Saturday, February 20, 2010

Daphifying DC

Just last week, I had a couple of friends tell me they were going to DC this fall and they asked me for suggestions on things to do, where to stay and places to go. While I generally list such information on my main site,, I admit it's more of a list and a quick-hash versus more thoughtful musings, so I thought I'd write something a little more tailored for them on this blog. So, KR (and anyone else who wants to know), here goes:

Best Places to Hit the Snooze Button

In general, I like to stay in Dupont Circle. I just like the idea of staying in a more residential neighborhood, especially if I will be there for more extended period (at least a couple of weeks). It's safe, convenient and super-fun. It's a 1.5 mile walk to downtown and I enjoy every block, especially when I make a slight detour to pass the White House. Regardless of which direction I go, there are always interesting nooks and neighborhoods to discover, with Georgetown to the west, Kalorama to the north, Columbia Heights to the northeast, U Street Corridor and/or Capitol Hill to the east, the White House and National Mall to the south and I've been known to walk to or walk from Arlington in the southwest. I've stayed at a couple of different places and highly recommend the Hotel Palomar on P Street NW and 21st. It's two blocks from the Metro and there are quite a few restaurants right there on that block. And Joe from Urbana, the hotel restaurant, is one of the most strategic and friendliest bartenders I've met in DC.

For my most recent time this summer, I stayed in the downtown/Penn Quarter. I normally avoid high touristy areas but it offered the most convenience (and it was the cheap). Hotel Monaco and Sofitel are quite popular, but there is a plethora of accommodations to fit any taste and budget. (Note: I must caution that sometimes rooms at the Hotel Monaco can be unsatisfactory, especially in the basement, so much so that a few readers have mentioned they checked out early and/or requested different rooms.) The big advantage, to the Hotel Monaco is its location next to restaurants, including it's own highly acclaimed Poste and some of DC's most popular tourist attractions.

My Way

First, perhaps I should disclose my typical travel Modus Operandi.

  1. I rarely have a set itinerary. Sure, I'll know when I'm arriving and returning, but if I'm on vacation or making the most of an evening or weekend while traveling for work, the last thing I want is a rigid schedule. I do, however, make particular appointments just to give me a bit of structure (e.g., meeting a friend, taking a class, attending an event that is only a set date), but it's important to allow for some flexibility. I do generally keep a list of things I'd like to do and I may have an idea of when may be ideal to do them. But again, flexibility is key. I rarely pay attention to directives like, "You MUST do ___," or "You haven't seen ___ if you didn't do ____." We all have our different priorities and preferences. For instance, I've never been on top of the Empire State Building or even seen the Statue of Liberty from the ground, but I've walked innumerable blocks in Manhattan, have shopped at the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market, eaten a slice of pizza (or 12) and picnicked in Central Park. Pretty quintessential New York experiences in my book.
  2. An ideal day for me would consist of actual (and sometimes made up) plans in the beginning or end of a day (like a class or brunch date in the morning or dinner or show in the evening) and walk my way to or from those locations (weather depending of course). Sometimes you never know what you'll discover. One weekend in DC, I walked from my hotel, had coffee in Dupont Circle, ran an errand on 17th St., NW, walked to U Street to try out the infamous Ben's Chili Bowl before visiting some friends who lived in that area later that afternoon. On my way, I came across cupcake samples at Cake Love and the culinary mecca of U Street Corridor with it's burgeoning farmers market. Not likely places I would have come across had I not been flexible with my day and itinerary.
  3. One of the most idyllic ways I get to know a town is to do everyday activities. This could mean walking through random residential neighborhoods (well, be cautious and keep your street smarts), traveling via its public transportation system or my personal favorite is hitting the local farmers market and grocery store, especially in foreign countries. (HINT: it's also a much less expensive place to buy authentic local culinary delights.)
Again, I'll admit I'm not usually into touristy stuff, but this is one town that begs for it. While I think one can have an excellent time just walking around, peeking at sights and plopping down at an outdoor cafe and people watching, the history, design, monuments and museums of this town deserve attention. There are thousands of books, brochures and sites that will offer all the how-tos and ins and outs of DC. These are just my personal highlights. If you have specific questions or want something more tailored for your interests. Send me a note. I'd love to design something more tailored for you.
I'm all about convenience and flexibility, so these are clumped up geographically because, let's face it, if you're gonna be there, you might as well take advantage of what's around.

