DC is a little emptier the weekend of Thanksgiving, with many—though not all—people leaving the city to visit family elsewhere. For the lucky few who spend Turkey Day in the District, that means an opportunity to get the city's incredibly popular sites, and best eateries, to yourself.

By Molly McArdle
November 17, 2015
Nutcracker Ballet Joffery
Credit: Cheryl Mann Productions

Thanksgiving weekend in Washington, DC, is the perfect time to visit the city's otherwise most crowded spots—museums, restaurants, and art venues. Beat the crowds and get the best values on Black Friday by avoiding the malls and heading for the Mall.

1. Spend the morning at the National Gallery of Art, one of the rare museums on the Mall not a part the Smithsonian Institution (though it's just as free). Founded by a donation from industrialist Andrew W. Mellon, the enormous and beautiful museum—divided into neoclassical West and modern East Buildings (the former designed by John Russell Pope, the latter by I. M. Pei), traces the course of Western art from the Middles Ages to the present. Several tours are offered each day. Don't neglect the rich permanent collection: the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Western hemisphere, Titian's "Venus with a Mirror," Rembrant's 1659 "Self-Portrait," John Singleton Copley's "Watson and the Shark," Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Shaw memorial, and Alexander Calder's magnificent mobiles.

2. Grab lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian. The Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe draws its name from the phrase "Let's eat!" in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples. The cafe—a hidden gem for those looking for a good meal on the Mall—serves food drawn from many Native American food cultures, from southwestern fry bread to Oaxacan corn totopos, to hybrid dishes like buffalo burgers. The Museum, of course, is so much more than just its food: check out exhibits on Incan road building, contemporary artist Kay Walkingstick, and the 1862 war between the U.S. and the Dakota. The day after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day, so visitors on November 27 will be treated to performances by two-time World Champion Fancy Dancer Larry Yazzie.

3. Warm up at the U.S. Botanic Garden, which features a large decorated tree, an array of poinsettias, a train display, and local landmarks—like the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, and the Washington Monument—made from plants. Open every day of the year, the garden is the oldest to continually operate in the United States. (James Monroe set aside the land in 1820.) French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who also designed the Statue of Liberty, built the beautiful 1876 bronze fountain out front.

4. Sip an early evening cocktail at Barmini by José Andrés. Spanish chef Andrés, who studied under molecular gastronomy pioneer Ferran Adrià at the Catalan restaurant El Bulli, is one of DC's premier restaurateurs. Barmini is one of his more recent projects, located beside his acclaimed multi-course prix-fixe restaurant, Minibar. Here ice cubes are cut with handsaws, spirits are instilled with Wonka-esque equipment, and the menu numbers more than 100 drinks. Try the seasonally spiced Palermo, made with nutmeg infused Fernet, bourbon, Carpano, egg white, and saffron syrup.

5. Catch the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center. The Chicago dance company (the subject of Robert Altman's last movie, The Company) performs its last season of Robert Joffrey's American-themed choreography for the "Nutcracker" this year; choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's version will premiere next December. The Kennedy Center, a grand midcentury monument to the arts, is the perfect place to see it.

6. Eat dinner at Rose's Luxury, the Eastern Market restaurant known for its American-themed small plates menu—and the long line out front. Rose's Luxury doesn't take reservations, but the restaurant should be a little less crowded this weekend.

7. Order a night cap at Harold Black, a bar hidden behind a door without a sign or number. Run by team behind popular DC restaurant Acqua Al 2, Harold Black used to be reservations-only, and reservations could only be made if you texted a secret phone number. Those days are behind Harold Black: it now reserves eight seats for walk-ins and uses an online reservation system for those who want to come prepared. For all the rigmarole about getting in, the drinks—like the simply named "Cocktail #4," which is made with chamomile- and pear-infused vodka, apricot liqueur, lime, champagne—are superb.

Molly McArdle is a regular contributor to Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter.