Before moving around the world to teach in South Korea, I lived in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC. Sometimes I complained about the weather, and sometimes about the crappiness of my apartment, despite its $1300/month price tag (living in DC doesn’t come cheap). But in reality, I loved living in DC, and I miss it.
Of course, I miss my friends in the area most. But I also miss a few key elements of living there – the compact, walkable nature of the city. The free museums. The farmer’s markets. The vegetarian restaurants. How I would run into people I knew, constantly. The awesome bookstores and coffee shops. The abundant good, free festivals and other stuff to do.
I always recommend that people visit DC if they’re in America. It may be one of the smaller cities, but it’s also an important one. It was planned on a grid, so it’s easy to navigate. Did I mention the free museums? The zoo is free too. There are also some totally amazing restaurants.
There’s plenty of things to do in Washington DC. But if I had to pick three, beyond the totally obvious (Get yourself to the Mall! See the monuments and go into the Smithsonian museums – great way to beat the heat in the summer), here’s what I’d choose.
Rent a bike from Capital Bikeshare
Image by James D. Schwartz
During the year and a half I lived in DC, I got to see the birth of something great: a fantastic bikeshare system. Today, Capital Bikeshare has about 175 stations and 1,670 bikes in the District as well as in Arlington, Virginia, and is constantly expanding.
While originally the stations were mostly grouped in the residential and business areas, as they mostly catered to people commuting to work, there are now plenty of stations in the tourist areas as well. There’s a couple on the National Mall and plenty near it, as well as around the Tidal Basin (near the Jefferson Memorial).
A 24-hour membership costs roughly the same as a day pass on the metro: $7. If you ride for 30 minutes or less at a time (or switch bikes at stations every 30 minutes) each rental is free. I would recommend keeping it within the 30 minute limit as the rental cost goes up quickly (please see this page for specifics).
You can use Capital Bikeshare as an easy and healthy way to get around – though I don’t recommend it at midday during the summer. Or, you can use it as a cool way to explore the tourist sites and the various neighborhoods (I especially recommend Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, and Columbia Heights). The other great thing about using a bike in DC is that you get a real sense of the city and how to get around. DC isn’t very big, and a lot of the different sights are within walking distance. But you might not realize it using the metro. However, once you bike around, you will learn the grid and be able to figure out where anything is given the address.
I do recommend wearing a helmet if possible, though you’re not legally obligated to wear one if you are over 16.
Eat at a food truck
The other cool thing that really came into its own during my time in DC was the food truck scene. I have written about food trucks in DC before. If you are hungry for lunch, there is no better option in DC than to find and eat food from a food truck. Whether you want Korean bibimbap, macaroni and cheese, empanadas, or Indian curry, there is a food truck for you – there are over 100 currently active. They are delicious and the prices are reasonable compared to many of the restaurants downtown.
In addition, finding the truck you want can be a fun adventure! You can look at a map of where the trucks are on Food Truck Fiesta, which is updated via the trucks’ Twitter feeds. If you have a particular truck in mind, it is best to follow their particular Twitter feed. Your search for the perfect lunch could land you in a part of the city you might otherwise not have visited (most likely the business district) and will certainly have you standing in line with plenty of locals to watch and/or converse with.
A helpful hint to finding food trucks: they are usually out during lunch time Monday through Friday around the areas that people work. Prime time for them is 11:30 AM to 1 PM and hotspots include Franklin Park at McPherson Square Station, Farragut Square at Farragut West Station, around Metro Center Metro Station and around L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station. Even if you don’t have time to look up a truck online, you can just go to one of those places at lunch, and you are likely to find something.
There are also two regular events at which you can easily find food trucks. The first is Farragut Fridays. This is a weekly tradition where lots of food trucks congregate at Farragut Square Park (17th and K St. NW) on Friday. The other is Truckeroo, a monthly food truck festival at Half and M St SE (Navy Yard Metro Station). Something like 20 trucks come out for this, from 11 AM to 11 PM. They are held on Fridays – the next ones are August 10 and September 28.
Chill out at the Meridian Hill Park Drum Circle
The last item on my DC ‘to-do’ list is not something that sprang up during the time I lived there. In fact, it’s been going on since the 1950s. On summer Sundays from 4-8 PM you can go to the Meridian Hill Park Drum Circle. This event is seriously fun and funky. If you really want to see DC as a local and get a taste of the local flavor, there is no better way than attending this drum circle.
I’ve been a few times. Every time, there was a huge group of people drumming away for hours. There were people dancing. People doing yoga. People slacklining. People on stilts. People practicing capoeira. And of course, people having picnics. So go, soak up the vibe, and maybe strike up a few conversations – in my experience, everyone there is quite friendly.
As you can see, there’s a lot to do in America’s capital. These three options are likely to put you more in touch with locals than some other activities. Maybe, by doing them, you can begin to understand why I do really love DC, and why I’ll almost certainly move back one day.