The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for cultural city tours: Paul Bennett of Context Travel.
An award-winning writer for National Geographic and National Geographic Adventure and author of several books about architecture and landscape, Paul Bennett launched Context Travel in 2003. Context Travel runs in-depth cultural walking tours in cities throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia for groups of up to six travelers. Each tour is designed and led by a scholar or specialist—in disciplines including archaeology, art history, cuisine, urban planning, history, environmental science, and classics. These professors, researchers, and experts in their field provide exceptional insight and open doors that would otherwise be closed to most travelers. Paul and his team, who prefer to call Context Travel an “untour company,” recently introduced a series of family walks, some of which involve treasure hunts. Paul was also included in “Perrin’s People,” Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013. Context Travel’s U.S. programs—which includes walks in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and Philadelphia—are run by Carolyn Macuga, an art historian.
Where to Eat
Restaurant the locals love
The Passenger at 1021 Seventh Street, NW, is part of DC’s current culinary renaissance. It opened in 2009, and is located just outside the Mt. Vernon Square/Convention Center Metro stop. Owner Derek Brown is one of the most respected mixologists in the world, and he and his bar staff will whip up a cocktail based on whatever ingredients you want. The Passenger doesn’t have a set menu, but you can’t go wrong. If given the opportunity, go for the Kimchi Dog (hot dog with kimchi, cream cheese, and sriracha) or the Chilaquilas (a fried tortilla with mole sauce, topped with an egg and avocado).
Prime picnic spot
Light-filled, glass-canopied Kogod Courtyard is tucked away from the hustle and bustle inside the Greek Revival building that houses the National Portrait Gallery. It’s quiet (unless there’s a free concert going on) and elegant, landscaped with trees, plantings, and water scrims on the floor. For an outdoor green space, go to Meridian Hill Park, a nineteenth-century Italianate estate containing one of the largest cascade fountains in North America.
What to See and Do
Oak Hill Cemetery is a peaceful 22-acre enclave of terraced gardens and winding paths on Rock Creek in Georgetown. Established by native son William Wilson Corcoran (of the Corcoran Gallery) on land he purchased in 1848, Oak Hill is peppered with the graves of nineteenth-century philanthropists, politicians, and other public figures. Two of its structures are on the National Register: a Gothic Revival chapel designed by James Renwick (architect of Smithsonian Castle on the Washington Mall and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York), and the Van Ness Mausoleum, a replica of the Temple of Vesta in Rome.
Dumbarton Oaks is an eclectic museum and gardens tucked away in a residential neighborhood, a mile and a half from the closest Metro stop. Owned by Harvard, the former mansion features world-class pre-Columbian and Byzantine art and artifacts, impressive architecture designed by Philip Johnson, and a beautiful 27-acre garden and park. It’s never crowded, and as a bonus, it’s a short stroll away from two outstanding small museums, Tudor Place and Dumbarton House, as well as the Georgetown commercial district.
This may not be a popular opinion, but we’ll say it anyway: Ben’s Chili Bowl. The place has an unbeatable story that goes back to the neighborhood’s heyday, when U Street was known as “Black Broadway” and jazz legends supped here. Today the Chili Bowl stands as a symbol of black culture, social activism, and sheer tenacity. Mayor Adrian Fenty has called it “the soul of a neighborhood” and took President-elect Barack Obama here as a welcome-to-Washington gesture. But let’s face it: The food is unimpressive. Even the chili half-smoke is meh, indistinguishable from any other hot dog topped with chili.
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo. It’s a free world-class institution, easily accessible from two Metro stops and with plenty of great food and quirky shopping nearby, and big enough to occupy hours of your time. Just bring walking shoes and water, because it’s located on the side of a hill and there’s no tram or skywalk to give you a boost.
Get an in-depth private tour of the Capitol Building with a staff historian who has access to all of the public and semi-public spaces—a far cry from the standard visit, which requires reservations months in advance for a walk-through led by an intern or a volunteer.
One of the best views of the capital is from the Curtis-Lee Mansion on top of the hill in Arlington National Cemetery.
After Labor Day in the fall, or before Memorial Day in the spring, thus avoiding the high season while taking advantage of the balmy weather. Visiting midweek will ensure the museums and historic sites are quieter, but taking a weekend trip will get you cheaper hotel rates since most spring and fall visitors are in town for business, not pleasure.
From the beginning of June to the end of August, the city is unbearably hot and humid, and museums and other attractions are packed to the gills.
Getting your compass points mixed up. DC roads are based on a quadrant system, so if you’re trying to go to Ford’s Theatre, for instance, make sure you set your GPS for 511 Tenth Street, Northwest. That same address in the northeast or southeast quadrant puts you in a residential neighborhood, and in the southwest it’s a tunnel going underneath an office complex. Other common blunders: using paper tickets for the Metro (get a SmarTrip card and save $1 every time you swipe it) and showing up unexpectedly at the White House. Tours of the Executive Mansion must be arranged through your member of Congress (read more here). Book early! Reservations are accepted up to six months (but not less than three weeks) in advance.
The National Park Service National Mall mobile app, which provides an overview of the city center and detailed information on every memorial and historic spot.
If you’re visiting DC primarily to spend time in the city, then flying in and out of Reagan National (DCA) is infinitely easier than Dulles (IAD) or BWI. Tickets are generally a bit more expensive, but the proximity to DC and accessibility of the Metro at DCA more than make up for it. All three airports are busy, but DCA has the shortest screening lines even during peak hours, and distances are relatively short between arrival gate and baggage claim and curbside. Pro tip: If you take the Metro to DCA for your outbound flight and it leaves from Terminal C, ride in one of the last cars—you will exit the train right near the escalators that take you to the moving walkway into the terminal. If you’re flying out of Terminal A, ride in one of the first cars.