With grand boulevards traversing a neat checkerboard of streets, Washington, D.C., a city that was planned in 1791, could have become sterile or, worse yet, outdated. Unfairly, some still equate America’s capital with stodgy politicos in boxy suits—but they’re missing out.
Thanks to its dynamic population, which ranks as one of the youngest, brainiest, and most diverse in the nation, this city of 700,000 keeps one well-heeled foot pointing toward the future and the other squarely rooted in its fabled history. Now, creative venues, quirky boutique hotels, and more than 2,000 restaurants are jam-packed among the city’s monumental institutions. This year, as America heads to the polls, the approval rating for D.C. is soaring higher than ever.
Soaking up history (and rum) in the city center
I wake up under a five-foot-wide wall relief of a lion head inside the former General Post Office. This National Historic Landmark—designed in part by the architect of the Washington Monument and completed in 1866—is now the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, and the omnipresent leonine motif is just one of many humorous touches.
After a fortifying bowl of quinoa, rich tahini, and poached eggs—my own version of the D.C. power breakfast—I head out to take in the morning bustle of the lively Penn Quarter, which is full of restaurants and sights like the National Archives, as well as commuters heading to work. I used to be one of them, having spent a few years in my 20s in a suit-and-tie job here before trading coasts and heading to San Francisco. Now I can’t wait to see how much the city has changed.
A 10-minute downhill walk takes me to the newest addition to the National Mall, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The magnificent edifice, wrapped in intricate metal latticework, is just the tip of the iceberg. The museum is designed so that I begin my tour three floors below ground and follow a sloping path that takes me to interactive presentations and artifacts, including a dress Rosa Parks had been sewing on the day of her arrest. From slavery to the civil rights movement to the present day, the story told here is one of resilience.
Emerging above ground hours later, I sit, overwhelmed, in the Contemplative Court, a luminous hall surrounding a cylindrical fountain, and watch the water and light cascade from above before going upstairs to check out Musical Crossroads, an exhibition that has everything from Billie Holiday’s master recordings to Radio Raheem’s boombox from Do the Right Thing.
Across the street from the museum, I slide out one of the docked Capital Bikeshare bicycles and pedal two pleasant miles. Only in D.C., I realize, can a 20-minute bike ride fast-forward you through such a dense concentration of Neoclassical buildings and imposing monuments that symbolize America’s cultural heritage.
Near the Mall and the U.S. Capitol, I make a pit stop at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. This modest brick home, housing original suffrage movement banners and photographs, feels all the more relevant in 2020, the centenary of the 19th Amendment’s passage, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
By now I’m ready to recharge, so I beeline to Union Market, the city’s cross-section of the culinary zeitgeist. Inside, offshoots of local favorites like District Doughnut and Teaism welcome hungry visitors. Indecision becomes my undoing. In the end, I grab a table between a bashful couple on a date and a group of students from nearby Gallaudet University conversing in American Sign Language, and I dive into one of DC Dosa’s eponymous lentil crepes filled with roasted eggplant sweetened with tamarind.
NoMa, as this wedge-shaped neighborhood north of Massachusetts Avenue NE is known, is rapidly changing. But despite the many cranes stacking new buildings like Lego blocks, the area still feels organic. Between hipster bars and coffee shops, the older tenants, such as an African supermarket, a halal butcher, a Korean wholesaler specializing in bean sprouts (!), and the 94-year-old Italian deli A. Litteri, have held on. To be in NoMa, I learn, is to experience food FOMO.
After ambling around the neighborhood, I follow the crowd into Cotton & Reed Distillery, D.C.’s first rum distillery, which was opened four years ago by two former NASA strategists. “Saturday afternoons are the busiest time,” the bartender says, almost apologetically. “We welcome basically everyone—dogs, too, if they come with adults.” Following her recommendation, I get a Cocomotion, a blended drink of white and gold rums and house-fermented coconut milk. “Think vegan coconut yogurt, but tangier,” she says, and she’s right.
