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.
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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).
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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.
Refresh at all hours at Tryst Coffee House, a true third place where you can drink good coffee, people-watch, and just hang out.
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.
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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.”
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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.
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Yes please (the Afghan baklava). Looks like a fun time. I used to live back east but never really spent much time in DC. Will have to go back and check it out. 🙂
I used to not look forward to traveling to DC, but now that I go for culinary adventures, it’s a different story. I will be back for the baklava.
Great round up – I appreciated that you included some exercise before the food! I haven’t been to DC for a while – there was one visit where it was during Cherry Blossom Festival time which F was not impressed at and annoyed at the crowds, which now that I realize how many cherry blossoms are in Portland I understand a bit. However I also attended several Japanese art exhibits tied into the festival which I liked just as much as the cherry blossoms!
Thanks, Pech. I find DC to be a great city for walking. There was a fantastic, much-hyped exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum (“Infinity Mirrors”) I wanted to check out, but the timed tickets and long lines for day-of tickets made me change my mind.
It seems like the cherry blossoms are blooming all over the world. It would be nice to see them without all the crowds.
Good luck with that 🙂
nice post. we always eat Ethiopian food in adams Morgan and we find playgrounds in Rock Creek Park. We also really like Alexandria, which is a little off the beaten track and very fun and pretty. #wkendtravelinspiration.
Thanks, Eileen. I know little to nothing about Ethiopian cuisine, so this trip was very educational
We only got to spend a couple of days in DC on our US Roadtrip (and so ran around like the 19 year old hell bent on seeing every landmark, you referenced!) – but it’s obvious from your post there is so much more to see – and eat – the burger looks amazing!
You got the landmarks out of your system, and on the next visit you can explore deeper.
It’s really nice to see a post about Washington that’s not full of the touristy stuff – I feel like I’ve learned about a different side of the city. And I’d definitely like to take that trip over to Alexandria. Great list!
Thanks, Ava, that was the goal. Enjoy visiting the area!
Thanks for this post. Afghan food wow, never even crossed my mind to look for but after you said baklava and cardamom-pistachio I’m highly interested. DC has so many things to do it would take days, weeks, and years to check them all out. Aside from all the politics this would be an amazing place to live in. Sports, even if they all suck, food, and amazing museums would be incredible.
Hey now, the Caps are doing quite alright.
Such great ideas. I went to school outside of DC and actually haven’t experienced some of these places. Makes me want to go back and give ot a try. Also reminds me of my college days and going to the cherry blossom festival. Thanks for the great tips. Will save this for the future.
Thanks, Kelly. Happens all the time: visitors tend to seek experiences in a place more than locals.
I definitely second doing the craft beer crawl. DC has a lot of great craft beer now. And I was always surprised how not many people ventured into Adams Morgan. It’s a cool neighborhood off the beaten path for visitors.
Craft beer is definitely more of a thing in DC (as everywhere else), you just have to search a bit more than say, here in Portland, Oregon.
I didn’t know anything about Adams Morgan until I stayed nearby for a few days. I definitely look forward to returning.
Oh my goodness I love the way you write! You really brought it all to life–especially the delicious meal haha. This itinerary sounds super fun, I need to get back to DC sometime. Only been twice!
Aww, you’re too kind, Amy. Visit DC…and eat!
I haven’t been to DC for several years but I love that city. I’ll definitely review this post before my next visit!
Thanks, Marlynn. I’m learning to love DC, too.
Great post! After a half dozen visits, I think we’re getting the museums and monuments out of our system and are exploring more of the “real Washington.” Making note of several spots here. We’ve read about Kramers, but Churchkey sounds interesting, too. Thanks for the tips, and for sharing!
Thanks, guys. I’ll still go to museums, but it’s good to have places to take breaks in. Enjoy!
