Want to know Tour Guides’ 11 secret places to visit in Washington DC? Look no further than this list compiled by FemaleSoloTrek.com.
The hashtag for Washington DC is #MyDCCool. What is cool is how Washington DC is the hometown for 700,000+ residents.
I interviewed three female tour guides who identified their secret places to visit in Washington D.C. The list includes historical homes, museums, and D.C. neighborhoods. I predict these 11 DC places will probably end up on your list of #MyDCCool after reading this article.
Washington D.C. is officially reopen and ready for the millions of tourists who postponed visiting for the last two years. (in 2019, 24.6 million people visited DC.) The list is endless for reasons to visit: the White House, the National Mall, the Smithsonian museums, the National Cherry Blossom Festival, 4th of July on the Mall, Georgetown GLOW, and more.
But what if you wanted to see Washington DC as the locals know it? I interviewed three women who are passionate about helping visitors and locals discover “their Washington DC.” Each organizes walking tours of Washington DC that typically run 90 minutes to two hours. They provide a historical perspective as well as an insider’s view of why the DC neighborhood, venue, or museum is unique.
Mary McLeod Bethune Council House
“Many visitors to D.C. don’t realize what significant roles Black Americans have played in the nation’s capital.”Carolyn Crouch
She recommends touring two historical National Park Service venues ”that are important not only to D.C. Black history but national history as well.” The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House is located in the Logan Circle neighborhood. Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. The house is the former headquarters of the organization. (The current NCNW headquarters building is located at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.)
The museum is still closed due to the pandemic. But there is a virtual tour.
According to the NPS, “Mary McLeod Bethune was a world-renowned educator, civil rights champion, leader of women, presidential adviser, and public servant.”
Carter G. Woodson House
Crouch also recommends touring the Carter G. Woodson House as part of a D.C. Black history tour. Dr. Carter G. Woodson is known as “the Father of African American History.” His home served as the headquarters for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
“The perfect companion site to this one is the Carter G. Woodson House on 9th Street in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood,” said Crouch. “Woodson taught and was a dean at Howard University. He and Mary McLeod Bethune, his friend and colleague, were devoted to preserving the history of Black Americans. In 1926, Woodson pioneered the celebration of ‘Negro History Week’ which evolved into Black History Month. Both the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House and Carter G. Woodson House are National Park Service sites that are open to the public.”
According to the NPS, Dr. Woodson purchased 1538 Ninth Street in Northwest, Washington, D.C. on July 18, 1922 for $8,000. His home would go on to play “a vital role in his mission to promote the scholarly study, institutionalization, and popularization of black history.”
National Building Museum
DC Design Tours founder Carolyn Muraskin is “a lover of all things bricks and mortar.” So it will come as no surprise that an architect would choose the National Building Museum as a must-see venue in Washington DC.
“My favorite gem among the many many museums in DC is the National Building Museum!”Carolyn Muraskin
“It was completed in 1887 as the Pension Office, built to serve the many veterans seeking military pensions after the Civil War,” said Muraskin. ”It now houses a fascinating museum all about architecture and design. Make sure you take a building tour to learn all the incredible secrets of the building! Hint: the marble isn’t marble!”
The National Building Museum is located on 5th St NW. The building takes up an entire block! Currently, the museum is open on select days so check the website. The lawn is a popular place to eat lunch.
Meridian Hill Park
DC Design Group also offers a tour of Sixteenth Street and Adams Morgan. I took this tour in 2021 when masks were still required in the city. We had four participants who were brave enough to take a walking tour. Muraskin led the group.
Starting at Meridian Hill Park, Muraskin told us the story of Mary Foote Henderson who wanted to turn 16th Avenue into the “Presidents Avenue.” While only two miles north of the White House, the homes and embassies on 16th Street feel a world away from Washington’s politics . . . especially if you spend time in the popular park.
“Another wonderful non-typical site, which is a popular spot among locals, is Meridian Hill Park. 12 acres of formally landscaped gardens, cascading fountains, and hidden sculptures, all in the middle of the city!” said Muraskin.
DC’s 16th Street NW might have been the new home of The White House at the turn of the 20th century if Mary Foote Henderson had her way. Wife of Missouri Senator Henderson, she envisioned a grand boulevard filled with embassies. And she had the money to build them.
Washington National Cathedral is the world’s sixth-largest Cathedral. It is a national treasure showcasing beautiful architecture. Construction took 83 years. The cathedral is an “American interpretation of 14th Center English Gothic.”
While most visitors want to tour inside, Muraskin recommends leaving time for a leisurely walk outdoors. “My last recommendation is another garden-the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral. It’s a secluded little oasis with architectural elements taken from the Medieval period. Also, a ton of cherry blossom trees!” said Muraskin.
African American Civil War Museum
Canden Arciniega is a manager/guide at Free Tours by Foot as well as an author. She added to the list of must-see venues to learn more about DC’s Black history.
“I always suggest folks visit the African American Civil War Museum. It is full of incredible stories that are well presented. The Civil War is a big narrative in DC history, but it doesn’t always include the stories of the USCT, as well as how it affected and changed the Black population in DC and I think the museum does a good job of educating us on that,” said Arciniega.
The museum will reopen in summer 2022. But you still should consider taking the Metro to the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo Station to visit the Memorial Plaza and the Spirit of Freedom Statue. You will also see the engraved names of the 209,145 USCT soldiers on the Memorial Wall of Honor.
If time permits, take a stroll down U Street to see the street art.
Washington DC is famous for its Japanese cherry trees but there are numerous public and private gardens to also visit, including the Botanic Gardens, the National Arboretum, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Less well known is Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, which describes itself as “an oasis of peace – hope for the Holy Land.”
