Seeing D.C. Through a Local’s Eyes

Earlier this spring, right around the time I was grudgingly turning my apartment’s A/C back on in hot, hot Phoenix, I got to escape a busy season at work for an extended weekend in chillier Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.

I had already visited my nation’s capital five years earlier, getting to check off the Senate galleries, the Supreme Court, all the Smithsonian museums, and a hostel-sponsored pub crawl in Georgetown. So I wasn’t necessarily returning to do touristy things. Instead, I got to reconnect with one of the best American friends I made when I lived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain—Priyanka—and I got to see this exciting city through the eyes of somebody who has made the city her home.

I fell in love with D.C. all over again over the course of this long, low-stress, no-pressure weekend. We did a lot of walking, a lot of eating, but not a lot of sightseeing per se, and I am 100% O.K. with that. Sometimes when traveling we get so swept up in checking off a list of monuments and museums that we forget to enjoy ourselves! After a weekend of hanging out in a world-class city, I returned to Phoenix feeling refreshed.

Below are the highlights of my return visit to this expensive, international, and walkable city.

Free simple pleasures

Let’s be honest: D.C. is a really expensive city to live in, so free stuff and activities are the name of the game in the nation’s capital. When rents for a room in a shared apartment start at $1,000 and go up from there…you figure out how to make a paycheck stretch pretty quickly. Fortunately, D.C. has a plethora of free things to see and do, and I’m not even touching on the Smithsonian museums! Apart from restaurant meals and metro passes, essentially everything I did on my four-day jaunt here was free.

Washington, D.C.
(Source: Ted Eytan)

My first stop was right around the corner from Union Station: the headquarters of NPR. This was something of a pilgrimage for me, as I’m currently working for the NPR member station for the Phoenix area, but I’ve also been listening to public radio for years so it was fun to see where all the magic happens. In true fanboy fashion, I wore my NPR t-shirt and freaked out when I saw All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro walking through the lobby.

Free tours are given weekdays at 11am that take you through their biggest production studios, up to the broadcast areas where major shows are produced, over the newsroom, past the Tiny Desk (of Tiny Desk Concert fame), and back down to the ground floor where the gift shop is.

Washington, D.C.
Tidal Basin

I specifically visited D.C. at the end of March because I wanted my trip to coincide with the blossoming of the cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin southwest of the National Mall. Pictures always made springtime along the Basin look dazzling, from the obviously-gorgeous pink flowers that take over the park to national monuments perfectly framed by pastel tree boughs.

Washington, D.C.
Busy bee

The cherry trees started blooming super early this year (thanks, climate change!), but then a cold snap hit D.C. pretty hard, essentially choking off the early birds before they could get going. It was really sad to see clumps of brown, droopy blossoms hanging from all the trees, but fortunately when I was in town the trees were nevertheless in full bloom. In fact, while doing research for this post, I learned that Peak Bloom™ occurred the day my friend and I strolled through the park! I couldn’t have asked for a better day to visit (okay, it would have been nice if the overcast skies had cleared, but I digress).

Washington, D.C.
Central nave

A little #RealTalk for a second: after graduating college from a Baptist liberal-arts institution, I stopped going to church for a number of reasons I won’t get into on this blog. For Lent this year, though, I started attending an Episcopal church in Phoenix. Today, I finally feel like I’ve found both a tradition I can call home and a congregation that welcomes me.

It was only natural, then, for me to be excited to attend a Eucharist service at Washington National Cathedral on the Sunday I was in town for. The common liturgy (i.e., order of the service) felt familiar and comforting in a far-away city, and the soaring Gothic Revival architecture reminded me of travels in years past to the great cathedrals of Europe like Burgos or Notre Dame. A stained glass panel inset with a rock from the Moon added a bit of cosmic otherworldiness to this sanctuary.

Washington, D.C.
Coffee at Open City

#ProTip: while the cathedral charges admission on weekdays, it’s free to explore on Sunday afternoons. Plus, if you come for a morning church service and linger afterward, the local congregation will invite you toward the back of the church to partake in that very Episcopalian tradition of Coffee Hour: coffee, tea, some cookies and snacks, and welcoming parishioners. (I regret to inform that they do not throw down latte art as pictured above, but if you’re craving that you can order a cup at the Open City coffee shop on the cathedral grounds.)

Washington, D.C.

I rounded out my time in D.C. with a stop at the U.S. Botanic Garden, just an imaginary stone’s throw from the House of Representatives (imaginary, as it’s one giant glass greenhouse). Its plant and flower collections were both broad—featuring multiple ecosystems, from deserts to rainforests—and deep—the gardens were established by Congress across the street in 1820.

Washington, D.C.
Spring flowers

It was a real pleasure strolling through the lush gardens early in the morning, not only because this place was a refuge from that go-go-go D.C. lifestyle, but also because I’ve taken up houseplant “gardening” (with mixed success), so it was fun to see houseplants in their natural settings here. This public institution has free admission from 10am to 5pm every day of the year.

Delicious international cuisine

The nice thing about all this free stuff in D.C. is that it leaves you with a lot more money to spend on food—but not just any food. Because D.C. is such an international city (thanks to all the immigrants and foreign diplomats), you can find restaurants here that serve up dishes from almost every country on the planet.

