What would you do on a time crunch in DC?

Hi, all! As part of a family vacation over the holidays, I’ll be in Washington DC for three days. I’ve never been before, so I expect to do the quintessential touristy things, like the National Mall and the Smithsonian museums. Because things like museums tend to be time-consuming, I figure I’ll have one of those days to do other things. So, what should I tuck into my itinerary?

What are your favorite neighborhoods and the must-not-miss restaurants or coffee shops? We’re also art and culture buffs, and would love recommendations for a good bookstore or unique-to-DC shops. What are sites and neighborhoods with little-known histories that would be good for a stroll (winter-weather permitting)?

Also, what would you advise is over-rated for a brief trip to DC?

To cut down on transportation time and maximize our trip, I’d prefer recommendations near the Mall, but of course will consider everything!


I have so so many thoughts on this. Lincoln memorial is the one must see, and Vietnam memorial too. The Frederick Douglass house in anacostia is a nice way to see something cool that’s off the beaten track. Ben’s chili bowl massively overrated. The best bookstore in DC is politics and prose. It is up next to a great coffeeshop, Little Red Fox, and a great and now-notorious pizza place, Comet. The area around Union Market is fantastic for cool new shops and grittiness and amazing restaurants, and Union Market itself is marvelous. Capitol Hill is a lovely neighborhood to stroll in for beautiful houses. Another good walk is going west on Massachusetts Ave from Dupont Circle. You will pass dozens of wonderful Embassy Buildings, and eventually reach the Vice President’s House. If you get to the Finnish embassy and it’s open, drop in for a visit and to see whatever weird Finnish art is on display


Hey @allisonkc, in addition to David’s comment, give Busboys and Poets a try at 450 K St, NW, DC. It’s a bookstore and restaurant that’s approximately a 15-20 minute walk north of the National Mall. It’s a popular spot for DC creatives to gather for a coffee or quick bite.

If you’re into it, take a look at ARTECHOUSE, an exhibition space that showcases immersive audiovisual experiences and has an AR bar. This is south of the Mall, close to the The Wharf, which is a popular new development in the city with some amazing music venues.

For walkable neighborhoods with cool shops and places to eat, I’d recommend Logan Circle and Dupont Circle. In Dupont Circle you can check out Shop Made In DC, where everything in the store is made from local creators. There’s also a lot of cool historical and cultural locations in the neighborhood to check out, like The Mansion on O Street (an Atlas Obscura fave), Woodrow Wilson House, The Philips Collection, and Dupont Underground (I’d check availability and what exhibitions are showing before going to this one).

Enjoy DC! It’s an amazing city with something to offer for everyone in your family!


I agree with all of the above.

I’d also add Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant as a couple of other scenic neighborhoods that are good for leisurely strolls, with a handful of fine restaurants in each.

There are also a couple of decent bookstores in Dupont Circle — Kramberbooks (new) and Second Story (used).

The National Arboretum is a beautiful, amazing place. But it’s a little ways from the National Mall, so probably only recommended if you have a car.

Anyway, enjoy!


Lots of great recommendations here already, but wanted to throw in a few more!

If you do head up to check out Adams Morgan or Mount Pleasant, be sure to stop by Elle, one of my favorite bakeries in DC. Meridian Hill Park is also nearby—the fountain won’t be on around that time of year, but it’s a beautiful park to walk around with a lovely view of the city.

Lincoln and Washington Monuments are iconic—the sunrise view from the steps of Lincoln is beautiful if you don’t mind the early wake up call. And there are also a few less obvious monuments on the Mall worth a visit. The Albert Einstein Memorial and the District of Columbia War Memorial are a few of my personal favorites. The Botanic Garden is on the other end of the Mall, next to the Capitol, and it’s a great respite from cold weather.


I live on Capitol Hill, a short walk from the Mall. If you’re here on a weekend, visit Eastern Market. It’s an old restored marketplace that has a wonderful cheese stall and a breakfast-and-lunch counter called The Market Lunch. The lines there can be quite long, so another option is going across the street to Tortilla Cafe for first-rate Salvadoran pupusas. On weekends outside is a large flea market with lots of antiques and crafts. The neighborhood also has multiple cool stores, including Capitol Hill Books, an excellent used bookstore. East City Books, which sells new books, isn’t far away on Pennsylvania Avenue. Down Eighth Street is Barracks Row, full of terrific places to eat. Finally, directly across the market and upstairs from the Acqua Al 2 restaurant is a speakeasy (unmarked doors) called Harold Black that’s a wonderful getaway with excellent bartenders.


If you need a quiet afternoon, the National Zoo is nice. It’s not San Diego, but it does have pandas. And it’s free and on the metro red line.

The view from the old post office is great, and if you don’t want to do the stairs, there’s an elevator.

The 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon is beautiful. Arlington is solemn and you’ll want to see the changing of the guards.

For dinner, I like theIron Gate Inn.

The nice thing about DC is that it’s constantly changing. You can visit a hundred times and not run out of places to see and things to do.


I enjoyed Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was shot. The Holocaust Museum, The Viet Nam Memorial because I knew someone whose name is on it. The Capital Building, The Supreme Court Building. You can visit your congress person’s office. The Old Post Office. The National Archives if you are into genealogy…


The Smithsonian is not a one day experience, being its actually a series of museums. Personally, I could not get through it in a week, but I’m a museum buff. If you know you’re only really going to want to do Air & Space, or Natural History, you could do one of those in a day, but arrgh, how do you choose? (And the National Zoo…) Arrrgh.


For museums and historical art, I’d recommend the National Portrait Gallery. Continuing with history, there is the Spy Museum and National Archives. The Newseum is scheduled to go out of business soon, so if there is interest in seeing old news, you must hurry. The Circulator bus does carry a person all over the downtown area and I think it is $1 or free.


If it’s in any way appealing to you I second the Udvar Hazy center, the Smithsonian air and space museum. How to tell if it’s appealing… they have an SR-71 Blackbird, THE Enola Gay and THE space shuttle Discovery.


All above is great advice. Personal favs are:

Museum: Portrait Gallery. SO much history behind the portraits (esp the President portraits) and the building itself. Building was used in the Civil war, and you can find evidence of that all over.

Book store: Capitol Hill Books. Every room is a different genre. The bathroom, for example, is the language room! It’s also right next to Eastern Market.

Neighborhood: Georgetown. So much history, and shopping, and great food.

Restaurant: Le Diplomat for fancier food, Chaia for fast cas. Busboys and Poets for groups.


Thank you for your responses, everyone! Your advice has been super helpful.

@davidplotz I had been considering making the trip to Frederick Douglass’s House, I’m glad to know that it’s worth it! I also definitely appreciate the honesty about Ben’s Chili Bowl; it seems to be one of those things that everyone feels that they have to do. Embassy Row will also be on my list!

@evanbonham, your picks are on my list, especially Logan and Dupont Circles! We’ll have teens with us that would love the AR bar at Artechouse.

@jeremyberlin Kramerbooks and Second Story will be some of my stops! Would the National Arboretum still be a good pick in winter?

@danbourn14 @cmacdc1 Capitol Hill Books seems like such a special place! Georgetown will also be on my list.

@Lucy_Vestina Thanks for the tip about the Circulator! So sad about the Newseum-- it seems like it will close at the end of the year, so sadly we’ll miss it by a few days.

@Gato13 Ford’s Theatre seems like a must!

@michellecassidy1 Thanks so much for your suggestions! Adams Morgan and Meridian Hill Park seems like such a cool area! I’ll also make a point to stop off at the Mall’s Botanical garden.

@Jules123 Would the zoo be a good pick for winter? If so, I’d love to do it!

@Shane_McGraw @ coehren The Air and Space Museum is on the list!

Thank you, everyone, for sharing your special DC spots with me!

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See International Spy Museum.
& choose 1 Smithonmian Ins musuem near Mall alone I have not seen Intl Spy Museum but plan 2

I’ve been a volunteer with the Smithsonian for more than 13 years so here’s a few tips. The Big Four are the National Air and Space Museum, National of Natural History, National Museum of American History, and National Museum of the American Indian since they’re the most visited museums. If you’re more into art and culture, visit the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum since they’re in one museum in the Chinatown/Gallery Place area. The third floor still has part of its original flooring from Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and a soldier carved something on the window frame during his stay when the Old Patent Office was commissioned as a civil war hospital. These museums alone would take a whole day but if you have more time, swing by the Hirschhorn Museum on the National Mall for modern art. The National Gallery of Art, while not part of the Smithsonian, is also fabulous and free but it would be better saved for another occasion for when you have more time. My favorite artifact in the Air and Space Museum is a model of La Minerve, a whimsical rendition of a self-sufficient aerial community - in other words, living in a balloon. I posted more about it here.

