A trip to the capital city seems to come with a full list of mandated stops: the museums, the memorials, the White House and Senatorial tours. But why not forego the usual tourist-packed attractions for a more unique experience off the beaten path?
DC is oftentimes painted as just the sum of its governmental parts. But under the surface, DC’s vibrant culture and storied past make it a rich urban landscape waiting to be explored.
From speakeasies to secret spy houses, here are our pics of the best hidden gems and underrated spots in Washington.
Table of Contents
- 1 Old Post Office Tower
- 2 Martin’s Tavern
- 3 Albert Einstein Memorial
- 4 Rock Creek Park Horse Center
- 5 The Backroom
- 6 Malcolm X Park Drum Circle
- 7 Lincoln’s Cottage
- 8 Congressional cemetery
- 9 A Litteri
- 10 Washington Coliseum
- 11 Allegory
- 12 Curry & Pie
- 13 The Exorcist Steps
- 14 Panda Gourmet
- 15 Blagden Alley
- 16 Dupont Underground
- 17 Cornercopia
- 18 Operation Monopoly
- 19 Izakaya Seki
- 20 Foundry Branch Trolley Trestle
- 21 Tudor Place
- 22 Betsy
- 23 Old Europe
- 24 Well Dressed Burrito
- 25 Jimmy T’s Place
Old Post Office Tower
Trying to hit every Smithsonian museum? Then you can’t forget the Post Office Museum, located just around the corner from Union Station. Highlights include a replica of a Concord stagecoach dating back to 1851 stationed in the building’s atrium and the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery, featuring over 20,000 stamps on public display for the first time.
Keep on the lookout for an original letter sent down the Silk Road in 1390 and letters that survived 9/11 inside a World Trade Center postbox. The best part: entrance is always free!
A Georgetown classic, Martin’s Tavern is the oldest mom-and-pop-owned restaurant in Washington, DC. It also hosted an overwhelming number of famous faces: the owners claim every president from Harry Truman to George W. has been to the Tavern at least once.
JFK reportedly proposed to Jackie O in Booth #3 in 1953, and it was apparently one of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s favorite places to eat.
If you visit for the history, don’t leave without trying the prime rib or “Martin’s Famous Boulevardier”.
Albert Einstein Memorial
You would be forgiven for thinking that all the important DC memorials are laid out in a row along the reflecting pool. But don’t forget this sculptural tribute to Albert Einstein tucked away in the gardens surrounding the National institute of Science.
This 20-foot bronze statue is surrounded by a quiet grove of trees on the Southwest side of the Institute’s grounds. Unveiled on Einstein’s birthday of April 22 in 1979, this statue shows the characteristic style of Robert Berks, the sculptor behind the bust of JFK found in the Kennedy Center.
While you’re at it, take a peek inside the Institute: the dome of the Great Hall is a must see.
Rock Creek Park Horse Center
Many visitors to the capital have been told of Rock Creek Park, the natural treasure running down the middle of the city. Few know of the stable nestled into a hidden area in the middle. The Horse Center offers classes and trail rides for equestrians and beginners alike, all just a short distance from the urban centers of DC.
Ride a friendly pony through the quiet woods or take a class and make a new four legged friend. You’ll be following in the foot (or hoof) steps of presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt who unwound from the stress of their duties in these peaceful forests.
Who would guess that a dimly lit speakeasy is accessible through an unassuming freezer door at the back of a Capo Italian Deli? The Backroom, as the name suggests, is a well kept secret of the DC area. At this mysterious bar, you’ll find strongly poured classics alongside an eclectic list of house cockt
ails. The evocative décor at the back resembles a locked vault, referencing the space’s past life as a bank. Before you leave, try a Capo Special sub on your way out.
Malcolm X Park Drum Circle
Live music doesn’t have to cost a fortune. For a colorful musical event, find your way up to Malcolm X, or Meridian Hill Park on a Sunday at 3 pm.
Nearly every week for over 40 years, local drummers and other musicians gather at this spot to play together. The result is a sonic collage of the best hidden musical talent DC has to offer.
On warmer evenings, you may catch bonus happenings, like street performers and impromptu yoga sessions.
You’ve seen the inside of Ford’s Theatre near Chinatown and gazed up the Lincoln Memorial, but no Lincoln-themed tour is complete without a trip to the great president’s cottage in the Northwest of DC.
