to eat. We can sit and relax for some time over dinner, or maybe grab desert at any number of cupcake, frozen yogurt, ice cream, or donut places in the area. We can also people watch in Dupont Circle itself, one of my favorite pastimes.
If we’re feeling motivated, we can do the 30 minute walk to the next location. Otherwise, it should be easy to catch a no more than 10 minute taxi ride over to . . .
7:00 PM. Albert Einstein Memorial. My absolute favorite memorial in the whole city. One of the greatest minds in history, just straight chillin by the side of the road.
7:45 PM. Lincoln Memorial.(R, F, C) I don’t have numbers, but I’m willing to bet money that this is the most visited memorial in the city. With good reason. The unfortunate part, is that there is rarely a not busy time here. Even in the dead of night, it feels like Grand Central Station. However, after you do the Rocky run up the stairs and before you enter the main statue area, follow the outside of the wall to the back. It’s like walking into the eye of the storm. Not many people think to venture this way, but if you do, you’ll be treated to one of the quietest and prettiest views in the city. The added bonus of going here around this time is that we get to take in the sun setting over the Potomac River behind Rossyln and Arlington National Cemetery across the way. (Some time after 8:00 pm) We’ll take our time here. Maybe look around.
8:45 PM. Korean War Veterans Memorial.(F, C) I used to volunteer for the Park Service here and the FDR memorial. There’s an incredible amount of detail to the soldiers walking in the rice paddies, and the lights beneath them are especially dramatic at night.
9:15 PM. Night stalking. Dark makes the memorial core of DC that much more bad ass to see. All times are approximate since we can take our time during this next stretch. All of it is open to the public around the clock, year round. There are public restrooms by the major memorials, but I’m not completely sure of the hours. They should be open 24 hours because we’re going to have plenty of company with all the tourists, although it’s not nearly as crowded as it is in the daytime. At the very least, I’m fairly certain that they’re still open around midnight, but I can’t find official corroborating information. If we get tired, we can probably cat nap on a bench somewhere. Patrols by the Park Rangers and the National Park Police almost guarantee that we’ll be rousted before we sleep the night away. However, we should probably keep moving to keep from getting too lethargic at this point. Because of the volume of visitors, cabs camp out at various spots by each memorial, so we have a good chance of catching a cab to the next destination if we need to. Otherwise, times below account for walking in between. We should probably get a taxi ride from the KWVM to the next stop, but the walk down along the river is especially scenic. There’s also what I call the “New Year’s Bridge,” just a short bridge over a waterway connecting the Tidal Basin to the river. I don’t remember what the story is here, but it has two different years on either side, so I like to think that they broke a bottle of champagne on it at midnight of New Years.
9:45 PM. George Mason Memorial. Not sure why there’s a memorial to the one dude who didn’t sign the US Constitution, but it’s a quiet enough little grove.
10:45 PM. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.(R) This one gets a lot of criticism because there’s so much going on with the different “rooms,” but I like it because of that. Lots of opportunity to think about the myriad of issues he had to grapple with over an unprecedented (un-president-ed?) four terms especially since we’re coming at night. It’s too bad we’re coming at it from the opposite direction intended by the designers, but we can always loop around by walking along the edge of the Tidal Basin.
11:30 PM. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. DC’s newest addition, I’ve only seen it in the day, and am very curious to see what it looks like at night.
12:00 AM. DC War Memorial. An easy to overlook part of the Mall, it was first dedicated to the veterans from DC that served in World War I, but is now an all purpose memorial to all DC veterans.
12:15 AM. National WWII Memorial.(R) A very dramatic vista in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Even more so at night.
1:00 AM. Constitution Gardens.(R) This used to be one of my favorite places in the city, but we might bypass it depending on our energy and time. The Park Service lets it get overrun by geese and ducks, so it’s like walking through a very smelly minefield. Still, it does have island Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence which I find nerdtasically cool.
1:30 AM. White House Ellipse. Let’s face it, we’re not getting in no matter what time of day it is. Might as well hit it up when the least number of tourists will be in the way of our photo ops by the fence.
1:50 AM. Catch a cab to U Street.
2:00 AM. Oohhs & Aahhs.(R, F, C) I know some locals thought I was going to say Ben’s Chili Bowl. That could still be an option depending on our tastes. It’s also open later than Oohhs & Aahhs which closes at 3:00 am on the weekends. But Oohhs & Aahhs has a wider menu and, some of the best soul food in the city. It gets extra points because they make their sides vegetarian. (Most soul food veggies are made with pork/bacon) They have some of the best collard greens and mac & cheese (made with real cheese) I’ve ever eaten.