With this grown-up slushie in hand, I poke my head into the distillery itself, where a tasting tour is taking place under a chandelier made of decanters. I wish I could join, but I still have a lot to see, including a stop at the newest branch of Politics and Prose, the venerable D.C. bookstore. For those of us who’ve lived here, seeing that name on a sign feels like running into an old friend. The shop not only carries the expected, like a section dedicated to local authors such as Edward P. Jones, but also more playful offerings, including fridge magnets that let you change Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s outfits. I pick up a T-shirt emblazoned with a universally relatable message: “So many books, so little time.”
It’s dusk by the time I’m ready to leave NoMa. Love them or hate them, the dockless electric scooters that abound in the city give visitors a breezy way to get around, and in just a few minutes, before darkness descends, I’ve zoomed over to the H Street NE Corridor, a commercial strip revitalized by the arrival of the firehouse-red DC Streetcar in 2016. I swing by Maketto, a hip streetwear shop and Cambodian-Taiwanese restaurant inspired by Asian night markets, and walk through the gallery-like second-floor space, admiring Maison Margiela sneakers and APC jackets that exceed my budget. Anyway, it’s time to eat.
I opt for a Burmese dinner at Thamee, a brightly minimalist 40-seat restaurant decorated with graphic textile-print tabletops and a fishing net that pays homage to the leg rowers of Inle Lake. Overseeing the multicultural kitchen staff is matriarch Jocelyn Law-Yone, a 67-year-old former AP art history teacher who updates the dishes from her Yangon childhood. To a soundtrack of thumping beats and lively chatter, I tuck into fermented tea leaf salad, boldly pungent catfish curry, and yellow split pea tofu salad tossed with zesty lime, cilantro, and sweet chili sauce.
Belly full and head heavy, I head to my next hotel, The Dupont Circle, which has undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation in the last few months, sprucing up the decor with clean-lined wood furnishings and touches by the interior designer Martin Brudnizki. In the ground-floor hangout, The Pembroke, I settle into a coral-colored banquette for people-watching and an ebullient cocktail of mezcal, raspberry and cardamom syrup, with a touch of champagne. It’s as smooth as its name: Red Velvet.
Devouring chili and art in Northwest D.C.
I start the day in Georgetown, the city’s starched and buttoned-up district, where the nation’s movers and shakers mingle with preppy young professionals and old-money socialites. I’m not trying to blend in; I didn’t even pack my boat shoes. Instead, I’m in sneakers, ready to pound the cobblestones.
After a hearty Kaiser-schmarm mit Zwetschkenroster (Emperor’s Pancake) with currants at the Austrian coffee shop Kafe Leopold, in charming Cady’s Alley, I walk a couple of blocks up to Jackie and John F. Kennedy’s last residence before the White House, a brick townhouse at 3307 N St. NW. Sauntering about, I come across the first house that Julia Child owned, a 150-year-old wooden home that gives no clue as to its former resident (except, perhaps, that it’s the color of butter).
After a peek at the jewel box–like Tudor Place, designed by the architect of the original U.S. Capitol, and a walk through the exquisitely tiered garden at Dumbarton Oaks, I duck into Shop Made in DC, a retail space that has showcased products made by some 300 artisans, all of whom live within five miles of D.C., since opening in 2017. “Running this store helps me explain to out-of-towners that I live in a really cool city,” says cofounder Stacey Price. “This shop shows how creative Washingtonians are.” Among the diverse offerings today are a bottle opener repurposed from a bike chain by BicycleTrash and dish towels featuring hand-drawn maps of the city by Naked Decor.
Carrying a renewed sense of pride in the District—along with one of those towels—I hop on a DC Circulator Bus, on one of six lines that connect popular attractions and neighborhoods for a dollar each ride, and head back to Dupont Circle, a green lawn surrounding a handsome fountain, from which 10 streets fan out. I walk past the folks basking in the midday sun and up Massachusetts Avenue, dubbed Embassy Row for its concentration of ornate buildings housing diplomatic missions from around the world. Today, though, I’m taking an international journey of a different kind: The Phillips Collection, the nation’s oldest modern art museum, where European giants such as van Gogh and Renoir share wall space with American virtuosos O’Keeffe and Rothko.
