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Travel News Beyond the Monuments: 10 Cool Experiences to Have in D.C.

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Beyond the Monuments: 10 Cool Experiences to Have in D.C.

This isn’t another boring guide to the nation's capital. We’re not going to tell you to walk around the National Mall or ride a hop on, hop off bus around the city.

There are more places to see in Washington D.C. than just the run-of-the-mill attractions. Don’t get me wrong, the monuments, museums and the like are totally worth a visit during your first time to the District. But if you’re a repeat visitor or like to get off the beaten path, then read on for a local’s opinion on some other cool experiences you could have in the nation’s capital.

1. Kayak the Potomac

The Potomac River snakes along the southern border of the District, separating it from Northern Virginia. From spring through fall, boathouses offer hourly rentals of kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. The best part about paddling the river is the feeling of being outside the city and in nature. The Potomac River is flanked by bushes and towering trees (as well as nice hiking, biking, and running trails), and you’re guaranteed to see wildlife, from deer to turtles to ducks and great blue heron.

Local’s tip: Rent from the Key Bridge Boathouse in Georgetown for the best scenery options. Paddling north, you can go as far as Fletchers Cove and really feel like you’re out of the city and in nature. Paddling south, you can cruise by the Georgetown waterfront, sneak a river view of the Lincoln Memorial and loop around Roosevelt Island on your return. 

2. Enjoy a Concert at the Legendary 930 Club

Washington D.C. is home to more than a dozen top-notch concert venues, ranging from the intimate to the enormous, but none are as famed as 930 Club. Just a block north of buzzing U Street, 930 Club is a spot where you can see both well-known musicians and up-and-coming acts in a range of genres.

The venue’s capacity is 1,200, but its layout makes every spot a good one. There’s an expansive floor in front of the stage and a U-shaped second-floor balcony with a tiered floor. The upstairs bar has a row of stools facing the stage, so those who want to sit can snag a spot if they arrive early enough.

Local’s tip: Since nearly all the shows at this venue are standing room/general admission, arrive early to guarantee a prime spot. If you go hungry, you can grab some tasty grub where the Food Food sign is next to the first-floor back bar.

Enjoying a concert in Washington D.C.

3. Visit The Saloon for a Beer and Bites

Hip bars lining 14th Street and along the popular U Street Corridor have been stealing the spotlight for years, and as a result, The Saloon on U and 12 Street has remained largely under the radar for visitors and even locals who walk past its unassuming brick façade.

This no-nonsense bar has signs outside and inside the building warning that certain things aren’t welcome: AmEx, martinis, cellphones, and standing at the bar, among others. The Saloon is where you go to grab a German beer, maybe a couple hunks of boozy pineapple and talk to friends or fellow bar patrons without pretension or distractions.

If the setting isn’t reason enough to pay a visit, the owner’s annual tradition will make you want to support this purpose-driven bar. Every August, Kamal Jahanbein shuts down The Saloon to build a school in a disadvantaged town in a developing country, funded partly by donations to the Kamal Foundation that are generated by The Saloon. A portion of bar sales are donated, and Jahanbein also employs a unique way to donate. You can buy one or more of the bricks that line the bar’s exterior and interior walls and have your name penned on it.

Local’s tip: Sit at the bar if there’s a stool available. Jahanbein is usually bartending and loves to make food and drink suggestions based on your tastes. Let him know what you like and then prepare to be wowed by his selections.

4. Walk The Wharf

Riverside restaurants used to be few and far between in Washington D.C. In late 2017, a massive project to revitalize the Southwest waterfront was completed and reopened as The Wharf. The original open-air Maine Avenue Fish Market remained intact and is worth a visit for window shoppers and those who want freshly shucked oysters, seasoned crabs, or satisfying clam chowder. You can walk on the boardwalk from the seafood market down a line of restaurants, shops and concert venues. Take a detour to stroll along one of the piers that jut out into the Washington Channel or hop on a water taxi to explore Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria or National Harbor.

Local’s tip: Eat at Hank’s Oyster Bar or Rappahannock Oyster Bar, two local favorites for fresh seafood. Then climb aboard The Wharf’s Jitney for a free ride across the Washington Channel to East Potomac Park. Take a stroll around the park to walk off your meal before crossing back (for free).

places to see in washington D.C.

