I have lived in the D.C. area for the greater measure of my life, with temporary stints in Charlottesville, Lyon (France), Chicago, and New York City. Since moving back to D.C. last summer, I have been comforted by the unchanged fixtures of cultural institutions and attractions I have loved since childhood and have suffered sea legs attempting to navigate the food scene; I am still feeling as though we have not yet found all our “food spots,” but we will get there. At any rate, nearly a year into living in the vicinity of my hometown (we actually live now in Bethesda, though I grew up in N.W. D.C., right by Rock Creek Park, in a great stone house that I think has shaped me more than I have given it credit, and then lived in Georgetown during graduate school and Glover Park when newly married), I thought I might share some of my favorite things to see, do, and eat in the D.C. area…
This is written in slapdash fashion, i.e., I am sitting down and spilling forth my top-of-mind favorites. This is not exhaustive and there are of course tons of other things to do and see in D.C. purposefully excluded from this list — on The Mall, at Mount Vernon, at the Kennedy Center, via The Smithsonian. I am here focusing on the smaller, less popularized spots we tend to visit more frequently.
Things to Do in D.C.
KREEGER MUSEUM. (Seen above.) One of my favorite art museums in the entire world? This was once a private residence and is situated in a residential area off Foxhall Road (not far from where my parents live!). At the moment, you need timed tickets to enter and when Mr. Magpie and I visited a few weeks ago, we had the place to ourselves. It is a petite but exceptional collection, mainly of impressionists, cubists, and modernists, with some fascinating African mask art, too. But let me tell you this: it’s a pretty rare thing to be left alone in a room with Picasso and Braque. The sculpture garden/grounds are spectacular, too.
PHILLIPS COLLECTION. An impressive art museum just off Dupont Circle, much smaller and more approachable than the vast collections on The Mall. I interned at the Phillips in college and have always felt at home here. They do some fantastic events and programming (sign up for emails to stay abreast) — we recently went to see an experimental theater performance of a play about Picasso that was absolutely exceptional. It astounded me that the performance was free and superb but relatively few patrons lined the seats. Their programs are a hidden gem.
HILLWOOD MUSEUM. This was walkable from my childhood home (!) and was the former residence of Marjorie Meriwether Post, known for collecting faberge eggs. This museum has been running some interesting programming lately — I can’t wait to see the exhibit on Grace Kelley launching this week. The house is beautiful, and if you can find an interesting exhibit, that’s wonderful, too, but for me the piece de resistance are the gardens: the Lunar Lawn, the Japanese-style garden, the rose garden, the parterre. Just spectacular.
DUMBARTON OAKS. Another beautiful garden to wander — I have never actually been to the indoor museum but will be rectifying that in two weeks when Mr. Magpie and I have procured tickets to visit both the museum and the gardens.
MONTROSE PARK. Next door to Dumbarton Oaks is a great, usually quiet park on the Northside of Georgetown. I lived on both R Street and 32nd Street after college, so we used this public park for picnics, walks, and boot camps my roommates and I used to participate in at 5:50 A.M. (Can you imagine?)
TUDOR PLACE. Just down the way from Montrose Park, Tudor Place is a historic home. I volunteered there during my high school years, usually just taking tickets at the front door and occasionally working in the gift shop. It’s a quiet and tranquil spot cloistered from the melee of M Street, and a good pit-stop if you’re looking for something cultural/historic to do while in the area for an afternoon.
NMWA. I also interned here (!) and was obsessed specifically with the curation. I haven’t been in years and the museum is currently closed for a massive renovation but I remember even in high school/college being bowled over by the whip-smart, provocative curator notes and the inventive exhibitions.
I A&A AT HILLYER. A small, non-profit gallery focused on contemporary art. This is around the corner from the Phillips if you’re looking for an art-packed day, or you can arrange to attend one of their free First Thursdays, where you can observe the provocative art and enjoy a glass of wine.
GREAT FALLS PARK. Mr. Magpie and I try to go hiking somewhere once a week, and this has been our favorite hiking spot. Nestled along the Potomac, some of its trails are actually quite (thrillingly) difficult! I love that some trails keep you along the water/falls, while others take you through densely forested areas that transport you to…somewhere very far from D.C. Select trains are equestrian, too, and they have decent picnic areas.
