Spring is beautiful no matter where you are – earth gets covered with emerald-green baby grass, trees dress up in fluffy pink and white blossoms, and sky is painted in fresh layer of piercing blue. Although these changes are best enjoyed out in the nature – forests, mountains, park, lakes – there is no better way to experience spring in an urban environment than in Washington DC. Famous for its cherry blossoms, a gift from Japan in 1912 to symbolize friendship between the two countries, about three thousand trees bloom every spring and turn the capital into a giant pink fluffy cupcake for two weeks. This phenomena, despite being relatively unpredictable and short-lived (peak bloom lasts only 1-3 days!), is absolutely worth seeing, even if it means last-minute plane tickets and landmarks crowded with tourists. If you’re planing a visit next year, be sure to read this post which describes in detail different stages of DC cherry blossoms blooming to help you plan a trip most effecitvely.
Once you’ve had enough pictures of cherry trees (although there is never enough), go explore the city! After all, it is the capital of the most powerful nation in the world (no objectivity intended) and has a lot to offer, from presidential landmarks and memorials to Smithsonian museums (free entrance!), neoclassical government buildings, and really good coffee. Couple of things to keep in mind when moving around the city: 1) National Mall may seem compact on a map, stretching from Lincoln Memorial to the Supreme Court with Washington Monument, Capitol, and few museums wedged in between, but it actually involves a lot of walking as city blocks are quite wide, and 2) taking a metro to cut back on some walking may not always be a viable option since even nearest stations are still going to be a decent ten-minute walk away (unless you take Smithsonian metro and plan to go to Smithsonian Castle (an outcast among proud white-painted buildings in DC center)). Also, figuring out the metro system can be a challenge because you need to calculate a cost for each trip based on a distance traveled and then purchase an expensive single-use ‘farecard’ (which takes time) so if you plan to be in DC for at least for two days, buy a reusable SmarTrip card (it will save you time and some money but you’ll still have to calculate how many trips you plan to take when loading balance). I caught myself several times on this trip missing German S-bahns and U-bahns where you can get a variety of day passes and ride a train without having to check in and out at ‘faregates’.
The best way to start your tour of the city is at a base of Washington Monument. There you can get a 360-degree view of city’s major landmarks (Lincoln Memorial, Capitol, and even a sneak peak of the White House). Depending on what day you’re there, you may also get a panoramic view of portable toilets, neatly lined up just a short distance away in preparation for Earth Day concert. I found something amusing about the number of these toilets because they seem to stretch on forever in anticipation of tens of thousands of visitors who somehow have no better place to go (that is until I found out later that the attendance was expected to exceed 300,000 people).
If you want to visit the Pennsylvania Avenue or stroll through the President’s Park, be prepared to run into a lot of closed entrances and security guards. You’ll probably also run into a few instances of traffic being closed in all four directions (including pedestrian traffic) to allow high-profile officials traveling on an urgent-world-saving mission (they better be) to enter these secured areas while announcing their progress with high-pitched sirens. For ultra-urgent-world-saving people, there are also helicopters, flying low in the sky, at least several times an hour. Ironically, other siren-equipped cars – ambulances – often appear to be moving at a painfully slow pace. When you finally find your way to a north entrance of the White House, the first thought that typically comes across is ‘Oh, there is a fence so can’t take a cool photo’ followed by another thought: ‘There is only this fence that separates the President’s family and random strangers, possibly with guns and other non-friendly devices? Really?’.
While you’re in the area and if it’s a weekday, stop by for an awesome cup of coffee at M.E. Swing Co (1702 G St NW) just a block from the White House. Despite an unassuming entrance with dark faded glass, you can find inside an overwhelming amount of people in suits showcasing various government badges who come for a mid-morning cup of espresso while chatting with colleagues (often in another language). If you need a more substantial meal, get a take-out salad or a sandwich at WTF (Woodward Takeout Food, 1426 H St NW), also just a block away. Head back to the National Mall and enjoy your food on one of numerous benches before heading out to museums. My advice is to pick just a couple of museums that you are really interested in and explore them thoroughly rather than trying to cover all of them in one trip. I recommend visiting Holocaust Memorial Museum and National Museum of American History which are guaranteed to leave you impressed and thoughtful. Once you’ve had enough knowledge poured into you, catch a metro to Dupont Circle for a relaxing evening at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe (1517 Connecticut Ave NW) – an independent bookstore with a bar, cafe, and restaurant where you can get a glass of wine or a beer, a variety of food and desserts, and a simple pleasure of looking through various genre of books (although I never made it past the cooking books section).Another great place to go have dinner with locals is to head out to Columbia Heights metro station and walk east towards 11th street where you can find plenty of cozy neighborhood cafes and restaurants with outdoor patios. Few suggestions are Room 11 (3234 11th St NW), DC Reynolds (3628 Georgia Ave NW), and RedRocks Firebrick Pizza (1036 Park Rd NW). Although I have only eaten at the latter one, all of these places offer cozy, relaxed setting with great happy hour deals. The best part is that you’ll get to see a different side of DC, without tourists and monuments, just normal people hanging out with friends and families, and even pets.
Couple of other suggestions for great coffee that weren’t mentioned above:
- Pound (621 Pennsylvania Ave SE) – not far from the Capitol, famous for Nutella Lattes
- Busboys & Poets (multiple locations) – try their sweet spiced latte with organic caramel syrup and cinnamon
Obviously this post is not all-inclusive and there is a plenty of other things to do and see in DC but I will let you discover them on your own ;)