Local-Approved Spots to Escape DC's Tourists

See a different side of the city at these neighborhood wine bars, “secret” gardens, jazz clubs and after-hours museum parties. 

There’s more to experience on a visit to Washington, D.C., than the National Mall and the droves of tourists in matching T-shirts crowding every corner to see it. Once you have had your fair share of museum-hopping and monument photo-snapping (trust us, you will), escape the crowds at some local-approved spots off the tourist track.

See a different side of the city at these neighborhood wine bars, “secret” gardens, jazz clubs and after-hours museum parties. Who knows? If you keep your matching T-shirts hidden in your suitcase, you might even get mistaken for a D.C. native.

Eat and Drink in Columbia Heights

Room 11, bar, interior, Washington, DC

Room 11, bar, interior, Washington, DC

Photo by: Farrah Skeiky

Farrah Skeiky

Once you’ve checked off the overly hyped, power-suit-packed restaurants that sprinkle downtown, you might be craving a taste of a more relaxed and less buttoned-down D.C. The revitalized Columbia Heights neighborhood, which, a decade ago, was full of rundown row-home shells and empty lots, is now burgeoning with local businesses, such as local brewpubs and community art spaces. The artery of this diverse urban enclave is 11th Street, a strip of independent restaurants and bars tucked into a residential street. Standouts include El Chucho, a taqueria where the margaritas flow freely; diner/bar/coffee shop Coupe; and hipster haven Wonderland Ballroom, the beer garden/dive bar that put Columbia Heights on the nightlife map during its early revival years.

Local Favorite: Get cozy with the locals at Room 11, a casual, intimate wine bar that serves a rotating menu of wines and small plates without the snotty sommeliers.

Listen to Live Music on Legendary U Street

9:30 Club, interior, crowd, stage, Washington, DC

9:30 Club, interior, crowd, stage, Washington, DC

Photo by: Doug Sonders

Doug Sonders

Whatever your music taste, be it old-school jazz or indie house, an evening spent on U Street will have you bumping into locals on the dance floor. You can’t mention music on U Street without first honoring the cornerstone of D.C.’s jazz history, Bohemian Caverns, a restaurant and jazz club that dates back to 1926 and has hosted musical legends such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Another historic jazz spot, the Howard Theatre, was recently renovated and reopened to welcome national musical acts including Drake and Kendrick Lamar. Or dance the night away at U Street Music Hall, a basement club that features a 1,200-square-foot dance floor and hosts DJs and up-and-coming acts.

Local Favorite: An iconic local music venue, the 9:30 Club keeps pulling in big names and cleaning up its original dive-y space, yet somehow, it still keeps its time-honored intimate feeling.  

Get Lost in D.C.’s (Somewhat) Secret Gardens

National Arboretum, columns, Washington, DC

National Arboretum, columns, Washington, DC

Photo by: Amedved/iStock/Getty Images

Amedved/iStock/Getty Images

If Gatsby had summered in D.C., he surely would have chosen Dumbarton Oaks as his seasonal abode. Tucked away in historic Georgetown, this 19th-century palatial estate includes 10 acres of meticulously landscaped gardens, which offer a peaceful respite from the tourist-trodden streets nearby. There’s so much ground to cover, you’ll never tire of returning to discover a new pathway or reflecting pool that you missed on the last visit. Just a short drive from downtown D.C. lies more greenery and peace at the U.S. National Arboretum. You’ll have no trouble getting lost in the 446 acres of federally funded gardens, which feature something new blooming with every season.

Local Favorite: The arboretum offers full-moon hikes throughout the year. Be forewarned: These popular 4-mile walks through illuminated gardens and meadows (which are actually more like brisk hikes than garden strolls) sell out very quickly.

Spend a Night at the Museum

Phillips After 5, museum, Washington, DC

Phillips After 5, museum, Washington, DC

Photo by: Phillips Collection

Phillips Collection

After the tourists have turned in for the day, the locals get their favorite museums back. The International Spy Museum’s Operation Secret Slumber offers families an exclusive slumber party at the museum after-hours. What child is going to forget sleeping in a museum or going on a special spy mission before bedtime? Kids aren’t the only ones who can explore the museums after dark. Smithsonian’s Hirshorn was a pioneer in after-hours museum soirees, where the city’s young and hip set mingle, dance and drink among the art collections. At the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery, the art-themed Asia After Dark parties include live performances and creative cocktails. Sleeping bags not required.

Local Favorite: Phillips After 5 is another popular art-filled evening in Dupont Circle. Held on the first Thursday of every month at the Phillips Collection, it features live music, food and cocktails.

Watch the Sunset With a Monumental View

Key Bridge, sunset kayaking, Washington, DC

Key Bridge, sunset kayaking, Washington, DC

Photo by: Cameron Whitman/iStock/Getty Images

Cameron Whitman/iStock/Getty Images

There’s no better spot to watch the sun fall over D.C.’s iconic sights than from the Kennedy Center terrace. You don’t even need to attend a show there to take advantage of the spectacular 360-degree views of the city skyline. Just head to the roof, grab a glass of wine from the KC Café, and relish the sprawling vistas of the Washington Monument, White House and Georgetown waterfront. Or, for a more adventurous outing, see the sunset from a kayak on the Potomac River as you paddle past Watergate and the Kennedy Center on a 90-minute guided tour from the Key Bridge Boathouse.  

Local Favorite: Take a break from long days sightseeing with the Key Bridge Boathouse’s classes, such as stand-up paddleboarding or dockside sunrise yoga.

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