ROCK CREEK PARK. My favorite running venue in the area. So many great hiking and running trails, and so many corners that are just untrafficked and empty despite its popularity! It is an enormous green refuge in the middle of the city, and it feels so wild and overgrown in a way that makes you feel absconded from D.C.
WOLF TRAP. The most enjoyable way to take in live music, IMO. You bring a blanket and a picnic and sit outside on a hill that descends to the stage. They get some great acts, too! We saw Brandi Carlile there last year and will be seeing Van Morrison this year. I’m also contemplating going to see Steve Martin and Martin Short there!
CHRIST CHILD OPPORTUNITY SHOP. A great place to score antique and vintage finds (including silver, jewelry, furniture, and more), and proceeds support the Christ Child Society. My grandmother and mother both volunteered here for many years!
A place I am excited to visit for the first time this summer: Glenstone out in Potomac, MD (outdoor, avant garde sculpture garden). Already booked tickets for Mr. Magpie and I later this summer — it’s free but you do need tickets!
Things to Do with Kids in D.C.
GLEN ECHO. A perfect way to spend a morning with small children. They have a vintage-style carousel (it really gets going, too — pretty fast), a playground, a 10 a.m. daily puppet show, and the most charming and no-frills little aquarium you’ve ever seen. You must reserve tickets for the aquarium, which is one room of small tanks, including a basin in which children can touch/feel horse-shoe crabs. The staff is so accommodating, and they will walk around with you answering questions and showing children items of interest.
CABIN JOHN TRAIN. A 15-minute-long ride on a bright red train. It goes…in a loop and there is not much to take in, but small children will adore this. (Ours certainly did.). Cabin John also has several playgrounds and many picnic sites. It’s not far from a Shake Shack, so you can follow our model: train, playground, Shake Shack for lunch, then home for nap!
BUTLER’S FARM. For berry-picking / apple-picking / etc whenever in season. I went here growing up!
CHILDREN’S MUSEUM. I can’t tell you how much I loved this museum as a child. I’ve already picked a day to take my children in July!
NATIONAL ZOO. Honestly, this is unpopular, but I don’t think the National Zoo is that great. It’s on an enormous hill (pushing a stroller up hill all day gets old), I find the animals are rarely in view, and it’s kind of a headache to get into and out of. I think Central Park Zoo is the best zoo in the world for young children (small, flat, and you can get in and out in under an hour — plus they have a petting zoo for little ones across the path!), and the Lincoln Park Zoo seemed always to have a better “turn out” of its animals. (And I went to the San Diego Zoo as a child and — wow. Nothing will compare.) That said. My children LOVE THE NATIONAL ZOO. It’s free, proximal to the metro, and a great way to let your children run around on a sugar high, so it deserves a place on this list, too.
AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM. We took Hill here a few weeks ago and his mind actually exploded. Little ones will love being able to get up close and personal with so many planes!
Places to Eat in D.C.
The two best higher-end meals from new-to-us restaurants that we have enjoyed since moving back to the D.C. area were at Maydan (North African and Middle Eastern) and Cranes (Iberian-Japanese). At Maydan, the communal table / shared plates concept really worked and every bite of food was beyond delicious. When you eat “Tawle style,” they bring out a range of small plates, dips, sauces to serve with their incredible “central plates” and breads (roasted over a big fire), and we had the best time eating there with some of our best friends. Highly memorable, inventive, and inviting. The entire thing – menu, style, drink program, pace, staff – all worked. Cranes, meanwhile, was elevated dining at its best — the restaurant itself is refined and gorgeous, the menu was wildly creative, and the staff highly attentive. We did a tasting menu and spoke only in exclamation points at every single course. We also enjoyed a great repartee with the bartender, who mixed up some lovely cocktails for us on the house and talked scotch with Mr. Magpie for awhile.
For cocktails, we had such a fun night at Astoria a few weeks ago. We also ate there and thought the food was solid, but it was the cocktail program that shone. It was, quite simply, FUN to order drinks there, and the bartenders seem to really enjoy mixology — they have lots of “twists” on their drinks you can order, and they sent over a couple of complimentary drinks throughout the night, too. Electric vibe inside!
