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Doing DC by Foot Is Surprisingly Easy

BY: Kate Raftery | Dec 8, 2015

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At just 61 square miles, Washington, DC, is a teeny-tiny city compared to its outsize national importance. (Consider that Denver, the next most populous city in the US, is 153 square miles.) So it’s not too surprising that, despite what you may see on the 24-hour news, much of DC has a small-town neighborhood feel.

Part and parcel to that character is the District’s scenic walkability. Whether you’re playing spot-the-bigwigs at Cafe Milano in Georgetown or heading through Woodley Park to visit the National Zoo’s pandas, you’ll stroll streets lined with storefronts and colorful rowhouses in all sorts of architectural styles. No impersonal skyscrapers here—seeing DC by foot is easy and rewarding. Check out our recommendations below.

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The Capital City

Walk These Areas: National Mall, Capitol Hill, Southwest Waterfront

Let’s get the monuments and museums out the way. Thankfully, there’s a vibrant neighborhood right nearby for those who want to get off the beaten path.

See: You could visit the US Capitol Building, but its dome may be sheathed in scaffolding until 2017—not a great photo op. Instead, go next door to the US Botanic Garden’s humid greenhouses, filled with beautiful blooms and a sometimes-very-smelly corpse flower. For more consumable plants, visit Eastern Market for farm-fresh produce, high-quality meats and seafood, baked goods, and handmade arts and crafts.

Snack: The Capitol Hill neighborhood is home to one of the District’s hottest restaurants: Rose’s Luxury. Though you should prepare to queue up at the limited-reservations eatery, the reviews say the wait is worth it for flavorful New American dishes. A more no-frills experience can be had at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, where you can get steamed crabs and shucked oysters right off floating barges.

Do: Lining the National Mall are about a dozen museums, most of which are free. If you’re overwhelmed by choice and short on time between your visits to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, head to the crowd-pleasing National Air and Space Museum. Exhibits span aviation history from the Wright brothers’ glider to an Apollo Lunar Module to 2004’s SpaceShipOne, the beginning of private-enterprise spaceflight.

A trip to the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden can be relaxing in the midst of a hectic day of sightseeing, especially in the winter, when its fountain becomes an ice-skating rink.

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The Center of Things

Walk These Areas: Downtown, Chinatown, Dupont Circle

If you’re visiting DC, chances are your hotel is in one of these areas. But that doesn’t mean you have to do the same old touristy things.

See: Retreat from the hubbub by entering the serene Great Hall of the National Building Museum. Sketch or photograph its arches and columns or visit its architecture- and planning-related exhibits. Later, head to the outer edges of this area to do a walk-by of the White House. A tour of the executive mansion requires advance planning, but nothing’s stopping you from taking pictures from the sidewalk and observing the ever-present protesters.

Snack: Rather than tacking Ford’s Theatre onto your ever-expanding list of tourist attractions, chow down on sushi rolls, fried dumplings, and kung pao shrimp at Wok and Roll. What’s the connection? The Chinese and Japanese eatery resides in the Surratt boarding house where conspirators met to plan the Lincoln assassination. In Dupont Circle, surprisingly upscale fare is served at Afterwords Café within Kramerbooks, an independent bookstore that had a role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Do: If the Mall museums are too busy, The Phillips Collection is quiet, intimate, and affordable. Its modern and contemporary art includes works by Rothko, Renoir, Picasso, and O’Keeffe. A tour through the whimsical Mansion on O Street, meanwhile, features an ever-changing collection of signed guitars, kitschy art, and nearly every other artifact imaginable in hundreds of rooms. Try to find the dozens of secret doors while sipping champagne.

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Roam Like a Local

Walk These Areas: Shaw, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant

Here you’ll find an intersection of historically African American enclaves, newer immigrant communities, and an influx of young professionals.

See: Start your own tour of the area at the stately Founders Library on the campus of Howard University, a historically black university established in 1826. Then make your way around the U Street Corridor, once known as the star-studded Black Broadway.

Its sights include the Lincoln Theatre and Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark joint that has survived numerous challenges—riots, economic downturns, Metro construction—to thrive for more than 50 years. End your jaunt in the gorgeous Meridian Hill Park (also known as Malcolm X Park), where you can lounge by the largest cascading fountain in North America or, on Sundays, bop along to a rollicking drum circle.

Snack: DC is thought to have the largest Ethiopian community outside of Ethiopia, which is supported by the abundance of Ethiopian restaurants here. Injera awaits at local favorites Dukem Restaurant and Zenebech Injera. If Latin American food is more your style, sample what the area’s Salvadoran population has to offer—pupusas especially—at El Rinconcito II.

Do: True to the area’s reputation as a hub for nightlife, our recommendations for things to do here are best saved till dusk. Once central to the ‘80s hardcore punk scene, 9:30 Club is today a stopping point for big-name artists and a launching pad for regional bands. And while Busboys and Poets is always a chilled-out place to grab coffee or a meal, it comes alive for poetry slams, open mics, and storytelling performances in the evenings.