If there’s any city where you can feel the activism and sense that change is possible at every corner, it’s Washington, D.C. But true locals know this place isn’t all about politics. Go beyond the tourist stops at the National Mall, and you’ll discover a bustling metropolis with a formidable food scene, some of the country’s most stunning waterfront areas, and unforgettable (and largely free) museums. D.C. has evolved immensely over the past decade alone, with new hotspot neighborhoods emerging like 14th Street and The Wharf. Here, get to know the capital’s real highlights, beyond what the news or Schoolhouse Rock told you.
What to See
The Rubell Museum
At The Rubell Museum, you’ll find contemporary art from the Rubell family’s personal collection, like John Miller’s sculpture “A Refusal to Accept Limits,” which features imitation gold leaf on plastic objects, among other works. You can breeze through the gallery in an hour or two, making it a perfect morning or afternoon pit stop. After you’re done, make sure to fuel up with a cold brew and pastry from Grace Street Coffee Roasters, located inside.
The Georgetown Waterfront
While admittedly a little out of the way, D.C.’s best shopping, hands down, can be found on Georgetown’s main streets (particularly M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, which have every luxury store imaginable for some true Soho vibes). But head south toward the Potomac River, and you have a picturesque, waterfront park to unwind after your designer shopping spree. Be sure to grab a cupcake from Baked and Wired (1052 Thomas Jefferson St NW) on the way—it’s one of D.C.’s most impressive bakeries that has been serving up giant, daydream-worthy cupcakes for over 21 years.
The National Museum of Natural History
While they are all free and worth the visit, if you only have time to see one museum, check out the Natural History Museum. Come for its newly renovated dinosaur hall, stay to catch the Hope Diamond glimmering in the glass. Another very educational and more doable-in-a-day museum, this one will tap into your inner child with its fossils, animals, and science galore on display. Other highlights on or near the Mall: The U.S. Botanical Gardens, the Tidal Basin (a stunning jogging route), and the Library of Congress, which houses some of the most gorgeous interiors in D.C. For a change of pace, try checking out the monuments at night.
Where to Eat
The Bazaar by José Andrés
Every ingredient matters at The Bazaar, helmed by Michelin-starred chef José Andrés. Housed in the Old Post Office building by the Mall, the restaurant serves small bites crafted with care and unparalleled attention to detail (dragon fruit ceviche, octopus, and olives that melt in your mouth, to name a few). Desserts are a must, especially the carrot cake with cream cheese, carrot halva, spiced crumble, and salted toffee. The Bazaar is a culinary experience from beginning to end, with servers sharing the story behind each dish and how to best enjoy it. Listen to them, then savor every fork full of what promises to be one of the most memorable meals of your life.
If you’re looking for a culinary experience to change the way you think about Japanese food, Shōtō is well worth the price of its high-end cuisine served in a stunning, posh space. Featuring a decadent but modern take on the traditional izakaya style of informal dining, the restaurant boasts a robata grill and sushi island—and truly sumptuous dishes to come out of both. To best experience the restaurant’s highlights chosen by its executive chefs, opt for the omakase menu (starting at $115 per person). Going à la carte? The wagyu tacos, calamari, scallops, and sake are great additions to the table. Be sure to save room for dessert too: the restaurant’s yuzu cheesecake is worth splurging on.
Steps away from the excellent D.C. Alley Museum, Unconventional Diner is the kind of approachable, cool-kid brunch and dinner spot that packs big taste. Dishes have unique twists here, but that’s exactly what makes this restaurant an essential pit stop. Lunch favorites include the chop salad, a flavorful yet light combination of kale, hummus, pomegranate, and almonds; the super fluffy blueberry lavender buttermilk pancakes; and chicken and waffles, featuring a cheddar-chive cornbread waffle and habanero butter. Bottom line, what’s clear is that the chefs in the kitchen know exactly what they’re doing, with every surprise twist and blend of flavors at a price point ($13-$22 for a brunch entrée) that feels too good to be true given how delicious the food is.
