Washington DC is the penultimate American family vacation. Many a family’s bucket list includes dragging the littles along the National Mall (usually during peak humidity season), for what could be considered the most compact and thorough American learning experience, via our abundant monuments, archives, and museums. And I believe every family who can make it here absolutely should. (It’s one of the reasons I love homeschooling here.)
But you guys, there’s a whole other side of the Washington DC vacation awaiting the solo traveler! Tours, museums, restaurants, and activities that kids either aren’t allowed on or would hate (and therefore ruin for you). I’ve lived in the area for 7 years, so I haven’t technically had a mom vacation here. But I am a firm believer in backyard tourism, so I have had many mom’s days out in DC. I’m telling you, it’s heavenly.
The most obvious DC experience is to see the Capitol and the monuments along the Mall. I know you may have done this on a school field trip as a kid or even with your own kids, but it’s so different as a solo adult. Peaceful, lovely, and meditation-inducing.
My favorite way to see a city is by bike. It’s faster than walking, but not closed off and/or too fast, like a car or bus. You still get to feel the air, stop for photos or investigation when you feel like it, and get up close to the sights. And the National Mall is the poster child for bike tourism. Everyone’s doing it. (Do you feel my peer pressure?) It helps that Capital Bikeshare has multiple stations along the way. You just swipe your credit card, enter the number on your receipt to release your bike, and off you go. When you’re done, just park it at any other bike station anywhere in the city, and that’s it.
Choose your museum along the Mall. Last time I went, I chose the Museum of the American Indian.
And I won’t lie. I chose it for the cafe, which may be a contender for most unique food experience in DC. That’s a tough competition, but the Mitsitam Cafe is pretty darn cool. They have several different stands, each serving food from a different range of Indian tribes. For example, Northwest Coast serves wild-caught salmon and other fish dishes, Great Plains serves Indian tacos and bison burgers, South America serves quinoa and ceviche, etc. I’m a vegetarian, so I cobbled together these yummy sides: sweet potato hash, wild rice salad, and hominy salad. It’s a little pricey, but super fun and delicious.
Oh, and um…thank goodness chocolate came from South America, because this tart was divine!
National Gallery of Art
My very favorite Smithsonian museum to visit alone is the National Gallery of Art. I make sure to plan for a guided tour. If you’re looking for a recommendation, my humble opinion is that the French Collection tour is the best. Touring an art museum by myself makes me feel so human, in so many ways. I’m nobody’s mom or snack wrangler or referee. I’m just Lady on a Tour. Ahhhh.
Library of Congress
I’m a bit of a library fanatic. (I’m even a library school dropout. Hoping to finish someday, because I’m pretty sure it’s my calling.) The library is my happiest place to be, so when I’m traveling, I like to hit up other libraries, too. Luckily for me, I live right near the largest library in the world. It also just happens to be an architectural wonder.
The library was established in 1800 when President John Adams transferred the seat of government from Philadelphia to Washington. But then the damn Brits (j/k, we love you guys) burned down the Capitol building, along with the library. Within a month, Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library as a replacement. Pretty amazing, right? (I like you Jefferson, even though you were Hamilton’s rival.) Except his collection had lots of books on science, literature, philosophy, and all kinds of other things people thought irrelevant to a congressional library. In response he said, “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”
Basically, Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the Library of Congress was founded on the idea that lawmakers need access to ALL knowledge in order to make good policy, so he wanted it all at their fingertips. You might even say it was the first smart phone. A really big, heavy, marble smart phone. (Hey, I said *might*.)
The library’s collection really exploded when one Librarian of Congress (Ainsworth Rand Spofford) came up with the copyright law of 1870 that called for everyone to send two copies of their books to the Library. They had no room for all that stuff (obviously), so they built this big, beautiful building. All the artwork exudes messages about respect for books and learning as a virtue. There is a science hall, with symbols of the different branches of science, and a literature hall, with symbols of all the genres of literature. And there are quotes above every window elevating (if you will) the pursuit of knowledge.
A summary of the Library’s holdings:
- 158 million items
- 36 million catalogued books/print materials in 460 languages
- 69 million manuscripts
- the largest rare book collection in North America
- the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music, and sound recordings.
This is the main reading room. The statues looking down on the readers encircle the room and represent knowledge and wisdom icons like St. Peter, Plato, Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, etc. Anyone can get a reader’s card (at the Madison Building across the street) and come here to do research. #lifegoals
And this is the office of the Librarian of Congress. It’s mostly used for meeting with dignitaries now days and the Librarian works in the Madison Building. This room…man, what I wouldn’t give to legitimately sit in that chair.
Oh, hey, they have a Gutenberg Bible. Last time I saw one of these babies was in the British Museum in London.
Jefferson’s collection is displayed in a separate room. Books with green ribbons were part of the original library at Monticello. Gold ribbons are for recently purchased books. No ribbon is for books that came from other parts of the Library. They’re still looking for some books from the original collection. Those are each marked by an empty book box.
Politics and Prose
Talk about things you can’t enjoy on a family vacay…this bookstore is a DC institution. You need to be here by yourself to really enjoy it. The staff is famously knowledgeable and they have author visits and important speakers pretty much every day. Just look at this events calendar. Everyone who’s anyone has been here. I mean, I’d like to be there as an author or speaker one of these days, but I do feel like I’m definitely someone just for having visited. You could be someone, too. It’s that simple.
Stroll through a DC neighborhood
It’s easy to think of DC as a city of marble, museums, and suits (I know I did for a long time, even after I moved here!). But spiraling out from the center are dozens of charming neighborhoods, each with unique architecture, cultures, sights, shopping, and food. The most famous is probably Georgetown, with its fancypants stores, sometimes eery history, and of course, cupcakes. There’s also Adams Morgan, which has a lot of cultural diversity and a hoppin’ night life, if you’re into that kinda thing. Dupont Circle is centered around a cute little circle/park. This is where you can stroll down Embassy Row, which is pretty cool.
This photo is of Capitol Hill (the neighborhood surrounding…well, Capitol Hill). This neighborhood is the oldest in DC, boasts cute brick sidewalks, and hosts Eastern Market, which is definitely worth a visit. If you want more than a stroll (sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t), I like to print off self-guided walking tours or use Free Tours By Foot.
Where to Eat:
The National Mall was a sad place for foodies–and other humans with tastebuds– for many years. There were only trucks from one company that served hot dogs and pretzels. Meh. Anyone who wanted real food had to walk or Metro up to where the office buildings and food are. But DC recently began allowing all kinds of food trucks to station themselves around the mall, and the options are marvelous. There’s Moroccan food and Philly cheese steaks and falafel, etc. It’s a great place to grab a bite during your sightseeing. (And more affordable than the museum cafes, that’s for sure.)
Washington, DC, is definitely worth a solo weekend vacation! It’s a completely different city when you’re by yourself. Have you been? Tell me about it in the comments.
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