This historic spot’s out-of-the-way location puts it past the limits of most National Mall tourist’s purview, but we promise its authentically furnished interior and charming gardens outdoors are well worth your time.
Check the events calendar on the website before your visit; the staff regularly offers educational programs and special exhibits.
Did you know that Congress bought and funded a cemetery dedicated to former members of our storied government? A trip to the Congressional Cemetery is a peaceful stroll, history lesson, and scavenger hunt rolled all into one.
Although you’ll find the gravestones of plenty of congresspeople, the cemetery’s best highlights are other historical figures, like J Edgar Hoover, Leonard Matlovich, the first person to challenge the ban on LGBTQ people in the military, and composer John Phillips Sousa.
Just in case you’re around in November, the cemetery holds an annual musical celebration in honor of the man of the marches’ birthday on November 6.
On the corner of Gallaudet University and painted in the colors of the Italian flag is A. Litteri, the agreed-upon best Italian deli in the DC area.
The cheese counter is plastered with more names than you’ve heard of, including Mozzarella made in the house. Pasta and sausage are also freshly made, and the olive selection is equally overwhelming.
Stop in for a delectable sub sandwich or grab a bottle of wine from the impressive shelf selection.
From its drab exterior, no one would guess that this red brick REI store in NoMa was once the site of the Beatles’ first concert in the States. On February 11 of 1964, more than 8,000 attendees packed in to what was once the Washington Coliseum to see their beloved boy band.
Constructed 23 years earlier, the space was used for Eisenhower’s inaugural ball in 1953, it was repurchased and given a major makeover in 1959, emerging with its new name.
Luckily, REI didn’t completely scrap its significance, and visitors can find posters from the musicians that once played there lining the walls inside.
Find your way into this unique speakeasy and you’ll feel like you’ve popped out on the other side of the looking glass. Eaton DC’s rooftop bar and lounge is already a popular hangout spot, and even features occasional ballroom dance lessons.
But the speakeasy hidden behind a moving shelf of books is still criminally unknown.
Just the wall art alone, with fantastical illustrations inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is enough to attract a crowd. Even better are the creatively-named drinks, like “Seeds of Destruction” and “Little Girls Eat Eggs as Much as Serpents Do.”
Curry & Pie
One member of the party wants Indian and the other wants pizza… what’s to be done? Head over to Curry & Pie in Georgetown.
This little shop situated on the end of a row of streets in Georgetown serves up a wild blend of Indian and South Asian flavors on Italian crusts.
For those less adventurous, Curry & Pie serves up standard curries and Margherita pies also, but don’t knock the chicken tikka pizza until you’ve tried it.
The Exorcist Steps
Horror movie fans of the world are required to pay a visit to this hidden passageway. It’s no wonder William Friedkin chose the staircase at the end of 36th street in Georgetown to film one of The Exorcist’s most memorable scenes—even in broad daylight, the narrow steps snaking under a stone archway are unabashedly spooky.
The house of famous demon host Regan is right at the top at 3600 Prospect Street. A plaque marking the spot at the bottom was unveiled on Halloween of 2015 during a ceremony attended by Friedkin.
Go at night for the full experience, when a series of ascending lanterns cast an eerie light over the scene.
The best restaurants pop up in the strangest of places. That holds true for the stuff-of-legend Chinese restaurant hidden in a Days Inn just across from the National Arboretum.
Panda Gourmet serves the specialties of Shaanxi province, where its owner hails from, alongside America’s favorite comfort foods. The “Chinese burger” or Roujiamo and “cold steamed” liangpi noodles are authentic favorites, while the Szechuan dishes are perfect for lovers of spice.
And those who would prefer to stay in would be happy to hear that Panda Gourmet’s choice cuisine is fully available for takeout.
Ready to experience a whole new neighborhood in the span of a couple blocks? Blagden Alley is a historic district all of its own tucked between 9th and 10th streets in Northwest DC.
Also known as Naylor Court, the hidden alleyways are lined with charming brick walls interspersed with colorful murals.
Walk through the so-called Alley Museum for a dose of commissioned street art or grab a coffee at a brightly lit Colombe Coffee shop. Those with refined tastes should not miss The Columbia Room’s craft cocktails, and its Tasting Room delivers a three course drink experience.
Hidden underneath Dupont Circle is a labyrinth of abandoned tunnels. First constructed to serve the city’s trolleys, the space has now been repurposed as a public events and arts area thanks to new city initiatives. The graffiti-covered walls now host exhibits from local arts, live music, and performances.
