The 11 Most Underrated Things to do in Washington, DC
DC is justifiably famous for its beautiful (and free) monuments and museums, but travelers who explore beyond its marble-and-granite downtown will be amply rewarded.
It's the seat of our nation's government, a historical landmark full of movers and shakers that has a knack for reflecting the times (as well as the vibe of who's in office). Washington, DC welcomes more than 19 million visitors in a given year—and it's pretty clear why the city is so popular.
If it turns out you've already been and are looking for discoveries beyond its most trafficked spots, we've got ideas for you. Read on for our list of the city's most underrated gems—and take advantage of yet more cultural, historical, and natural riches on your next trip.
1. The Smithsonian's Lesser-Known Museums
The Mall is full of blockbuster museums like the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Gallery of art—but there are charming corners tucked away in other Smithsonian institutions. At the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (linked by an underground passage, they are often described as a single destination), don't miss the opulent decor and antique ceramics in the Peacock Room; nor should you skip Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon's archives at the National Museum of African Art. For the next several months the entire Renwick Gallery, the home of contemporary craft and decorative arts, is dedicated to a new exhibition called Wonder, an installation of works from its permanent collection
2. U.S. National Arboretum
Located in northeast DC just south of New York Avenue, the Arboretum is one of the city's more difficult destinations to reach. (You'll need to either drive or take the B2 Metrobus.) It's worth the effort, though, with 446 acres of forests, meadows, and gardens accessible with more than nine miles of paths. What to see? Start with its stunning showcase of bonsai trees, koi ponds, and—most striking—a collection of sandstone columns removed from the Capitol building during a 1958 renovation that stand alone in a green field.
3. Mary McLeod Bethune Council House
Just off Logan Circle, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, a National Historic Site, sits inside a beautiful Victorian townhouse that once housed the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. (The organization, founded in 1935 by McLeod Bethune, has since moved to larger digs on Pennsylvania Avenue.) You may have to knock to get in, but the tour you'll get will be both personal and illuminating, a deep dive into the historical happenings and achievements from the group and its enigmatic leader
4. President Lincoln's Cottage
Continue this rich experience with a visit to President Lincoln's country getaway, now located within the Armed Forces Retirement Home (known locally as the "Old Soldiers' Home"). Using the cottage as a summer White House, Lincoln would regularly make the 3.5-mile commute from downtown DC alone and on horseback. It's also where the 16th president drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Though the space inside is minimally furnished, there's plenty to see an experience in this "museum of ideas," which explores Lincoln's time here through the context of the Civil War.
5. Frederick Douglass's Cedar Hill
Head further south to explore Cedar Hill, the bucolic home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, located in the southeast neighborhood of Anacostia. (In his later life, Douglass became known as the "Sage of Anacostia.") The charismatic and brilliant public figure lived in Cedar Hill from 1877 until his death in 1895. Highlights include his library, nearly covered in books; and the "growlery," a one-room stone cabin where he could be free to work in seclusion.
6. Anacostia Community Museum
While you're in the neighborhood, stop by the Anacostia Community Museum dedicated to local and national black history. Founded in 1966 as "an experimental store-front museum," its first home was a former movie theater. Now housed in a custom-designed building, the museum's exhibits include a look at how the Civil War shaped Washington and a future show on the artist group the Spiral Collective.
7. Black Broadway
Now better known as the U Street corridor, this bustling strip once played host to jazz greats like Duke Ellington (who grew up nearby), Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Sarah Vaughn, Jelly Roll Morton, and Billie Holiday. Many of the venues that established U Street's importance still exist: catch live jazz at Bohemian Caverns, or a concert or comedy show at the Lincoln or Howard Theatre, where Ella Fitzgerald once competed in and won an amateur contest.
8. Local Cuisine
The city's recent rising culinary scene has been widely covered, but there are still classic mainstays worth savoring, too. For a DC-style slice of pizza (cheese on the bottom, sauce on the top), try Vace in Cleveland Park. For an iconic DC half-smoke (a larger, spicier, and meatier hot dog), Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street is your best bet. Nearby, at the Florida Avenue Grill, you can dive into soul food that the venue has served since 1944. The city is also known for its Ethiopian and Salvadoran food (from two of its largest immigrant communities), which are best showcased at Dukem Restaurant on U Street and El Riconcito in Columbia Heights
9. The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage
Here, you can catch free shows every day at 6 p.m., in the Kennedy Center's Grand Foyer—from jazz ensembles and choirs, to ragtime acts and performances by talented area youth.
10. The Potomac River
DC is centered on the convergence of two rivers—the Potomac and the Anacostia. Its larger river, the Potomac, divides the city from the tree-lined Virginia shore, and when the weather permits, it's a unique way to see the city. Check out Fletcher's Boathouse or the Key Bridge Boathouse for rowboat, canoe, and kayak rentals.
11. Arlington House
Originally the house of Robert E. Lee's wife's family—a descendent of Martha Washington—Arlington House is now most famous for being home to the man who lead the Confederate Army. It's located at the top of a particularly lovely hill whose most remarkable feature is that it's surrounded by Arlington National Cemetery. The practice of burying American soldiers there began as an affront to Lee, whose home lay in Union territory. The first graves (and consequently the oldest in the cemetery) were dug on his front lawn. Go for the history, but stay for the view.
Molly McArdle is a native Washingtonian and a writer based in Brooklyn. You can find her on both Twitter and Instagram at @mollitudo.