I second the recommendations for Embassy Row, the bookstores (Kramerbooks has a cafe and restaurant called Afterwords Cafe, so it’s a good place to end your day for dinner), Georgetown (got engaged here a little over a decade ago), Adams Morgan (favourite ramen place named Sakuramen is there), Dupont Circle (Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe) and Eastern Market (Fine Sweet Shoppe bakery). I suggest the US Botanic Garden over the National Arboretum as it will be very cold, plus the Botanic Garden has its annual Season’s Greenings show with plant recreations of conservatories, fountains, sculptures, garden scenes and famous buildings. For the same reason, the National Zoo might be too cold. Ford’s Theatre is good but don’t miss the Petersen House across the street, which is actually where Lincoln died - both are maintained by the National Park Service.

Grab a drink at the Round Robin, a historic bar located at the even more historic Willard Hotel, right by the White House.

This has been very long even though I’ve a lot more to recommend - just ping me if you have any questions, especially about where the best bathrooms are, hahaha.


Hi! You probably already went on your trip - however I am just catching up with my AO emails LOL. I lived outside DC for a few months, several years ago.

An unusual Smithsonian museum can be found near the White House (which in itself is uncommon since most of them are not located there). It’s for glass art, and it’s a bit smaller than the typical museums so it’s very suitable for a short visit. If you like glass art you won’t be disappointed - it’s fascinating! I really enjoyed it.

I also concur with other folks about the Dupont Circle neighborhood - it’s very walkable and it’s fun seeing all the embassies! There is a cupcake shop with lovely treats. From what I remember, in the warmer months there is also a farmers market however it may not be open in the winter.

I also personally enjoyed walking from Dupont Circle to Georgetown and from there I would walk past all the shops in that affluent neighborhood until I reached the Francis Scott Key bridge which will take you into VA.

The views at night from that bridge are spectacular (they’re nice in the daytime too, of course). You see, DC is odd in that it has no skyscrapers (no buildings are permitted to be higher than the Washington Monument) - however the neighboring town across the river is Rosslyn which has a couple of typical city skyscrapers. (Rosslyn is also a nice little city to visit and AO has an article on its metro station.)

So at night as you cross into VA, there are interesting views if you take a full 360. Straight ahead are the bright lights of the tall buildings, to the left you can see the city in the distance with the Washington Monument towering over the rest of the national capital, behind you the warm lights of the Georgetown shops and local community, and to the right… darkness! To that side of the Potomac the river stretches much farther and the wooded land beside the river is undeveloped because it’s part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway (which is a lovely drive if you have time! It takes you to multiple parks).

In fact if you ever find all the monuments and museums a bit too mentally tedious, DC has a ton of nice city parks and green spaces. Sometimes it hardly feels like a city!

As far as over-rated attractions, personally for me the Newseum did not hold any fascination at all, but it’s quite popular so I may be in the minority!

Hope you enjoy your trip. DC is a nice little city with things to do for all ages and interests.


Yes, indeed the Frederick Douglass house is excellent for a history buff but I would be careful of the neighborhood. My advice is to not go alone. I agree that Ben’s Chili Bowl is overrated. Not sure that you can get near the VP’s house, i.e. Naval Observatory, as plenty of Secret Service would be nearby. May need to do research first.


Agree with @davidplotz - not only is Ben’s Chili bowl massively overrated, but nobody can have a good experience there because of the huge crush of people in the place.

As a lover of all things areospace my vote would be the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center out by Dulles. It’s part of Smithsonian network but focuses on air and space. It’s where the SR 71 blackbird is on display, the space shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay and hundreds of other historically important craft.


I’d like to offer one more museum suggestion. If you’re interested in another art museum at all, try the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It has a fantastic collection and it’s not a long walk from the mall. You’d be surprised how many locals don’t even know it’s there!

You could also try the Renwick Gallery which is near NMWA.

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