Washington DC is one of those cities in which I had no expectations at all, but proved an instant delight! Getting around is pretty easy as the city is very walk-able plus it has a metro system (best I’ve seen, architecturally speaking) and of course buses that will get you around town. Since many sites are concentrated in specific areas, walking is pretty much the way to go!
Washington DC is a city that you can visit all year round, but I have to be partial here and say that Spring is the best time to be there! In April the cherry trees bloom and it is magical (see photo above as well as another one further below)! I admit I spent $300 for 24hrs in DC just to see the cherry blossoms (and catch up with a blogger friend) but it was all worth it. May-June is ideal as well but keep in mind that in May a lot of schools visit DC so it’s harder to get accommodation (been there done that).
So to get on with this guide…here you will find everything you need to know about Washington DC: the major sights, the museums, cool neighborhoods to visit, where to eat (essential) and where to stay!
Major Sights in Washington DC
The Capitol is Washington’s most famous building and visible from all major avenues! I haven’t been inside (yet), as you have to book way in advance for a tour, but my exploration walks throughout the city start from this point. On the west side of the Capitol lays the National Mall which stretches all the way to Washington memorial (and further down to Lincoln Memorial). On each side of the Mall you’ll find the Smithsonian Institute museums, on which I’ll elaborate further on. Details about visiting the Capitol can be found on their website.
Library of Congress
The Library of the Congress is my favorite building in DC. The interior is very elaborate and visually mesmerizing. Here you will have a glimpse at Jefferson’s personal book collection, the Library’s reading room and temporary exhibitions. Last year (2015) it was all about the first settlers in the US from Europe as well as the Equal Rights movement in the 60s.
The White House doesn’t need much introduction, does it? You can approach the White House from the south side and walk right by the fence. I’ve noticed that this walkway isn’t always open to the public so it can be a hit and miss situation.
Lincoln Memorial is located in the western end of the National Mall and honors the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Inside the Memorial you’ll see a sitting statue of Abraham Lincoln as well as inscriptions of two well-known speeches by Lincoln. In front of the Memorial lays the Reflecting Pool.
When I first visited Washington DC I didn’t think much of this Memorial, but I have to tell you this: come Cherry Blossoms Season, this is the best place to be in the city. It’s also a very nice and romantic place to watch the sunset.
The Washington Memorial is the tall obelisk (pictured in the very first photo) located between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial. It looks solid, but there is an observation desk at the top and you can get there via elevator. I bet the view is amazing from up there!
South of the Reflection Pool you’ll find the Korea War Memorial, World War II Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. Nearby you’ll find the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which has to be my favorite one in DC.
I am a fan of Greenhouses and botanic gardens especially in winter time, when it is chilly outside and that was the case during my first visit in Washington DC! We escaped the cold weather by exploring the botanic garden’s orchids collection!
I was familiar with the Arlington Cemetery through books and movies and so I set out to visit it when I first visited Washington DC. By reading the guide I found out that Arlington Cemetery is also the burial site of John F. Kennedy, his brothers Robert and Edward as well as Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The Kennedys’ burial site is one of the most visited places in the Cemetery, as is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (bonus points if you stumble upon a changing of the guards).
Museums in Washington DC
Washington DC is home to the Smithsonian Institute – the world’s largest museum and research complex – which includes 19 museums and galleries (2 of them in NYC) and the National Zoological Park. Out of the 19 museums I’ve only been to 5, as you need at least a week to explore all and I usually have 3 days at hand! The best part about these museums is that admission is free, so you can visit as many as possible and not worry about the cost! Below there’s a quick review of the Museums that I’ve visited.
National Museum of the American Indian
This museum houses exhibitions about the Natives’ beliefs and history, way of life and contemporary art. It has one of the most extensive collections of Native American arts and artifacts, but most of them are unfortunately not accessible to the public.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
This is one of the most interesting museums for me, as it exhibits hundreds of aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets, and other flight-related artifacts.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
The museum of American history is devoted to the scientific, cultural, social, technological, and political development of the United States. My favorite exhibits are the first American flag ever created and the dresses of the First Ladies throughout the years. My favorite dress has to be the Jason Wu dress that Michelle Obama wore in the 2009 Inaugural Ball.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
In here can find exhibitions of the earliest human origins; development of world cultures; ancient and modern mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and sea creatures. My favorite part of the museum is the beautiful collection of gems and minerals, as well as the Hope Diamond, the world’s largest deep blue diamond!
