INSIDER TRAVEL SECRETS
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.
6. Eat breakfast with the cheetahs
Looking for an early-morning destination to hit when the museums are shuttered? The 163-acre grounds of the National Zoo generally open by 6 a.m.(ish)—four hours before its exhibits officially come to life. Stick around and you'll be rewarded with the sight of six resident orangutans making their way—hand over hand—across an almost 500-foot-long stretch of cables connecting two areas. 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, free
7. Score a major game day deal
Big-arena sporting events aren't usually known for their affordability, but baseball games at Nationals Park—where tickets start at $5—are one of the best bargains in town, especially when the team's running a special. In previous seasons, for example, groups of two or more pay just $14 a pop for upper-right field terrace seats, a hot dog, chips, and a drink on Saturdays and Sundays. On select Sundays, kids were even invited down to run the bases after the game. 1500 South Capitol St. SE
8. Go behind closed embassy doors
Unless you're a diplomat, D.C.'s 175-plus international embassies are generally off-limits. But every May, the doors of some 30 missions—often located in historic mansions—open to the public for a day as part of the annual Passport D.C. outreach program. Guests have been able to sample lamb chops and Shiraz, watch a tae kwon do demonstration, or take in a fashion show at the Australian, Korean, and Saudi Arabian embassies, respectively, all for free. During prime afternoon hours, hit the embassies on International Drive, which tend to be larger and less hectic than the rest.
9. Explore the locals' arts scene
On the first Friday of every month, D.C. residents flock to Dupont Circle, when the neighborhood's quiet constellation of galleries turns into a bustling, decidedly un-snooty fete. Start and end at the nonprofit Hillyer Art Space, the epicenter of the action; you can expect live music and the wine to flow freely until 9 p.m. 9 Hillyer Court NW
10. Know that history slept everywhere
D.C.'s venerable hotels (The Hay-Adams, The Willard) have seen a lot of history pass through their gilded lobbies. Get some history on a smaller scale at the Tabard Inn. Located five blocks from the White House, this historic boutique hotel consists of three 19th-century row houses with 40 rooms and a brick and ivy-covered courtyard. It's quaint (that means no elevators and only a few TVs, on request), but it also has just the right comforts, like free Wi-Fi, a pass to the local YMCA, and free breakfast (homemade granola or freshly baked scones with cream). 1739 N Street NW, double rooms from $145
11. Save on hotels by timing it right
Try to hit the city when Congress is away on recess and hotel rates plummet, typically April and August (the congressional schedule is listed online at senate.gov and house.gov). Even the swankiest hotels in town drop their rates by almost 50% when Congress clears out.
12. When it comes to crab cakes, you're going to have to choose sides
Crab cakes are served in two kinds of settings in this town: down and dirty or rich and refined. Which school you pledge allegiance to is your business, of course, so we'll just arm you with tools to make your preferred choice. Frequented by Presidents Grant, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt, according to local lore, the Old Ebbitt Grill lays claim to some justifiably famous crab cakes, made with fresh parsley and Old Bay seasoning (crab cakes $18). The waiters wear red bow ties and suspenders, and diners sit in mahogany and velvet booths beneath antique, gas-lit chandeliers. For the amazing, hole-in-the-wall alternative, grab a stool at the lunch counter (or a seat on the patio) at C.F. Folks Restaurant, where patrons love to chat with the owner—and legendary crank—Art Carlson (crab cake sandwich $14).
13. Where the locals go when they don't have a dinner reservation
In the last few years, D.C.'s culinary scene has gone from an afterthought to one of the city's main attractions. Nowhere is the evolution more evident than the area of Capitol Hill known as Barracks Row. Here, the restaurants serve everything from soul food and Greek meze to authentic Indian cuisine. Find the majority of these low-key dining spots on 8th Street between Pennsylvania Ave. and M Street, where you can stroll along and window-shop the menus before choosing your favorite one.