20 Best-Kept Secrets of Washington, D.C.

No matter how you voted in the last presidential election, we can all agree that the nation's capital is packed with must-see sights—and tourists. Want fun without the lines, even during the inauguration? Follow these expert insights on how to do D.C. just like a local.

14. Picnic under the stars (music and moonlight included)

The National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden hosts magical—and free—open-air jazz fests every Friday from May to September. Locals know to arrive as early as 3 p.m. to stake out a patch of green on the six-acre lawn, which is dotted with dogwood trees and works by Miró and Calder. Listeners can pack picnics or grab dinner from one of many nearby food trucks or order a glass of homemade sangria from the garden's Pavilion Café. 7th St. and Constitution Ave. NW, free

15. From the mouths of babes. . .

Don't be fooled by the National Building Museum's vast and pillared Great Hall. This place doesn't actually take itself too seriously. Past exhibitions featured 15 small-scale, intricately detailed replicas of famous buildings made entirely of Legos, and the Building Zone area stocks soft blocks for tykes to create their own monuments. Zippy, half-hour-or-less tours led by Junior Docents (ages 10 to 18) cater to a kid's perspective—and attention span. 401 F St., admission $8

16. Get a taste of Europe, D.C.-style

On weekends, Meridian Hill Park is thronged with residents who come to marvel at the Neoclassical waterfall
staircase. But on weekdays, visitors will have the aristocratic formal grounds (designed in the 1930s and modeled after Italy's grand gardens) to themselves. Fuel up at one of several espresso spots, such as U Street Cafe, along the U Street Corridor before setting out for a daytime passagiata in the park (1301 U Street NW; coffee, $2)

17. Reserve half-price tickets to the city's best shows—in advance

Ticketplace, run by the nonprofit Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, sells half-price seats to concerts, plays, and operas by more than 100 metro D.C. groups throughout the year. Prime spots at a National Symphony Orchestra performance, for example, were listed online at $59 apiece, but those who booked through Ticketplace scored the same seats for only $30 a pop. You can purchase advance or day-of tickets online (upcoming shows are announced on its Twitter feed), or at their downtown outlet (407 7th St. NW).

18. Where to let your hair down

For years, D.C.'s after-hours crowd patronized the tried-and-true bar scenes in the ultra-preppy Georgetown and post-college Adams Morgan neighborhoods. But these days, a new nightlife king is emerging in the up-and-coming Atlas District, a formerly gritty three-block strip near Capitol Hill that brings a surprising twist to its bars. At the H Street Country Club, revelers can play mini-golf and and dine on gourmet Mexican food. Other stand-outs: the year-old and decidedly authentic Bavarian Biergarten Haus, which keeps a dozen German brews on tap, and Dangerously Delicious Pies, which serves sweet and savory made-from-scratch baked goods until 3:30 a.m. on weekends.

19. Tray delicious

You won't hear anyone cracking jokes about cafeteria food at the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum's sunny Mitsitam Café is considered one of the best lunch spots in town. It pays homage to Native American culinary traditions, with dishes such as buffalo burgers with green chiles ($7.25), maple-and-juniper-glazed salmon ($14.50), and mesquite piñon cookies ($4.50). 4th St. and Independence Ave. SW

20. Avoid the cherry- blossom crowds

While tourists huddle beneath the trees along the Tidal Basin, D.C.'s locals opt instead for the tranquil terraced
gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, an 1801 red-brick museum in Georgetown. Its quiet, manicured grounds are filled with cherry and magnolia blossoms, and its blog meticulously details the blooms on a daily basis—so you can schedule your visit accordingly. 1703 32nd St. NW, garden admission $8


The Atlas District
A photo tour of the best secret spots in D.C.!

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