After taking in a few classic works, I meet up with muralist and illustrator Aniekan Udofia, who was born in D.C. and raised in Nigeria, then returned in 1999. “I would call D.C. a city with a huge awareness of art,” Udofia tells me. “From the Phillips to all the National Galleries, it’s just full of inspiration.”
Outside the museum, we walk past Angela Bulloch’s Heavy Metal Stack: Fat Cyan Three, a sculpture that looks like a geometric mural from one angle and three-dimensional from another, and then Udofia leads me on a tour of the city’s street art. From Culture House DC, a Baptist Church–turned–mural canvas, to the Latin American–accented walls of Columbia Heights, splashes of color brighten all corners of D.C. Just off the bustling thoroughfare of U Street, we stop to take in Udofia’s most famous mural. Here, the 44-year-old artist celebrates the street’s African-American heritage with iconic figures including D.C. native Dave Chappelle and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, as well as Prince making his signature come-hither face.
As I part ways with Udofia, I realize I’m long overdue for lunch. Luckily, that mural is on the side of the storied Ben’s Chili Bowl. In addition to the recipe for the restaurant’s namesake dish, the long, crowded counter is an original fixture from 1958. On the wall are pictures of famous diners, from Serena Williams to Barack Obama, who paid a visit in 2009. In the middle of the swirl of lunchtime customers is Virginia Ali, who everyone calls Mom. While she holds court at the counter, a throng of visitors stop by to chat, give a hug, or simply say hello. A pair of men in sharp suits—diplomats from the Middle East, I later learn—pass by, but not before paying respect to Mom with kisses on her cheek. A neighborhood dentist drops by to borrow a stamp.
“My husband and I wanted to build a community spot that’s friendly and welcoming to all people,” she tells me as I dig into a bowl of the famous herb-packed chili. “We signed a five-year lease; I didn’t imagine we’d still be here in 2020.”
Mom recounts U Street’s segregation-era heyday—when it was dubbed “Black Broadway” for its thriving businesses and theaters—as well as the decades of urban blight that followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The arrival of the Metro in 1991 resuscitated the street, and in the last decade it has become packed with airy lofts and sleek condos. “Change is inevitable,” Mom says. “I grew up going to segregated schools. Now we have people from every corner of the globe, all in walking distance.”
I say goodbye to Mom—consoling myself with the knowledge that she and Ben’s will still be here next time I’m in D.C.—and take a rideshare one mile south to meet old friends at Blagden Alley, a historic block tucked behind former stables and tenement buildings in the neighborhood of Shaw. We’re just a few steps from the sleek convention center, but these brick-paved passageways are a world away. Garage doors between the street art–filled brick walls slide up to reveal businesses including a single-origin coffee shop, a minimalist bakery, and Calico, a backyard party–style hangout that has Pepto-colored tabletops and serves cocktails in juice packs.
At the Columbia Room, awarded Best American Cocktail Bar at the Spirited Awards, I take a seat on the lush covered patio and kick back with a mocktail (I’m keeping it chill tonight) of bay leaf soda and citrus ash, mulling over what Mom said. Yes, cities change—and that’s what makes them so wonderful. What was once a carriage house becomes a boxing gym, and then a bar, where I now appear to be surrounded by members of the city’s thriving gay kickball league.
For dinner, I pass on Shaw’s trendy bistros and go to Chercher Ethiopian Restaurant for old time’s sake. With the largest concentration of Ethiopian and Eritrean emigrés outside of Africa, D.C. has no shortage of East African restaurants serving authentic fare. You might even say Ethiopian dishes like tibs stir fry and doro wat chicken stew make up the de facto official cuisine of the city. I roll up my sleeves, tear off a piece of injera, the fluffy, porous bread used to scoop up the saucy stews, and dive in. I didn’t realize how much I missed D.C. until I take a bite.
Biking, dining, and being entertained along the revitalized waterfront
My final day in D.C. begins with a bath. A sound bath, that is.
After a restful night, I wake up at Eaton DC, which puts a boutique hotel, a creative coworking space, a 50-seat cinema, a radio station, and cool bars and restaurants all under one roof (and the ambitious ethos of social justice). In addition to infrared saunas, yoga classes, and massages, the wellness center offers more esoteric options—which is how I get to start my day to the tune of dozens of Tibetan singing bowls. Although I’m initially skeptical, I walk out feeling calmer and, at the risk of sounding woo woo, more centered. The body needs nourishment as much as the mind, so I stop by A Baked Joint a few blocks away for smoked salmon with fried capers on a fresh baguette.
