When you take a trip to the nation’s capital, you know you’re in for a lot of history, government buildings and museums. You’ll obviously spend some time on the National Mall seeing the monuments, walking through the awesome, free Smithsonian museums, maybe even going on a scheduled tour of the U.S. Capitol Building.
But what about the unconventional, non-touristy, things to do in DC — the things that might not make the list of top things to do lists (check out our 50 Things to Do in Washington DC list), but will definitely add local flavor and a unique flare to your trip?
I’ve got you covered. Below you’ll find the best non-touristy things to do in Washington DC – things that locals do – that will get you off the National Mall and into the real side of DC.
Non-Touristy Things to Do in Washington DC.
For more information on things to see and do in the city, check out our Essential Travel Guide to Washington DC.
Sample the Local Beer / Wine / Liquor
When you’ve had your fill of monuments and history, take a break from the norm and go a brewery tour of some of the city’s best breweries.
DC has built up a strong beer scene over the last dozen years and you can now find plenty of great breweries in the city, including the first brewery to brew and distribute here, DC Brau, along with Right Proper Brewing Company, Atlas Brew Works, and Bluejacket Brewery.
There are tons – look them up and try a few! If you don’t want to Uber around to them all, consider joining a brewery tour.
If you have time, head out to Port City Brewery or Aslin in Alexandria, VA – both are super popular with the locals. Port City has great beers to sample in their tasting room every day, and a brewery tour, available on Thursday-Sunday – $12 with 6 tasters of beer. To get there by public transportation, take the metro to King Street and catch an Uber or walk.
Another new arrival is Aslin Beer Company in Alexandria. It’s a huge space with edgy artwork and up to 24 taps pouring at a time! There’s an urban winery in DC you can visit, called District Winery. It’s located at 385 Water St SE and it’s home to not only a winery, but a restaurant and bar, too (brunch, anyone?).
They also hold classes and date nights tours and tastings. Distilleries are popping up everywhere in DC. You can try the house rum and creative craft cocktails at the Cotton and Reed distillery.
If gin is more you thing, try Green Hat Gin. They have a cocktail bar and Gin Garden, plus they do free tastings and tours on Saturdays.
More beer/wine/liquor tours in DC:
Explore the Local (and Ethnic) Food Scene
Washington DC is a fantastic food city. There are so many new restaurants opening every day that must be explored. Ethiopian food is especially popular in DC and you can find an enclave of great Ethiopian restaurants in the Adams Morgan neighborhood.
You can easily eat around the world without ever leaving the city. To decide where to go, see this list by Maria Abroad for the best ethnic restaurants in Washington DC.
I’m also a huge fan of city food tours. It’s a great way to get to know the city, its culture and its restaurants, and can also provide you with a road map for eating during the rest of your vacation. Check out this food tour in the U Street neighborhood, which blends history and food in one of the coolest areas of town.
You’ll be regaled with history, info about the food culture of the area and of course you’ll eat a ton of food.
More food tours in DC:
National Monuments at Night
Okay, so this is a typical tourist activity, but it’s really fun and is a unique experience that you’ll remember and cherish a lot more than the usual way of doing it. Most tourists visit the monuments during the day, when there are huge crowds, daytime heat and very little ambiance.
If you wait until night to tour the monuments, you’ll find way less people, a nice cool breeze (unless it’s winter, of course) and the monuments are all lit up at night, which makes the experience so much more amazing.
One of the things I love to do is take a blanket to the Jefferson Memorial and have a picnic or just hang out on one of the pillars at the corners of the stairs.
You can stare out at the gorgeous night lights across the Potomac with the towering, illuminated presence of Jefferson at your side.
⇒ Why not plan ahead? Book your Washington DC evening twilight tour here.
Shaw & Logan Circle Neighborhoods
There is so much to do in Shaw that you could probably spend a whole weekend just discovering this one neighborhood. This historic neighborhood is now home to dozens of trendy spots – restaurants, cocktail bars, beer gardens, and boutique shopping galore.
We suggest going to Shaw in the early afternoon for cocktails and staying for dinner and after-dinner drinks – well, you want to try it all, don’t you!? Here are a few of our favorites: All Purpose Pizzeria, Tiger Fork Chinese Bistro, the Dabney, Hazel, Himitsu, Kinship.
