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AAA Traveler Worldwise | Mid-Atlantic States
Exploring DC Like a Local

A lifelong resident of the DC area and author of "The Unofficial Guide to Washington, DC"

My heart pumps with anticipation every time I hop on the Metro for a day of exploration. It’s been that way since I was a little girl, when my family and I would spend days touring our hometown of Washington, DC.

Decades later, my husband and I have raised our two daughters to do the same. Here in our backyard, world-class museums are mostly free, and the center of town boasts a two-mile-long park where monuments and memorials mark significant moments in American history.  

Friends and family who visit us are familiar with DC’s landmarks, but they quickly learn that there’s so much more to see in this vibrant city. You could explore here year after year and never see every sight. While most visitors are eager to return to their favorite places, they also want to tour new and lesser-known attractions. And DC has a trove of them.

In fact, when I worked as a guide for the Smithsonian Associates, a museum-based education program, it was my job to introduce locals to the under-the-radar treasures in their own city. The job further honed my insider’s knowledge of DC, and I still adore sharing intriguing stories about my hometown.

I like to begin by telling my visitors how, in 1791, President George Washington appointed city planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant to sketch the new “Capital City.” L’Enfant was French, and he designed DC to resemble the grand European capitals with their ceremonial green spaces and broad avenues. Beyond the dramatic layout, though, Washington and L’Enfant wanted the new nation’s capital to be hospitable to both American citizens and international travelers. I think you’ll find they succeeded in achieving that vision—and that DC retains that welcoming feel today.

For a memorable way of seeing treasured spaces, I always recommend that my visitors see their favorite monuments in a new way: by beginning their walk along the National Mall at dusk. It’s truly magical to view the monuments as the sun sinks below the horizon and the iconic sights are set aglow.

Pause on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial—celebrating its centennial this year—to look across the glassy surface of the Reflecting Pool, past the swishing fountains of the World War II Memorial, beyond the soaring obelisk named for the first US president, all the way to the glow of the US Capitol Dome. It’s nothing short of spectacular.

DC monuments
Dusk lends a special glow to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and its neighboring monuments; Photo by Renee Sklarew

When my friends visit, I try to create a tour that resonates with their interests, and often, they put the entire itinerary into my hands. We ditch the car and use mass transportation—looping around town on the Circulator bus for $1 per ride; speeding underground on the capital’s clean, safe and reliable Metro; or cruising the Potomac on a boat taxi, hopping on and off at any stop we want.

I love taking visitors on the Potomac River Water Taxis from City Cruises. These open-air and climate-controlled boats offer a scenic commute at an affordable price. We board at Georgetown’s dock at Washington Harbour for the Monuments Tour and then listen as the narrator describes the landmarks we pass along the way. The boats also board at the District Wharf, Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor, a resort destination in nearby Maryland.

National Portrait Gallery Washington DC Smithsonian museum
National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Renee Sklarew

The curators of the Smithsonian’s museums have made it easy to learn history and culture. Dream of seeing the 45.52-carat deep-blue Hope Diamond? Head to the National Museum of Natural History. Will your heart soar seeing Harriet Tubman’s bible? It’s on view at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Want to gaze at the only Leonardo da Vinci displayed in the Americas? It’s at the National Gallery of Art. Seeing any of these sights on the National Mall is completely free, though a few require that you reserve timed tickets.

While the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall is closed for renovations until fall 2022, I take aviation enthusiasts on a 30-minute drive from DC to Chantilly, Virginia, to see the world’s finest flying machines parked on pavement or suspended in mid-air in the hangars at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The aircraft include a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest,  stealthiest jet in the world; a pointy-nosed Concorde and the Space Shuttle Discovery. Be sure to ride the elevator to the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower to watch planes land at Dulles International Airport, and maybe catch the movie To Fly! at the Airbus IMAX Theater.

FDR MemorialA woman poses behind the Depression breadline statues at the F.D.R. Memorial. Photo by Renee Sklarew

Art lovers will find a stunning array of options throughout DC. That includes the opportunity to see masterpieces such as August Renoir’s Boating Party at The Phillips Collection, which just celebrated its 100th year. If you’re a fan of modern art, among the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s inimitable collection is Yayoi Kusama’s new mirror room installation Infinity Mirrored Room—My Heart Is Dancing into the Universe. All my visitors appreciate the National Portrait Gallery, where America’s story is told through images of remarkable Americans, including the US presidents. When kids are along, we grab a snack at the Portrait Gallery’s Courtyard Café before slipping into the driver’s seat at the Tesla showroom across the street.

