If there’s any city where you can feel the activism and sense that change is possible at every corner, it’s Washington, D.C. But true locals know this place isn’t all about politics. Go beyond the tourist stops at the National Mall, and you’ll discover a bustling metropolis boasting a formidable food scene, some of the country’s most stunning waterfront areas, and unforgettable (and largely free) museums. D.C. has evolved immensely over the past decade alone, with new hotspot neighborhoods emerging like 14th Street and The Wharf. Here, get to know the capital’s real highlights, beyond what the news or Schoolhouse Rock told you.
What does a museum wholly devoted to the English language look like? In the case of Planet Word, housed in D.C.’s Franklin School, it’s interactive, voice-activated (the world’s first-ever museum to do so), and the kind of hands-on experience so fun and engaging, you’ll forget it’s educational. Exhibits are organized by floors, and whether you’re learning about how many words in the English language have French origin (near 30 percent, BTW) or why Taylor Swift’s use of anaphora makes “Shake It Off” work so well lyrically, each thematic room will get you thinking more critically about the words you hear in your own life. This is a very manageable museum that can be done within an hour or two. If you’re hungry, head next door to Immigrant Food or cross the street and get a coffee and pastry at beloved D.C. bakery Baker’s Daughter.
The Georgetown Waterfront
While admittedly a little out of the way, D.C.’s best shopping, hands down, can be found on Georgetown’s main streets (particularly M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, which have every luxury store imaginable for some true Soho vibes). But head south toward the Potomac River, and you have a picturesque, waterfront park to unwind after your designer shopping spree. Be sure to grab a cupcake from Baked and Wired (1052 Thomas Jefferson St NW) on the way—it’s one of D.C.’s most impressive bakeries that has been serving up giant, daydream-worthy cupcakes for over 21 years.
The National Museum of Natural History
While they are all free and worth the visit, if you only have time to see one museum, check out the Natural History Museum. Come for its newly renovated dinosaur hall, stay to catch the Hope Diamond glimmering in the glass. Another very educational and more doable-in-a-day museum, this one will tap into your inner child with its fossils, animals, and science galore on display. Other highlights on or near the Mall: The U.S. Botanical Gardens, the Tidal Basin (a stunning jogging route), and the Library of Congress, which boasts D.C.’s most gorgeous interior (reserve a ticket in advance). For a change of pace, try checking out the monuments at night.
If you’re looking for a culinary experience to change the way you think about Japanese food, Shōtō is well worth the price of its high-end cuisine served in a stunning, posh space. Featuring a decadent but modern take on the traditional izakaya style of informal dining, the restaurant boasts a robata grill and sushi island—and truly sumptuous dishes to come out of both. To best experience the restaurant’s highlights chosen by its executive chefs, opt for the omakase menu ($95 per person). Going à la carte? The wagyu tacos, calamari, scallops, and sake are great additions to the table. Be sure to save room for dessert too: the restaurant’s yuzu cheesecake is worth splurging on.
Venezuelan chef Enrique Limardo’s Latin American restaurant, tucked away on 14th Street NW, excels in its flavor-packed small course meals—and truly deserves all its critical buzz. With food offerings that change daily, the chef’s tasting menu is your best bet. Standouts from our visit include the guava cheesecake, scallops, and fourth course seafood-packed rice. But what really sets Seven Reasons apart is its top-notch, attentive service and eye for detail. Sampling each of the four courses will make it clear to you that every ingredient was chosen for a very good reason.
Steps away from the excellent D.C. Alley Museum, Unconventional Diner is the kind of approachable, cool-kid brunch and dinner spot that packs big taste. Dishes have unique twists here, but that’s exactly what makes this restaurant an essential pit stop. Lunch favorites include the chop salad, a flavorful yet light combination of kale, hummus, pomegranate, and almonds; the super fluffy blueberry lavender buttermilk pancakes; and chicken and waffles, featuring a cheddar-chive cornbread waffle and habanero butter. Bottom line, what’s clear is that the chefs in the kitchen know exactly what they’re doing, with every surprise twist and blend of flavors at a price point ($13-$22 for a brunch entrée) that feels too good to be true given how delicious the food is.