I enjoyed “commuting” from my friend’s apartment into central D.C. because the bus we took would take us past Embassy Row, which was fun in and of itself to see stately mansions and try to recognize the flags flying from each embassy, but also because it was a preview of coming attractions.

Nando’s (4231 Wisconsin Avenue NW, other locations)
My first meal in D.C. blessed me with the most flavorful, moist, and seasoned chicken thighs I’ve had in my life. Paired with peri-peri hot sauce from Mozambique, my chicken sandwich at this South African-Portuguese restaurant was a perfect introduction to the D.C. food scene (even if this is a chain restaurant with branches across the globe).

Boqueria (1837 M Street NW)
There’s nothing like an authentic Spanish tapas bar to warm the heart (and stomach) of this Spain-sick former auxiliar de conversación. I spent a glorious, sunny happy hour here in Dupont Circle surrounded by folks who also used to teach English in Spain, from A Coruña to Lugo, enjoying a Catalan-style vermouth and even sharing a porrón of wine. We all split various tapas of Padrón peppers, Bravas home fries, fried calamari, olives…the works. It was like I was back in Spain.

Washington, D.C.
A continental breakfast if there ever was one

Paul (1078 Wisconsin Avenue NW, other locations)
The neighborhood of Georgetown is absolutely crawling with pretentious brunch spots, but my friend took me instead to a cozy, authentic French restaurant that felt like a refuge from the madness. In case you didn’t know from previous blog posts, I’m a major Francophile…even if I only speak a little French. Paul (I pronounced it “pole” [pol] because I’m a snob) truly transported me to those quiet, inviting establishments you can only find in the laid-back small towns of “the provinces.” I splurged on a almond croissant and did not regret the sugar bomb that it was.

Amsterdam Falafelshop (2425 18th Street NW, other locations)
After grabbing Negronis at the rooftop bar on Roofers Union, my friend and I loaded up on carbs at this Turkish-Dutch fast-food joint in the happenin’ Adams Morgan neighborhood. Kind of like a Subway, but for falafel, I loved piling up veggies, hummus, and toppings to finish off the night with.

Washington, D.C.

Bindaas (3309 Connecticut Avenue NW)
This Indian restaurant was just what I needed on a sleepy, rainy Sunday afternoon after visiting the National Cathedral earlier that day. One of many spots along the main drag in the Cleveland Park neighborhood, Bindaas brought out plate after plate of color, flavor, and general deliciousness. I didn’t recognize almost anything on the menu, but fortunately my friend’s parents are from India so she did all the ordering. I’d recommend calling ahead to get reservations as we just barely got squeezed into a cramped two-top table as walk-ins!

Washington, D.C.
Trying caviar

Russia House (1800 Connecticut Avenue NW)
Straddling the border between the Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan neighborhoods, Russia House occupies a “luxe townhouse” (to borrow Google Maps’ description) and was the climax of my visit to the nation’s capital. I was especially excited to have dinner here because I had read about their fixed-price three-course Sunday dinner. Amidst hushed conversations in a glamorous sitting room-turned-dining room, we watched the city turn in for the night on a drizzly, chilly evening. I tried caviar for the first time (verdict: delicious and fresh, but very fishy) but found myself with buyer’s remorse when my dry lamb skewers and rice pilaf came out and my friend received some beef stroganoff comfort food. Nevertheless, we clinked our Moscow Mules to a fabulous weekend, indeed.

Enjoying walkable communities

Washington, D.C.

Having grown up in a sea of single-family houses and little-to-no public transit in suburban Dallas, and now living in car-crazy, sprawling Phoenix where it’s often too hot to leave the house until after sunset, I reveled in the cityscapes of central D.C. It was great finally being able to use my own two feet and maybe an odd Metro train or bus to get from Point A to Point B. This grudging owner of a car almost felt like he was back in Spain.

So much of D.C. was built before the automobile was invented, which means it is human-scaled, dense, and relatively walkable. Pretty multi-colored row houses fill centuries-old neighborhoods, while shopping districts offer a new storefront every couple of yards.

Washington, D.C.

The city’s strong, if aging, public transit system made it super easy to hop around from downtown to northwest D.C. to Adams-Morgan and back again, by a ride on either the Metro or any of the city’s many buses. (Full disclosure: I did request the odd Lyft or two this weekend.) The pleasant springtime weather may have positively influenced my feelings toward public transportation in D.C.; I’m not sure how I’d feel about running to catch a bus in full summer humidity.

Washington, D.C.
Union Station

I also got to indulge my inner, train-obsessed child since it was much cheaper to fly into Baltimore and ride the train into town instead of flying directly to Dulles or Reagan airports. Hourlong MARC commuter trains and various Amtrak routes stop at the airport’s station in Baltimore and continue on to Union Station in the heart of D.C., dropping you off at a Beaux-Art masterpiece that has been fully restored to its glorious, gilded glory. As much as I would like to take the train more often, the closest train station to Phoenix is in the middle of the desert 45 minutes south of town, so I enjoyed getting to take advantage of the rail infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor.

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