3:00 AM. U Street to Dupont Circle.(F, C) Just across from Oohhs & Aahhs is the African American Civil War Memorial. We could walk the rest of the way, but that’s probably not the smartest thing to do. However, it does show you how much things have changed that walking is a somewhat viable option. The triangle area between U Street, Adams Morgan, and Dupont Circle has most of DC’s late night action. Last call in DC is around 3 AM for most places, so catching a cab on what used to be known as Black Broadway may be a challenge, but at least we know they’ll be plenty out and about.
3:30 AM. Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café & Grill.(R, F, C) Another DC late night institution. We can peruse the book store, grab desert or drown ourselves in caffeine for awhile. Maybe even go down to the Circle itself if we skipped that earlier.
5:00 AM. Cab back to Capitol Hill.
5:20 AM. US Capitol. You can’t say you’ve been to DC until you’ve contemplated your place in the universe on the steps of the Lincoln memorial or the US Capitol. We get to do both. This one at sunrise. (Some time before 6 AM)
6:00 AM. Cab downtown. If we have trouble finding one we can definitely catch one in front of Union Station (10 minute walk) or hit up the nearby Pete’s Diner, but I’m partial to . . .
6:10 AM. Lincoln’s Waffle Shop.(R, F, C) Lots of food and drink in these last few hours. But I’m thinking the late night eating may end up being earlier since the memorials are such a long stretch to wander around. Anyway, we miss such a long line of places to eat, this is as good an excuse as any to squeeze in DC’s ultimate greasy spoon. A holdover from the days not too long ago when it wasn’t a smart idea to walk around old downtown alone at any time of the day. Food isn’t bad and remarkably cheap compared to a lot of fancy pants places that have been opening nearby recently. It’s so named because it’s located across the street from the Ford’s Theater, the place where Lincoln was assassinated.
7:00 AM. Metro back to Union Station. It’s only a five minute ride, but this time of the morning, it may take awhile to wait for a train to come through.
7:30 AM. Union Station.(R, F, C) Hopefully you’re not driving. I’m going to go home and crash. Thanks for visiting!
A few notes:
- I do realize that due to the restraints, I leave out a bunch of my other favorite places to go. I might do a separate list for those later, but this one gets in most of them.
- I’m not much of a drinker, which is why spending time at nightclubs or bars isn’t on the agenda. Even if I were, I’d still go this way because alcohol would probably slow us down anyway.
- I walk everywhere in this city, so you’re going to have to take my word on walking times. If it weren’t for time constraints I’d recommend the walking to each point.
- I don’t have a car, but even if you do, I still think we should do this tour without one. Whatever travel time we make up, we lose to finding parking and doubling back to pick up the car. The nice thing about doing this sans car is that we’re always moving forward, and don’t visit the same place more than once with only two exceptions. Finding taxis maybe an issue late night/early morning, but we’re not on that tight of a schedule by then.
- This tour takes place in May, hence the approximate sunset and sunrise times. I chose May because it’s a nice time of year, after the chilliness of winter and early spring and before the brutally humid summers. Fall would be good too, but this time of year gives us a little more daylight to work with.
- All hours assume that this is a weekend trip starting Saturday morning. Although most of it can be done on a weekday with a couple of tweaks. But the fact is that DC isn’t a late night city, so the best chance for some late night/early morning carousing is on the weekends.
- The start time is dependent on the end time. You’ll see why.
- This day is going to end up costing us about $100 a person. Most of that is from eating four meals, plus cab and other public transportation costs. We can make it cheaper by eating less and walking more, but I don’t know if we’d have the energy to do the latter. I suppose we could eat power bars all day, but the point of this trip is to experience DC.
- Some of the times at some sites may seem a little short, but there’s not much to do at these places other than to get there.
- This tour is not for the weak, but let’s assume that right before we start, we’ve both either slept a lot or are highly caffeinated.
- For reference, I’m labeling each stop with options for rest rooms (R), Food/Drink (F), and coffee (C).
*Only tourists ever call it by the full “W
ashington, DC.” People who talk politics, call it Washington. Residents call it DC. (Oddly enough only old school white racists and Parliament fans call it Chocolate City.)
**When I worked at the Smithsonian, we used to call each museum by its acronym, and a made a word out of each. Say “NASM” fast enough and it sounds like a sneeze. We never did this for The National Gallery of Art acronym. Say it in your head. You’ll figure out why.
***We used to tell a terrible joke when I worked as a tour guide for a couple of summers: Going up the street with all the churches alongside it made you feel like you were ascending towards heaven. But if you head back, towards the White House, well . . . let's just say you’d be going in the opposite direction of heaven.
****I like to call it (and I suspect others do as well) the Buffalo Bridge because of the four buffalos on each corner. I like to think of them as a memorial to the Buffalo Bills four consecutive Super Bowl chokes losses.