Native Washingtonians often draw a distinction between "Washington"—the official city that tourists see—and "DC"—the place where they make their home. The best visits to the Nation's Capital combine a little from both locations, and while you're there, here are the draws we say it's fine to pass over.
If there is anything hard about planning a trip to DC, it's overabundance. The city has a lot to offer and much of it is free, so the key to doing it right is prioritization. Few things on the list below are without value (except for driving) but many have a longer wait for a less satisfying pay-off. Figure out what works best for you, but don't be shy about taking a turn off the beaten track.
1. The Capitol
Other than Congress itself, there's not much inside the Capitol building that's particularly exciting. (Take note, DC is the nation's capital, but the iconic building is the Capitol.) This isn't always true if you get an especially talented tour guide—the stories are what animate the institution. But with Hill interns, it's hit or miss—plus, planning for a tour takes a little work. Also, the building is full of statues that make the corridors look cluttered. Save time and appreciate the view from the outside.
2. The Archives
The Constitution! The Declaration of Independence! A copy of the Magna Carta! Arguably the most important objects a person can see in DC, but the wait is long, the text easy to Google, and the documents themselves are just paper. It's a hard sell, particularly when traveling with kids. Try the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden (which features ice skating in winter and live jazz in summer) out back.
3. Museums That Charge Admission
It's no secret that the city is a cultural wonderland, with world-class museums at nearly every turn. But if you're short on time, or watching the budget, why not get your art fix at one of the many free museums on offer? It might make space in your wallet for a visit the area's best bakeries, a day trip, or even a unique gift to mark the trip.
Charming, yes, but not easy to get to. And there's just as much great shopping—if not better—along the U Street corridor and in Dupont Circle.
In many American cities, Chinatown is the go-to place for delicious (and often cheap) food, as well as a living testament to communities of immigrants who have helped build the country since the 1810s. But in DC, since the construction of the Verizon Center in 1997, the population of Chinese Americans living in the neighborhood has dropped from 3,000 to 300. A bevy of chain restaurants and luxury condos followed in their wake. What remains is a Chinatown only in name: think Chipotle and Hooters with signs both in English and Chinese script. The neighborhood's beautiful blue and gold Friendship Archway, a gift from Beijing from 1986, is the only sight worth seeing.
6. Eating on the Mall
There is one exception to this rule—the National Museum of the American Indian's fabulous Mitsitam café—but on the whole, the food is unexceptional and overpriced. Walk a few blocks (or a few museums over) to get a better tasting, and better value, meal.
The streets really aren't as confusing as the out-of-towners make them out to be, even with the roundabouts, but the traffic is. With the second largest public transportation system in the country (with total miles of rail second only to New York City)—avail yourself of the convenience of the Metro.
Molly McArdle is a native Washingtonian and a writer based in Brooklyn. You can find her on both Twitter and Instagram at @mollitudo.