16 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Washington DC

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Think the District of Columbia is just marble monuments and power suits? Think again! As someone who lived in the area for over a decade, I’m here to tell you this city pulsates with a vibrant life beyond the iconic landmarks!

If you’re looking to enhance your trip, there are non-touristy things to do in Washington DC. This article is your chance to discover D.C.’s true charm, from buzzing neighborhoods where live music spills onto the streets to quirky museums tucked away in charming corners.

Let me introduce you to the real DC, a city that will surprise and delight you at every turn.

Experience Authentic Neighborhoods

Buildings lining a street at Dupont Circle at twilight

Like any big city, some areas are better than others. Assuming you’re looking for trendy and lively spots, the best DC neighborhoods for tourists include:

1. Dupont Circle

This DC neighborhood is a hodgepodge of trendy boutiques, cozy cafes, and picturesque gardens that feel like secret retreats.

Dupont Circle is the place to go for people-watching and browsing unique books in eclectic bookstores. Don’t miss the opportunity to check out the first American museum devoted solely to modern art—the Phillips Collection—if you have the time.

2. Adams Morgan

It’s all about the international vibe in this neighborhood. Imagine walking through pathways filled with eateries offering the tastiest dishes from around the world while live music floats through the air.

The nightlife scene at Adams Morgan is relentless and energetic. Don’t worry about wandering off the main strip here, because some of the alleys are like art galleries.

3. Eastern Market

This historic landmark isn’t just a market, it’s a portal to the past. Locals have wandered through bustling stalls overflowing with fresh produce, handcrafted goods, and local stories since the 1840s.

If you’re visiting DC with young kids, Eastern Market is perfect for curious minds! Weekends offer the lively Farmers Market with fun treats, crafts, and entertainment. The South Hall Market has shops with unique finds, tasty food, and a vibrant energy. Just be aware of crowds and keep an eye on little ones.

4. H Street NE

If you’re into art, H Street is your spot. The Atlas Performing Arts Center is a major anchor of the neighborhood, and there are also several art galleries and theaters in the area.

H Street is buzzing with creativity. There are neighborhood breweries where you can taste the finest craft beers and galleries featuring impressive street art that tells local stories.

ⓘ LOCAL TIP: If you’re in town in September, plan to go during the annual H Street Festival. You won’t want to miss the music, food, and performances—they fill the street with so much life!

Experience DC Like a Local

5. Explore DC with Local Guides

Washington DC segway tour

From monuments to munchies, many locals offer unique experiences that kick ordinary sightseeing to the curb.

  • Nighttime Tours: Seeing the city’s monuments lit up at night not only adds a touch of enchantment, but intriguing anecdotes and historical insights as well. The Monuments by Moonlight tour is a perennial tourist favorite.
  • Bicycle Tours: Bike tours let you soak in the sights on two wheels! They cover more ground than walking, offering a more active way to explore. Choose from classic monument tours to hidden gem detours, all with the freedom to stop and snap selfies (we won’t tell!).
  • Segway Tours: Effortlessly glide through the city on a self-balancing Segway. These tours are super fun, and it’s easy to do. You’ll zoom past landmarks and soak in panoramic views. Your itinerary might explore the National Mall, Capitol Hill, or even venture out for a Potomac Riverfront adventure.
  • Potomac River Cruises: Take your exploration to the water with a Potomac River cruise. Admire the city’s skyline from a different angle as you savor a delectable meal onboard. With a DJ spinning tunes or a guide pointing out the sights, you’ll enjoy the city in a relaxed and entertaining atmosphere.
  • Ghost Tours: Dive into the mysterious and haunted side of Washington, D.C. with a spine-chilling ghost tour. Explore the city’s historic sites under the cloak of darkness, guided by eerie tales and paranormal stories that add a supernatural twist to your visit.
  • Food Tours: Embark on a culinary adventure with local food tours that showcase the city’s diverse and delectable offerings. Whether it’s exploring ethnic treats or savoring artisanal beers, these food tours promise a feast for your taste buds.

ⓘ PRO TIP: Book in advance – these tours are popular!

