Things to Do in Washington DC
Better known for nightlife than tourist attractions, this diverse, funky neighborhood is proof that D.C. has a soul. Once an exclusively African-American part of town, Adams Morgan was formally named in 1958 for two then-recently-desegregated elementary schools in the area: Thomas P. Morgan and John Quincy Adams. Now home to a large cross-section of the city’s Latino populations (including Mexican, Salvadorean and Brazilian), as well as African restaurants and hopping jazz clubs, this is an area chock-full of flavor, color, and independently-owned businesses.
Centered around Columbia Road and 18th Street, it can make an excellent end to a day’s exploration of nearby Dupont Circle, the U-Street Corridor, or both. In the evenings, check out Habana Village for salsa dancing and Cuban food; Ghana Cafe for West African cuisine and, on the weekends, live African music; or local landmark Madams Organ for live jazz, blues and soul food.
Designed in 1818 for the War of 1812 naval hero Stephen Decatur, Decatur House holds the honor of being the first and last house on Lafayette Square to be occupied as a private residence. Decatur is best remembered for his skills fighting Barbary pirates; sadly these failed him when he was killed in a duel a year after moving into his new home.
Architecturally, it’s an interesting mash-up of austere Federal and wedding cake Victorian influences. Inside, the house museum displays a permanent collection of Federalist and Victorian furnishings. You’ll also learn about the lives of its most famous tenants - including Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay - and the slaves who waited on them. In the southeast corner of Lafayette Square, check out the likeness of Marquis de Lafayette, who became a revolutionary war general at age 19. Although Lafayette was branded a traitor in his native France, he was considered a hero in young America.
Part of the Smithsonian, this intimate museum is dedicated to crafts and decorative art created in America from the 19th to 21st centuries. Originally built in 1859 to house D.C.’s first art museum, the Corcoran Gallery - which soon outgrew these digs and moved down the street - this ornate Second Empire building had become a moldering, almost-lost cause by the mid-1960s, when it was saved from demolition by President Lyndon Johnson and declared a National Historic Landmark.
In 1972, the museum was spruced up, re-named for its famous architect, James Renwick (designer of the nearby Smithsonian Castle), and re-opened as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s craft collection. The Renwick has since become renowned for its rotating exhibits of inventive, detailed and even whimsical works of American art.
Designed by Italian architect Luigi Moretti in 1962, this distinctive five-building apartment and business complex beside the Potomac River was home to the political scandal that caused the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. However, as this tall, modern compound was partially funded by the Vatican, approved by the nation’s first Catholic president (John F. Kennedy), and thought to mar the city’s elegant riverfront, Watergate had been controversial for years before this scandal ever happened.
In 1972, high-level officials from the Nixon administration were sent to headquarters of the Democratic National Committee –then located on the sixth floor of the Watergate Hotel and Office Building – to burglarize the office, photograph documents and tap the phones. A subsequent investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post revealed the break-in, and in 1974, Richard Nixon was forced to step down as president.
One of the first homes ever built in the Nation’s Capital, the historic Federal-style Octagon House was designed in 1799 by William Thornton (initial architect of the U.S. Capitol Building) for wealthy Virginia landowner Colonel John Tayloe III. During the War of 1812, Tayloe volunteered the house as a French embassy in order to save it from destruction, and two years later, when the White House was set ablaze by the British, he offered it to President James Madison as a temporary executive mansion. Madison used a second-floor room of the house as his study, and it was here that he signed the 1815 peace treaty that ended the war with England.
Madison and his wife, Dolley, moved back into the White House in 1817, and Tayloe and his family lived on at Octagon House until 1855. Later used as a Union hospital in the Civil War, the building had fallen into decay by 1899, when the American Institute of Architects purchased it for use as its headquarters.
More Things to Do in Washington DC
This distinctive 1892 Victorian home in Dupont Circle, the first fireproof building in the city, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Often referred to as the Brewmaster’s Castle, this ornate concrete and steel fortress was built and owned by the head of the Christian Heurich Brewing Company; this company ran from 1872-1956 and was once the largest employer in D.C.