Note: Shaw is where you’ll find the aforementioned Right Proper Brewing Company. To get there you can take the metro to the Mt Vernon/7th St Convention Center stop. Shaw is about a minute walk from there.
If there is one neighborhood that has re-gentrified itself beyond recognition in a very short time, it’s Logan Circle. A new high-end restaurant, cafe or trendy specialty shop opens there seemingly every week.
It’s a busy area with beautiful old townhouses to gawk at, a lovely park and fountain in the center of the circle and lots of bar and restaurant hopping to do. You’ll almost feel like a local here.
Just try to act like one and you’ll fit right in. There are metro stations nearby, but it’ll require a short walk, as Logan Circle doesn’t have its own metro stop. If you’d like to stay nearby, we recommend The Westin City Center and Washington Plaza Hotel.
⇒ Why not plan ahead? Book a U Street and Shaw Neighborhood Food tour here.
Check out the Museum Cafeterias
I know this sounds strange, but some of the museums in DC have amazing cafeteria food, and they are definitely worth checking out. You might find yourself wanting to visit one of these museums, and you can tack on a lunch in the cafeteria while you’re at it.
National Museum of African American History
The Sweet Home Cafe is a cafeteria you do not want to miss. Celebrity chef Carla Hall is the culinary ambassador at Sweet Home Café, so you know there’s something special going on there!
The Cafe aims to showcase the culture and history of the African American people through food traditions – both old and new. Inside the massive food court, you’ll find four different culinary areas:
The agricultural south with Buttermilk Fried Chicken, the Creole Coast with a Pan-fried Louisiana Catfish Po’boy, the North States with a “Smoking Hot” Pepper Pot, and the Western Range with a BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwich. These are just the tip of the Iceberg of things you can eat at this museum cafe.
Location: 1400 Constitution Avenue NW
Hours: Open 7 days a week (except Christmas); 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m
Mitsitam Cafe at Museum of the American Indian
When you’re walking around the Smithsonian museums and hiking what seems like miles to get from one side of the National Mall to the other, you’ll work up a crazy appetite and then not find any restaurants in the vicinity for lunch.
Don’t eat at a boring museum cafe, head over to the Museum of the American Indian (on the Capitol Building side of the mall). The museum itself is worth a visit if you have the time, but it’s the Mitsitam Cafe here that will amaze you.
Mitsitam features indigenous food from around the Western Hemisphere, divided into different regions. Each menu item reflects the food and cooking techniques from the region featured.
You can eat entirely from one region or mix and match, plus they have a chef’s tasting experience.
Location: Fourth Street & Independence Ave., S.W
Hours: Open 7 days a week (except Christmas); 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m
Explore the Many Food Markets
Located on 5th St NE in a busy warehouse area off New York Avenue, Union Market is a year-round local market featuring artisan products, food purveyors, and food options from established and pop-up restaurants, including fresh shucked oysters from Rappahannack Oyster Bar, creative sodas like the grapefruit rosemary or lemon lavender at Buffalo & Bergen, Korean kimchi tacos at TaKorean and coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee.
Just make sure you go there hungry or you’ll regret it. The market is open Mondays – Wednesday and Sunday from 8am to 8pm, and the rest of the week it’s open until 9pm. The closest metro stop is NoMa Gallaudet University, which is about an 11 minute walk to the market.
DC’s original food and art market, Eastern Market has been open continuously since 1873 and still going strong.
Located in the middle of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, the market features fresh food, community events, and on weekends, local farm-fresh produce and handmade arts and crafts that stretch into outdoor stalls and fills the neighborhood with activity.
Like Union Market, it’s just a fun place to walk around and enjoy the local products and mingling with the locals.
Location: 225 Seventh Street, SE Washington
Hours: Tuesday to Friday- 7am -7pm; Saturday – 7am – 6pm; Sunday – 9am – 5pm; Monday – CLOSED
Setting up shop in the old Ballston Mall is a town square of sorts, with 18 food counters like Sloppy Mama’s BBQ, Turu’s for pizza, Hot Lola’s, and Ice Cream Jubilee. The thing is, this isn’t just a food market.
There are lots of loungey areas to hang out and get comfortable. It’s also an entertainment venue where events will take place, and there are some shopping stalls too.
Location: 4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
H Street Corridor
I love the way the H Street Corridor has completely changed over the last decade. It underwent a major regentrification that turned it into a really fun place to hang out in the city.
