Exploring DC Off the Beaten Path
Every city boasts interesting little eccentricities known and loved by locals. While both residents and visitors flock to the National Mall , few have spent the day watching takeoffs and landings at National Airport. Though venues like the Kennedy Center and 930 Club regularly offer popular performances, nearby Wolf Trap can provide a relaxed, interactive music and theater experience. Consider the below suggestions just the tip of the iceberg for exploring the DC road less traveled.
US Postal Musem
Stamps? Really? It sounds odd, but one of the most overlooked and an under-appreciated museum in DC is the US Postal Museum. Though there are certain parts of the permanent collection which are really only of interest to serious philatelists, most of the museum offers a unique perspective on American history. The history of the Postal Service is not just a history of stamps and mail carriers, but also of the communication they facilitated. One of the most popular and moving exhibits is that of wartime letters to and from soldiers serving on the front lines. These letters offer a glimpse into the history of the average person, a player often overlooked on the stage of politics and public interest. The museum also features an unusually extensive online collection, offering special exhibitions available only through its website. This online presence is one of the more ingenious methods of keeping donors and other patrons involved. In fact, even if time does not permit a trip to the building itself, the internet collection is certainly worth a visit.
- Location: 2 Massachusetts Avenue Northeast, Washington DC
- Phone: 202-633-1000
- Metro Stop: Redline to Union Station
- Website: www.postalmuseum.si.edu
If your visit to the DC area takes you a little further afield, Wolf Trap is a great destination for any fan of the arts. This National Park for the Performing Arts is best known for its indoor/outdoor theater, which boasts entertainers from Carbon Leaf to Bill Cosby. The location was recently expanded into an indoor theater as well. The new building is called The Barns, and is, unsurprisingly, a converted barn. Wolf Trap is located in Vienna, VA, and is not easily metro accessible. Though the venue runs shuttles for larger and more popular performances, the best bet is to drive out there. With Zipcar such a presence all over DC and Northern Virginia, it’s easy to catch a ride out of the city.
- Location: 1645 Trap Road, Vienna, VA
- Phone: 703-255-1900
- Website: www.wolftrap.org
$3 for a cupcake sounds like a lot, until you see the softball-sized productions of Georgetown Cupcake. With flavors like chocolate peanut butter, key lime pie, and the all-purpose vanilla, this tiny little storefront just off M Street in the heart of Georgetown is nearly always packed. The selection of flavors rotates, so cupcake lovers may find themselves stopping in rather frequently in order to sample the new arrivals. Though the shop sells coffee and coffee-like beverages, this is by no means a cafe or coffeehouse. With only two tables, most customers prefer to take their confections to the benches and tables located across the street near the nearly invisible and not very impressive Georgetown Mall. The cupcakes, packed in their pretty pink box, also make good additions to dinner parties or birthday celebrations.
- Location: 3301 M St NW, Washington DC
- Phone: 202-333-8448
- Metro Stop: Blueline or Orangeline to Foggy Bottom / GWU
- Website: www.georgetowncupcake.com
Busboys and Poets
If Kramerbooks is a little too mainstream–or crowded–Busboys and Poets boasts a similar concept but different execution. Located on the still-developing U-Street corridor, Busboys and Poets is a socially-conscious bookstore/cafe serving up locally grown food and a helping of social awareness. Because the shop is located a little off the beaten path, the food offerings are both excellent and incredibly affordable. Sunday brunch is worth the metro trip–which, depending on your taste, can actually be more expensive that the meal. The selection of books is a little narrower in scope, focusing on popular issues and social movements. The store also offers poetry readings and happy hours, so most shoppers will find a reason to visit for more than just a new book.
- Location: 2021 14th St NW, Washington, DC
- Phone: 202-387-7638
- Metro Stop: Greenline to U Street / African American Civil War Memorial
- Website: www.busboysandpoets.com
As hidden treasures go, Kramerbooks is curiously crowded. Though not well known to visitors, DC natives gather at Kramerbooks for brunch (somewhat overpriced but worth a try at least once), cocktails (quite a good selection and almost universally delicious), or a great selection of books. As independent bookstores go, this one has a very wide selection of popular fiction as well as more specific non-fiction genres. A rather average-sized storefront conceals dozens of bookshelves as well as a large cafe. Though the cafe is rather crowded for happy hour and an absolute madhouse for Sunday brunch, if you can snag a table the food and drink are both unusual and excellent. Because of its considerable selection, Kramerbooks is a great location for a girls’ night out, a first date, or a beer and a book.