Christian Heurich, a German immigrant, rose to prominence in D.C. society as a result of his company’s success, and this 31-room mansion was the major showplace of his wealth. State-of-the-art in its day, it features indoor plumbing, heated hot water, and an elevator. Its well-preserved interior is a microcosm of life in a late 19th-century Dupont Circle mansion, which at that time was the “it” address for the city’s rich and famous.
This historic Episcopal church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the British-born architect of the U.S. Capitol Building. Called the “Church of the Presidents” for having hosted every president since James Madison in its pews, this Neoclassical place of worship was the second structure built on Lafayette Square – after the White House.
Completed in 1816, St. John’s features dozens of intricate stained-glass windows, as well as a wooden steeple with an almost-1,000-pound bell cast by Paul Revere's son, Joseph, at his Boston foundry in 1822; reminiscent of Revere’s bell during the American Revolution, St. John’s bell once served as an alarm for the surrounding neighborhoods.
Stretching over nine miles long and one mile across through the center of the city, this 1,754-acre forest park is one of the most distinctive and beloved features of Washington, D.C. Encompassing a leisurely, winding, and sometimes creek-side drive and numerous paths for walking and biking, Rock Creek Park provides a series of relaxing opportunities to sidestep a purely urban experience of the Nation’s Capital.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Rock Creek Park is home to a few of D.C.’s best-preserved historical buildings and smaller parks: the water-powered Pierce Mill, built in the 1820s; the elegant Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights, which features a 13-tier manmade waterfall; and Georgetown’s 18th-century Old Stone House, a small museum and the oldest building in the city.
The National Theatre first opened in 1835, supported by some of D.C.’s wealthiest patrons, who wanted their city to have a world-class theatrical institution. In the wake of the 1922 collapse of the nearby Knickerbocker movie theater during a snowstorm, the vintage limestone building was redesigned and reinforced for safety; its interior remained largely unchanged until a full-scale renovation in 1984. This renovation, quite fittingly, was overseen by a theater production set designer.
Since its original opening, virtually every great theater star has performed at the National, and a box on the left side of the stage has hosted every president and his wife; Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt were particular fans of the plays presented here. Today, the stage at this elegant, 1,676-seat theater hosts some of the biggest productions on Broadway.
Founded in 1807, the Congressional Cemetery is the only “cemetery of national memory” founded before the Civil War. The Congressional Cemetery occupies nearly 36 acres and has been designated a National Historic Landmark, while serving as the final resting place for more than 65,000 people, including many notable founders of the United States and the city of Washington in the early 1800s.
The cemetery honors 171 members of Congress who died in office with cenotaphs, or tombstones at empty graves. Some of the most notable individuals interred at the Congressional Cemetery include Vice Presidents Elbridge Gerry (the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who is buried in Washington DC) and George Clinton, J. Edgar Hoover (the first FBI director) and Tom Lantos (the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress).
At its peak bloom from late May to early September, this Anacostia River wetland full of lotuses, lilies and forest wildflowers is accessible either by boardwalks or – only at high tide - by canoe or kayak. The gardens are adjacent to a large athletic field surrounded by woods and flowering bushes, and to a restored 30-acre marsh rimmed by walking paths.
Summer garden tours are offered at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. One of the tour’s highlights, only possible in late summer or early fall, is a swath of enormous Victoria water lilies, which have pads as many as four feet across. Whether or not you come for a tour, if your goal is to see blooming water lilies, it’s best to come as early in the morning as possible.
Home to the local baseball team, the Washington Nationals (and its bald eagle mascot, Screech), this LEED-certified stadium can seat over 41,ooo fans. The Nationals, formed by the transfer of the Montreal Expos in 2005, is D.C.’s first baseball team since the Washington Senators folded in 1971. The East Division team played its first three seasons in D.C.’s RFK Stadium before moving into its own dedicated stadium in 2008.
Set in the formerly scruffy Navy Yard neighborhood by the Anacostia River, Nationals Park jumpstarted urban renewal and a thriving commercial district full of independently-owned shops, bars, and cafes; as a nod to its more historic and maritime Navy Yard surroundings, a submarine horn blares after every Nationals home run and win.
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