While I may be devout about not having rigid itineraries, DC is one of those towns where you can get a good advantage by planning ahead. Write to your Congressional Representative or Senator and they will provide "VIP Tour" tickets to DC's main attractions including the Capitol Building and the White House. The big disadvantage to these tours is they start incredibly early (8am-ish), which isn't exactly desirable when you're on vacation. But I suppose if you were looking for some relaxing time off, you'd be going to the beach, right? So, if you have a goal to see specific places, plan ahead. Or do what I would do and leave it up to fate and sign up for a waitlist once you're there.

Touristy, but cool

White House and surrounding area
If you must visit the White House (which really is as magical as it looks in the movies), then it is mandatory to plan ahead. Post-9/11 rules state that White House visitors make arrangements through their Congressional Representative or their embassy and this can be done up to 6 months in advance. There is also the Visitors Center on 15th & E if you didn't plan ahead or want to learn more of its history.

You'll probably work up an appetite, and THE place I recommend is Old Ebbitt Grill. It's a good place for basics (ground chuck hamburgers, crabcakes, or just drinks) and the history and design of this place makes it a tourist destination all on its own. Rumors have it that the bar in "Murphy Brown" was based on the Old Ebbitt Grill and judging by the dark walls and beautifully detailed woodwork, you'll see why. What makes this even more remarkable is its price. Whether you're in a power suit or your power sneakers, you can get a great meal for $10-15. [Update 2/20/10: I recently found out the oyster menu and Oysters Bill of Rights was designed by none other than Seattle's own Jon Rowley. I'd say small world, but he is known worldwide as a leading oyster expert.]

My kind of Mall

Walk south of the White House and around The Ellipse, and you hit the National Mall. It's a bit hard to miss the Washington Monument and it's a tough choice whether to turn right (west towards the Lincoln Memorial) or left (east towards the Capitol Building). It's easy to spend an entire day just walking the Mall in either direction, or both.
Usually I will combine walking the west side of the mall with a hike to or from Arlington National Cemetery (see Virginia section below). My heart races whenever I cross the Memorial Bridge from the Cemetery into DC with its view of the Potomac River and the Lincoln Memorial, so I usually save the west side of the Mall for post-cemetery trekking. In fact, one of the reasons I like staying in Dupont Circle is the taxi will cross the Memorial Bridge after arriving at Reagan-National Airport.


Whenever possible, I spend at least 1 weekend day away from DC proper to see a friend or two who live in Alexandria. Although now that I have some new friends in Arlington, I will be more intent about including that city in my itinerary, too.

Start with brunch in Old Town Alexandria (approx 30 minutes from DC on the Metro). It is an absolutely darling area, with cute shops and surprising good food along King Street. I was most recently introduced to Restaurant Eve by some serious foodie friends and it was well worth an evening trip in addition to my usual brunch in the area. In fact, this may be my new go-to place in Virginia. From the King Street Metro stop, walk 2 blocks to the left and turn right on King Street. Or save your feet a bit by taking the free cable car that leaves the Metro station every 20 minutes.

Another brunch option is dim sum at China Garden in Rosslyn. While I am usually apprehensive about the idea of restaurants in a mall, this place is one of those exceptions. It's not only convenient to the Metro, but an easy walk to the Iwo Jima Memorial and then a subsequent walk to Arlington National Cemetery (you'll actually be going through one of the side entrances). Now, if you are actually starting off in Alexandria, then just make your way back towards DC on the Metro and get off early at Arlington.

I'm all about win-win, so while being able to dear friends, spending a day in Virginia means I get to make my ritual stop at Arlington National Cemetery. Granted, this is really contingent upon the weather as one of my greatest joys is "climbing" up the hill to General Lee's House and sitting on the steps while gazing at the gaping view of Washington, DC on a warm afternoon and maybe reading a book or writing in my journal. There is also my mandatory stop at the Changing of the Guards Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which never gets old, even through 2 or 3 cycles (which happen every half hour). In fact, I'm usually one of the last people to leave at closing time. And no, this place does not give that creepy cemetery vibe. Well, maybe in the right light.

If you haven't figured this out by now, then I'll have to be explicit that it is important to have good walking shoes. I say this more as a reminder to myself than to my readers. Unfortunately, fashion and comfort rarely go together, especially when I have limited room in my suitcase so if anyone has a suggestion for a good combo, please let me know. When my feet are sturdy enough, long extensive walks are my favorite way to enjoy the city.

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