6. Savor Authentic Cuisines

Women sharing food at an outdoor cafe

Skip the well-trodden paths of touristy eateries and indulge in the authentic flavors cherished by locals. If you’re staying in one of the hotels near metro in DC, you’re in for a treat as the city’s eclectic food scene is easily accessible.

Venture beyond the usual and savor these local favorites:

Ethiopian in Adams Morgan

For an unforgettable dining experience, head to Adams Morgan and discover the city’s best Ethiopian cuisine. Picture a communal platter adorned with a mix of hot and soft injera, paired with flavorful dipping stews. Each meal here is a feast for the taste buds. As dishes are usually shared on a communal platter, every meal is an experience.

Salvadoran in Columbia Heights

The best Salvadoran cuisine is in Columbia Heights and the pupusa is the star. This delectable corn tortilla is filled with cheese, beans, or meat, and served with a crisp, tangy slaw and savory tomato sauce. Other mouthwatering dishes to try: tamales, yucca frita, and platanos fritos.

Korean BBQ in Koreatown

The interactive nature of Korean BBQ makes it a delightful and flavorful adventure. Take charge of your meal by selecting and combining various ingredients, then grill thinly sliced beef to perfection. Wrap it in lettuce with a dash of spicy mustard for a mouthwatering bite.

Neighborhood Bars & Cafes

DC’s neighborhoods are full of cozy bars and cafés. To unwind and enjoy the local vibe, step into one and strike up a conversation. Who knows? You might even make a new friend!

Try The Potter’s House in Adams Morgan and Emissary in Dupont Circle for a quiet cup of coffee or catch up on work in a local setting.

For something more grown-up, explore themed bars like the Board Room in Dupont Circle, where you can enjoy board games with your drinks, or the Library Bar in Georgetown for a cozy literary atmosphere.

ⓘ LOCAL TIP: Join a community cooking class or food tour to learn about the culinary traditions of different cultures. It’s fun to connect with local chefs and food enthusiasts.

Canal Street in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

7. Explore Historic Neighborhoods

There are some really cool places in DC, like Georgetown, Shaw, and Capitol Hill. If you can, take a guided walking tour or explore historic neighborhoods like these on your own. It’s fun to discover hidden gems and learn about their cultural significance.

Georgetown is my personal favorite for its cobblestone streets, historic architecture, and diverse restaurants. I also love Canal Street. It’s quirky.

U Street, known as “Black Broadway,” has a rich African American heritage. Here, you can visit historic landmarks like the Lincoln Theatre and learn about the neighborhood’s role in shaping D.C.’s cultural landscape.

8. Experience Cultural Centers

Venture beyond the Smithsonian museums to discover neighborhood cultural centers that celebrate the diverse heritage of D.C.’s residents. Visit the Anacostia Community Museum, located in Southeast D.C., to explore exhibitions highlighting African American history and culture in the region.

You can also head to the Latino Cultural Center in Columbia Heights for vibrant performances, art exhibitions, and culinary events celebrating the Latinx community’s contributions to the city.

9. Immerse Yourself in Street Events & Festivals

In the summer, D.C. comes alive with street events and block parties. Local music fills the air, and neighborhoods come alive with festivities. These events provide a genuine taste of the city’s diverse culture and offer a chance to connect with the community in a relaxed and joyful setting.

10. Attend Theater & Performances

DC’s drama scene is lively and varied, offering a mix of classic and modern shows. Big theaters like the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Studio Theatre present different plays, and places like the Kennedy Center host Broadway productions.

In neighborhoods like H Street and Dupont Circle, you can find smaller venues with experimental performances.

You can attend a theatrical performance at Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot, as well. Productions range from classic plays to contemporary works, not to mention historical presentations and programs related to the events surrounding the President’s assassination.

11. Enjoy Art & Music

Art thrives in the Washington, D.C. area, as there are studios and galleries in neighborhoods like Brookland and Capitol Hill. These studios commonly host open houses.

In the U Street Corridor, you find both historic spots like Hemphill Fine Arts and modern galleries like Hamiltonian Gallery. Adams Morgan is known for its lively street art, H Street’s Atlas Performing Arts Center hosts experimental performances, and places like Artist’s Proof gallery in Georgetown organize popup events to showcase local talent.

