Explore D.C.’s beyond-the-tourist tour spots!
A trip to Washington, D.C., comes with a must-see list of destinations. If you’ve never climbed the Lincoln Memorial stairs, toured the Capitol rotunda, ridden the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument, stood beneath Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” or become teary-eyed at the many war memorials, put them at the top of the list.
Once you’ve crossed off the major tourist destinations, start exploring by neighborhood. The district has a wealth of quarters with distinct personalities, dining destinations, attractions and historical elements. Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and Southwest are good options my kids and I have checked out before, but a recent visit led us to discover Penn Quarter just east of downtown.
It’s hard not to run into history in this town, and Penn Quarter comes through with its own well-marked walking tour that hits several highlights. The anchor of our stay was the refurbished Riggs Hotel, built in 1881 and first converted into a hotel in 1999. The National Register property was revamped as a glam, 181-room property in early 2020. Fifteen suites are decorated around a “First Ladies” theme, with accents ranging from various shades of pink to a baby grand piano. The design highlights many of the original elements, from the below-groundlevel vault-turned-bar to soaring coffered and barrel-vaulted ceilings and Corinthian columns.
One of the hotel’s chief assets is its location. Even before unpacking, we whipped across the street to spend a few hours in the free National Portrait Gallery. A few blocks farther brought us to Capital One Arena, home to D.C.’s hockey and basketball teams. It’s a one-minute walk to Ford’s Theatre, where we peered into the booth where Lincoln was shot, checked out related artifacts in the lower-level museum and headed across the street to the boarding house where he died. A well-marked walking tour highlighted what was our favorite Lincoln trivia tidbit: An alley beside the hotel is where John Wilkes Booth was spotted fleeing the crime scene. (And it’s appropriately anchored by The Escape Game D.C. venue.)
We enjoyed a brief rest in the tranquility of the Victorian Gothic Revival St. Patrick’s church, dating to the late 1790s. Mass is celebrated each day at noon, but you don’t need to attend a service to take in the stunning architectural details of the double turrets, sandstone accents and intricate rose window.
A 20-minute drive took us out of the neighborhood to an off-the-beaten-path destination, The Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens. It was owned by Marjorie Post, the original owner of Mara- Lago, but the wife of a former Russian ambassador turned her Washington mansion into a showplace for countless collections that include Fabergé eggs, china from the Imperial court and religious icons. Through Jan. 8, the museum hosts a collection of gowns worn by Princess Grace of Monaco.
Back at the Riggs, we kicked off a final evening with drinks in the bank vault bar, where the menu star is a fruit basket of Jell-O shots molded into frozen fruit rinds and paired with champagne shooters. Dinner at the French-influenced Café Riggs began with a creamy goat cheese tart and a plate of sauteed scallops, followed by halibut and truffle risotto and sweetly concluded with a chocolate soufflé. As the night’s grand finale, we stood on the rooftop terrace and pointed out all those major attractions we’ve seen in the past, as well as the new ones we’d just discovered.
HILLWOOD ESTATE, MUSEUM AND GARDENS
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
Atlanta-based writer and editor contributing to a number of local and state-wide publications. Instructor in Georgia State’s Communication department and Emory’s Continuing Education division.