I’ve been living in D.C. for seven years now and have grown to love what this small city has to offer. People often come to D.C. to tap into the political might of America’s capital, but they usually imagine that it’s a boring, stuffy political city with little to offer tourists beyond a few monuments and museums, and the “must-have” picture outside the White House. However, D.C. actually has a lot to offer young and trendy jetsetters. From a city that was previously home to some of America’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, D.C. has experienced significant growth and neighborhood gentrification in recent years. Its restaurant and bar scene has been flourishing, bringing some of New York’s finest spots with a splash of international flair by virtue of its large international community. Indeed, there is a large community of Lebanese people living in this capital and its suburbs. This means that “tourists” from Lebanon frequently come our way.
Here is a little guide of how to do D.C. “a la libanaise” if you happen to find yourself couch-crashing at the apartment of a friend, relative or acquaintance in the District of Columbia.
Start with the classical and traditional: walk around the National Mall and the White House (don’t forget the White House picture). Try to visit as many as monuments as possible, but do not skip the Lincoln Memorial, it is my absolute favorite. At all costs, try to spare your host from accompanying you on this tour. If they have lived here for a while, trust me on the fact that they’ve toured the monuments with guests ten times over, and really don’t want to do it yet again. After your touristic shenanigans are over, hit Old Ebbitt Grill for a bite. It’s D.C.’s oldest restaurant and bar, famous for political scandals and parties, as anything famous in the District would have it. Its proximity to the White House supposedly attracts “movers and shakers.” The food is standard American fare (guaranteed to compensate for all the calories you burned walking around), but make sure to get a drink (and an oyster shooter) at the back bar and to make friends with the bartender. He is a funny elderly Scottish man who spent some time in Palestine (presumably in his younger days) and will love you for being Lebanese. Shoot around a few conspiracy theories with him and you will get a free drink.
Walk around Georgetown. Start by grabbing cupcakes and coffee at Baked and Wired: you are guaranteed to get a better cupcake than the famous Georgetown Cupcake, and you will not have to wait in line forever. Then, shop around its cute little stores. Georgetown has attracted a lot of trendy fashion spots geared towards the young, such as Intermix (owned by an Armenian-Lebanese) and Neiman Marcus’ CUSP. Then, hike up the hill to 37th and O to walk around the beautiful old buildings of Georgetown University (I’m an alumna, so I’m justifiably biased). Make sure to check out the new Hariri Business Building, if you’d like to bask in some Lebanese pride. After that, return to downtown Georgetown and grab lunch at Leopold’s Kafe, which offers delicious Austrian fare. If you are not starving, sample their mini-sandwiches and desserts. On weekends, this is an excellent spot to “people-watch”. But don’t try to comment on fellow diners in Arabic, they will most likely understand.
While you’re in Georgetown, you should also stroll down Wisconsin Avenue till you hit the Georgetown Waterfront. You can walk along the boardwalk and admire magnificent views of the city and the Kennedy Center that overlooks the river.
For dinner, head back to Georgetown’s downtown area and check out Café Milano on Prospect Street. It’s another traditional “movers and shakers” spot, where you will often see D.C’s politicians dine, sometimes accompanied by their famous guests (as evidenced by the pictures on the walls). The Italian food it serves is delicious. Hang out by the bar for a few drinks and strike up a political conversation or two. Never mind if you don’t know much about American (or international) politics, after all, you are Lebanese and politics runs in your blood. If you’ve gotten enough drinks in your system, you should hit Thirds, the bar that lies a block away. You are certain to catch some undergraduate students raging through the night, and they are an interesting phenomenon to witness in action.
By now, it’s time to get out of the city. Hop on the metro and head to Old Town Alexandria in Virginia. It’s a cute city in Virginia that’s only a few metro stops away. Walk around its downtown area, check out some antique stores and the waterfront, and grab a bite somewhere. If you are looking for fancy fare, Evo is a new hot spot with contemporary cuisine whereas Le Refuge is a classic French spot owned and operated by a French family. If you are looking for something more casual, there are plenty of options to choose from.
It’s also time to explore the nightlife now that you have gotten over your jet lag. Check out Eighteenth Street Lounge in the DuPont Circle area. Located in a beautiful old house with a large outdoor patio, this lounge consistently offers excellent live music in its main room. Reggae bands on Wednesday nights are particularly popular. It also gives you a peek into aspects of D.C.’s music “heritage.” “ESL” as locals call it, is also the “home” of Thievery Corporation, and it continues to bring in excellent international DJs.
You must finish up your touristic duties: museum time! All the museums along the Smithsonian in D.C. are free, so you should attempt to take advantage of as many as possible. My favorites: The National Gallery of Art, the Museum of American History and the Air and Space Museum. The male population that is uninterested in art usually deems the latter interesting enough to be tolerable.
After you’ve completed your touristic obligations, hit U Street by night for some fun. This is a previously run-down neighborhood that has transformed rapidly. There are plenty of bars to hop around. My favorite is Marvins, which has a nice outdoor patio upstairs and delicious Belgian food in its restaurant downstairs. You can also attempt to go to the speakeasy next door, The Gibson, where you can find delicious cocktails. If you get your drink going and decide to dance, check out U Street Music Hall for some excellent electronic beats.
Indulge in some mother-nature time: go for a long walk along any part of Rock Creek Park. The Capital Crescent Trail (which you can catch from the Georgetown Waterfront) offers magnificent views. You will forget that you are in the city. If you are feeling particularly energetic, you can walk or bike all the way to Bethesda, Maryland (approximately 13 KM each way). Bethesda is a cute upscale suburb, sort of a real-life version of Wisteria Lane. You can walk around its downtown area and grab lunch before you venture back. If you get lazy, you can take the metro back.
At night, check out Adam’s Morgan, as it is one of D.C’s oldest bar-lined neighborhoods. Start with dinner at Mintwood Place, a new spot for which Chef Cedric Maupillier was recently awarded “People’s Best New Chef.” Then, do some bar hopping: Madam’s Organ and Bossa are small (somewhat dumpy) bars, but the mood is always fun, and Napoleon offers some fun beats to dance to and an interesting cosmopolitan crowd.
On your last full day in D.C., you should indulge in food and drink. D.C. is, after all, an upcoming “foodie” town. Start with breakfast around Eastern Market, close to Capitol Hill where you can admire the Congress. You can grab some pretty yummy bites at the Farmer’s Market there. Then, proceed to the 14th Street corridor for lunch. Le Diplomate is the new “cool” spot: it’s a French bistro by the same owners of Balthazar in New York. Good food and a cool vibe. I also love Estadio, delicious Tapas paired with a wide selection of Spanish wines. Proceed to Cork Wine Bar for the afternoon, and let the wine enthusiast in you indulge. For the night, check out H Street in D.C’s northeast quadrant. This is another “up and coming” neighborhood that was previously run-down but is now lined with restaurants and bars. A few favorite spots: Granville Moore’s for moules-frites or Toki Underground for Ramen Noodles (the wait is usually long, so you can put your name and grab a few drinks around the neighborhood in the meantime), followed by drinks at Biergarten Haus, the neighborhood’s popular beer garden.
Time over. Make sure you purchased all the goods that people kindly “asked” you to transport for them from the U.S. to Beirut if D.C. is your final destination on your tour of America. Otherwise, go along to explore other (real) American cities.