You can’t walk a block in the nation’s capital without smacking into an iconic marvel, from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial and Smithsonian troves. But where are the giant hairballs and handcrafted mayonnaise-jar bongs? Where did Eliot Spitzer meet call girls and Mayor Barry smoke crack? Here’s where to sightsee beyond the usual:
DEA Museum - One minute you’re watching a video called One Sniff Can Kill, the next you’re admiring an array of tightly rolled doobies. The federal, taxpayer-funded Drug Enforcement Administration curates the wares, located in the agency’s lobby. Exhibits on hippies, head shops and undercover pimp fashion — check out the green snakeskin shoes — supplement a whopping bong collection. Ideas for glassware recycling abound.
National Museum of Health and Medicine – Go light on breakfast before visiting the brains, spines and other body parts in jars. The stomach-shaped hairball leaves a lasting impression (a 12-year-old girl ate THAT?), as does the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, encased alongside bits of his skull.
Washington National Cathedral – More folks might go to church if their house of worship sported stained glass windows showing Lewis and Clark’s teepee-filled journey. Or an embedded moon rock. Or gargoyles shaped like kitties and Darth Vader. Woodrow Wilson’s marble tomb and Helen Keller’s ashes provide fun in the crypt.
Woodrow Wilson House – While it’s swell to see how genteel Washingtonians lived and socialized in this 1920s mansion, the chatty docents are the real draw. They spill the beans on today’s neighborhood elite, everything from which ambassadors shack up in their embassies illegally, to spot-on directions to the Clintons’ nearby pad (recognizable by the bulked-up Secret Service dudes sitting out front in SUVs and staring you down).
Political Scandal Hot Spots
Watergate – Perhaps you’ve heard of the fancy-pants apartment complex on the riverfront? Hint: a little break-in occurred here in 1972, something to do with Richard Nixon and wiretaps. Monica Lewinsky, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Condi Rice all lived at Watergate subsequently, despite the sad 60s architecture.
Renaissance Mayflower Hotel – J Edgar Hoover ate lunch here every day for 20 years. John F Kennedy reportedly sampled the charms of the fairer sex here. And NY Governor Eliot Spitzer infamously rendezvoused with a call girl here (room 871).
Westin Washington DC City Center (formerly the Vista Hotel) – In 1990 DC mayor Marion Barry was caught puffing crack cocaine in room No 727. The FBI had a surveillance camera inside that also captured Barry uttering his timeless quote – “Bitch set me up!” – in reference to ex-model (and police informant) Hazel “Rasheeda” Moore, who was with him. Jail didn’t restrain him for long. He got out and got re-elected mayor in 1995.
Willard InterContinental Hotel – President Grant coined the term “lobbyist” at the Willard to describe the many political wranglers trolling the lobby. You’ll still find quite a few of them in the hotel’s Round Robin bar, swirling single-malt Scotches and determining your next tax hike.
H Street Corridor – Pie cafes, noodle shops and burlesque palaces are funking up edgy H St, between 12th and 14th Sts NE near Union Station. H Street Country Club exemplifies the groovy businesses staking a claim in this formerly beat-up ‘hood. Skeeball and shuffleboard let loose revelry on the bottom floor, while a DC-themed putt-putt course sprawls over the top floor. Golf past Lego lobbyists, through Beltway traffic snarls, and past a King Kong-thronged Washington Monument.
Columbia Heights – Immigrants and hipsters share the sidewalks en route to pupuserias and unassuming punk dive bars. For the latter, pull up a brewski at the Wonderland Ballroom. Vintage signs and found objects decorate the inside to folk-art-museum proportions. As the night wears on, DJs spin and local bohemians grind on the dance floor.
U Street Corridor – U Street was the “Black Broadway” where Duke Ellington got his jazz on in the early 1900s. It was the smoldering epicenter of DC’s 1968 race riots. There was a troubled descent, then a vibrant rebirth as an entertainment district. And Ben’s Chili Bowl has stood there throughout. Despite visits by presidents and movie stars, Ben’s remains a true neighborhood spot, with locals downing half-smokes (big, meaty sausages) and gossiping over sweet iced tea.
Check out Karla’s complete Custom Guide for an Offbeat Washington, DC experience.
Karla Zimmerman is a travel writer and blogger for Lonely Planet, the BBC, Sutro Media and others. She covers Washington DC, Chicago, Amsterdam, and other cities around the globe, always testing the local pie and beer. Learn more at her blog My Kind of Town & Around (www.mykindoftownandaround.blogspot.com) or by following her on Twitter (twitter.com/karlazimmerman).