“I am always at peace at the gardens of the Franciscan Monastery. It’s a highlight in spring that many miss!”Canden Arciniega
The Monastery offers free walking tours of the gardens on Saturdays (April through September) at 11 a.m. and 12 noon. Volunteer docents will describe the history, architecture, plants, and friars. There is a formal upper garden, more natural lower garden, vegetable garden, and bee apiaries (behind the monastery).
Indian Craft Shop
Finally, Arciniega revealed a hidden gem (for shoppers) in Washington DC. She recommends visiting the Department of Interior’s Indian Craft Shop. While it is still closed to the public, shop visits are available by appointment. (Please email email@example.com for an appointment.)
“I love this place as a way to find handmade artisan gifts. It’s very DC in the sense that this city can be connected to all of America and American history. The Craft Shop has been around since the 1930s,” said Arciniega.
The shop features original murals painted in 1938 by the late Allan Houser and the late Gerald Nailor. Over 45 tribal groups are represented in the store. The Indian Craft Shop has developed a national reputation for carrying a diverse selection of authentic American Indian arts and crafts.
Tour a Neighborhood
If you really want to understand Washington D.C., then you need to get off the National Mall and visit a DC neighborhood. There are 127 different neighborhoods spread across eight wards. Most tourists arrive in Washington, D.C. and head for Georgetown. This is not a mistake but you should plan to allocate time to see a minimum of three other neighborhoods. The three tour guides interviewed for this article provided their recommendations below:
After the mandatory visit to the U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress, consider spending the afternoon strolling through the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood. Crouch said not to be missed is the Eastern Market. It is the last of the D.C. public markets that once dotted the city.
“Nearby shops like Hill’s Kitchen, Labyrinth Games & Puzzles, East City Bookshop (new), and Capitol Hill Books (used) make for great browsing,” said Crouch. “The commercial strips of Pennsylvania Avenue and 8th Street (aka Barracks Row) are lined with restaurants and cafes offering a variety of different cuisines indoors and outdoors. Walk off lunch with a stroll through the neighborhood itself, the largest historic district in Washington, D.C. East Capitol Street from the U.S. Capitol to Lincoln Park is an especially beautiful walk, featuring blocks of stunning 19th century row houses fronted by well-kept gardens. Lincoln Park is also home to two memorial sculptures, one, the Emancipation Memorial, has attracted criticism recently for its depiction of President Abraham Lincoln and a newly-freed enslaved man. The other honors Black educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, the first Black person to be memorialized in Washington.”
In the northwest quadrant of Washington DC lies Cleveland Park. It can be reached by Metro. Connecticut Avenue is the main commercial corridor for this neighborhood. Visitors will enjoy roaming the back streets to admire late 19th century homes. The historic Art Deco Uptown Theater opened in 1936. The motifs feature zigzag patterns and floral reliefs.
“Cleveland Park is my go to ‘off the beaten path’ neighborhood recommendation, and of course we offer a walking tour there. 🙂 Once known as the ‘Queen of the Washington Suburbs,’ the area is chock full of gorgeous Queen Anne mansions, hidden little parks, and even a house designed by I.M. Pei!” said Muraskin.
Located southwest of Howard University, this DC neighborhood is known for its famous writers, artists, and 19th-century architecture. (Architect James McGill designed numerous Victorian mansions and rowhouses in the neighborhood.) In 1974, LeDroit Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“LeDroit Park, when it was established in 1873, was one of the first suburbs of Washington.”
“I know everyone goes there in spring for the famous arch photo, but walk through the arch and into the neighborhood!” said Arciniega. “Obviously, I think it’s best visited with a tour guide or my upcoming book (shameless plug @historicledroitparkbook) BUT even without knowing all the stories behind what you’re looking at, it’s a beautiful neighborhood of varied architecture, detached homes, and gorgeous gardens. There are informational plaques along the way so you can get a sense of what this neighborhood was like in the early 1900s when it was home to the elite class of Black Washingtonians.”
About Washington Walks
Carolyn Crouch is the founder of Washington Walks. She launched her DC walking tour company 23 years ago after visiting London as a graduate student and experiencing “a spectrum of London on foot!” Carolyn returned from her British sojourn inspired and began to dream up walking tours of the nation’s capital.
Washington Walks celebrated its 20th anniversary on September 28, 2019. I was a participant in its 20th Anniversary Walk. We traveled by bus to sites featured in the company’s top-rated tours, ending with a group photoshoot at the U.S. Capitol. “It was a ‘greatest hits’ experience. Lots of sites, lots of guides, lots of memories!” said Crouch.
Abouth DC Design Tours
Carolyn Muraskin is the founder of DC Design Tours, which specializes in an architectural understanding of Washington DC’s famous monuments, buildings, and homes. Muraskin is a former architectural designer who “left her drafting desk and started DC Design Tours so she could talk about buildings rather than draw them.” Muraskin admits to “not-so-secret crushes on Pierre L’Enfant and Montgomery Meigs.”
About Free Tours by Foot
Canden Arciniega is a Manager/Guide for Free Tours by Foot in Washington DC. Free Tours by Foot is the original free walking tour company, in operation since 2007. The company partners with tour guides for dozens of daily tours year-round in 50+ cities. A native of North Carolina, she moved to Washington DC to become a historian. In addition to leading tours, she has worked at the Washington DC Historical Society, had three books about Washington DC published by The History Press and Arcadia Publishing, and has appeared on numerous television shows for The Travel Channel and Discovery Channel. Arciniega will publish a book on Historic LeDroit Park in 2022.
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