Essential Washington: A Seasonal Guide to DC’s Highlights
Our nation’s capital is a hub of political and cultural activity – the place bright-eyed dreamers flock en mass to pursue professional, educational, and artistic aspirations. In a city known for tenacious professionals, it becomes easy to overlook the unique amenities D.C. has to offer. After all, you’re not a tourist.
Washington, D.C. is full of sights, sounds, and flavors waiting to be experienced. While the majority of visitors come with the unified goal of seeing monuments, exploring the Smithsonian, and eating Georgetown cupcakes (although Red Velvet Cupcakery is better), there are plenty of other gems for the discerning few to discover.
Perhaps just as important as what to do is when to do it. With that in mind, we’ve grouped our picks into the seasons which best elevate, rather than dampen, the experience.
Here’s our breakdown of Washington’s can’t-miss spots and activities by season:
The key to enjoying Washington in the summer is to stay cool. On those unforgivably hot days, traipsing around the National Mall in sweltering heat is the last place you want to find yourself. Avoid the elements and throngs of summer tour groups with the following picks.
Tour the Monuments at Night
The monuments are, hands-down, the most popular and heavily frequented sights in Washington. The National Mall is undoubtedly the epicenter of tourism, making it difficult to enjoy the monuments leisurely as busloads of sightseers jostle for the best vantage points or congregate on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. What’s more, undertaking the monuments circuit in the midday heat can feel like hours spent in a sauna, leaving many visitors exhausted by the time they make it to Lincoln (forget Jefferson).
For a far more comfortable and laid-back outing, wait until evening to tour the capital’s most iconic landmarks. Right around sunset, the crowds of the day have gone and the heat has dissipated, leaving a more relaxed atmosphere. The backlit monuments guide the way through the National Mall creating a picturesque contrast between the silhouettes and evening sky.
From the Smithsonian metro station, this loop brings you by D.C.’s most celebrated landmarks and takes about an hour. Whether you start with the Jefferson Memorial or follow the Reflecting Pool towards the Lincoln Memorial, you’ll be around water for the golden hour; if you plan on taking some photos, keep in mind that the sun sets behind the Lincoln Memorial.
Visit: 900 Ohio Drive SW, Washington, D.C. 20024 | (202) 426-6841 | Website
Go Kayaking on the Potomac
Getting out on the water is a simple way to counteract the heat while getting a unique view of the city from the sea-level perspective. A limit on building heights enacted in 1910 preserves the city’s open garden character envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, ensuring a nonexistent skyline beyond the Washington Monument. This changes as you take in D.C. from the Potomac, particularly north of the Key Bridge, where Georgetown’s Victorian architecture makes for a prominent cityscape.
Roosevelt Island, a small island off of Virginia, is easily accessible on a kayak and has several hiking trails to round out a day of adventuring in the wildest locations of the capital. Bring a waterproof camera to capture scenery from your nautical vantage point, or sit back and let the current rock as you work on a suntan.
Visit: 3500 Water St NW, Washington, D.C. 20007 | (202) 337-9642 | Website
Get Down with Jazz in the Gardens
Running every Friday from Memorial Weekend to Labor Day, Jazz in the Garden is a popular alternative to happy hour throughout the summer. Located in the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art, the shows run from 5:30-8:30 and are free to attend. Don’t let the title fool you – each performance features artists from a wide variety of music, from classic blues to Celtic acoustic rock to Brazilian jazz. The lineup is quite eclectic, so it’s best to see who’s playing ahead of time.
If you get peckish, the Pavilion Cafe hosts an outdoor grill cooking up BBQ sandwiches and jerk chicken, while carts to purchase mimosa pitchers are scattered throughout the garden.
Visit: Constitution Ave NW & 7th Street, Washington, D.C. 20408 | 202-289-3361 | Website
Drink at Le Diplomate
Philadelphia’s famous Starr Restaurant chain’s first location in D.C. is Le Diplomate. It’s a classic French restaurant with a Parisian atmosphere and an extensive menu featuring popular classics and a seemingly endless selection of wine. Choose between succulent Steak Frites or Skate Grenobloise, or for light fare, take your pick of Salade Lyonnaise or a gourmet omelet.
Whatever you pick, don’t forget to indulge in dessert, as Le Diplomate’s options are like heaven in your mouth. The profiteroles offer vanilla ice cream sandwiched between sweet puff pastry topped with bittersweet chocolate, while the warm Apple Tarte Tatin’s delicate flavor rivals your grandmother’s beloved apple pie.