5. Stroll Around Theodore Roosevelt Island

This Potomac River island is a favorite for those wanting to feel closer to nature. Accessible via a pedestrian bridge in Rosslyn, Virginia, this National Park is free to visit. Whether you walk or run the couple miles of peaceful hiking trails, you will marvel at how close you are to the city while being surrounded by wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands. On weekends, rangers lead guided walks through the island.

Local’s tip: Bring a picnic lunch and a blanket. Find a scenic spot on the ground and enjoy the serenity of the surrounding forest. Walk out to the river and dip your toes in the Potomac River as you watch boats and kayaks cruise by.

6. Watch the 2019 World Series Champs

During baseball season, head to Nationals Park in Navy Yard to catch a Nats game. Rub shoulders with locals as they pregame at The Bullpen, which is just outside the Park’s main entrance. The Bullpen’s doors open two hours before home games and entrance is free. Inside you can enjoy a range of ballpark food and drink options, as well as live music.

Local’s tip: Grab a copy of The Washington Post newspaper. There are often ads for game deals, which range from discounted tickets to a ticket-and-meal combo deal. You may need to redeem the deal online with a promo code or in-person at the box office.

7. Take a Day Trip to Harpers Ferry

In the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, is just over an hour outside D.C. and offers activities for nature lovers and history buffs alike. In Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park, you can hike on miles of well-maintained trails or pop into museums and explore Civil War exhibits. For an adrenaline rush, go whitewater rafting. Or kick back and relax on an inner tube as you float down the river. Nearby is Antietam National Battlefield, where the eponymous Civil War battle took place.

Local’s tip: Harpers Ferry is quaint and worth a walk through, but even better is hiking the Maryland Heights Trail. Its popular scenic overlook offers hikers a bird’s-eye view of the area, where you can admire the town, watch trains chug through and see the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

8. Eat Ethiopian or Eritrean Food

It’s been reported that the largest concentration of Ethiopians outside of Africa is in the greater Washington D.C. area. As a result, injera and tibs are easy to find around the District.

Those who never tried this cuisine will enjoy its communal way of eating. All dishes that come with your meal are placed on top of a large piece of injera, a thin, spongy bread that is used as an eating utensil. Dishes are eaten with pieces of the injera that you tear off and use to pick up bites of stews or veggies or lentils. Although there are meat options, Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines are vegetarian-friendly, and injera is vegan and gluten-free, being made from teff flour.

Local’s tip: At the bottom of Adams Morgan is a local favorite called Keren. The restaurant is small, so show up early to avoid waiting for a table. Or opt for takeout and have an outdoor picnic in Kalorama Park, a cute neighborhood park just a few blocks north of Keren.

Ethiopian food in Washington D.C

9. Visit Embassies During Passport D.C.

For the entire month of May each year, embassies around the District host events and invite visitors to come onto the embassy grounds for an open house—all for free as part of Passport D.C. There are many festivals and events around Washington D.C. every year, but this one is worth planning your trip around, especially for the open house weekends. Each embassy does something different (sometimes you can meet the ambassador!), and many of them cook up local specialties and even serve beverages that their country is known for. You might try coffee at the Turkish embassy, rum at the Dominican Republic embassy, and chocolate at Bolivia’s embassy.

Local’s tip: The Around the World Embassy Tour and European Union Open House are on different weekends, but either of these will be worth your time. Try to start early and visit embassies that are not on Embassy Row (i.e. Massachusetts Avenue), as they are always less crowded and just as interesting. Shuttle buses connect some of these out-of-the-way embassies, so you don’t have to worry about walking the whole distance.

10. See a Show at Ford’s Theater

Ford’s Theatre is best known as the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. For those interested in history, this is the place to see when in Washington D.C. Although it’s open to the public for tours, it has remained a working theater. Tickets for historic site visits are only $3 per person and available daily (they do sell out during the high season, so it’s best to book in advance). The theater itself is a beautifully decorated venue for seeing a play, and its history only elevates the experience. As a bonus, museum entry is often included in the price of a theater ticket.

Local’s tip: Check out Ford’s Theater’s discounts page before booking. All sorts of promos are offered, like reduced prices for those younger than 35, free tickets to the first showing of a mainstage performance and discounted previews to select productions.

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