Attending conferences, trainings, and legislative hearings around the country is a perk of my day job that helps keep my traveling spirit alive. One recent trip allowed me to greet the first days of spring in Washington, DC. With the conference hotel and venue, Washington Marriott Wardman Park [check availability and prices], located in the Woodley Park neighborhood, north of Dupont Circle near the ZOO, I had a chance to explore Washington, DC off the beaten path of monuments and museums, before, after, and in between the training sessions.
But make no mistake, I was just as wide-eyed as when I visited the District of Columbia as a 19-year old student hellbent on hitting every possible landmark.
Washington, DC off the beaten path: Rock Creek Park Trail
There’s nothing to wake you up like an early morning jog before a full day of conference sessions. Luckily, the Washington Marriott Wardman Park is near the Rock Creek Park Trail, which follows the course of the eponymous creek at the bottom of the eponymous gorge. Popular with walkers, runners, and bicyclists alike, the trail is actually quite well beaten, albeit by locals.
Southbound from Connecticut Avenue NW, you leave behind the Marilyn Monroe mural and Parry Lions and Barstow Eagles that guard the majestic Taft Bridge and descend into the gorge. The trail winds through a parkcourse, past a cemetery, beneath the Dumbarton aka Buffalo Bridge, and opens into the Potomac, with cars zipping down the adjacent parkway the only drawback. You can run all the way to the National Mall, about 3 miles away, where the Lincoln Memorial provides a neat turnaround point.
Heading north, the Rock Creek Park Trail path winds along Beach Drive in much better shape and in a much quieter setting. You run beneath the ZOO, with the option to run up via a connector trail. At Peirce Mill, you can either continue north to connect with several other trails or, as I did, take the Hazen Trail through a wood, crossing a brook on rocks and logs, back up to Connecticut Avenue NW.
Washington, DC off the beaten path: Woodley Park
Hungry after the run? Breakfast or brunch at Open City should do it. To recuperate after all that food, walk north on Connecticut Avenue NW to ogle historic buildings, such as the magnificent Art Deco Kennedy-Warren apartments.
Lunch at Afghan Grill. As a newbie to Afghan cuisine, I asked the waiter for a recommendation and loved the national dish Qabili Palao. The baklava was transcendent. From the moment I laid my eyes on it, to when I inhaled the cardamom-pistachio dusting which sent lovely shivers down the back of my neck, to biting through the myriad layers, each its own yet melded into a well-balanced whole, I wanted the experience to never end.
The neighborhood’s big attraction is the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. One word: pandas. Nothing will brighten up your day in DC like watching a giant panda dangle from a tree while chewing on a bamboo shoot. Though beloved Bao Bao is gone, see if you can spot the Bye Bao mural above a restaurant on Connecticut.
Come for the giant pandas, stay for all the other animals. Not a big fan of ZOOs, I reluctantly admit the National ZOO impressed me (that it is free helped, too).
Washington, DC off the beaten path: Adams Morgan
You can spend your day and your night in Adams Morgan. From Woodley Park, walk east down Calvert Avenue, past the Mama Ayesha Restaurant Presidential Mural, and 18th Street NW will open to you like an oyster of food and drink and entertainment.
Whereas I used to think of DC as a place of government, monuments, and museums, our website’s new culinary focus tipped me into viewing (and tasting) the nation’s capital as a place of travel through food. Empanadas at Julia’s sent me straight back to Argentina and Chile. The meat sampler at Asmara Restaurant got me looking forward to traveling to Ethiopia some day, as did Himalayan Heritage Restaurant to Nepal.
Because on weekend nights, the three-block strip transforms into Party Town USA, with drunk crowds and traffic congestion to go with it, visit Madam’s Organ Blues Bar on a week day. Live music every night, stiff drinks, and great atmosphere bring people from all over the world to this neighborhood institution. On an open-mic night upstairs, I saw three sisters debut, each with the one blues/R&B song they had to their name, while on the main stage downstairs a country music band twanged; on another night, a house band played a crowd-pleasing set of blues and R&B cuts.
Washington, DC off the beaten path: The craft beer experience
Though the DC area isn’t exactly known for craft beer, a committed beer drinker like myself can find the right pint in the hop stack of options. With DC seated in a larger metropolitan area between two states and real estate being what it is, there are only a few breweries based in DC proper. And while I did not visit any brewery per se, these four places offer a great selection of local and regional brews.
Black Squirrel on 18th Street in Adams Morgan is a 3-floor beer hall with nightly live entertainment (nerd punk and standup anyone?).
Wedged between a nice bookstore and restaurant, the bar at Kramerbooks & Afterwords, aka Kramer’s, is not only as old as I am, it offers a decent selection of local brews. Men’s Journal has listed the place among the world’s best bookstore bars.
Churchkey at Logan’s Circle boasts a taplist of 50 drafts and 500+ bottles, many rare or vintage. I visited after the conference and unwittingly ordered IPAs—made by the owner’s DC-based brewery Bluejacket—that put a different spin on my business-trip weekend:
When I mentioned the coincidence to the barkeep, he laughed with me and brought me a snifter of Softly Spoken Magic Spells, an American Imperial Double IPA by the New York brewery Singlecut Beersmiths.
Closer to the beaten downtown paths of Chinatown, Penn Quarter, and Verizon Center, the City Tap House offers a nationwide, rotating tap list, stellar service, better-than-average (and correspondingly-priced) gastropub grub, and an occasional protest outside the nearby Convention Center.
An espresso at Dolcezza will put you back on your feet.
Washington, DC off the beaten path: Alexandria, Virginia
I wish I could say something like, “Escape the crowds in the capital and visit historic Alexandria,” but given how crowded its Old Town gets on a weekend night, I’d do you a disservice. Nevertheless, the charming town a few metro stops away from downtown DC is worth an afternoon or evening visit.
Eating and drinking options abound on the mile-long central King Street. I started with a taste of home: Stumptown Coffee espresso at the Killer ESP coffee shop. In a small-world moment, I ran into a woman who works in the same building in downtown Portland while I was enjoying a pint of Guinness at Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub.
I spent the evening with a conference friend who lives in Alexandria. We started with dinner at Pita House, one of the better Lebanese restaurants I’ve been to.
After a quick tour of the Old Town, we capped the night at Mackie’s Bar with a Washington Capitals game over DC-made craft beers, in the company of the friendliest bartender I have ever met (ask for Kat) and local drunks. Good times at what my friend called “a good find.”
Washington, DC on the beaten path: Cherry Blossom Festival
The timing of my conference coincided with the gorgeous shit show that is the National Cherry Blossom Festival. It happened to also be spring break, which only compounded the size of the crowds strolling around the Tidal Basin. Though to me, who hates big crowds, this constituted a general nuisance that only large numbers of people in an open but limited space can generate, the sight of the cherry trees blooming made up for it by the flowerful.