I grew up 15 minutes from DC so I really enjoyed reading this and seeing it through your eyes. Nature spots can be hard to find but Rock Creek Park is definitely a fave (next time try to get to Great Falls Park – a bit farther out but really nice!) and I still love visiting the monuments and museums.
Despite growing up there I never went down to see the cherry blossoms, but during our SG 2015 Maryland visit we were able to visit and got lots of lovely photos. It was definitely impressive and I’m glad you got there too.
And yes, I grew up 15 minutes from DC but GO PENGUINS!! 😉
Thanks, Jen. Locals told me the cherry blossoms weren’t as spectacular as they’d seen them, perhaps because of the winter storm that hit a few weeks before they bloomed.
As much as I appreciate your comment, I’m gonna have to put you on notice here. Penguins talk will not be tolerated here. Says this Flyers fan.
We visited Washington DC for just a few days a couple of years ago to attend my cousin’s wedding in the city, and I wish I’d known some of your great off the beaten path suggestions, especially on the food and beer side, before we’d visited. We enjoyed what we did discover but these tips would have been invaluable for sure. Bookmarking!
The rock creek park place sounds really cool and is some place I had never even heard of after all my times visiting D.C.! I think it’s time for another trip!
This is quite a refreshing and different perspective of Washington. Some great food and places to experience, at a leisurely place. Holds the promise of some great times.
Thanks, Sandy. Have fun in DC!
Now that I am visiting Washington, DC this summer, I am well equipped with some ideas to do there outside the usual tourist traps. Certainly, having experienced quite a lot of the craft beer culture throughout the US, I would be very keen to see how the capital shapes up while a visit to one of the world’s best bookstore bars never goes amiss. Anyway, great post and hope to be able to take up your advice before too long
Thanks, Gareth. Enjoy DC, it has a lot to offer beyond the touristy areas.
I skipped DC when I was in US and I really wish I hadn’t! Your beautiful pictures really want me to go back again to visit all of these places…
I also quite like your off-beat suggestion to spend the day and night at Adams Morgan. I think I would do that…
Do it, it’s fun (if very crowded on Friday and Saturday nights).
I love DC and every time I go there I discover something new. It sounds like you took great advantage of your time there exploring. I’ve never had Afghani food either, but if I was going to try it, DC would be the perfect place. (I used to go into the city specifically to have Ethiopian food.)
I loved Ethiopian in D.C.! There are so many cuisines to choose from…
We are actually going to DC again soon! Would go back to this site again for tips. Thank you very much!
My pleasure, Tanj. Enjoy your trip!
Beautiful shot of the cherry tree blossoms and the Washington memorial in the background! Washington DC has so much to offer. I also love that nearly all the museums and attractions are free.
Thanks, Tami. Free is a good price, but it comes with all the other people who feel the same way.
That food looks amazing! You certainly don’t think of food when you think of Washington DC. But maybe you should!
Indeed. I didn’t and now I do.
Wow, I didnt know that there was such a culinary scene in Washington! Those pastry things from the Himalayan restaurant look absolutely scrumptious
I am planning a big road trip to US next year, I might need to add DC on my list! 🙂
When I travel I like to get off the beaten path as much as possible. Even in big cities like DC. I would love to follow your tips to see a more local side of DC
Totally worth it.
I was just in D.C. but I have to say, I missed out on most of these things, and I’m pretty bummed about it! A lot of those restaurants sound amazing! I think my favorite place I ate there was &pizza. It was like a subway for pizza but with some high quality toppings. Plus they have their own craft sodas. It was awesome.
Don’t be bummed, you can always come back.
I’ve heard Washington D.C. is similar to Canberra – underrated and quite pretty. Looking at your lovely photos and reading about all the delicious food (we are a population of ‘foodies’ in Canberra), I’d have to agree, even down to the cherry blossoms! I think I might have to stretch the legs and find the old runners if I visit Washington, as it sounds like a good run is the best way to see it! And with all that running, I can convince myself that having a second serving of that delicious-looking baklava is totally ok. ☺