An intimate but buzzy cocktail bar in the heart of bustling 14th Street, Jane Jane is the perfect pre-game or post-game spot to unwind and meet up with friends. The classics, including the bar’s espresso martini, hit, but don’t skip the house specials either. The aptly-named Patio Szn (dark rum, traditional Jamaican rum, and créme de cacao) is delight in a glass, while the Shorts Shorts (infused pepper vodka, lemon juice, chareau, simple syrup) packs a nice, surprising cooling sensation. For non-drinkers, the Rozata (grapefruit juice, lime juice, orgeat, agave, sparkling water), stands out as one of D.C.’s most unforgettable, tangy mocktails.
Silver Lyan, nestled in the basement of the Riggs Hotel, is a speakeasy that feels straight out of a movie—and worth spending an evening in. The vibe is dark, sexy, chic, and classy all at once. And the cocktails are masterful takes on the classics that perfectly embody the high-end theme. The martini-for-two service is especially noteworthy, with sides to the cocktails that make the drink a true experience (think: oysters, lemon peels, pickled onions, and olives). Fruit basket shots, featuring a standout strawberry daiquiri Jell-O shot on a citrus rim, give a college go-to a sophisticated, grown-up and debonair twist. Save room for snacks too: the donut holes with miso caramel dipping sauce are a delightful sweet side to an after-dinner drink.
Located right next door to Planet World in the heart of D.C., Immigrant Food will satisfy any wanderlust you have (at least temporarily). With a truly original and extensive cocktail and mocktail menu inspired by different flavors around the world, the bar is a laid-back place to lose hours in. What to drink? You can’t go wrong with the Asian-inspired Siddhartha, featuring basil, jalapeño, cucumber, fresh lime juice, honey, and Japan’s shochu blended perfectly together. Or, if you’re feeling nostalgic, go for the Skittles, a tart-forward cocktail that’s just as sweet as the candy.
Riggs Washington DC
Originally the Riggs National Bank built in 1891, this converted hotel offers a melange of traditional, colonial American style that’s been given a dose of modern flair. With a friendly staff whose kindness will remain with you long after you check out, this is luxury in the best sense of the word. Stay in one of the 181 jewel-box rooms with cozy beds and palatial bathrooms, and you’ll be as amazed by your temporary home as you are by the view outside its windows. Located in Penn Quarter, the Riggs will put you in the center of everything, so your exploration of D.C. is easy, with the Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and White House mere blocks away. Amenities include a gym, bar (Silver Lyan), and restaurant (Cafe Riggs) on the premises.
Steps from the White House and the National Mall, Hotel Washington gives an artsy and refreshingly playful take on D.C.’s history. Fresh off a 2019 renovation, the hotel’s rooms are chic art exhibits themselves, with artist Amit Greenberg creating cherry blossom-adorned headboards for beds and floor-to-ceiling murals in some suites. In addition to amenities like a spa, the hotel also has one of D.C.’s best rooftop bars and restaurants, Vue. Be sure to partake in one of its signature cocktails (the First Lady Lemonade and Power to the Peaches are favorites among its guests).
Positioned in Logan Circle just south of the 14th Street’s buzziest restaurants and bars, but just north (and removed enough) from the bustle of the White House and its surrounding area, Hotel Zena astutely bills itself a “urban retreat.” The hotel is among D.C.’s most feminist—if not the whole country’s—celebrating through its art and décor the accomplishments of women and the movement for gender equality. But what makes it the real dream spot for a girls’ trip, in addition to its design and location, is its idyllic rooftop pool with cocktail bar Hedy’s Rooftop alongside it. Good eats aren’t far either, with Figleaf Bar & Lounge, built to be inviting but spacious, with COVID-era safety in mind, inside the building, too.
Alyssa Bailey is the senior news and strategy editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage of celebrities and royals (particularly Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton). She previously held positions at InStyle and Cosmopolitan. When she’s not working, she loves running around Central Park, making people take #ootd pics of her, and exploring New York City.