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14 fun hidden gems in Washington DC

The trouble with Washington DC is that the 21 museums that make the Smithsonian are so iconic that seeing anything else usually takes a back seat.

In fact you could stay for a week in the nation’s capital and still not finish with all those all free museums, plus the zoo (which is also part of the Smithsonian Institute)! Not to mention the monuments and memorials built to honour the many dead – from presidents to soldiers and notable figures.

This post is about Secret DC. The things you’d do on your second or third – or maybe 20th visit!

Aerial view of Washington DC with Lincoln Memorial in front
Aerial view of Washington DC with Lincoln Memorial in front. Pic Destination DC

I wrote this post on things to see in Washington DC for first-timers featuring the top Smithsonian museums and some of my favourite monuments too, covering things to do like a Monuments by Night cycle tour, but this post covers hidden gems in DC and off-the-beaten track things to see and do in the nation’s capital.

This time I decided not to step foot inside the National Art Gallery or the newly reopened and iconic Air and Space Museum, or even my fave – the Natural History Museum.

Instead I’ve rounded up great picks for off-the-beaten-track things in DC:

Head to the Wharf

If you spent your entire time in DC hanging out on and around the Mall, you’d not even realise the city sits plonk on the banks of where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers intersect.

In the last few years there has been a whole heap of development on the waterfront and now The Wharf is the place to go for dinner, drinks and events that are hosted down here.

The Wharf, Washington, DC

This is an event district where you’ll find restaurants and shops, free concerts, outdoor movies, even waterfront yoga – when the weather permits.

This is also where you can rent a bicycle and cycle around the Mall seeing the monuments, kayak, electric boat or stand up paddle board (I have these 10 tips for how to remain standing up on a stand up paddle board!)

Sitting on a swing at The Wharf
Sittin on the dock of the bay!

The original crabbers are still located down here (mmmm Maryland crabs), but aside from them, everything else is shiny and new with more restaurants than you could eat at in a week and great photo ops in the setting sun.

We picked up our bikes for our Monuments by Night Tour here, which I wrote about in this post of best things to do for first-timers to Washington DC.

Crab shacks at The Wharf
Get your cooked or raw crabs!

Hillwood Museum

This little heralded estate has stunning gardens and the biggest collection of Russian Imperial art outside of Russia. And the best thing? No one’s here!

Hillwood belonged to one Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal empire. She married three times and with her second husband the company became General Foods.

She is known as one of America’s first businesswomen, she was an art collector, noted philanthropist, and socialite.

If Faberge eggs are your thing, you’ll love Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens.

Her third husband took her to Russia – hence the Faberge eggs. But today you’ll find 20,000 objects from Hillwood’s collection of Russian imperial art, French eighteenth-century decorative art, and Marjorie Merriweather Post’s personal collection of apparel, jewelry, and accessories.

She gifted the 25-acre Hillwood Estate and Gardens as a public museum upon her death.

Faberge eggs at Hillwood Museum
Catherine the Great Easter Egg, Firm of Fabbergé, 1914. Pic Alex Braun. Twelve Monogram Egg, Firm of Fabergé, 1896. Pic Edward Owen. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens.

Visit Ben’s Chili Bowl

For a chili dog that’s good enough for the President, head to Ben’s Chili Bowl at 1213 U St, NW.

Ben’s has been here for more than 50 years but this area, U Street, is now a cool neighborhood for dining.

A cheeky selfie at Ben's Chili Bowl
A cheeky selfie at Ben’s Chili Bowl

Check out their website for video of President Obama downing a chili dog and shaking hands with his adoring public. A sign on the wall reads: no free food less you’re one of the Obamas or Bill Cosby. (Which hasn’t aged well – and has probably been removed since I was last here!).

Their signature dish is/was (!) Bill Cosby’s Original Chili Half-Smoke for $5.45 originally made by Ben in 1958 – half pork half beef smoked sausage on a warm bun topped with mustard, onions and their iconic homemade chili sauce.

You’ll need to pop in yourself to see what the signature dog is today!

Staff at Ben's Chili Bowl
Staff having a laugh at Ben’s Chili Bowl

Take a walking food tour

If you want to see more of the U Street neighbourhood than Ben’s Chili Bowl, book a walking food tour and taste your way around this unique neighborhood.

We met Soneka from Blue Fern Travel who took us on a walking foodie tour in the U Street area which is having a renaissance of “urban renewal”. I loved it. It’s great to see that this predominantly black and ethnic neighbourhood is not being gentrified with big name brands, but instead locally owned mom and pop businesses, cafes and bars, florists and ice cream shops, are popping up.

Of course we started at Ben’s Chilli Bowl and you really can’t go wrong here with a half smoke dog smothered in rich chilli served on a bun.

Then we walked across to an Ethiopian restaurant that has been here for years. I’m going to confess, it wasn’t my favourite food, but it was great to see them thriving in this cool part of town serving food for their homeland.

Have a rooftop drink

You don’t have to be a guest of the Washington Hotel (the closest to the White House) to go up to the rooftop, Vue, for a sunset drink.

The bar opens at 5pm with views of the Washington Monument and if you tippy toe you can just see the famous lawn. Make a dinner reservation and you get some of the best views in the city as the surrounding monuments light up over your crab, mango and avocado salad!

View from Vue, Washington DC
Amazing crab and avo starter with our Washington views!

Take a tour of the Library of Congress

It’s not as boring as it sounds! The Thomas Jefferson building is magnificent and you’ll get to walk around the Main Reading Room, usually reserved for credentialed researchers, and peer over the shoulders.

The Main Reading Room is only available for viewing every Tuesday – Friday, 10.30am – 11.30am and 2.00pm – 3.00pm. Visitors are also welcome to view the space on Thursday evenings from 5.00pm – 8.00pm. There are no guided tours, but you will find volunteers hovering about if you have any questions.