Visit: 1601 14th St NW, Washington, D.C. 20009 | (202) 332-3333 | Website
Explore Dumbarton Oaks
The Harvard University owned Dumbarton Oaks is a beautiful estate nestled in Georgetown. The site currently serves as a research ground and intellectual niche for history and landscape design. This institution hosts scholars from around the world and provides resources for research on topics such as the Byzantine Empire, Pre-Columbian Studies, and Garden/Landscape Design.
While Dumbarton Oaks has a lot to offer in the realm of academia, it’s also an ideal spot for serene recreational endeavors. The gardens are stunning, making them perfect for a romantic picnic. Going solo? Benches scattered throughout the grounds provide peaceful spots to sit, write, draw, or get lost in your thoughts. Boasting elegant aesthetics and natural scenery, the property is the perfect locale for a photo excursion.
Dumbarton Oaks is considered to be one of the hidden gems of D.C. and is surprisingly affordable – a rarity for Georgetown. The entry fee is $5 for students and children, $8 for seniors, and $10 for regular admission.
The peaceful ambiance brought on by autumn provides a welcome relief from the brutal heat of summer. Fall’s crisp smells and pleasant sweater weather seem to magnify the city’s historical significance as gorgeous foliage accentuates the National Mall and banks of the Potomac.
Visit the Newseum and Its Incredible Rooftop
Learn history from the voices of those who lived it; through articles rather than artifacts, the Newseum offers an interactive approach to connecting with the past and celebrating the history of communication. Not only are the contents of the museum inspiring, but the architecture itself reinforces the institution’s central theme: the importance of First Amendment rights to a healthy democracy.
This is the museum for history and journalism lovers alike, featuring a collection of historic front pages dating back decades, parts of the Berlin Wall, and even a quirky exhibit showcasing past and present White House pets. Don’t forget to step through the ‘Window of the World’, a balcony overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall, for a one of a kind view of the Capitol.
Admission is $22.95 for adults, $18.95 for seniors and 13.95 for children over six. Tickets are valid for two consecutive days – a flexible way to explore the Newseum on your terms.
Visit: 555 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, D.C. 20001 | 202-292-6100 | Website
Picnic at the National Arboretum
Boasting plants from around the world, the National Arboretum will inspire botanical curiosity, or at the very least help you decompress. There are plenty of ways to explore this 446-acre park: brave it on foot, rent a bicycle, or take a tram tour.
To make a full day out of your visit, bring a picnic lunch and eat at the National Grove of State Trees. You can also see the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, visit the Aquatic Garden, or hike the winding network of trails that connect sections of the park.
Visit: 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, D.C. 20002 | (202) 245-2726 | Website
Eat Breakfast in Eastern Market
Just a couple blocks from the Eastern Market metro stop you’ll find Market Lunch, a popular counter-serve eatery situated among an eclectic array of vendors. Their Blue Buck Pancakes (made with blueberries and buckwheat) are widely popular for a reason. If you have a penchant for seafood, go for the Crab Cake Ben. No matter what you order off the menu here, it’s bound to be good.
If you go on the weekend or during prime breakfast time, be prepared for a wait-worthy line starting as soon as they open. And if a jolly, white-haired man is taking your order and shouting back to the chefs, say hello to the owner, Mr. Glasgow! After you’ve experienced the deliciousness that is the Market Lunch, explore the creatively vibrant Eastern Market or Capitol Hill’s unassuming charm.
Visit: 225 7th St SE, Washington, D.C. 20003 | (202) 547-8444 | Website
Grab Mezes at Zaytinya
Billed as one of D.C.’s top dining establishments, Zaytinya offers world-class Mediterranean cuisine at a reasonable price; in fact, it recently made Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list, a nod to exceptional restaurants that are moderately priced (roughly $40 per person). Savor the splendors of Mediterranean cuisine with Turkish, Greek, and Lebanese influenced mezes (small plates) offered here.
Enjoy the posh modern atmosphere with friends over shared dishes such as oyster saganaki, lamb bahar, and mushroom couscous. Zaytinya is also known for its inventive cocktails and unique wines; the knowledgeable staff can offer recommendations based on your palate, so don’t hesitate to ask.
This restaurant offers brunch seating, so you can sip mimosas with your spanakopita and homemade lamb bacon. No matter what time of the day you visit Zaytinya, it’s advisable to call ahead for reservations; the place is quite popular and fills up quickly.
Visit: 701 9th St NW, Washington, D.C. 20001 | (202) 638-0800 | Website
Winter is for cozying up with friends and family – a time to enjoy the figurative warmth of your relationships as well as the literal warmth of fireplaces and central heating. When the temperature drops, D.C. offers plenty of reasons to get out and connect with those you care about.