Where to Drink
Bronze serves, by its own description, “Sun Ra-themed” cocktails in a cool, sci-fi-inspired space. Standout drinks include the Voodoo cocktail, with rhum agricole, overproof rum, aged rum, blood orange, white peach, lemon, and absinthe. Pair it with a plate of torched oysters, because you should never drink on an empty stomach. The smoky taste will stay on your tongue long after you swallow…that is, until you take another sip.
An intimate but buzzy cocktail bar in the heart of bustling 14th Street, Jane Jane is the perfect pre-game or post-game spot to unwind and meet up with friends. The classics, including the bar’s espresso martini, hit, but don’t skip the house specials either. The aptly-named Patio Szn (dark rum, traditional Jamaican rum, and créme de cacao) is delight in a glass, while the Shorts Shorts (infused pepper vodka, lemon juice, chareau, simple syrup) packs a nice, surprising cooling sensation. For non-drinkers, the Rozata (grapefruit juice, lime juice, orgeat, agave, sparkling water), stands out as one of D.C.’s most unforgettable, tangy mocktails.
Silver Lyan, nestled in the basement of the Riggs Hotel, is a speakeasy that feels straight out of a movie—and worth spending an evening in. The vibe is dark, sexy, chic, and classy all at once. And the cocktails are masterful takes on the classics that perfectly embody the high-end theme. The martini-for-two service is especially noteworthy, with sides to the cocktails that make the drink a true experience (think: oysters, lemon peels, pickled onions, and olives). Fruit basket shots, featuring a standout strawberry daiquiri Jell-O shot on a citrus rim, give a college go-to a sophisticated, grown-up and debonair twist. Save room for snacks too: the donut holes with miso caramel dipping sauce are a delightful sweet side to an after-dinner drink.
Where to Stay
Situated in the center of NoMA among new high-rises and street murals, The Morrow is the place to go for a respite from city life. (There’s even a pillow menu to browse from room service, in addition to food.) Michelin-starred chef Nicholas Stefanelli is behind the hotel’s three hotspots, including Le Clou, the rooftop bar Upstairs, and a speakeasy lounge, Vesper, slated to open later this year, and plans to offer live music, cocktails, and even caviar service. Little thoughtful touches are where The Morrow truly shines: a breakfast station with fruit, water, and towels for guests in the lobby is just one of many examples.
Riggs Washington DC
Originally the Riggs National Bank built in 1891, this converted hotel features a melange of traditional, colonial American style that’s been given a dose of modern flair. With a friendly staff whose kindness will remain with you long after you check out, this is luxury in the best sense of the word. Stay in one of the 181 jewel-box rooms with cozy beds and palatial bathrooms, and you’ll be as amazed by your temporary home as you are by the view outside its windows. Located in Penn Quarter, the Riggs will put you in the center of everything, so your exploration of D.C. is easy, with the Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and White House mere blocks away. Amenities include a gym, bar (Silver Lyan), and restaurant (Cafe Riggs) on the premises.
Positioned in Logan Circle just south of the 14th Street’s buzziest restaurants and bars, but just north (and removed enough) from the bustle of the White House and its surrounding area, Hotel Zena astutely bills itself a “urban retreat.” The hotel is among D.C.’s most feminist—if not the whole country’s—celebrating through its art and décor the accomplishments of women and the movement for gender equality. But what makes it the real dream spot for a girls’ trip, in addition to its design and location, is its idyllic rooftop pool with cocktail bar Hedy’s Rooftop alongside it. Good eats aren’t far either, with Figleaf Bar & Lounge, built to be inviting but spacious, with COVID-era safety in mind, inside the building, too.
Senior News and Strategy Editor
Alyssa Bailey is the senior news and strategy editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage of celebrities and royals (particularly Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton). She previously held positions at InStyle and Cosmopolitan. When she’s not working, she loves running around Central Park, making people take #ootd pics of her, and exploring New York City.