May 25, 2011
Just because it’s the seat of government, doesn’t mean DC is all about politics, history and serious stuff. In fact, as much as anywhere in the US, Washington is choc full of curious quirks and off-the-wall attractions. This is just a selection of our own faves…
Beyond the must-see Smithsonian, Washington has many museums to satisfy every kind of curiosity. The themes of the army-aligned National Museum of Health and Medicine may be deadly serious, but some of the artefacts are decidedly singular and frankly a bit odd. The only place you’ll find bones from civil war generals alongside mummified heads, all manner of organs and the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln.
Just outside the city proper, near the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, the DEA Museum hosts educational exhibitions concerning the law and America’s ‘war on drugs’. The institution is given a quirky edge however, through its displays of objects seized during big busts: blingy jewellery, fur coats, customised vehicles and diamond encrusted handguns.
For something more relaxing, the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum has a curious collection of some 200-odd trained trees, pruned to miniature perfection. Among the beautiful and peculiar shaped plants is a 400 year-old specimen, gifted by a family from Hiroshima who survived the WWII bombings.
While DC has no shortage of great cafes, Sidamo in Capitol Hill takes things back to the source and offer a unique experience. Any day is good for a caffeine hit at this Ethiopian-run coffee shop, but visit at 2PM on a Sunday to witness the oldest traditional coffee making ceremony in the world, complete with incense and beans roasted before your eyes.
At the other end of the spectrum, Georgetown’s Baked & Wired is the modern independent coffee shop to visit. Even if you’re not a caffeine fiend you’ll find something to your taste among their selection of homemade baked goods. The cupcakes have names like ‘Elvis Impersonator’ (Banana cupcake with peanut butter icing and chocolate) and ‘Smurfette’ (vanilla cake stuffed with fresh blueberries and topped with lemon buttercream) while the brownies, muffins, cookies are every bit as eccentric.
Unless it’s colourful, kitsch as hell or camp as can be, you’re unlikely to find it at Chocolate Mousse. Bug-shaped brooches, screaming stationery, tacky toys and a host of houseware that’s both practical and perverse are the kind of items you’ll find at Washington’s most fabulous gift store. Plus, for those with a sweet tooth, there’s a great selection of ‘uncommon confections’.
If you want something even weirder the As Seen On TV store at The Shops At Georgetown Park is the place to pick up (or more likely just browse) the strange items that have filled up US ad breaks over the years. Like a trip back to the eighties, expect to find gaudy gadgets, impractical exercise aids and myriad other out-of-date objects of American ‘culture’.
One of the newest spots on uber-hip H Street, Red Palace is actually the amalgamation of two neighbours, live music venue The Red & The Black and bar (and ‘museum’) Palace of Wonders. Expect bands, burlesque, and raucous vaudeville entertainment with your craft beer and bar snacks. And if the shows don’t tickle your fancy, browse the building’s extensive collection of vintage circus sideshow oddities.
For more mature or family-oriented booze up, a short ride out of DC towards Baltimore will bring you to Blob’s Park, home of the USA’s first Oktoberfest. This traditional (and slightly bonkers) Bavarian beer garden serves a multitude of international brews and German food with a backdrop of regular polka, ballroom and swing entertainment in its huge 800+ capacity hall.
Naturally, any visit to the capital will have its share of historical sightseeing, but what about the real intrigue, the secret stuff? Washington’s highly recommended Spy Museum is of course the place to start, though if you want an exciting in-depth look at espionage, join one of their regular Spy Tours of the city. Get video briefings from former high-ranking KGB and CIA operatives, inside tips on going undercover and more.
The other alternative story of DC is that of the supernatural: with history come ghosts and DC Ghost Tours‘ period dressed guides will point you toward the paranormal past of the city. And haunted hotspots abound in the capital, St. John’s Church (six apparitions), the Hay-Adams Hotel (a poltergeist) and Lafayette Park (ghosts galore) and even the White House are among the supernatural stops.
From a distance, the Washington National Cathedral might have a grand air, but it still looks much like any other large house of worship. Get a little closer though and you’ll discover some bizarre characters among the 1000-or-so gargoyles and grotesques that adorn its towers. Look out for crying babies, skulls, cartoon animals, a camera pointed at the Russian Embassy, a mouth turned inward chewing on the building, and perhaps strangest of all, the head of Darth Vader. You can see the grotesques any time, though guided tours of the church are given between April and October.
For the best fares on our daily flight to Washington Dulles International Airport, visit www.virginatlantic.com. For more on DC right here, check out Washington’s Best Boutiques and our post on the city’s underrated highlights.
Been to the capital recently? Any interesting and unusual sights or experiences to share? Let us know in the comments below.