In December, check the website for the dates of the holiday season, when over a dozen vendors set up shop in the space selling baked goods, jewelry, and unique handmade gifts.
For all your unexpected cravings, there is Cornercopia of Navy Yard. Nudged into a corner of a residential block, this hole in the wall could be easily passed by, but their fixings are not to be missed.
On the side of the grocery store style offerings is a sandwich counter that never misses. The no nonsense menu is written up on a blackboard, with DC inspired names like “The Monument” and “The Greenline”.
In 1977, a group of FBI agents moved into a modest home at 2619 Wisconsin Avenue in the hopes of gathering information on the Soviet Embassy next door. A subsequent plan, dubbed operation Monopoly, sought to dig a tunnel underneath the embassy to covertly tape private conversations.
Little did they know, the Soviets were already building their own subterranean network under the house, disrupting much of the pricey technology installed by the FBI.
About a decade later, the tunnels’ existence had become compromised information, and in 2001, Robert Hanssen was charged with leaking it to the KGB.
While the exact location of the tunnels remains unknown, passersby can still see the charming brick house with a chimney on Wisconsin and the former embassy building nearby.
This local-favorite Japanese place is easy to miss from its understated location on a quiet street lined with houses near Howard University.
Their selection of sushi and sashimi is listed on a playfully illustrated sheet on a clipboard. With plenty of noodle dishes, appetizers, and a full sake menu, you can’t go wrong.
When in doubt, ask a waiter for recommendations: they know what they’re talking about.
Foundry Branch Trolley Trestle
Another relic of DC’s trolley era are the mysterious ruins of the Foundry Branch Trolley Trestle located in Foundry Branch Valley Park. The rusted remains arch over a walking trail and plunge back into the greenery.
Once upon a time in the early 20th century, trolleys ran over the bridge between nearby Georgetown and Glen Echo in Maryland. The last trolley ran down the route in 1960, and the infrastructure gradually fell into disrepair afterwards.
The trestle survived an attempt at demolition in 2018, and still stands over the Glover Archibald Trail. Nearby is the similarly spooky Foundry Branch Tunnel, which is even older, dating back to 1799.
This historic spot boasts antique-laden rooms and a beautifully kept rose garden. Concealed between rows of Georgetown town houses, Tudor Place was once the home of Martha Custis Peter, the granddaughter of Martha Washington, and her husband. The same family would occupy the house until 1983, through the Civil war, both World Wars, and the Cold War.
In 1869, General Robert E. Lee also visited the house during his last trip to Washington before his death.
It’s now open to the public, and features rooms filled with historic relics and educational exhibits. Although visitors should register beforehand, admission fees are by donation only.
Brunch at the Belga Café on 8th Street near Capitol Hill has already won DC’s favor, but fewer know of Betsy, the rooftop gin “garden” hidden above it.
Betsy boasts its own food selection from chef Bart Vandaele, as well as a brunch menu featuring more waffle choices than you’ll know what to do with. The unique drink menu allows you to pair your own gins and tonics, or you could opt for a quality house cocktail.
This storied establishment is tucked away in a hole-in-the-wall near the Naval Observatory. As soon as you step in the door, you’ll understand its name from the hanging ship models, nostalgic paintings and upright piano in the corner.
This little known place still boasts some of the most authentic German food in the city with a hearty beer selection to match. You’d be hard pressed to find a wienerschnitzel that could compete.
Best of all, the menu changes during German festivals of the year, like the rich Oktoberfest delicacies served in the fall.
Well Dressed Burrito
The appearances of this burrito joint set back in a small alley near Dupont Circle may be deceiving. Inside, you’ll find a modest countertop serving classic and updated Mexican fare, like grilled burritos, homemade empanadas, and a full selection of “Nacho Supremes.”
On the wall facing the countertop is a creative mural of penguins dancing around the Dupont Circle. This spot is sure to become a lunchtime favorite.
Jimmy T’s Place
Good old-fashioned American diners can be few and far between in the capital, but Jimmy T’s Place certainly fits the bill. This breakfast joint takes up the bottom floor of a red brick Victorian house mere blocks from the capitol building.
Jimmy T’s has been a family-owned favorite since 1969, serving down-to-earth dishes and generous portions. The kitchen will cook you up any combination of eggs, bacon, and toast you could possibly think of, and the steaming can cure any ailment.