Start your day in one of the old hearts of the city, Dupont Circle. Situated on the Metro’s red line, it serves as a good central location to the entire city. Before anything else, you obviously need a good cup of coffee and a nice breakfast. Get a delicious breakfast sandwich at Glen’s Garden Market, where nearly every ingredient is sourced from the Mid-Atlantic. Since it is an actual market, grab a bag of Baltimore’s own Zeke’s Coffee or a six pack of local beer, like Port City Brewing Co., as goodies to take home.
Next, you want to hop on the metro, which will be your main way of traveling around the city if you’re not just walking. The D.C. metro is often lauded as the cleanest and easiest to navigate in the country. System maps situated everywhere at each stop offer great visual aids. Take the red line to Gallery Place and switch to the Green Line, which you can take to L’Enfant Plaza to visit a shining jewel of D.C.: The Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian is a bevy of gorgeous museums that are all free and open to the public, lining much of the National Mall downtown. Having grown up there, it was a major case of you don’t know what you got til it’s gone. A good place to start is at the National Museum of the American Indian, the newest, sleekest, and most architecturally stunning of the bunch. Check out exhibits on treaties between the American Indian Nations and the United States, or an ongoing one about the Algonquian tribes of the Chesapeake bay, among many others.
If that takes you into the lunch hour, you may find yourself “museumed out.” If you’re starting to get hungry again, step into the museum cafe, called the Mitsitam Cafe. You might ask why you’re wasting a precious meal in a museum cafe, eating overpriced sandwiches or something. To this I ask, how many museum cafes are featured and rated in Zagat? Not many. This one is!
Try a dish like cedar plank-roasted salmon, buffalo tacos, or the deliciously memorable tortilla soup. Native American cuisine is not something you can get just anywhere- having a bite here feels like another essential step in experiencing the museum fully.
Because you’ve made the trek downtown and are surrounded by so much free knowledge, you’re going to want to try at least one more museum. Cross the street to the National Air and Space Museum, one of the most interactive and purely fun museums of the entire Smithsonian. If you’re there in the dog days of summer, you’ve probably sweated through your clothes fully by this point. If you’re looking for a cold, dark place to spend some time, get a ticket for a screening at its massive IMAX theater, and gaze in awe at the wonder and majestic things that our planet has to offer. All from the comfort of a crisp, cool air conditioned room and a comfortable chair.
I don’t know about you, but my favorite part of visiting anywhere is experiencing the food culture, so I tend to eat a lot of small meals rather than a few big ones. The more room I save, the more variety I get to experience. Walk a few blocks north on 7th Street, crossing from the SW quadrant, over Pennsylvania Avenue (the dividing line) into the NW quadrant. A few blocks north of the mall, you’ll wind up at Oyamel, one of celebrity chef and local phenom Jose Andres’ best restaurants. The food is Mexican-inspired tapas- small dishes to snack on, and everything is mouthwateringly delicious. You had no idea black beans could be this good.
At this point, you’ve spent more than enough time downtown. You’re going to want to beat the downtown 9-5 happy hour rush. Get to the metro by walking north on 7th Street a few more blocks, to the Gallery Place, heading north on the green line.
Only a couple of stops away, and you will arrive at the “mid city” area of D.C., the U Street- Cardozo stop. The U Street neighborhood was at one point the heart of the African American community in Washington D.C., and in many ways still is, though in recent years gentrification has priced out many long term residents to further corners of the city, or suburban Maryland.
You might be hitting your afternoon wall, so you will definitely need a pick me up. Walk a couple of blocks south down 14th Street to grab an afternoon cup of caffeine at Peregrine Espresso, one of the best coffee shops in the city
If you’re a music junkie, you might love checking out these record stores, which carry a variety of new and used vinyl, CD’s, and clothing as well, all of which are in the general neighborhood. Red Onion Records, Smash Records, and Som Records.
If you like a jukebox with some of the best punk, garage and indie records of the last thirty years, a pool table and worn in leather couches, grab a drink at the Red Room Bar of the Black Cat venue, one of D.C.’s oldest music venues specializing in punk and indie. Pretty much everyone who’s ever graced a stage at Pitchfork Music Festival(or the likes of it) has played here more than a few times. Grab some local draft beers and enjoy the red tinted ambiance of a cool, dark room while some good tunes flow from the speakers. If you love the feel of a festive beer garden, walk further south and enjoy the communal table styles and flowing beersof Garden District.
