If there’s one place that every American should visit, it’s Washington, D.C. Our nation’s capital is chock-full of interesting places having to do with America’s history and culture: the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument, the various Smithsonian museums lining the National Mall…the list goes on.
While these must-see places are full of fascinating things to see, they’re also full of tourists, and sometimes it’s nice just to escape the bustling tourist scene for something quieter. That’s where this list comes in. We’ve scoured Washington, D.C. and its immediate surroundings to come up with the 30 best overlooked attractions in Washington, D.C.
Adventure Park at Sandy Spring
If you’re traveling with children and have access to a car, the Adventure Park at Sandy Springs is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon, and makes for a nice break between museums. Located about half an hour from D.C., this cool park includes 13 different trails for family members of all ages and abilities. The trails include zip lines, aerial rope courses, bridges, and balancing acts.
African-American Civil War Museum
While most people know a bit about slavery leading up to and during the Civil War, few people realize that 209,145 African-Americans actually fought during the war, mostly on the side of the Union. At the absolutely fascinating African-American Civil War Museum — located a stone’s throw from Howard University — visitors can learn about these brave individuals through exhibits featuring photographs, newspaper articles, and even replica weapons and uniforms. The on-site memorial to those who fought and died is especially touching.
Albert Einstein Memorial
While most of D.C.’s monuments are political in nature, the Albert Einstein Memorial is a nice exception. Located in a small park between 21st St. and 22nd St. NW, this attractive statue features the world’s most famous mathematician lounging on welcoming steps and looking over — what else? — mathematical equations.
While most of the mansions-turned-embassies on Embassy Row are surrounded by gates and armed security, the Anderson House invites guests in for free. The Anderson House is the home base for the old patriotic group, The Society of the Cincinnati, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity to see some of early America’s finest interior architecture. Wander the rooms and gawk at the fancy ballrooms (yep, that’s plural), elaborate crystal chandeliers, and one-of-a-kind tapestries and other art pieces.
Blind Whino is likely the funkiest church you’ve ever visited. Once a Baptist church, the abandoned building was acquired by a group of local artists who promptly covered it in a colorful mural. Inside, just about every surface is covered with the unique work of more than 1,200 artists from every corner of the world. Blind Whino is located on Delaware Avenue — don’t worry, you can’t miss it.
Boating On the Potomac
Most people opt to explore Washington, D.C. by walking the National Mall or hopping on and off a tourist bus, but for those wanting to get off the beaten path, we recommend discovering the city via the Potomac River. The company Boating in DC offers equipment rentals and guided tours via kayak, canoe, and paddle board. Not only is this a fun, healthy activity, but it’s also a great way to see Georgetown, the Kennedy Center, and Roosevelt Island.
Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum
For anyone working in the medical field, or even anyone who just loves a good story, the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum is a must visit. The museum is housed in the offices in which Clara Barton, the famous Civil War nurse and founder of the Red Cross, set up to take reports about missing soldiers. The museum has tons of interesting information on Barton’s story and the early years of one of the world’s most important organizations. it’s also inspiring to stand in the spot where Clara and her fellow nurses reunited an estimated 22,000 soldiers with their families.
The Crypt at the Washington National Cathedral
The stunning Washington National Cathedral isn’t your average religious site. That’s apparent as soon as you spot the moon rocks in the stained glass and the Darth Vader-shaped gargoyles. Whether you choose to stop for a prayer or not, the cathedral is a trove of hidden treasures. As you’re exploring, don’t forget to head down to the crypt, where you can pay your respects to President Woodrow Wilson’s marble tomb and Helen Keller’s ashes.
The DEA Museum
Fans of Breaking Bad and other drug-themed dramas are sure to find The DEA Museum absolutely fascinating. This unassuming little museum run by the Drug Enforcement Agency is chock full of eyebrow-raising exhibits on everything from Pablo Escobar and the Colombian cartels, to various bongs seized throughout the agency’s history. Read up on real life cases involving opium dens and narco-terrorism, then marvel at the actual sacks of marijuana that fell from a plane traveling from Mexico over San Diego.
