If we had a dollar for every time someone asked us what the best places are to visit in Washington, D.C., we’d be rich women. It’s either that, or if friends have visited our nation’s capital before, they will often ask what else they can see besides all the “usual stuff.”
If you’re not a Washington, D.C. first timer, you’re probably familiar with all the “must see” sites. There is no shortage of Smithsonian museums, monuments and famous landmarks to see. But if you have plans to go to D.C. again, and are looking for more unique things to see and do, we have some of our favorite best kept secrets in D.C. to share with you.
In fact, we’d add these locations to our “must see in D.C.” list any day of the week!
Kayaking the Potomac
This is hands down one of my favorite things to do in D.C. The views of both D.C. and Virginia from the Potomac River are so lovely. There are even some places you can head on your kayak (or canoe) to catch some fun on a rope swing. There are several places that rent kayaks or canoes along the river, depending on where you want your launch off point to be. We usually rented ours from a cute little shop in Georgetown. During the summer months, kayaks and canoes completely rent out, so you have to plan ahead if you want to do this during weekends and holidays. And trust us, you definitely want to give it a try.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
This little piece of land, a memorial to our 26th president, is the perfect spot for a picnic or a stress-free nature walk. You can access Theodore Roosevelt Island via footbridge. It’s a fantastic car and bike-free isle that floats in the Potomac River. This wilderness preserve offers trails for walking or running, bird watching, ranger tours and a statue of Theodore Roosevelt. I met up with friends a time or two there for a picnic lunch and it’s a peacefully surreal place in D.C. It’s designed to mimic the forest that originally covered the island long ago. It’s often forgotten when people make their lists of “must see in D.C.” lists, since it’s not within walking distance of most of the other memorials along the National Mall. The island is run by the U.S. National Park Service so has operating hours, unlike most of the monuments in D.C.
The Back of the Lincoln Memorial at Sunset
Gravelly Point Park
At first glance when you pull into Gravelly Point Park, you might think you’re just visiting a popular grassy place to romp and play along the Potomac. But once you get out of your car and hear and feel the roaring plane engines, you know you’re in for a treat. In fact, it was one of my go to places in D.C. with friends. This park is situated right next-door to Reagan National Airport. The rumbling plane engines flying overhead are enough to make the ground shake, your ears throb and your heart soar. Depending on the direction of the wind, planes either take off from the runway (just a few hundred feet away) or land right over your head. It is an air show unlike any you’ve seen. At times, it appears, if you just reach up high enough you might be able to touch the planes as they fly overhead.
You could walk from the airport along the Mount Vernon Trail to get there, but it’s probably easier to get there via car (or bike).
The Mount Vernon Trail runs alongside Gravelly Point adjacent to the Potomac River and with fireflies lit up in the grass at night, is a magical setting. It also offers an incredible view of the D.C. skyline and monument across the river in the evening. It just so happens to also be the place I got engaged back in 2012. But this park was a favorite place of mine long before that.
Ford’s Theater/Petersen House
Not only is Ford’s Theater still open for performances (The Christmas Carol is a standard during the holidays but they’ve also got a full schedule of other performances), but there’s also a really cool museum in its basement. Plus, you can also still see the Presidential Box where Lincoln was shot. The size 14 boots Lincoln wore that night, as well as the gun John Wilkes Booth used for the assassination are both on display. Before your show, you can also take a quick walk across the street to visit the Petersen House. It’s the historic town home where Lincoln was taken immediately after he was shot and where he died the next morning. Walking into the bedroom where the greatest president of all time passed away is a humbling experience. It’s not one every D.C. tourist adds to their list but one you should definitely consider.
The National Portrait Gallery
Yes, it’s considered part of the Smithsonian, but this art gallery is special. It’s not actually part of the museum collected on the National Mall, so it’s generally not one people just head into on a whim. You have to know about this one and seek it out. Not surprising, the presidential portraits collection is one of my favorites. Those famous paintings you know of all our presidents are housed here, plus more portraits of famous actors, statesman, scientists, etc. reside here too. It’s a stunning exhibit/building and well-worth a visit.
Want to know one of the most popular places for breakfast/brunch on a Saturday morning? Try Eastern Market. During the weekdays it’s a fun place to visit for fresh food, delicious bakeries and the prettiest flower shops. On the weekends it transforms into one of the most happening famers markets, packed with local produce and one of the best places to find locally handmade arts and crafts. It’s located right in the heart of the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. Every time I had a visitor in town for the weekend, we’d head to Eastern Market for some killer pancakes and french toast (don’t forget the blueberries) inside the South Hall Market building at the merchant called Market Lunch! The line for breakfast get can pretty long on the weekends, so head there early to minimize your wait.
Washington National Cathedral
This Twentieth Century cathedral sits on 59 acres on the highest point in D.C. and is lined with flying buttresses, spires and stained-glass windows. It is stunning from every angle. Famously, the Washington National Cathedral is the site of the annual National Prayer Service, but there are free musical performances here almost daily. Seeing a performance is one of the only ways to get into the church for free. Otherwise, there is an admission fee to go on a tour of the church, which they offer Monday through Saturday. The cathedral is run by the Episcopal Church and wasn’t even completed until 1990 (construction started in 1907). Inside the cathedral, in the crypt, Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson are buried. If you plan ahead, the cathedral even offers unique tours, like seasonal gargoyle hunts, artisanship-themed walks and tower climbs.
The National Cathedral is located just north of Georgetown on Wisconsin Avenue. If you’re up there around lunch or dinner time, this pizza place is just down the street and is one of our favs in D.C.
Albert Einstein Memorial
The Albert Einstein Memorial is a hidden gem just a short walk from the White House or Lincoln Memorial on Constitution Avenue. The bronze statue is hidden behind an elm and little holly grove on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences. The Einstein statue is holding manuscript papers that include notes, like the famous e=mc^2. You can climb right on the statue for some fantastic photo ops.
President Lincoln’s Cottage
Did you know that over a quarter of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was spent not at the White House but at a home in Northwest D.C.? It was at this home that it is said he made some of the most “critical decisions” of his presidency. While the Civil War raged all around him, it was at this retreat that he visited with wounded soldiers and developed the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s open for tours and you shouldn’t miss this little piece of American history.
We have a lot more “best kept secrets” in D.C. we’d recommend visiting too. But this is definitely a good starting point to keep you busy on your next trip!
Former news reporter and Capitol Hill press guru, wife, mom, and pastry addict.