- Location: 1517 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, Washington DC
- Phone: 202-387-1462
- Metro Stop: Redline to DuPont Circle
- Website: www.kramers.com
Kayaking on the Potomac
There are dozens of tour companies that can show you around DC–on land, that is. There’s even a ‘duck boat’ bus that takes sightseers on an amphibious tour of the District and its environs. But for a truly unique view of the historic city, try a kayak on the Potomac River. There are several starting points, but one of the most popular and accessible is Jack’s Boathouse in Georgetown. A fairly leisurely two-hour paddle allows beginning and amateur kayakers to see a wide range of the DC waterfront, from the K Street launch point all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial. If you’re up for a longer trip (or if you’re a more experienced paddler), you can venture as far as the Jefferson Memorial or the Georgetown Reservoir. On a nice day, the Potomac is peppered with boats of all sizes and income levels–from your rented kayak to the Georgetown crew team’s sculls to luxurious cabin cruisers. Spectators on the Key Bridge will find the opportunity to join the fun almost irresistible. While single kayaks are probably the most popular rental craft on the water, Jack’s also offers tandem kayaks and canoes. Everything boat-related is provided, including life jackets, but it’s up to the boater to bring a hat and sunscreen, or risk a very red and painful reminder of two hours of water fun.
Screen on the Green
Summer in DC can be hot, humid, and crowded. With daytime temperatures regularly reaching the mid-nineties, perhaps a mid-afternoon siesta is in order. A little nap will allow you to enjoy a late-evening DC staple: Screen on the Green. On Monday nights the National Mall becomes an outdoor movie theater, attracting thousands to watch popular films. As with any activity on the Mall, getting to and from the area, not to mention finding a good spot, can be challenging. Fortunately there are several other options a little further afield, including the Crystal City Outdoor Film Festival (most recently featuring 21 weeks of superheroes) and a Rosslyn event by the same name. If it’s easier to get to Maryland than Virginia, check out Bethesda Outdoor Movies. All of these productions start at dusk, so prepare for a late night (movies often end around midnight) with warm clothes, refreshments, and a LOT of bug spray.
- Location: National Mall, Washington DC
- Metro Stop: Orangeline or Blueline to the Smithsonian
The Greek Deli
A restaurant with as much good food as the Greek Deli has doesn’t need a fancy name. Traditional Greek food meets professional lunchtime rush for a delicious and quick takeout experience. The chef and owner, who came to restauranteuring relatively late in life, understood the benefits of ‘alternative’ fast food and located Greek Deli between the hip and busy DuPont Circle and the office-building business district. For over 18 years, Kostas Fostieris has served gyros, falafel, and a smile to lines of hungry people that, at times, extend out the door. To avoid both a wait and the possibility that the shop will run out of the yummy daily specials before you get there, try an early lunch. When the noon rush hits, it’ll be standing room only halfway down the block.
- Location: 1120 19th Street Northwest, Washington, DC
- Phone: 202-296-2111
- Metro Stop: Redline to DuPont Circle or Farragut North
- Website: www.greekdelidc.com
Torpedo Factory Art Center
It really was a torpedo factory. Constructed just after the end of World War I, the largest building on the Alexandria, VA waterfront actually did house the manufacturing of torpedoes during World War II. In the 1970s, the City of Alexandria turned the building into work space for artists. These days, each artist’s alcove is a mini gallery as well as a studio. All kinds of art, from painting to textiles to jewelry, is on display and for sale, and don’t miss the Alexandria Archaeology Museum on the third floor. Whether you’re an art lover looking to add to your collection or simply a window-shopper, the art and the story behind this historic building make it a great stop on a tour of Old Town Alexandria.
- Location: 105 North Union Street, Alexandria, VA
- Phone: 703-838-4565
- Website: www.torpedofactory.org
There aren’t many big cities where you can actually walk to the airport, but the convenient location of Reagan National Airport (fondly known to the locals as DCA) makes it not only a blessing for frequent fliers, but also offers an opportunity to watch airplanes take off and land. From Gravelly Point, a park-like area on the Mount Vernon Trail, picnickers can watch planes flying over Washington as they enter and leave the airport. There are many spots on the Mount Vernon Trail which, unsurprisingly, runs from DC to George Washington’s home 16 miles away, to stop and people-watch. Gravelly Point is a particular favorite because of its great view of the airport. On a nice day, the picnic area is filled with families in lawn chairs and on blankets watching the planes. If you happen to be in town for the Fourth of July, skip the crowds on the National Mall and head out to Gravelly Point for a great view without the stress. Watching an airplane fly in over the fireworks is pretty cool, too.
- Location: Off the northbound GW Parkway, Alexandria, VA
- Phone: 703-289-2500