The Diplomatic Reception Room at the U.S. Department of State
Like the White House and the U.S. Capitol Building, the U.S. Department of State allows limited access to those visiting Washington, D.C. Specifically, visitors are allowed on the building’s 7th floor where they can tour seven of the 42 rooms that make up the Diplomatic Reception Room Collection. It’s here that the Secretary of State, Vice President, and other government figures greet world leaders, sign treaties, and lead large meetings. The only hitch is that access must be pre-arranged via the State Department’s website (though entrance is free of charge).
Dumbarton Oaks Museum
Located in Georgetown, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum is practically two museums in one. The interior of the 1927 Georgian mansion is full of beautiful furniture, tapestries, and other pieces of art, some of which date back to the 15th century, The museum’s main purpose, however, is to exhibit two exceedingly impressive collections
-a collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts from Mesoamerica and the Andes,
-a collection of historic pieces from the Byzantine Empire.
While you’re visiting, take some time to wander through the truly impressive gardens in search of Lover’s Lane Pool. This picturesque pond doubles as a soundscape, creating peaceful melodies using little more than the wind and water.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Across the Potomac in Anacostia is the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. Better known as Cedar Hill, this is where the influential African-American social reformer lived from 1877 to 1895. Visitors to Cedar Hill can tour the house as they learn about Douglass’ life and vision for America. The site’s grounds also boast some of the best views of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument to be found anywhere.
Gravelly Point Park
One of D.C.’s coolest outdoor spaces is Gravelly Point Park, located just across the Potomac from the main metro area. The park is a large flat green space that’s ideal for walking and cycling. But as nice as all that is, Gravelly Point Park is perhaps most famous for plane spotting. The park is situated just 400 feet from the edge of a runway at Reagan Washington National Airport, so planes fly low right over the park.
Heurich House Museum
The District has dozens of great breweries and bars, but the Heurich House Museum offers an entirely different experience for beer lovers. Nicknamed “The Brewmaster’s Castle,” the Heurich House hosts a full calendar of beer-themed events, including the festive Oktoberfest. Check the museum’s website before you go to see if your visit to D.C. coincides with its once-a-month “History & Hops,” a unique event which includes tastings of different local brews and a tour of the 19th-century mansion.
Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens
By the early 20th century, the areas surrounding Washington, D.C. were developing so fast that the constant construction was threatening local forests and waterways. In response, Congress established the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in one of D.C.’s northeastern neighborhoods. The park is free to visit, and is a peaceful place to take a walk or enjoy a picnic. In the spring and summer, the park is especially active with blooming flowers and a healthy population of local wildlife.
Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum
The Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum is housed in a beautiful synagogue that happens to be the oldest in D.C. In fact, Ulysses S. Grant was there for the synagogue’s first service back in 1876, making him the first sitting president to attend a Jewish service. The synagogue is still home to worship services, but visitors can stop in to see the impressive collection of historical items relating to the history of Judaism in Washington, D.C.
The Mansion on O Street
If you are fortunate enough to be staying at this swanky boutique hotel, you’re in luck. But even if you’re not checked in to the Mansion on O Street, this unique place is definitely worth exploring. The mansion was purchased and lived in by three eccentric siblings who designed the house with myriad secret passages and hidden doors. Though it’s known that more than 70 secret doors were installed, the original owners’ living relatives have yet to find a whopping 22 of them! If you go on your own search through the mansion, we recommend paying special attention to the mirrors and bookshelves. . . .
The National Arboretum
You don’t need to love flora to find the National Arboretum an enjoyable place to spend some time. This massive garden is absolutely stunning, with hundreds of types of flowers and plants gifted from all parts of the country. Wander around and pause in awe at the decorative Corinthian columns taken from the U.S. Capitol building. Then spend a few minutes in the State Tree Grove to find your state’s tree.
The National Geographic Museum
No matter what you’re interested in, we’ll bet you can find something about it in the National Geographic Museum. Though small, this often overlooked museum is full of interesting exhibits on everything from various world cultures to dinosaurs. And of course, there’s plenty of the top-notch photography for which National Geographic is so well known.
National Museum of Health and Medicine
Washington, D.C. seems to have a museum for just about everything, including the macabre. The National Museum of Health and Medicine, run by the Department of Defense, is home to all kinds of things sure to make you cringe. Particularly memorable collection pieces include the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln (along with a little bit of the president’s skull), a megacolon (yep….), and a stomach-shaped hairball ingested by a 12 year old.