Today it’s home to some of the best places to check out new art, with the growing number of art offerings, like City Gallery and Studio H Gallery. If you’re not into art, don’t worry, there’s lot of other things to do. The area has also become a hotspot for cafes and trendy restaurants, top music venues like The Rock and Roll Hotel, and a rowdy nightlife.
We recommend eating at Sally’s Middle Name, and there’s even a 3rd location of the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl on H Street now. You can get there by way of the NoMa and Union Station Metro stops or by taking the DC Streetcar.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center
If you’re in to art – especially by local artists – you must make the journey to Old Town Alexandria for a look around the Torpedo Factory.
The Torpedo Factory is three floors packed with over 80 local artists’ studios, many of whom will be hard at work on their latest creation while you’re visiting. It’s a rare opportunity to see the work in progress, talk to the artists themselves and peruse the art they have on display and for sale.
They are open to the public most days from 10am-6pm. The Torpedy Factory is located on the banks of the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria (105 N Union St, Alexandria, VA).
While you’re there, make sure you wander around Old Town Alexandria for a while (see below). There are tons of cool things to do there.
Old Town Alexandria
There is so much to see and do in Old Town Alexandria. While a bit removed from the downtown core, it’s definitely worth the trip.
You can get to the beginning to the Old Town area by taking the metro to King Street (don’t expect to find parking) and beginning your walk south from there, or take the free trolley if you’d rather not walk.
You’ll find dozens of shops to browse albeit expensive ones, plenty of sidewalk cafes and some great restaurants. I love Sonoma Cellar, especially for Taco Tuesday and Wine Down Wednesday.
At the end of the street is the Potomac River Harbor that’s packed full of boats and has amazing views and even a few restaurants where you can dine and enjoy the sunset. Chart House is an absolutely must!
Gravelly Point Park
There is a small grassy park less than half a mile from Reagan National Airport, along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, where you can hang out and watch the planes take off and land.
It’s actually one of the best parks I’ve been to for this type of activity because it’s a nice park where you can spread out a blanket, have a picnic, hang out with friends, etc. It can get super noisy when the planes are overhead, and the ground shakes a little, but it’s definitely a one-of-a-kind experience worth having.
To get to Gravelly Point Park, you really have to have a car or take a taxi. You can walk from the airport, if you’re just getting in. There is a small parking lot available.
Kayaking on the Potomac River
If you’re hanging out in Georgetown, you may catch a glimpse of people kayaking on the Potomac River.
You can rent a kayak from the Key Bridge Boathouse and take it along the waterway to get a unique glimpse at the Georgetown waterfront, Roosevelt Island (where many locals have never even been), and the underbelly of the Key Bridge itself.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
If you do go kayaking on the Potomac, you have to check out Theodore Roosevelt Island, an 88-acre park right in the middle of the Potomac. No cars are allowed on the island, so you can only get there by crossing the foot bridge from Arlington, or by boat.
The island has walking trails and a boardwalk that leads to the main memorial plaza where a statue of Theodore Roosevelt was erected to honor the 26th president.
As long as we’re talking about the Roosevelt’s, I highly recommend a visit to the slightly lesser-known National Mall memorial dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who was Theodore Roosevelt’s 5th cousin). The FDR monument is a walk through the life and times of the 32nd president with some lovely waterfalls, quotes and statues of FDR along the way.
This monument is located half way between the Lincoln Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and can be access from West Potomac Park.
Need More Ideas?
Take a look at these activities that you can book in advance to fill your itinerary with unique things to do in Washington, DC.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
There are a lot of great neighborhoods in Washington where you can stay as a tourist and fully enjoy yourself. Where you stay depends a lot on what you want to do and your budget.
It can be expensive to stay right in the city. For budget travelers, it may be more economical to stay outside the city in Arlington or Alexandria and take the Metro in to the city.
If you can afford it, try to stay as close to the action as possible. You can see prices or book directly with Booking.com through these links:
We recommend these places to stay in Arlington and Alexandria:
- The Westin Crystal City – Trip Advisor | Booking.com
- Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa, Old Town, Alexandria – Trip Advisor | Booking.com
We recommend these places to stay in Washington DC:
As you can see, there are many things to do that are not the typical touristy activities in the city. These are just a few ideas for unconventional things to do in Washington dc. Check here for even more outside the box Washington DC recommendations.
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.