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posted on September 19th, 2016

Discovering the District

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Our nation’s capital is chock-full of landmarks and living history, but it’s also much more than the home of political greats past and present. A district buzzing with trendy eateries and down-home diners, gardens tucked between tree-lined streets, and, of course, monuments to be enjoyed from a variety of perspectives, a trip to Washington DC offers something for everyone.

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In a bustling city of museums and landmark government buildings, if you need a break from the hubbub, find a moment of peace in the United States Botanic Garden (100 Maryland Ave SW). Devoted solely to horticulture, you won’t find a gift shop or restaurant on the grounds, but you will find myriad flowers and assorted greenery. This oasis was created by Congress as an instructional garden — take a free 45-minute tour for the history behind it, or simply enjoy the floral displays in the Natural Garden and be charmed by the flitting friends in the Butterfly Garden. You’ll also want to wander through the more than 1,800 acres of Rock Creek Park that wind through NW Washington, and include the Smithsonian National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave NW)  and the lavish Meridian Hill Park (16th & W Streets NW).

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For a city full of gourmet dining, DC also offers a pleasing assortment of contrasting mom-and-pop no-frills diners. Get a feel for the local scene at a greasy spoon where you can rub shoulders with everyone from Congressmen to the local fire fighters. Capitol Hill offers a few such dives — check out Pete’s Diner (212 2nd St SE) or Jimmy T’s (501 E Capitol St SE) for classics like flapjacks and egg combos. Or, slide into a booth at Tune Inn (331 Pennsylvania Ave SE) to take in the taxidermy decor while munching on biscuits and gravy or country fried chicken.

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Lovers of the written word will find plenty to keep themselves occupied in DC. The Library of Congress (101 Independence Ave SE) is a veritable goldmine, with the Thomas Jefferson Building hosting most of the visitor-accessible collections, including Jefferson’s own original, carefully curated collection. America Reads is a particularly interesting current exhibition, examining “books that shaped America” as submitted by the public. Swing by the nearby Folger Shakespeare Library (201 E Capitol St SE) afterwards for a jaw-dropping collection of works by and honoring the Bard. For a taste of indie bookstore heaven and a well-crafted meal, KramerBooks & Afterwords Cafe are a reliable hot spot (1517 Connecticut Ave NW) in Dupont Circle.

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Nestled into the tree-lined streets of the Capitol Hill neighborhood lies the massive food-hall-cum-flea-and-farmers-market that is Eastern Market (225 Seventh St SE). This market is not only rich in history and a local favorite, but a fantastic place to pick up breakfast or lunch, or just peruse the local wares. The outdoor market — of the flea and farmer variety — only happens on weekends, but the indoor market has plenty to offer any day of the week. Try a crab cake sandwich at Market Lunch, or, if you’re feeling more hands-on, grab some fresh pasta at Eastern Market Grocery, artisanal cheese at Bowers Fancy Dairy Products, and dessert from Fine Sweet Shop to whip up your own locally-sourced meal.

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The sprawling Kennedy Center (2700 F St NW) sits along the banks of the Potomac and offers a smorgasbord of performances. Catch a free concert on the Millennium Stage at 6 pm daily, or book ahead for a National Symphony Orchestra or National Opera show, both of which are based here. Not in the mood for pomp and circumstance? Concerts and plays of all varieties are staged in this impressive venue — check out upcoming acts here. The Ford Theater (511 Tenth St NW) is not only the notorious site of Lincoln’s assassination, with historic walking tours for those so inclined, but an operating theater showcasing productions of new theater favorites and classics. Whatever you choose, grab a drink or dinner at the Roof Terrace Restaurant (2700 F St NW) for pre-show sustenance with a side of river views.

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Strolling the magnificent stretch from the Washington to Lincoln Memorials is a quintessential DC pursuit. You won’t want to miss the brand new addition to the Mall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture that opens on Sept 24th. But once you’ve been suitably awed by the Reflecting Pool, try some new perspectives to fully appreciate the views. Paddleboating at the Tidal Basin in front of the Jefferson Memorial (701 E Basin Dr SW) provides one of the best views of the Japanese cherry trees the city is known for. If an even more peaceful pursuit appeals to you, come back to the area after nightfall to marvel at the massive memorials illuminated against the night sky, and take a moment for quiet reflection at the war memorials.

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A tucked-away urban park, Lincoln Park (E Capitol St SE) offers a quieter sanctuary from which to honor Honest Abe than the seated giant capping off the National Mall. A somewhat bizarre structure, the statue here was erected 11 years after Lincoln’s death and depicts him holding the Emancipation Proclamation with a kneeling black man below him — a format Frederick Douglass criticized at the statue’s unveiling. The park is also the sight of the first monument to honor a black woman in a public park in DC, with a monument to civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune across from Lincoln. Aside from the history, the park is pleasantly situated in the midst of the neighborhood’s old brick buildings and tree-lined streets, and offers a respite from a hectic city for a quiet stroll.

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There’s no shortage of gastronomic delights in the district. To sample legendary José Andrés’ creations alone, you’d need upwards of a week of dinners. Assuming you want some options other than small-plates at Jaleo (480 7th St NW) and Zaytinya (701 9th St NW) (although we’d understand if not), we recommend Founding Farmers (1924 Pennsylvania Ave NW) for an original look at the farm-to-table movement — it’s owned collectively by farmers across the country. If you can get a reservation at Rose’s Luxury (717 8th St SE), the luxe rooftop garden is unmissable, and ubiquitous The Red Hen (1822 1st St NW) has earned its popularity with scrumptious rustic Italian fare. Le Diplomate (1601 14th St NW) is a can’t-miss for the ultimate French bistro experience in a beautiful building that you’ll believe was once a laundry. Want to keep it a little more chill? Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St NW) is an institution on U Street (though they’ve expanded to a few other locations as well), and its smoky chili, hot dogs, and burgers live up to the hype — Obama even gave them his stamp of approval a few years ago.

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Take to the water by boat cruise or kayak to experience the city off the streets. There are any number of companies offering sightseeing and dinner cruises, both narrated and not, along the Potomac — try one including a crab feast if you want to keep the whole excursion local. Or, paddle your own way in a canoe, kayak, or on a stand-up paddleboard to explore on your own terms with Boating in DC (multiple locations). If you want an even longer excursion, take a Spirit cruise to journey all the way to Mount Vernon and back.

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Although there’s an ordinance preventing buildings from being built taller than the Capitol, there are some mesmerizing views of the city to be found if you know where to look. The Old Post Office Clock Tower (1100 Pennsylvania Ave NW) offers a 360 degree vista accessible on a free tour. The National Cathedral’s (3101 Wisconsin Ave NW) bell tower affords a similarly sweeping view on a tower climb tour. If historical venues are getting old (pun intended), head to the POV lounge atop the W Hotel (515 15th St NW), where you can soak in views of the White House yard with a libation in hand.

Virginia is equally enamored with words and globetrotting. Whenever possible, she likes to combine the two through travel writing to help other wanderers discover and fall in love with the world.

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