Cool days in D.C.

By | Category: Travel destinations
Washington DC has a castle - at the Smithsonian

the Smithsonian Castle

Staying in – museums

A city the likes of Washington is hardly short of indoor activities – the Smithsonian Institution alone has 19 museums and galleries to choose from. In addition the capital has a wide range of offbeat, unusual museums well worth a visit, most of which are centrally located. The Crime Museum takes the American obsession with all things criminal to new heights. Its vast five galleries cover everything from medieval torture chambers, gangsters, hoodlums and Mafiosi to CSI, crime fighting and America’s most wanted offenders, past and present. It’s an interesting, if slightly creepy experience to wander among the exhibits. If you really want to get into the spirit of things, the CSI training offered includes a “body decomposition workshop”. Not for the faint-hearted.  Just a stone’s throw from this crime centre you’ll find a hotbed of spies. The Spy Museum, opened in 2002, may not have been the first of its kind (that honour goes to the Finnish city of Tampere), but it certainly is the biggest museum dedicated to the international art of spying. Historical spy trivia, gadgets, missions and of course world famous spies, can all be found here.

city spies

spies in the city © The Spy Museum

There’s also an excellent permanent exhibition on 50 years of Bond villains with plenty of memorabilia. The spy school is great for kids of all ages.

Staying in – “castles”

You’d be forgiven for not associating Washington with castles, but the U.S. capital actually boasts several. These lesser known, interesting buildings are open to visitors and exploring them makes for excellent indoor fun. Best known, and a part of the aforementioned Smithsonian Institution, is the Smithsonian Castle. This red sandstone building, located right on the National Mall, looks rather out of place with its turrets and towers, but that makes it all the groovier. It opened back in 1855 and serves as the Smithsonian administrative centre. Don’t be fooled into thinking that makes it a dull place to visit – it’s home to the nicely informative visitors’ centre, a relaxing café-cum-shop and there is a spooky crypt in the basement. The “castle” is surrounded by a beautiful garden, the Enid A. Haupt Garden, open daily.  Slightly away from the Mall and the Monuments, near Dupont Circle, another castle deserves a mention. The so-called Brewmaster’s Castle, aka Heurich House Museum, is one of the city’s most unlikely-looking buildings. Built at the turn of the 20th century by self-made brewer Christian Heurich, who arrived from Germany with hardly a penny to his name in 1866, the castle is unusual not just for its architecture, but for the sheer technical genius displayed in its construction. Mr Heurich’s castle is 100% fireproof, fully equipped with indoor plumbing – a remarkable feat in the 1890s – and the Victorian style rooms, all 31 of them, come complete with extraordinary period pieces and hand-painted ceilings. Open for tours Thu – Sun.

Heading out – markets


Eastern Market shops

shops near Eastern Market

Eastern Market, near Capitol Hill, is an old favourite with locals and visitors alike. Located inside a quaint red-brick building, it’s open daily except Mondays and on weekends it spills out to cover a large outdoor area in the vicinity. It sells fresh local farm products and a wide variety of arts and crafts – paintings by local artists are particularly noteworthy. Although it is a good place to stop for lunch or a snack, Eastern Market is perhaps best if you happen to have your own kitchen nearby and are doing your own cooking.  When it comes to eating out, the latest addition to the D.C. market scene, Union Market in the up-and-coming NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) district, is your best bet. Opened as recently as the autumn of 2012, in a building with a long-standing market history, Union Market has slowly, but surely, made a name for itself as a great place to hang out, do some shopping and, above all, sample the goods on location. Oysters, empanadas, kimchi, Mediterranean salads – it’s all here and it’s all exceedingly tasty.

Heading out – further afield

colourful buildings in Alexandria

colourful buildings in Alexandria

In a city as big and diverse as Washington, options for a day out are hardly in short supply, both within District of Columbia and in neighbouring states Virginia and Maryland. A cruise on the Potomac River down south to Alexandria in Virginia is a lovely way to get out and about. Once there, you’ll find Alexandria, also known as Old Town, has a very different vibe from the nearby metropolis. Yes, it is touristy, but without being tacky. The historic waterfront and harbour make a nice area for strolling, there are plenty of quaint and pretty houses, shops, bars and cafes, and, for the art buffs, the Torpedo Factory Art Center, literally a former torpedo factory, turned arts centre, on three floors. For more art, the Greek Revival style Athenaeum, holds temporary exhibitions showcasing works by the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association.

decorated and ususual shop fronts of Alexandria

decorated and ususual shop fronts of Alexandria

For a day out in another pleasant town within the city, head north to Bethesda in Maryland, also well known for its thriving arts scene and good dining options. The summer is particularly lively with a Summer Concert series, outdoor movies and a fine arts festival, while autumn sees the Taste of Bethesda festival take place in October. There are 200 restaurants to choose from, not bad for a community of just over 60,000 and it’s only just a quick metro ride from the centre.  And this is merely stretching the surface of the many options to enjoy while visiting Washington D.C.

For further information about the region as a whole, click here.

For further information about Washington DC, click here.

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