Planet Word Museum Washington
Planet Word. Photo by Renee Sklarew

Planet Word is perhaps the most innovative museum in DC and the first dedicated to language and expression. It’s not only highly entertaining but also enlightening to explore the melody of communication in new ways. For example, take a book from a library shelf and see it transform into a film; watch as the word wall explains the roots of the English language; enter a booth to orate a historical speech; and listen as voices from around the world light up the museum’s large globe.

You don’t have to be a secret agent to love the blend of interactive games and fascinating artifacts at the International Spy Museum, which opened its new location at L’Enfant Plaza in May 2019. You’ll see the wreckage from Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane as well as James Bond’s glittering Aston Martin. But most exhibits go deeper, tracing the history of espionage from the US Revolutionary War to the covert actions of today’s cyberwarfare. The engaging museum allows you to crack codes and to learn about the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11. Before leaving, step onto the museum’s rooftop deck for a stunning bird’s-eye view of the city.

After visiting the Spy Museum, I usher guests to nearby District Wharf, a vibrant riverfront development boasting the 217-year-old Municipal Fish Market. We stroll the mile-long boardwalk and check out nearby shops like Politics and Prose bookstore and Shop Made in DC, which sells the best souvenirs from local makers. I love sampling craft cocktails and handmade pasta on the rooftop of the Italian restaurant Officina, which is a popular hangout for celebrities.

DC has a dozen outstanding theaters, many presenting Broadway shows and original productions. But most often, I take my guests to The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ two-and-a-half-year-old REACH, a complex of indoor/outdoor pavilions that emerge from a lush green landscape. The fragrant wildflower pastures extend the “reach” of live performances from the stages to the Victura Park Wine & Beer Garden. We’ll find a seat, order glasses of bubbly, and then watch the sun set over the Potomac River.

Dupont Circle architecture
Dupont Circle. Photo by Renee Sklarew

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While some visitors prefer a hotel within walking distance of the National Mall, I recommend staying in Dupont Circle, a neighborhood with Victorian and Romanesque architecture. This neighborhood is where many DC locals live and work, and it’s centered on a park with two Metro stops.

Dupont Circle is also a short walk to 14th Street, where the city’s most popular boutiques and cafés are located. Try the global cuisine at Compass Rose Bar + Kitchen, where chef Rose Previte has transformed the restaurant’s outdoor dining area to look like Trans-Siberian railroad cars. My family and I also love Doi Moi, a Vietnamese bistro serving aromatic, flavor-packed bowls of seafood, herbed rice and spicy noodles. Book a room at the Lyle hotel with its Art Deco guest rooms, some with kitchenettes and views of the National Mall.

The Capitol Hill neighborhood’s orderly streets lined with historic row houses also ooze local vibes. Parts of the neighborhood burned during the Battle of 1812, including the Capitol and the original Library of Congress housed inside it. Both were soon rebuilt, though, and the nation’s library holdings were revived with the purchase of President Thomas Jefferson’s 6,487-book collection.

Today, the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, with its fresco-covered ceilings, contains America’s most prized books and documents. The Library of Congress is open for free self-guided tours of its public spaces and exhibitions; timed-entry reservations are required. Don’t miss seeing the 566-year-old Gutenberg Bible.

Steps away is bustling Eastern Market, where vendors have sold food and crafts for 149 years. After we’ve had our fill of the market, I take guests to the Navy Yard, a community filled with 19th-century factories once used for building ships and munitions. We always stop at Bluejacket Brewery for burgers and craft beer. On weekend afternoons during baseball season, it’s fun to catch a Washington Nationals game. The Capitol Hill Hotel, with its apartment-style guest rooms, makes a great home base for exploring this district.

One of the truths about DC that I prize most is that there will always be fresh places to explore, and our most popular attractions will continue to enchant. Visit us soon. After all, Washington and L’Enfant designed this city for you.

COVID-19 policies in Washington, DC, are updated regularly. For the latest on vaccine and mask-wearing requirements, check