Ahhh, the District of Columbia. Welcome to our nation’s capital! What a whirlwind of a time you shall have. You can practically smell the bills becoming laws!
If you are coming to DC as a tourist, get ready to walk A LOT. I always feel bad when I see families weary and resting on benches on the Mall- it’s easy to underestimate how exhausting it is to walk and metro to the museums and then walk around them. Sad news, folks- there is just about NOTHING good to eat on the Mall, so you need to think strategically about how you will get some food around midday that isn’t terrible or expensive. My recommendation is usually to do half of the day on the Mall and then the other half at other sights around the city so that around midday you are already headed towards a metro (and presumably some food). Fast-casual is the name of the game for a quick lunch while doing the Smithsonian, so I usually recommend Roti, &Pizza, Nando’s Peri-peri, or even Chipotle to satiate your hunger without breaking the bank (all of these have many locations around the city). Good sights that are close to lunch places include the White House, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Capitol (Union Station is nearby and has tons of quick lunch options).
If you are going to take the metro, make sure you get a plastic SmarTrip card. You pay an initial $10 for the SmarTrip and get $8 credit with it. You purchase them at most larger metro stations at separate machines than the ticket machines- ask a metro employee to point you to the nearest place to buy them.
If you are comfortable biking (occasionally in or near traffic if you chose to, so review those hand signals) I always recommend getting Captial BikeShare, which gives you 3 days of unlimited 30-minute rides for about $20. My number one thing I tell people to do in DC is bike around the monuments and the Mall at night- they are absolutely stunning, and it’s amazing how much ground you can cover with the bikes in an hour or so. Pro-tip- There’s a bike share station to the left of the Lincoln, so make sure you drop off your bike for a few minutes of sitting on the steps and admiring the views.
Definitely look at the Washington Post’s Going Out Guide for info on what’s on while you’re here. My best resource for what’s happening in the District from a local’s perspective is Popville, a neighborhood blog that covers the latest going-ons around town. From crime to building renovations to the latest coffee shop openings, Popville is a great place to see what people who live in DC actually do (mostly complain and critque their neighbor’s “pop-ups”, or vertical additions to their rowhouses). Neighborhood blogs are kind of a thing in this town- I would also recommend Frozen Tropics for the H Street/Trinidad area.
Coffee Shops and Cafés
Maketto– My fave H Street haunt. They do it all- coffee in the morning, lunch and dinner, and a bar scene at night. (H Street NE)
Peregrine Espresso– A couple locations around DC, but I’ve only been to the Union Market stall. Great coffee and atmosphere at Union Market. (Various)
Swings and Co.– Wonderful, classic coffee. A cappuccino from Swings could fix just about anything- and the best part? There’s a location right next to the White House. Get your hipster and tourist on at the same time (and keep an ear open for policy conversations, given its proximity to quite a few federal agencies).
Baked and Wired– If you need to go to Georgetown and get cupcakes, go here. Good coffee, and the red velvet cupcake has sold me on the whole food dye cake thing. (Georgetown)
A Baked Joint– Baked and Wired’s bread-themed NoMa outpost. They make a nice $5 breakfast sandwich and have a lot of seating. (NoMa/Convention Center)
For a more comprehensive and reliable list of choices, check out the Washingtonian’s Best Restaurants of 2015.
Rasika– Some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had, but be forewarned- make a reservation and be prepared for higher prices (~$20 for an entrée). The Palaat Chatt is a must. (Foggy Bottom/Chinatown)
Le Diplomate– Trés French and chic without being cheesy- I love this place! Good for a nice dinner or brunch. You can also go and get late night creme brulee at the bar… just saying. (14th Street NW)
Sticky Rice– The service here is always so-so, but the food is really good. Their tots are awesome. (H Street NE)
Indigo– This is our local AMAZING Indian restaurant. Not much seating indoors, but during the summer they have a great patio area. Try the Saag with chicken (very spicy!) and the mango lassi. (H Street NE)
Takorean– This is in Union Market and is also a food truck. Totally great tacos, but KOREAN. Just try it. (H Street NE)
&Pizza– This is the pizza restaurant that changed my life. Go in, pretend to look at the menu, and then order a Moonstruck. Trust me on this one. &Pizza is a DC-area chain of sorts, and has many locations all over the city (even at Reagan National Airport!) (Various)
District Taco– the closest thing to real Mexican food in the District. Great for a fast lunch or dinner. (Various)
Bullfrog Bagels– Tasty bagel sandwiches are a must for a good Saturday morning. Bullfrog delivers, but get there early so that they aren’t out of your favorite bagel. (H Street NE)
Ice Cream Jubilee– A must for a muggy DC summer’s eve. Try the Thai iced tea ice cream and watch ridiculously large yachts bobble on the Potomac near the Nats stadium. (Yards Park/Navy Yard)
DC is a happy hour town, for better or for worse. Here’s the places that I’ve found that don’t scream corporate drink-a-thon the way places downtown here tend to do.
Saufhaus– There are a surprising number of German Biergartens in the city, and this one is urban but great. Located near Dupont Circle, they have a very respectable selection of German beer. (Dupont Circle)
The Queen Vic– Our favorite H Street haunt. Excellent food, a convivial pub atmosphere…. what more could you want?
Meridian Pint– It’s hard to find a good, standard bar here for some reason. I like this one. (Columbia Heights)
Room 11– Nice wine bar with lots of outdoor seating and good people watching. (Columbia Heights)
Busboys and Poets– This is a DC brunch institution, but the one time I ate there I wasn’t blown away. A great place for happy hour with the locals.
Kramerbooks and Afterwords– A wonderful place to browse and maybe grab a coffee or beer.
Salt and Sundry– A fancy hipster kitchen store where I lust after $40 dish towels. It’s inside Union Market, so stop by when you go to get Takorean.
Eastern Market– Okay, maybe this isn’t really shopping (more food for you!) but it’s a great farmer’s market, it’s in beautiful Capitol Hill, and there’s some good people watching.
Capitol Hill Books– I really hope the old man who owns this store is there when you go; I really do. A fun selection of books, heavy on the political ones (obviously).
Politics and Prose– More books, more books! But worth a trip up to Chevy Chase.