Plan to visit on a Thursday evening and enjoy happy hour drinks and snacks (for purchase) and live music and even movies on the southeast lawn.

The library is a free attraction for visitors, but you’ll need tickets for your timed entry. Closed Sunday and Mondays.

Outdoor movie on the lawn at Library of Congress
Topgun on the lawn, Library of Congress. Pic supplied.

Kayak on the Potomac River

Washington, DC sits on the corner of two rivers: the Anacostia and Potomac. Kayaking on the river is not your typical tourist attraction, but for a totally different view – and to escape the summer heat – it’s a great thing to do.

You can rent kayaks (and electric boats and stand up paddle boards) from The Wharf – see more on that below.

Visit Planet Word

There are more museums in DC than you could shake a stick at. Twenty one of them, including the National Zoo, AND are free as they are Smithsonian Museums.

But there are several more private ones that charge admission to enter, but should be on your list. Planet Word is one of them.

The restored historical Franklin School building, which opened in 1869 then sat moth-balled for years, is now a new $60m museum dedicated to language.

The beautiful Planet Word inside the old Franklin School building
The beautiful Planet Word inside the old Franklin School building

Its aim is to “inspire and renew a love of words, language and reading in people of all ages”.

It boldly opened in 2020, in the grip of the pandemic and decimated tourist numbers to the city, and on the tails of the now closed (but one of my former favorites) the Newseum. Planet Word is great for all ages from early readers to historians.

Dine at a Michelin star restaurant

Did you know Washington, DC is also a food-lovers paradise? There are 23 Michelin starred restaurants in the nation’s capital!

But if you have to pick one to have a gastronomic affair of the tastebuds, try minibar by José Andréas.

Located in Penn Corner, you’ll need to book months in advance (but if you can’t get in the acclaimed chef has four other local restaurants worth visiting).

Table of guests at minibar Washington DC
Dining at minibar is about more than just eating

This two-Michelin star restaurant prides itself on avant-garde cooking. No putting your knife down and just scooping with a fork, one food group at at time here! You’ll watch the chef put your meal together at tables surrounding the cooking station.

Eat bite is designed to “thrill the senses by pushing the limits of what we have come to expect – and what is possible – from food. The creations combine art and science, as well as tradition and technique, to deliver an imaginative and progressive tasting menu, offered at a communal setting.”

Get a massage from the best in town!

According to TripAdvisor, Leo, the masseur at the The Spa at Hotel Washington, is good with his hands! So it was only right that I checked out that claim for myself.

I was staying at the hotel, courtesy of Destination DC, to update this blog on all the many things to do and see in the nation’s capital. While I was there, they had a wee vacancy and offered me a spa treatment. I’m such a sucker for spa treatments and had no idea that the spa here is voted #1 on Tripadvisor!

And not only that, but Leo, really is the best in the business and it was at his hands that I melted into plush sheet covered massage table. Totally recommend. (You can also read my tips on Spa Etiquette if you want to brush on how far to strip off!)

Sunday Drag Brunch at Perry’s

From one extreme dining experience to another! Located in Adams Morgan, Perry’s Japanese Cuisine has been operating for over 30 years – and its drag brunches are back.

They serve great sushi, sashimi, noodle dishes and more. Plus they have a great rooftop offering happy hour Monday through Saturday from 4-6pm.

Perry's rooftop bar
Perry’s rooftop bar

But on Sundays the queens come out – all singing all dancing and pulling the willing crowd into their acts. (Make sure to let them know if you’re celebrating a special occasion!)

They run two shows on a Sunday: 10am-12noon and 12-2pm and reservations can be made up to a month in advance.

The venue sprawls over multiple levels with a year-round rooftop bar and seasonal rooftop terrace for dining.

A drag queen serenading a diner at Perry's
A drag queen serenading a diner at Perry’s

Take in a show at Ford’s Theatre

Ford’s Theatre (yes this is the correct spelling) is most famous for being the location where Abraham Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, April 1865 whilst watching a play from the box in my photo (below).

John Wilkes Booth, a popular 26 year old actor, Confederate sympathiser and white supremacist was angry with the president after a speech he’d made three days earlier about giving African-American men the right to vote.

Looking at Abraham Lincoln’s fateful box in Ford’s Theatre

He snuck into the theatre with a pistol and shot President Lincoln in the head. He then jumped onto the stage and broke his leg in the process, but made his escape and was caught later.

Ford’s Theatre reopened in 1968 and is still a working theater for performing arts today, as well as it being on tour maps for those interested in the history.

Tour the Capitol Building

There is no charge for these tours, but you are recommended to book online. When we went there was a long line outside and everyone had tickets. Then you’ll go through scanning etc, produce your ID and join a small group for a fascinating guided walk through many of the rooms you’ve seen on TV.

The tour includes the crypt, the rotunda, the National Statuary Hall. Not the Senate or the House galleries. It also might change up a little depending on what’s going on when you’re there.

US Capitol Building rotunda
Inside the Rotunda. It’s hard to capture it!

See a Nationals baseball game

The Washington Nationals major league baseball team won the World Series in 2019, for the first and only time.

They play at Nationals Park in the southeast quadrant of DC and wear a curly W logo – like Walgreens! You can take a tour of the park during the season.

My husband and I love live sport and try and see a game of some sort whenever we travel. Alas when we last visited DC there was no game on, but we did tour the stadium and even got to walk on the field and sit in the dug out.

Selfie at Nationals Park, Washington DC
Selfie at Nationals Park, Washington DC

Read more: if you’re planning your first visit to DC you’ll like my post on the best things to do in Washington DC for first timers.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!