Whether they work on or off Capitol Hill, Washingtonians tend to plan their summer schedules around that of Congress, meaning that during the weeks preceding the lawmakers’ return (this year beginning in mid-September), the nation’s capital is far less crowded than usual. For visitors, a largely empty city means the possibility of scoring reservations at the most exclusive restaurants and strolling past the glowing Lincoln Monument at night without joggers ruining your photo op.
Although the pandemic caused tourism to plummet last year (Washington lost an estimated $4.9 billion from March 2020 to December 2020, according to tourism officials), interest in the nation’s capital is on the upswing. According to the Destination DC tourism organization, domestic visitation is up 50 percent compared to last year, with travel booking sites like Priceline showing a 51 percent increase in hotel searches for third-quarter travel, and a 120 percent increase in summer bookings on the short-term rental platform, Guesty.
The city is welcoming the renewed interest with open arms. After a year marred not only by a pandemic, but also by a contentious presidential election and an attack on the Capitol building, to say that anxiety has been high would be an understatement. Even the most jaded Washingtonian was glad to see the National Mall dotted with neon T-shirt-wearing tourist groups as the Smithsonian’s collection of museums and attractions returned to prepandemic hours.
Although restaurants and attractions remain fully open, coronavirus cases, driven by the Delta variant, rose steadily throughout the summer. On Aug. 19 cases had increased 79 percent over the previous 14 days. The indoor mask mandate was reinstated on July 31 for everyone over age 2, regardless of vaccination status. Fortunately, between public murals and modern art displays, annual festivals and hiking and biking in Rock Creek Park, there’s no shortage of things to do outdoors.
Alongside a slate of new programming like the return of live music to the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art and the 50th anniversary season of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which kicks off this September, the walkable, off-the-mall neighborhoods of Logan Circle, West End/Foggy Bottom and Dupont Circle are showing off new restaurants with tons of outdoor dining, shops and galleries.
While the string of buzzy restaurants and fashion brands lining Logan Circle’s 14th Street corridor is a big draw, the unlikely gem of this neighborhood is the Barbie Pond. Located on Q Street N.W., the themed display of Barbie dolls surrounding the front yard fountain of a private residence row home has delighted passers-by and 25,000 fans on Instagram since 2014. The last year has only increased its celebrity, thanks to scenes like a group of Kens raising a rainbow flag Iwo Jima-style for Pride Month, a preinauguration scene of the Capitol building dotted with dozens of Kamala Harris Barbies, and a vaccination summer scene complete with pool floats.
Back on 14th Street, nearly every restaurant has an outdoor dining area, or you can opt for a spot like Garden District for beer and barbecue or the soon-to-open Aslin Beer Company beer garden. After all that drinking and dining, you may want to sign up for an outdoor yoga class with Flow Yoga Center, which has partnered with Milk Bar’s D.C. flagship on 15th Street to host classes in their spacious parking lot during the pandemic. The concert venue Black Cat has reopened after shuttering for more than a year, and has, among other events, a “Beyoncé vs. Rihanna” dance party scheduled Sept. 4. Proof of vaccination is required for entry.
Next door is Pigments and Oil Shop, a pop-up gallery highlighting both emerging and established D.C.-based artists. You’ll find screen prints of D.C. scenes by Michael Crossett, photography from last summer’s protests against racial injustice by Gayatri Malhotra and mixed-media pieces by Anna Davis. Hours are 4 to 8 p.m., Thursday through Sunday or by appointment. The visual arts organization Transformer also hosts solo and group exhibitions from D.C.-based emerging artists in its gallery space on 14th and P, ranging from photography to performance art. Hours are 1 to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, or by appointment.
Though not new, a sobering but necessary addition to Logan Circle is at The Outrage, where the five-year-old activism hub and fashion boutique (offering gear supporting nearly every social justice issue you can think of) has transformed a portion of its space into a memorial for local coronavirus victims. The event space at the back of the shop is now the Covid-19 Memorial Project, featuring photo displays and stories of loved ones lost.