A quick hop on the Metro takes me to the Navy Yard, a once gritty industrial wasteland now packed with young people lured in by new condos and businesses like Ice Cream Jubilee and the microbrewery Bluejacket. In warmer months, you can launch rental kayaks from here, but I’m happy to stay landside to experience the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, a bike-and-hike path that runs on both sides of the river. With two wheels from Capital Bikeshare, I pedal northeast, past fountains and benches, plus breweries and a winery preparing to open for the day.
Soon the winding path rolls through thickets. Past the Congressional Cemetery, which counts both the famous (composer John Philip Sousa) and infamous (J. Edgar Hoover) among its buried, I keep on cycling until I see the shell of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, which was home to NFL and MLB teams before being decommissioned.
I’m not here to mourn the past, though. I’m more interested in how D.C. cleaned up its act and turned around this once neglected riverbank. I end my three-mile ride by going over the footbridge to Kingman Island, an elongated delta that The Washington Post once called “one of the city’s most confounding pockets of land.” Never mentioned in guidebooks and mostly disregarded by Washingtonians, except during the yearly bluegrass festival in May, this wetland refuge is a prime site for spotting bald eagles, great blue herons, and ospreys. While I’m no birder, I’m a little disappointed not to see any belted kingfishers, with their spiky Tina Turner dos. Still, avian cameos or no, this little sliver of tranquility is a meditative treat.
I toy with the idea of continuing onto the new four-mile stretch of the trail on the other side of the river, but my stomach’s already rumbling. After docking my bike, I use a rideshare app to zip over to another waterside neighborhood, The Wharf. This complex of hotels and entertainment venues, with its gleaming white marina and immaculate streets, shot up, seemingly out of nowhere, just a little over two years ago. If you like your towns scrubbed and tidy, this might be your best bet, with the bonus of upscale restaurants like the celebrated Spanish eatery Del Mar.
From the many choices, I decide on Kith/Kin, helmed by James Beard Rising Star Chef Kwame Onwuachi, who shares his Nigerian and Jamaican heritages through a mix of Caribbean and West African dishes elevated with global influences. My lunch, a monkfish egusi stew thickened with toasted melon seeds and served with starchy fufu, is the right amount of spicy and savory.
This corner of the District had come alive before this development, though, thanks to the $135 million Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater—three performance venues under one roof that showcase scrappy experimental performances as well as touring Broadway shows. Before I catch a production of Newsies, I meet up with playwright and director Psalmayene 24, who came up in the city’s mid-’90s spoken word scene. “I feel so fortunate to be an artist who came out of this community,” he says. Growing up in Brooklyn demystified New York for him, he explains, so after he came to D.C. to attend Howard University, he never looked back. “I really appreciate the less hectic pace of D.C.” he says. “There’s more psychic and artistic head room.”
Not that it means there are fewer opportunities to flaunt (and witness) talent. From Arena Stage to the Kennedy Center, Woolly Mammoth to the Theater Alliance at Anacostia, he rattles off a long list of theater companies. “Just about every night of the week you can find something exciting and unique to see on stage here, from puppetry to movement-driven theater,” he says.
After the show, I head north to Seven Reasons, on the buzzy 14th Street corridor. The celebrated eatery—Esquire named it the Best New Restaurant in America in 2019—is packed with chatty diners and a plethora of plants. Over hamachi tiradito, swordfish-belly tostadas, and fried octopus with charred spices, I catch up with old friends from my years in D.C., which now feel like both eons and mere days ago. The inventive dishes by Venezuelan chef Enrique Limardo have a similar effect: nostalgic yet new, comforting yet surprising. That’s perhaps the magic of this intimate yet grand city. We all may come with an idea of what it should be, and in many ways it ticks off those boxes—and then it checks so many more. My friends and I toast my next visit, which will no doubt be soon. There are many more than seven reasons to return.