While most people flocked to Key West or Cancun for their spring breaks, I headed north to arguably one of the least spring break-y destinations possible: Washington, DC, a wintry wonderland with the arrival of March. Since I had not been there since I was a child and with cousins and close friends residing there, we hopped on a plane and headed to the Nation’s Capital for four bitterly cold days of coffee, sightseeing, and me pretending like I was Carrie Mathison everywhere I went. (The Homeland vibes are strong here).
The idea that DC is a city brimming with white-haired men ready to misuse taxpayer money and waste time arguing endlessly on the Hill isn’t necessarily wrong – politicians are present and they do trudge up to the Hill and fill government offices daily. But DC is a young person’s town and in a low key way that does not evoke a Miami or New Orleans-like feel; there is no sense that the city is trying to be hip or cool – it just is. There is an understated coolness to DC, and I got the sense that everyone here already has their shit together and just innately has a firm grasp on political, cultural, and international events.
I happened to be watching the third season of House of Cards during this trip, and naturally this put me in a very patriotic mood (except Doug Stamper. He is the worst). It’s hard not to wonder what level of security clearance each passersby holds as you stroll past the Reflection Pool or duck onto cozy Georgetown side streets. Is that “tourist” walking down the National Mall actually an undercover CIA operative trailing a person of interest? Is that blonde lady in the baseball cap outside the White House a real-life Carrie Mathison? Call me over-enthusiastic (or just nerdy) but the air of importance that surrounds all of the national monuments and government buildings adds to the exciting, dramatic feel of the city.
We were lucky enough to have several locals show us their favorite haunts during our trip. Here are a few things I like to see, eat, & do while in Washington, D.C.:
After a long day of airplane mishaps and setbacks – missed flights, delays, blah blah – we were ready for a drink and a heavy meal (or a heavy drink and a meal, whichever). We decided on Smoke and Barrel, a welcoming restaurant whose slogan is “Beer, BBQ and Bourbon.” They offer tons of vegan options and make amazing cocktails so I had an Old Fashioned and the Classic Tofu BBQ sandwich. It’s hard to beat a barbecue joint that caters to people with dietary restrictions and makes an Old Fashioned that strong.
One of our first stops was the Newseum, a museum dedicated to newspaper and broadcast journalism throughout history. You don’t have to be an aspiring journalist to enjoy it; the museum presents a riveting look at major international events and the ways in which the media reports them. The floor dedicated to 9/11 was poignant – the front page of newspapers from around the world were on display, showcasing the international disbelief in the days following the attack. I would suggest setting aside a half a day to cover this large museum and to take advantage of the 3-D movie at the end. A fascinating look into American journalism and well worth the entrance fee.
After my insistence that we refuel at Pret a Manger (London memories came flooding back!), we hit the National Mall and the White House. I consider the ivory obelisk of the Washington Monument to be the Eiffel Tower of DC – it’s almost impossible to miss if you’re walking around with your eyes open. Take a stroll around the monument (resist the urge to take a picture of you pretending like you’re a unicorn with it coming out of your head) and walk the length of the Reflection Pool to the Lincoln Memorial.
The National Mall is a great spot to take pictures and reflect on some of the major protests and rallies that have taken place here (MLK, I Have a Dream occurred on these steps!). The White House is walking distance from the Lincoln Memorial and a must-see. There is almost always a protest going on outside and usually some religious zealots holding anti-gay marriage signs (it’s happening, get used to it, people). However, the White House is a magnificent structure, and it’s fun to see such a well-known American icon. Definitely amble around to the back of the lawn and picture Claire Underwood doing something weird and probably slightly malicious in her First Lady Room (ok, ok the Obamas live there too).
DC has an incredibly wide variety of multi-ethnic foods, and I came with only one specific request: Ethiopian food. Embarrassingly, I had never tried it before and DC is renowned for their trove of Ethiopian restaurants. At the suggestion of a friend we ate at Etete and tucked in for a delicious meal of vegetables, potatoes, and injera, a spongy, Ethiopian sourdough bread. Eaten entirely with your hands, Ethiopian food is flavorful, filling, and is very unique from any other ethnic food I’ve had prior. The presentation can be daunting, as can the menu, but if you’re going to try Ethiopian food, do it in DC.
I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed the National Zoo – I am typically not a patron of zoos, but I was persuaded by my mom and sister to take a walk through. Since it’s completely free, we decided stop off before heading to a bottomless brunch (endless mimosas) at the delightful Ardeo + Bardeo, just blocks from Rock Creek Park. Wander through the zoo and say hi to the adorable Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, two little creatures who look more like tiny men in panda suits than anything else. The National Zoo is manageable and worth it while you’re in the Woodley Park neighborhood.
On our final day we stopped for a tour of the Capitol building, after eating at the famous Pete’s Diner, a favorite of Capitol Hill politicians and staffers, located just blocks behind the building. The tour of the Capitol gives an insightful, historical look at the birth of our legislative branch, but it is a huge crowd draw. Get there early to avoid the crowds, and don’t pack a million snacks because they will make you throw them all out (sad face for the man with 14 Cliff bars in his backpack :( ) . It’s thrilling to get an inside look at where our politicians lay down the law – we heard the sounds of someone crying and thought John Boehner had arrived at work! Turned out just to be a baby – still worth it though.
On our first night in DC I was thinking to myself I have never been colder than this in my life, and I just wanted to cozy up in our charming Airbnb. DC can be cold and somber, but there’s this understated warmth coming from the people and establishments throughout the city. Residents have things to do here; there is no mindless partying or thumping clubs and drinking is done via happy hour after a long day of work. The young people who inhabit DC are grown-ups in every sense, and that contributes to the cleanliness and efficiency of the city. Washington, D.C. is steeped in history and culture, and despite it being our nation’s capital, it is a quiet and composed metropolis.