Go Ice Skating in the Sculpture Garden
Ice skating is a polarizing winter activity that people either stay far away from or seek out with fervor. Even for the former, skating in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden is something every Washingtonian should try at least once – if not for the activity itself, then to experience the Sculpture Garden in a unique way.
During the day the cheerful holiday music is ideal for a fun day out with friends and family while in the evenings the overhead fairy lights create a romantic glow.
Nearby, the Pavilion Cafe serves sandwiches, salads, and hot drinks to warm you up after being out on the ice. During the day, you can warm up by heading into one of the nearby Smithsonian museums or National Gallery.
A two-hour skating pass is $8.50 for adults and $7.50 for seniors, children, and students with a valid ID, skate rentals are an additional $3.
Visit: Constitution Ave NW & 7th Street, Washington, D.C. 20408 | (202) 426-6841 | Website
Visit the Botanical Gardens
The Botanical Gardens are definitely a must see in the District. Whether you make it a stop on your way to something else or make a day out of it, you should take the time to visit this beautiful space. The gardens aren’t huge, so you won’t have to spend a ton of time to see everything, and the building and plants inside are beautiful.
Located right by the Capitol, it’s easy to fit into a day of activities, and is an excellent spot for pictures. If you’re in the vicinity, it’s certainly worth checking out- whether you stay for ten minutes or an hour, the greenhouse humidity and exotic flora will provide a pleasantly bizarre contrast to the wintry environment outside.
Visit: 100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington, D.C. 20001 | (202) 225-8333 | Website
Grab Lunch at Union Market
Union Market offers a plethora of dining options, making it the perfect place to go with a group of people with different preferences. Union Market is a warehouse type building (perfect for staying warm) filled with vendors, pop-ups, and shops of all different types. On the sides of the building are garage door windows letting in natural sunlight and allowing for outdoor seating in warmer weather.
The most raved-about spots in the market are Peregrine for coffee, Panorama Bakery for pastries, and Rappahannock Oyster Bar for seafood. The casual vibe and diversity of Union Market make it a welcoming place to wander around and try new delicacies.
Visit: 1309 5th St NE, Washington, D.C. 20002 | Website
Feast at China Chilcanco
The blended flavors and aromas of Peruvian-Chinese fusion are sure to warm you up on the most frigid winter evenings. China Chilanco, star chef Jose Andres’ new restaurant, serves up dishes full of spice and sweetness that will make you salivate in anticipation of the next bite.
Choose from a vast menu of dim sum, noodles, soups, and sushi – each with a new unexpected flavor. Try the yucca fries with bonito flakes or yaki udon with spicy aji amarillo.
The red accented decor, simple wooden tables and cushioned booths bring an added level of coziness perfect for an evening out with friends, while the restaurant’s elegant atmosphere is appropriate for private meetings or parties.
Visit: 418 7th St NW, Washington, D.C. 20004 | (202) 783-0941 | Website
As colors reinvigorate scenery throughout the District, the city becomes abuzz with new activity – mirroring nature’s seasonal change in tandem. This is a great time to walk whenever possible; you’ll likely happen upon impromptu concerts or street performances as you go about your day.
Enjoy the Cherry Blossom Festival
Every year from the early March to late April, Washington D.C. holds its breath in anticipation for the peak of the cherry blossoms. Anyone in the city at this time can have the pleasure of watching the annual cherry blossom parade, participating in the kite festival, or attending Sakura Matsuri – a traditional Japanese street festival. When the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, take a trip to the tidal basin with friends and family to enjoy the cool spring weather as the delicate pink flowers float gently in the wind.
Eat at Daikaya
This dual restaurant offers two distinct dining experiences within an overarching theme. The first floor (Ramen) is a wildly popular Sapporo ramen shop, while the second floor (Izakaya) has a broader selection of Japanese comfort food such as miso salmon, chicken kara-age, and rice balls, that can be paired with sake and Japanese beer. While Izakaya accepts reservations, Ramen does not, so be prepared for a lengthy wait during peak hours and on weekends.
Visit: 705 6th St NW, Washington, D.C. 20001 | (202) 589-1600 | Website
Immerse Yourself in Passport DC
If you are fortunate enough to be in D.C. during the month of May, there’s simply no reason to miss out on Passport DC. This series of embassy open house events is your ticket to food, culture, and fun from around the world, without having to board a plane. Embassies open their doors and allow visitors to tour the diversely styled buildings, attend cultural festivals, and participate in a wide range of contests.
Over 200,000 people attend annually, so it’s best to plan your visits in advance and show up for the embassy crawl early. For convenience, the program provides multiple bus routes to shuttle participants from one end of Embassy Row to the other.
Visit: (202)-661-7581 | Website
Photography by Leah Beilhart