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.

The National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden fountain

The National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden fountain

(Michael Mohr)

Standing in line is no way to spend a vacation—especially when those lines are longer than an inagural address. Yet the 16 million tourists who visit Washington from around the world every year wind up ensnarled in queues at major monuments for most of their trips. Follow these insights—from a resident expert, budget-minded foodie, and mom—to do D.C. just like a local, even during busy times like the inauguration.


1. Start with an overview

With Lincoln looming large over the National Mall and Arlington Cemetery beckoning two miles across town, it can be tough for first-time visitors to sort through the maze of D.C.'s must-see sites. The best way to dive in is with a brief introduction to them all. D.C. By Foot offers free walking tours that range from two-hour strolls along the Mall to a four-hour "All-in-One" epic that takes in the Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, and more. If you'd prefer to see the sights while sitting down, Old Town Trolley Tours runs nightly two-hour "Monuments by Moonlight" rides, which cruise past the FDR and Iwo Jima Memorials as evening falls (trolleys depart at 7:30 p.m. from Union Station, $35.10 for adults and $26.10 for kids age 4-12).

2. Catch million-dollar views—and classical tunes—all for free

Sweeping vistas are a tall order in this low-rise city, where the height of buildings is regulated by an 1899 Act of Congress. But at 150 feet, the uncrowded Pilgrim Observation Gallery at the National Cathedral is your elevator to the sky, with unobstructed 360-degree views. Down on the ground floor you can attend free organ demonstrations every Monday and Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. and explore the architecture of this neo-Gothic behemoth. (Bring binoculars to spot the carved head of Darth Vader outside, near the top of the northwest tower). 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, $10 suggested donation

3. Get lost in space

Adults may see D.C. as a wonderland with more than 50 museums to explore. But those with children know to choose wisely—or pay the price. Home to vintage flying machines like Charles Lindburgh's 1927 Spirit of St. Louis plane and the 1969 Apollo 11 command module, the National Air and Space Museum is one of the most kid-friendly branches of the Smithsonian. Its lineup features a 20-minute planetarium show starring Sesame Street characters, and air-travel-themed story times, where little ones can keep their hands busy building model planes and rocket ships. Independence Ave. at 6th St. SW, free

4. Booking a White House tour is worth the effort

It's not impossible to do a tour of the White House, but it does take some planning. And a lot of patience. Once you know when you are going to be in D.C., contact the office of your Member of Congress to request tickets. Requests can't be made more than six months in advance, but no less than 21 days before your trip. It can take five months to book one of the self-guided tours, though. Worth it to get access to the country's most important residence.

5. A new crew of fashion talent (really)

For all of D.C.'s draws—power, monuments, and living history—shopping hasn't traditionally been at the top of the list. At least until recently. A string of fashion-forward shops has popped up around 14th St. and the U St. Corridor. Jiwon Paik-Nguyen (who has worked for Theory, J. Crew, and Polo Ralph Lauren) imported a little SoHo style to her hometown two-and-a-half years ago with Rue 14, where she stocks wares by BB Dakota and Jeffrey Campbell. And up the street, Christopher Reiter pulled the best contemporary housewares from his four-year adventures across Southeast Asia to fill the floor at Mulèh.


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

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