Grotto’s Travel Guide to Washington, D.C.

Grotto's travel guide for what to do in Washington, D.C.
For decades, Washington, D.C., was a destination that left people wanting more.

The infrastructure of Washington, D.C., was built for people to get into the office quickly, do their jobs, and get home. There weren’t that many attractions: people were there to work or learn, not to play.

But over the last 15 years, all of that has changed. Neighborhoods that were once struggling to sustain viable businesses are now flourishing, and people are flocking to the capital of the United States for vacation. And there is far more to do than drive past 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Know before you go

Most people assume that D.C. is a place people live for a political cycle, but there are actually several native locals living in the city, and they’re very proud of it. Most of these people are true locals, and not the people making headlines every week.

Politics are obviously a big part of Washington, D.C., but at the end of the day, it only represents a portion of what’s going on there.

Natives’ lives are often as distanced from the political buzz as people living throughout the country, and they may only see the Washington Monument or drive past Capitol Hill on occasion. Many native D.C. dwellers have invested in building up their communities and have begun to transform their neighborhoods.

It’s no wonder that this past winter Washington, D.C., was rated the eighth fastest-growing city in the United States. It’s a place people want to be — not just a place people want to work.

Take it from a local

“You have to go and visit the Smithsonian Museum,” says Brian Becker, a life-long D.C. native. “That’s what everybody suggests. But, in addition to the Smithsonian, there’s also a lot of small independent museums that are really neat.”

One hidden gem is Lincoln’s Cottage — President Abraham Lincoln’s summer home, where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s located just outside the Armed Forces Retirement Home, and anyone can tour the house.

D.C. is full of seemingly random museums, like Lincoln’s Cottage, that give people a peek into how U.S. presidents and other important historical figures lived in the D.C. area while they were helping to shape America.

Another highlight of Washington, D.C., is its many art galleries. True national treasures, they’re worth a visit without needing to wait for a particular exhibit to come through town.

“The Smithsonian is a baseline museum,” says Becker. “But, after that, explore and start looking for some other museum that you may not have heard of before.”

Must see

You can see some of the country’s most important monuments in just one visit to Washington, D.C.

“The monuments themselves are very majestic,” says Becker. “I take them for granted, because they used to be on my commute to high school.” But visitors to the city are awed by them daily.

The streets of Washington, D.C., are laid out on a grid system, so you can easily start out at the U.S. Capitol Building, then head straight west for one mile and you will arrive at the Washington Monument.

From there, you can check out the White House, and then behind that is the Jefferson Hotel. Straight west for another mile from the Washington Monument is the Lincoln Memorial.

“People always try to draw conspiracy theories about the Masons and all this other stuff,” adds Becker, “but the layout of the city is pretty interesting when you pay attention to it. Especially on a nice day, walking around the National Mall, it still kind of takes your breath away, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.”

Becker says this area was meant to be “America’s backyard.” The city hosts festivals regularly, so be sure to be on the lookout for them when planning to visit.

Need to try

Washington, D.C., has an incredible food scene, which has continued to develop over the years. Instead of tech incubators, like you see in Silicon Valley, the nation’s capital has a large number of food incubators.

A few of the main incubators include TasteLab, Union Kitchen, and Mess Hall DC. These give fresh and tasty ideas the opportunity to flourish and establish themselves in Washington, D.C.

This has turned several Washington, D.C., neighborhoods into havens for foodies. One of the main spots is Blagden Alley in the Shaw neighborhood. This hip place meets any of your culinary desires or interests and is Becker’s top recommendation to grab a bite to eat.

A lot of events and festivals harness the different neighborhood food options and bring them all to one location. For instance, on this upcoming Saturday, the local Nativity Model Jesuit school is having an event at Union Market with a bunch of different vendors. It’s a great example of the excellent and eclectic food options that can be found in D.C.

Grotto travel guide for what to do in Washington, D.C.: try this local-favorite food incubator, Union Market.

Make the most of your experience

One of the most calming and spiritual places in all of Washington, D.C., is on the grounds of Catholic University of America, just northeast of downtown.

“The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is beautiful,” says Becker. “It’s really kind of awe-inspiring to attend Mass there or take one of their daily tours.”

Actually, the whole neighborhood around the university is pretty great on its own. Uniquely diverse with different Catholic groups and orders, it’s been called “little Vatican.” There are all kinds of houses for different orders of priests and nuns, hosting people from all over the world and demonstrating the rich diversity of the Catholic Church.

One gem of the “little Vatican” neighborhood is the Franciscan Monastery, which is famous for its beautiful gardens. The monastery has more types of flora and fauna native to the area than anywhere else in the D.C.-metro area.

“The gardens are gorgeous,” adds Becker. “A lot of folks will take a million pictures there, and it’s another place that’s quiet, peaceful, and great for spiritual solitude.”

Given all there is to do in Washington, D.C., clearly it’s more than just a playground for politicians. It’s a growing and thriving, diverse community with one of the richest histories of any city in the United States. So before you write off the nation’s capital as a trip for ‘work’ and not ‘play,’ reconsider what D.C. can be and check it out.

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