National Museum of the United States Navy
Military buffs and former sailors will love the National Museum of the United States Navy, located in Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The museum is hardly ever crowded, which is surprising considering its wide variety of interesting exhibits spanning from pre-Revolution to modern day. The National Museum of the United States Navy is absolutely worth visiting, but keep in mind that because it’s technically part of a functioning military facility, visitors are required to provide a photo ID upon arrival.
Old Stone House
Washington, D.C. is full of attractions important to the post-Revolutionary War United States, but for an authentic glimpse of America before the battle for independence, check out the often-overlooked Old Stone House. Located in Georgetown, the adorable old house stands as the oldest unchanged building in the District. The house is now a museum. It looks just as it did when Christopher Layman lived and worked there as a cabinetmaker.
The Phillips Collection
The Phillips Collection, a museum conveniently located mere steps from the Dupont Circle Metro stop, has the honor of being America’s very first museum of modern art. Today, Phillips’s nearly 3,000-piece collection probably wouldn’t be described as “modern,” but rather an impressive accumulation of works by van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir, and other enduring artists.
President Lincoln’s Cottage
Located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, or “Old Soldiers’ Home,” is the “cottage” President Abraham Lincoln often used to escape the bustling metro and spend some time in solitude. The cottage’s sparse furnishings make for a powerful scene, the star of which is the desk at which Lincoln drafted his legendary Emancipation Proclamation. There’s plenty to see here, and each exhibit offers the visitor a unique perspective of the Civil War. Though it’s an easy trip for today’s visitors, keep in mind the president had to make the 3.5-mile trek on horseback.
Smithsonian National Postal Museum
If there was ever an instance in which it would be a shame to judge a museum by its subject matter, this is it. It opened in 1993 in the building that once housed Washington D.C.’s main post office. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum is a surprisingly fascinating place. Take advantage of the Smithsonian’s free admission to learn about the evolution of this important social service, discover facts about the Pony Express, and marvel at the various historical postal stamps.
Did you know Washington, D.C. has its own version of the Spanish Steps? Named after the famous Roman attraction, the Steps are located on 22nd Street in the Kalorama neighborhood. Don’t be dismayed when you see that these steps are far less glamorous than their Italian counterpart. The real reason we recommend D.C.’s Spanish Steps is for the view they provide. Climb the steps and you’ll be rewarded with impressive views of Embassy Row, one of the District’s swankiest avenues.
Stable-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
The interesting, whimsical, and downright odd in Colonial-era medicine is all preserved at the unique Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. Once a go-to for such figures as Robert E. Lee and Martha Washington, the 18th-century pharmacy has been carefully preserved to look just as it did throughout its history. (It opened in 1792 and finally closed in 1933. It’s packed with a collection of cool items ranging from herbal botanicals and antique medical equipment, to handblown-glass jars filled with things like dragon’s breath and unicorn root.
Theodore Roosevelt Island
Escape the busy metro for a few hours by crossing the footbridge to Theodore Roosevelt Island. Located smack dab in the middle of the Potomac, this 88.5-acre national memorial is named for the passionate conservationist and 26th president. Neither cars nor bicycles are allowed on the island, restrictions that only add to the gentle and calming ambiance. Wander along the foot paths and enjoy the flora, fauna, and fantastic city views.
The Titanic Memorial
Although there’s something about the Titanic that has kept people fascinated for more than a century, few people take the time to visit the Titanic Memorial in Washington, D.C. The monument was raised in 1930, after more than 25,000 women each donated $1 to memorialize the the “brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic” and especially those who “gave their lives that women and children might be saved.” The 13-foot-high monument features a man with outstretched arms, though the resemblance the man’s position bears to Leonardo DiCaprio’s famous “I’m the King of the World!” stance is purely coincidental.
The Yards Park
Though it’s a favorite hangout for locals, The Yards Park is still surprisingly overlooked by many. Located on Water Street, this unique park includes a green space on which one can enjoy the sights and sounds of the nearby water. Cool down by stepping into the water feature, or take a stroll behind the waterfall. If you’re visiting during the summer, head to The Yards Park on a Friday evening when the locals come out with picnic baskets to enjoy free concerts.