Now that you’ve got a nice buzz on, consider walking a little further north on 16th Street to Meridian Hill Park (known unofficially by many locals as Malcolm X Park). It’s an absolutely gorgeous park, perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in Washington D.C. The top level has a big playing field where local kids and young adults come to play pickup soccer every night the weather is remotely tolerable. Grab a seat on a park bench and watch the game.
If you feel the need to move around, walk over to the terrace, which situated at the top a hill, offers one of the best views of downtown D.C. Gaze at the monuments and downtown buildings, as the sun begins to set and the magic hours set in. The feeling is distinctly European, which makes sense as the construction of the park in the early twentieth century was modeled after parks found in European capitals.
Nowhere outside of Ethiopia has a larger population of Ethiopians than Washington D.C. So if you’ve never had Ethiopian food before, well, you’re missing out on some truly delicious food, and you’re in the perfect place to try it. I’ve had Ethiopian food in other parts of the country, and quite honestly it all pales in comparison to the incredible quality found in D.C.
There are many, many spots and it’s hard to go wrong in choosing. The most convenient to your current location is Dukem at 11th and U Street. The food is served family style, with spicy lentils, lamb, spinach and chicken served on a large dish layered by Injera, a sourdough based flat bread. It comes with a side of several more rolls of Injera, which substitute for forks and spoons. Yes, there’s no silverware (perhaps by request if you’re in need). That might be a little out of your comfort zone, but it’s a better meal this way! The Injera soaks up the juices and turns into the perfect delivery vessel for your taste buds.
D.C.’s nightlife has expanded all over the city, but U Street has long been the center of it The famous 9:30 Club at 9th and V is one of the best music clubs in the country, a favorite for touring artists all over the world. Artists of every sound come to grace the stage, and the shows often sell out in advance. You might be able to catch some of D.C.’s local music heritage, the genre of Go Go, at U Street Music Hall. Great DJ’s, electronic artist and hip hop acts, from Lindstrom to Vic Mensa to D.C.’s own Wale have also graced the stage. It’s the perfect spot for a great night of dancing. If you’re searching for new wave, alternative and indie themed nights, head back to The Black Cat, where either the upstairs or downstairs stage is sure to have an appropriate soundtrack spinning.
After you’ve cut the floor up and perhaps had a few more drinks, you might feel ready to call it a day. However, no night out on U Street is complete without a visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl. It’s quite a simply a D.C. institution, the most famous restaurant in the city. The lines can be long, but it moves quickly and it’s worth it. Grab a half-smoke, a half beef, half pork sausage served in a hot dog bun, and some chili cheese fries and soak up the alcohol with each delicious bite. The half-smoke is a D.C. specialty- called the “official dog of the Washington Nationals” and raved about by everyone from Barack Obama to Anthony Bourdain.
(Alternative drunk food options: a “Jumbo slice”, served all over U Street and Adams Morgan. The name says it all)
After all of that, your 24 hours is sadly up. Come back for another 24 hours and explore all of the things we didn’t get to- dim sum and Indian food in Northern Virginia, Peruvian chicken in Maryland, trendy new bars and restaurants on H Street NE, insane lines and wait times at Rose’s Luxury Restaurant in Capitol Hill, the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, not to mention the, uh, White House and the United States Capitol Building.
10 Tips for Washington D.C.
1. Know which quadrant (NW, NE, SW, SE) you’re heading to or you might get awfully lost.
2. Go to the Smithsonian Institute museums. They’re free. I’ll say it again. They’re all free.
3. Avoid the brutal summers and go in the spring or fall.
4. OR accept the heat but avoid crowds, and go in August, when congress is on break and the city sort of shuts down.
5. Don’t underestimate the suburbs. They have some of the area’s best restaurants and ethnic food.
6. If you’re eating something fried, ask for the Mumbo Sauce.
7. Take the metro, ride a bike, take a bus, just prepare for occasional transit delays. Traffic is legendary, so don’t rent a car.
8. Eat as much Ethiopian food as you can. It’s the best in the country.
9. Learn about Chuck Brown, Dischord Records, and other famous D.C. music.
10. You’re in a district not allowed representation in congress. Think about that.
Matador Articles for D.C. trip planning
Best Travel Credit Cards
Top offers from our partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
80,000 bonus points
The Platinum Card®
75,000 bonus points
American Express® Gold Card
60,000 bonus points