If you’re traveling to Washington, D.C., then you’ve chosen to hear America sing, as the poet Walt Whitman wrote. The city’s many museums and monuments tell the story of the men and women trying to form a more perfect union and promote democracy, even when those efforts failed, at home or abroad. Visitors will find the American ideal laid out across the city, with institutions such as the National Museum of African American History and the National Museum of the American Indian bracketing the National Archives where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are on display.
But for all its neoclassical architecture and Pierre L’Enfant–designed boulevards, Washington is also a modern city, with buzzy neighborhoods such as the Wharf District and the Navy Yard sprouting up along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, drawing Washingtonians back to their riverfronts with thoughtful urban design, public piers, and open-air venues. Here’s our guide on how to explore Washington, D.C. on a city break.
The city’s international and sophisticated culinary scene is flourishing, no matter who walks the corridors of the United States Capitol or the White House, and some of the most exciting dining spots can be found in places like the Wharf District. This sliver of shoreline on the Potomac is separated from the Mall and major sites by a highway, but a $2.5 billion redevelopment brought in hotels, restaurants, and enticing public spaces, creating a true destination that reintroduced Washington to its riverfront. Smartly, the regeneration incorporated the Municipal Fish Market, which opened in 1805, where you’ll find vendors selling blue crabs, oysters, clams, shrimp, scallops, and fresh fish. Pick up steamed crabs or shucked oysters and dine al fresco on one of the Wharf’s piers or take a yellow-topped Wharf Jitney across the narrow strait to East Potomac Park.
Further down the Wharf at Moon Rabbit, chef Kevin Tien creates Vietnamese-inspired dishes such as lemongrass meatballs and crawfish and noodles with unctuous dabs of crab butter. Meanwhile on the Anacostia River, Capitol Hill and other young staffers fill the condos that have sprouted up in the new Navy Yard area, and whither they go, the nightlife and restaurants follow. Standouts include Albi with its intriguing Levantine wine list, the sharing plates at Chloe, and the Shilling Canning Company’s fresh daily catch from the Chesapeake.
Washington was the nation’s first Black-majority city and the city continues to be a hub for Black leaders as well as for the African diaspora. Ben Chili’s Bowl’s link to the Civil Rights movement and Washington’s Black history are as famed as the chili dogs and half-smokes (sausages) they have been serving for more than 60 years. Meanwhile East African fine dining is getting a boost from chef Elias Taddesse’s elevated Ethiopian-American cuisine at Melange, and chef Kevin Onyona’s Swahili Village on M Street is introducing Kenyan dishes to the expense account crowd.
The National Museum of African American History was a hit the day it opened. Museumgoers descend en masse to the subterranean floors that showcase the horror of slavery, then follow as the exhibits rise in triumph and tears to reveal how the country’s music, sports, entertainment, art, and culture could not flourish without African Americans. The permanent collection includes an indigo-and-violet quilted portrait of Harriet Tubman by textile artist Bisa Butler and Amy Sherald’s oil painting of Breonna Taylor.
The Tidal Basin, which is wreathed in frothy pink every March during Washington’s cherry blossom festival, is a great circuit for walkers. Start at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial with its 30-foot-high carved relief, the Stone of Hope, which looks across the water at Thomas Jefferson perched on his great rotunda. Linking the two leaders is the moving Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial, which is open 24 hours a day. It’s even better seen at night when the moving water and low-lit stones spotlight his quotes to great effect.
Near Georgetown, the Kreeger Museum, a jewel of a private modern art collection, boasts artists from Renoir to Man Ray to Joan Miro to an entire room dedicated to Picasso. On the terrace and verdant lawns, sculptures by Henry Moore, Jacques Lipschitz and Isamu Noguchi abound.
Mandarin Oriental, Washington, D.C.
You wouldn’t think that a luxury hotel and a mullet have much in common, but it’s definitely business up front and party in the back here. The bland frontage at the Mandarin Oriental belies a lovely green lawn and gardens in the rear with a terraced back section that descends to a bridge and stairs that lead to the riverfront. The spacious rooms are done up in duck egg blue and soft neutrals, framing views of the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial across the Potomac.
Named for a major African-American figure in Washington, D.C. history, this 10-story hotel lies just north of the White House between Dupont and Logan Circles. Low-slung couches and buttery leather chairs dominate the lobby and common spaces, while charcoal grays and soft whites feature in the guest rooms. Works from local, emerging, and contemporary artists hang in the rooms and cover the walls of the lobby and hallways, while the Lady Bird rooftop bar features modern fire pits along with sunset views.