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Washington DC is known around the world as not only the capital of the United States, but one of the most important political centers in the world. But Washington also has a lot to celebrate in its own right. The city is a cultural capital with more museums, landmarks, restaurants and other cool local hangouts than most people realize.
What to Do
Since it is the capital of the United States, there are numerous festivals and celebrations held in DC throughout the year. Two of the most popular are the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival – This annual festival is a two-week international exposition of living cultural heritage and provided free of charge on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The always changing Festival overlaps with the Fourth of July celebrations and together the events showcase Washington at its best.
Cherry Blossom Festival – The city’s most well known festival, this springtime rite of passage is a popular event for tourists and locals alike. The trees were donated to the city in 1912 by the mayor of Tokyo, Japan and planted around the Tidal Basin next to the Jefferson Memorial. Since 1935, the city has celebrated this gift with an annual festival highlighting the friendship between Japan and the United States as well as the beauty of the flowers themselves.
Smithsonian Institution – DC is a city of museums, but the largest assemblage is the Smithsonian Institution. Constituting 19 different museums across a wide range of interests, the museums are also free which makes them a must-do activity. One of the most popular is the Air & Space Museum which is home to such exhibits as the Apollo 11 and the Spirit of St. Louis.
What most people don’t know about though is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Okay, technically this isn’t in Washington DC, but it’s well worth the thirty-minute drive to visit the impressive National Air and Space Museum extension. Simply said, this is where the Smithsonian houses its collection of aircraft in a huge building modeled after an airplane hanger. Located next to Dulles International Airport, Udvar-Hazy is a dream for anyone with an interest in the history of flight. The impressive museum has more than 100 aircraft and 122 space objects on display including the Enola Gay, a retired Concorde, and even a space shuttle. There are also engaging displays covering the role aviation has played in warfare, showcasing an eerie array of cruise missiles and satellites.
The museum is highly interactive and interpreted in a way that appeals to children and adults alike. At the end of the tour, you can ascend a model air flight control tower where the art and science of modern aviation control is demonstrated. The tower offers stunning, 360-degree views of the Virginia countryside as well as the best viewing spot for incoming air traffic to Dulles. The museum is free, but there is a fee to park.
National Geographic Museum – An easy Metro ride from the National Mall is the National Geographic Museum. The museum takes its inspiration from the eponymous magazine and offers a variety of exhibitions that change throughout the year, each highlighting American history, international cultures, and natural wonders.
There are usually a variety of special exhibits and visitors can wonder around the displays, marveling at the amazing photography at their leisure. Located in downtown Washington, D.C., the museum is accessible from both the Farragut North and Farragut West Metro stops. This is a perfect way to experience the adventure first-hand found in the monthly National Geographic Magazine.
What to Eat
After years of suffering, DC is finally becoming a foodie town! Some of my favorite lower cost restaurants include: Good Stuff Eatery, We The Pizza, Ben’s Chili Bowl and Moby Dick House of Kabob. On the higher end of the scale my picks are: Citronelle, Inn at Little Washington, Minibar, Vidalia and Bistro Bis. One of the culinary stars of the city is Chef José Andrés who earlier in his career worked under the great Spanish culinary master Ferran Adria. In Washington, Chef Andrés’ food empire includes the always popular restaurants Jaleo, Café Atlantico and Minibar.
Where to Sleep
For the ultra-budget traveler, there are hostels of course, but my advice for the moderate budget traveler is to stay outside of the District. Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia is on the metro and a quick ride from the city. Because it’s not in DC though, the hotels tend to be less expensive. Given the number of high ranking officials who visit from around the world, there are plenty of high-end hotels. The Hay-Adams, the Mayflower Renaissance, the Willard InterContinental, the Ritz-Carlton and the Omni Shoreham are all fantastic choices.
Eastern Market – Eastern Market is a Washington treasure and a secret we locals tend to keep to ourselves. Built in 1873, Eastern Market was in continuous operation until 2007, when a devastating fire closed the historic structure until it reopened in 2009. Located just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, during the week the market offers fantastic fresh meats, cheeses, and produce from a variety of local farmers and vendors. It is on the weekends that Eastern Market explodes into a frenzy of food and art. Every Saturday and Sunday vendors from all over the Mid-Atlantic descend on Washington to sell their arts and crafts, antiques, and food. It can get quite busy, so be sure to visit early.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts – After your visit to the Udvar-Hazy Center, why not stop by Wolf Trap for an evening performance? Founded in 1966 as the result of a gift of 100 acres of Northern Virginia farmland, Wolf Trap is the only National Park in the United States devoted to the performing arts. This massive facility offers year round programming through the Barns at Wolf Trap and the Filene Center.
The main draw to Wolf Trap is the Filene Center, which comes alive in the summer months with a variety of concerts, shows and performances. This remarkable outdoor theater was constructed of wood from native tree species and truly looks at home in this pastoral setting. Wolf Trap attracts a wide range of performers. Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Counting Crows, Broadway musicals and symphony orchestras all perform here on a regular basis.
The least expensive tickets at the Filene Center are, in my opinion, the most enjoyable – the lawn seats. Over the years, patrons have made lawn seating a tailgating event, bringing elaborate picnics to enjoy before the evening shows.
These are just a few ways you can experience not just the best Washington DC has to offer, but how to truly experience this great city like a local.
Planning a Trip? Browse Viator’s Washington D.C. tours and things to do, Washington D.C. attractions, and Washington D.C. travel recommendations. Or book a private tour guide in Washington D.C. for a customized tour!