April 19, 2024

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A local’s travel guide to Washington DC: what to eat, see and do in three days | Washington DC

6 min read

People love to be rude about Washington DC because it’s full of so many politicians, feds, and consultants who wear fleece vests and don’t take off their work lanyards when they leave the office. I get it. I myself had mixed feelings about my home town when I was growing up there. It didn’t seem as exciting as New York, or as glitzy as Los Angeles. But after a decade away, I came back, because time is circular, and also it turns out DC rocks and I love it! It has great restaurants, resplendent parks and free museums. Sometimes when I’m sad I’ll put on red lipstick and go wander around the National Gallery of Art for an afternoon, staring at gorgeous paintings and sulking in a way that I hope looks beautiful and intriguing to strangers. This city can be short on glamour, so sometimes you have to generate it yourself.

If you’re not feeling sad and dramatic, though, here are some other things we can do together.

Day 1: Rothko and rock’n‘roll

Let’s start at lunch. My parents started going to Zorba’s Cafe, a Greek restaurant off Dupont Circle, before I was born. My family comes so often that my mom and I once said that in the event of an apocalyptic global communications meltdown in which we couldn’t get in touch with each other, we’d meet at Zorba’s. That’s our idea, and you can’t copy it! Anyway, until then, just enjoy the food. It’s amazing. I like to get the dolmathakia, baba-ganouz, and the souvlaki plate with chicken.

When you’ve finished your meal, you can wander around the corner to the Phillips Collection, a private museum with an extensive collection of impressionist work. The Rothko room is my favorite. One time I went to see an exhibit at the Phillips and Nancy Pelosi stood next to me looking at the same painting.

Madeleine at the Dupont Circle metro station. Photograph: Greg Kahn/The Guardian

I don’t generally enjoy shopping. It reminds me of going to the mall as a tween and fighting with my mom because she wouldn’t buy me a tank top that said “Spank Me” or whatever. But I could spend hours inspecting every inch of GoodWood and Delorean 88 Vintage. The U Street vintage furniture and clothing stores are a 20-minute walk or five-minute drive from the Phillips. They both represent aspirational versions of myself: at GoodWood, I am a sophisticated, cerebral aesthete who can instantly tell teak wood from walnut. At Delorean 88, I am someone with interesting opinions on music and who knows how to style an oversized T-shirt. I love taking friends to these places and seeing what they gravitate to.

On to dinner. DC has some incredible Ethiopian and Eritrean food, and Keren Restaurant is an Adams Morgan neighborhood staple. It’s delicious and affordable, and you rarely have to wait long to get a seat. My favorite dish, the veggie combo with injera, is only $12. It’s easily enough food for at least two full meals.

If you still have the energy, the music venue Black Cat is only a 15-minute walk from Keren. My boyfriend took me there on our first date. I can’t promise that seeing a show here will help you find love, but it won’t hurt!

Day 2: Fabergé eggs and Filipino eats

Let’s start off at Hillwood Estate, the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the late businesswoman and heiress. Perhaps you’ve heard about the other home she built: Mar-a-Lago. Hillwood is just as understated as its Florida cousin. Touring the mansion feels like walking through a carnival funhouse designed by Russian tsars. Post’s third husband served as ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and the couple became enthusiastic collectors of Russian art. The home features portraits of Catherine the Great and Tsar Nicholas II, and two Fabergé eggs. Outside the mansion, the grounds include a rose garden, a Japanese-style garden, an orchid-filled greenhouse and a pet cemetery where you can pay your respects to dogs with names like Scampi. It’s a fun place to wander around, especially when the weather’s nice.

When you’re ready for lunch, pick up a sandwich or a slice from Vace Italian Delicatessen. A six-minute drive from Hillwood, it’s a perfect Italian deli on Connecticut Avenue. You can get a slice of pizza for $2.50 or an Italian cold cut sandwich for $6.50. It also has great homemade pasta, sauces and frozen entrees. My family and I used to get bags of their mushroom agnolotti and tubs of homemade walnut sauce. It’s a rich, heavy meal that one must digest over the course of four to six days, like a boa constrictor processing an ocelot.

Vace Italian Delicatessen. Photograph: Greg Kahn/The Guardian

Next up, I recommend a stroll through beautiful Rock Creek Park. The green, tranquil escape is the perfect place to go on a long walk and talk trash with your friends. Take your time, until you are ready to do some more eating. In 2023, Tom Sietsema, the Washington Post’s food critic, named Purple Patch the restaurant of the year, and it was well deserved. The Filipino-American establishment in Mount Pleasant has a bright, cozy atmosphere. I have vivid, passionate dreams about its ube pie.

Day 3: Books and board games

To begin: a two-hour unlimited brunch at Ambar. Personally, I could happily eat nothing but Ambar’s cheese and meat pies until they run out of pies and ask me to leave. But this Balkan restaurant on Capitol Hill has other gems on the menu too, like pork sausage and ajvar, a delicious roasted pepper and eggplant spread.

Just a 10-minute walk from Ambar, Capitol Hill Books is the kind of shabby, warm, overstuffed shop that would serve as the quaint backdrop for a meet-cute in a 90s romcom. There is no more perfect place to browse after brunch and to be wooed into thinking that maybe this is the copy of Anna Karenina you’ll actually finish.

Madeleine at Capitol Hill Books. Photograph: Greg Kahn/The Guardian

A 10-minute drive south of the bookstore, Diamond Teague Park is a great place to stroll along the Anacostia River, or to sit in the grass and performatively read whichever books you picked up. Ideally, you’d buy an ice-cream cone at a nearby shop and enjoy that while you sat in the sun.

After lazing around the park, wander over to the Salt Line, an oyster bar right in front of Nationals Park. For two people, the perfect order is a dozen oysters (two each of their six selections) and one lobster roll to split. And to end the night, stop by Trusty’s Full-Serve. It’s my favorite dive bar in DC, and possibly on the planet. Trusty’s is the perfect spot to have a drink and gossip and maybe order a hot dog if you’re hungry. If you’ve run out of gossip, you can play one of the board games lying around: Tetris, Battleship, a battered box of old Trivial Pursuit cards. Everyone is so nice and they always remember my order (sparkling water and lime).

Question Time

Is three days in Washington DC enough?

Yes.

The National Mall. And yes. It’s beautiful, lined by wonderful free museums, and you can see the Capitol and the Washington monument from afar, which is all you need.

Is it expensive to visit Washington DC?

It doesn’t have to be. The Smithsonian museums are free, and there’s good, cheap food if you know where to look.

When is the best time to visit Washington DC?

Spring and fall because that’s when the weather is the most mild (albeit unpredictable) and when the flora puts on the best show.

What’s the weather in Washington DC?

Cold and gray in the winter, hot and humid in the summer. Spring and fall are wild cards.

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