How to See DC like a Local

By David & Liv of ZEITGEIST

Come every election, there is a lot of talk about Washington DC—after all, every four years, a new slate of senators and representatives make DC their home. Over the course of my life, presidents have come and gone. I grew up in DC, and although I no longer live there full time, I’m comforted that certain things stay unchanged, no matter the political currents. From the architecture, art, parks, and, most importantly, the flavors of Washington, here are some of my favorite things to see or taste as you explore the city.

From Museums to Murals 

Architecturally, DC is a real gem. While everyone arriving on a road trip or for a tour will flock to the Washington Mall—not a shopping mall, but the place lined with politics, museums, and monuments—there are a few uncommonly known but equally key places worth noting. Iconic images from movies and TV shows might show the classical architecture of the Capitol, the White House, and the Lincoln Memorial, but behind those columns and porticos, there are the brutalist Bauhaus-inspired buildings that house some of the greatest art and cultural collections in the world. 

Two must-sees are the Smithsonian Museum of African Art, housing an incredible underground collection, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which holds American cultural curiosities—including, my favorite: an exact replica of Julia Childs’ kitchen! Yet from a purely architectural standpoint, head to the Hirshhorn Museum and the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art; both permanently feature amazing contemporary artists and other varying exhibitions. The Hirshhorn, a beautiful round building, Brutalist in its concrete simplicity yet also elegant and futuristic. My other favorite place on the mall is the East Wing of the National Gallery, created by one of the most forward-thinking architects of the twentieth century, I.M. Pei. The lot, organized by Jackie Kennedy, was triangular and Pei’s design included triangular shapes throughout the building. Rumor has it that this museum contained the most acute angle of any building at one point—if you do visit, just look for the darkened marble where many hands have clearly touched the sharpest corner of DC.

In the spring, wander down to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms, and stand before the towering monument of Martin Luther King. Explore the Vietnam Memorial, the African American History Museum, and maybe even take a ride on the historic carousel on the lawn.

Although contemporary art is housed in the amazing museums in the city, a vibrant arts scene extends throughout the rest of Washington DC. One mural I have always loved celebrates music icon Duke Ellington, and across the city, political slogans are transformed into artful murals. Creativity emanates throughout the rest of DC, and as you drive away from downtown and into the surrounding neighborhoods, the diversity of expression and opinion comes to life, making DC so unique.

Diversify Your Tastebuds

This diversity is also what makes the food absolutely delicious. There’s a large Ethiopian population in the city, so it’s worth jaunting down to Little Ethiopia. Ben’s Chili Bowl is an iconic stop to try, and my personal go-to is a slice of pizza from the Vace Italian Delicatessen on Connecticut Avenue, where you can get fresh handmade ravioli (the flavors of my childhood, unchanged!). 

Another constant—for as long as I can remember—is Julia’s Empanadas in Adams Morgan. As their sign says, “We don’t change often. We got it right the first time.” A newer gem is Muchas Gracias, a small Latin restaurant with amazing pupusas, queso, and tacos. It’s safe to say that the best flavors of Washington reflect the melting pot identity of the nation’s capital. 

To explore the different neighborhoods of DC and discover these smaller restaurants and food stops, use the Rock Creek Park network to get around. It’s a vast park in the middle of the city, untouched and natural (as opposed to the manicured parks of New York City). You’ll find running trails, the National Zoo (be sure to check out the lion’s den), and beautiful hilly woods, streams, and fields to picnic in.

Some things do change over time, but the nature—the massive trees; cherry blossoms and crocuses in the spring; the steamy, swampy heat of summer; and the red and yellow hues of fall—the flavors of the food, and the perseverance of the city are the sensations of Washington, DC that will always make it feel like home.

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