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art is housed in two buildings, plus a sculpture garden. The main building (west building) was designed in a classicizing style but built using the most modern technology of the time (1930s). The Gallery’s collection includes exhibits from Byzantine altarpieces to pop art, paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, and other works. I really loved the building and its atriums. If you’re into art, then add this on your list. If not, Washington is full of all kinds of other museums to visit.
Cool Neighborhoods to explore
Georgetown is a historic neighborhood, and a commercial and entertainment district located in northwest Washington, DC. It serves as a home to the main campus of Georgetown University, a handful of Embassies and is also the neighborhood where John F. Kennedy lived in the 1950s as both a Congressman and a Senator. You can also see the restaurant where he proposed to Jackie! That would be Martin’s tavern in N street and Winsconsin Avenue.
Georgetown looks different than “downtown” Washington DC, since it’s mainly a residential area, full of colorful townhouses. The neighborhood’s main street (M street) is full of shops, cafes and restaurants! Georgetown used to be my favorite neighborhood in DC until I visited the following one.
I found about Capitol Hill neighborhood via Instagram. Up until then I believed that Capitol Hill was only the area that the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress were based, but thanks to Instagram I just discovered my new favorite neighborhood in DC and probably the world!
Yes, the world! I loved the colorful row houses, the small yards and the plentitude of trees that this neighborhood has! So I declared that of all the cities and neighborhoods I’ve visited so far in Europe and the US, this is my favorite one and I could easily live here! *wishful thinking*
Washington DC Foodie Guide
And now the fun part! An essential city guide wouldn’t be complete without restaurant and café recommendations.
Ambar (Eastern Market)
8th street SE next to the Eastern Market station is full of restaurants, cafes and bars. We chose to dine at Ambar which is a Serbian restaurant serving traditional Balkan dishes, plus regional spirits.
Le Bon Café (near Library of Congress)
I discovered this café last year while researching a place for breakfast since our AirBnB didn’t have anything nearby. It’s a small but cute café near the Library of Congress with delicious dishes for breakfast, brunch and lunch (and my husband’s absolute favorite)! The photo above is from Le Bon Cafe!
Nando’s (near Verizon Center)
I’ve been a fan of Nando’s for years, as they have many restaurants in the UK, so naturally when coming across this restaurant (which was the first in the US) I was delighted. At this point I should mention that Nando’s specialty is chicken marinated in Peri Peri sauce (a type of pepper).
Good Stuff Eatery (near Library of Congress)
This was a Yelp discovery (love this website/app for finding the best places to eat in the US), while returning home one night. Good Stuff Eatery is a true American restaurant serving handcrafted burger and fries!
Red Velvet Cupcakery (near Verizon Center)
This was the first place I ever had cupcakes and got hooked! They are fluffy and delicious! Their red velvet is a must, but pretty much all flavors that I’ve tried are delicious!
Where to Stay
I admit that Washington DC is one of the cities where I had the best of luck as far as accommodation goes. One of my favorite websites for booking hotels in the US is priceline.com. I use their Name Your Price feature where you set your price, location of hotel and number of stars and you get allocated to a “secret” hotel, which you find out about after your bid is accepted. The two hotels you see listed below where booked using Priceline. On my third visit I couldn’t find a hotel, as they were booked by school groups visiting DC (mid-May) so I used AirBnb and booked a private room in Capitol Hill (surprise, surprise).
The hotel is conveniently located near Union Station and the Capitol. Since the booking didn’t include breakfast, we grabbed something from the Station’s food hall. The hotel is very convenient (we got a room with two queen beds) and the personnel was very friendly and attentive.
This hotel is more centrally located but it gets a bit lonely at night. Since it’s near the Verizon Center, finding a decent restaurant is not an issue. Plus Red Velvet Cupcakery is nearby!! The rooms are smaller than the Hyatt, but very convenient. Again the room I got had two queen beds and view over International Spy Museum.
This was my first AirBnb experience and I admit it was a good choice, because the room was very convenient (we got our own bathroom as well) and the neighborhood was a dream. Surely it’s a 15-minute walk from the nearest metro station but it was all worth it!