For seafood, we have been to Black Salt probably once a month since moving home. It’s our all-time favorite standby. We like to sit at the bar with a dozen oysters, a platter of fried calamari, a champagne cocktail (me), and a martini (him). We buy all of our seafood from their adjoining sea market. The best you can get in D.C. I have also wanted to go to Fiola Mare for years now — it’s my parents’ favorite restaurant in the city! — but have not yet made it there.
Out in Bethesda, our favorite spot is Spanish Diner, which is owned by Jose Andres. We had our rehearsal dinner at one of his restaurants and have long had a special spot in our hearts for him. The food is delicious and we love a spread of tapas for dinner. Unusually (for DC), they run special happy hours (“sangria hours”) most nights of the week — fun and inexpensive weeknight offering. I really love their gazpacho and croquetas.
Bread Furst is our favorite food discovery since being back. We probably stop by once a week, whether for bread, pastries, desserts, coffee (aka an excuse for pastry), or their exceptional pantry item collection. (They carry things like Rancho Gordo dry beans, typo 00 flour for pasta, and other difficult-to-come-by pantry items.) I am particularly fond of their ham and cheese croissants and their kouign amanns, but I will happily eat everything they have on their menu.
Organic Butcher of McClean — Mr. Magpie’s preferred meat vendor. There are spots closer to us but he tends to make the drive out here for protein. Truly the best.
Vace or Italian Store for Italian subs — both delicious. A great option for a picnic or for picking up in the morning for a later-in-the-day lunch — I kind of like when the hot pepper relish melds with the meat. I have also leaned on these two Italian spots for prepared meals for friends in a tough spot/facing illness/etc. They both have lots of frozen pastas like stuffed manicotti, lasagna, tortellini, that you can bundle with tomato sauce and some charcuterie for a quick drop off at a friend’s.
Fresh Baguette for jambon-beurre baguette sandwiches. These are addictive. I go way too often, and if I am having my mom or a girlfriend over for lunch and do not have time to prepare something homemade, this is what I invariably serve.
Baked and Wired — best cupcakes on earth. I also think Georgetown Cupcake is really, really good, but slightly prefer B&W.
Hanks Oyster Bar in Old Town – we are oyster people through and through. Love this spot.
Dolcezza — amazing gelato!
The Round Robin Bar at the Willard — I love the old school hotel bar vibe here. It’s a round bar that serves up traditional drinks, and it’s in a beautiful hotel right by the White House. A fun pit stop before dinner elsewhere.
Bistro Lepic — We haven’t been here in ten years, but this was one of our favorite neighborhood spots just after we were married. It’s a postage stamp of a French bistro, but the food is authentic (I remember my friend ordering kidneys here!) and the wine program excellent. The service was also wonderful back in the day at least. We need to get back here!
Pizza Paradiso — the best pizza we’ve found in the D.C. area. You can tell the cheese is top-notch, and I like the flavor options. This subgenre is a difficult one after leaving NYC, where pizza is an art form. (Prince St…Rubirosa…Pete’s…by the way, a bunch of my favorite spots in NYC are at the bottom of this post).
I have a whole other list of “lunch spots” that skew more towards the casual or divey, but will save those for a later post! Please share what I’ve missed in this list!
+These scalloped wicker frames are so popular and keep selling out!
+Chic quatrefroil necklace inspired by Van Cleef + Arpel.
+And a cute baby pool float with a clever canopy to shield baby from the sun!
+OBSESSED with this mini from Mer St. Barth!
+Love this simple cardigan.
+Have been contemplating investing in a Sue Sartor caftan the past few weeks…
+My ideal napkins for summer time.
+Sal e Pimenta makes the cutest, frilliest, most whimsical swimsuits for littles.
+My son would love the pattern on this sealife-inspired set of pajamas.
+Gorgeous lace midi skirt from Zimmermann – on sale!
+Chic striped linen everyday dress.
+These hats are so trendy ATM. It feels like everyone on Insta is wearing one!
+These jeans feel very Parisienne.
+Have been coveting glassware from Estelle for a long time…
+Adore this babydoll dress.
+The kind of everyday dress mini lives in during the summer months. Love the pattern and peter pan collar. On sale, too!