The iconic 9:30 Club is known for its intimate setting and diverse range of performances. Located in the Shaw neighborhood, this venue has hosted legendary acts from various genres.

Catch a live jazz performance at the historic Blues Alley in Georgetown or experience the vibrant rhythms of Afro-Brazilian dance and music at the Dance Institute of Washington in Columbia Heights.

From the historic U-Street jazz clubs to the punk shows at club basements, these immersive experiences offer opportunities to engage with local artists and performers.

Other Unique Things to Do in Washington, DC

The back side of Hillwood Estate in Washington DC. Tree in the foreground

DC is a showcase of enchanted gardens, lovely buildings, interesting landmarks, and quirky museums that escape the notice of the average tourist. Here are a few more of the city’s treasures:

12. The Hillwood Estate

This was once home to socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post. The place gives a glimpse of the opulent American lifestyle with its stunning collection of Russian imperial and French decorative arts in the landscaped gardens.

13. The Mansion on O Street

This eccentric mansion is a unique blend of museum and hotel, featuring over 100 rooms and 70 secret passages. (Beatles Room, anyone?) Being here is an adventure and a history lesson rolled into one, and every corridor holds a surprise.

14. Off-the-beaten path Smithsonian museums

Inside the Penn Quarter neighborhood are two free Smithsonian museums that tell America’s stories through artistic interpretation and portraiture. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are far less crowded than the Mall museums, so you’ll have more privacy enjoying every detail of the exhibits.

15. Flea markets and farmers’ markets

For the avid treasure hunter, D.C.’s flea markets and farmers’ markets offer a delightful shopping experience. These markets provide a unique opportunity to engage with the local community and unearth one-of-a-kind finds.

Union Market, the Municipal Fish Market at The Wharf, and the Georgetown Flea Market are all worth a visit. Keep an eye out for special items and local produce; they will add a fresh and interesting twist to your exploration of the city.

16. Go riding at Rock Creek Park Horse Center

You may have heard of Rock Creek Park, the natural treasure running down the middle of the city. But did you know that there’s a stable there, too? Rock Creek Park Horse Center offers classes and trail rides for all levels of riders, and it’s all just a short distance from the main roads in DC. Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the park while experiencing a different side of the city.

Uncover these hidden gems to add a layer of uniqueness to your D.C. exploration. Escape the ordinary, embrace the extraordinary, and let Washington, D.C. surprise you with its lesser-known wonders.

How To Navigate DC Like a Local (Insider Tips)

  • Don’t try to drive in DC. Parking (if you can find it) is expensive, and traffic is a nightmare. Instead, use the Metro. It’s affordable, comfortable, and efficient.
  • Save time—get a SmarTrip card to pay for Metro and Metrobus fares.
  • Use the Metro during off-peak hours to avoid the rush, especially if you’re planning to explore neighborhoods and markets.
  • Try the city’s bike-sharing program – Capital Bikeshare. It’s a fantastic way to explore at your own pace and reach places not easily accessible by Metro.
  • Don’t just stick to brick-and-mortar restaurants; explore the diverse and delicious food truck scene. Follow local food blogs or apps for real-time locations.
  • Consider hiring a local guide for a personalized tour. They can tailor the experience to your interests and give you unique insights you won’t get from a guidebook.
  • Also, the capital city is perfect for early risers. Embrace the vibe by starting your day early so you can discover a whole new side of the city before the crowds set in.

Conclusion

As you can see, Washington, D.C. is not just a city of monuments and political power – it’s a vibrant tapestry of diverse neighborhoods, culinary delights, cultural immersion, and unique events.

I hope I’ve given you an insight into hidden places and authentic experiences that are available in DC. Set aside the tourist guide, embrace curiosity, and let Washington, D.C. captivate you with its authentic and often overlooked charm.

ALSO READ:
7 Best Free Things to Do in Washington DC

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It, where she documents her trips, shares practical itineraries, and offers insider tips. She’s passionate about helping fellow travelers save time, money, and hassle, and loves to discover new places to explore.

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