West End/Foggy Bottom
Anchored by George Washington University and the U.S. Department of State, the next-door neighborhoods of Foggy Bottom and West End generally don’t rank high on D.C.’s must-see list. But don’t skip these riverside neighborhoods, with their tree-lined streets dotted with embassies and global headquarters, and home to both the illustrious Kennedy Center and the infamous Watergate complex (which is now a luxury hotel with a rooftop bar that offers one of the best views in Washington). A few months before the pandemic, the Kennedy Center opened REACH, a 4.6-acre annex with an expansive lawn for film viewings and live performances, a river pavilion with a reflecting pool and outdoor deck, a grove of 35 ginkgo trees planted in honor of John F. Kennedy, the 35th president, and an outdoor food and wine garden.
May 2020 brought the Yours Truly D.C. hotel to the former Wink hotel space. The result is a chill and bohemian vibe complete with macramé wall hangings and lush Bird of Paradise plants in the open-plan, living room-style lobby that’s a great hangout spot for both hotel guests and visitors. Tucked in the back corner is El Donut Shoppe, a new-and-used vinyl boutique and Groom Guy, a barbershop meets self-care studio for men inspired by the Black-owned salons of the early 1900s. On less humid days, floor-to-ceiling windows open to the hotel’s front patio, or you can opt for food and drinks on the back deck, which is draped with multicolored string lights. Mercy Me, the hotel’s “sorta South American Cafe” serves up breakfast tacos and Colombian mochas by day, and banana leaf-steamed rockfish and grass-fed Argentine steak by night. Dinner for two is around $90.
A block and a half away is Imperfecto, the newest offering from the chef Enrique Limardo and Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, the co-owners of the pan-Latin restaurant Seven Reasons. Imperfecto’s daily menu may include the Moussaka Cigar, made with crispy phyllo dough, smoked eggplant, ground lamb and feta-manchego cream, and the impossibly tender Spanish fried octopus alongside sweet potatoes, Amazonian chimichurri and inky olive mayonnaise. Dinner for two with drinks is around $170, while the 10-plus-course Chef’s Table menu starts at $175. Reservations are recommended, especially for sidewalk seating.
Standing just across from the site of Western Market, built in 1802 and part of the French engineer Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan to create three markets for D.C., is the soon-to-open Western Market food hall. The 12,300-square-foot space will have a soft opening around Labor Day with four to five vendors, including Shuko hot dogs from the Guatemalan street food outpost Nim Ali. A back patio will offer socially distanced dining, movie nights and live music. A full opening with more than a dozen vendors will happen next year.
Dupont Circle is historically known as the hub of L.G.B.T.Q. life in Washington, packed with lively nightlife venues, trendy bistros and longstanding independent shops like Kramers bookstore. In the middle of it all is Dupont Circle itself, a prime spot for people watching, reading or playing chess next to the massive marble fountain. Dupont rose to the Covid challenge, opening streetside dining on the 1500 block of 19th Street and 1600 block of 20th Street, where diners can soak up the energy of one of D.C.’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
The Boston-based Israeli bakery chain, Tatte Bakery & Cafe, opened its second D.C. location this past October, bringing outdoor dining space, an all-day menu of spicy shakshuka, crunchy seared halloumi salads and Greek-style pancakes. While the housemade pastries may be your initial draw to the sun-drenched, subway-tiled space, don’t skip the coffee menu, especially the Tatte House Latte with honey halvah and cardamom.
One block over on 19th Street is Swingers, one of the most intriguing new openings in the Dupont area in quite a while. The self-described “crazy golf” establishment is 20,000 square feet of 1920s English clubhouse-style mini-golf for grown ups. Think: multiple cocktail bars, local D.J.s, a mini food hall and two of the most entertaining, albeit challenging, nine-hole mini-golf courses around. Opened June 18, it’s the first location this side of the Atlantic Ocean, after the success of two London ventures, with another slated to open in New York in 2022. Tickets start at $19 per person. If you’d rather just hang out and skip golfing, there’s no entry fee.
When Pierre L’Enfant laid out his design for Washington, D.C., in 1791, it featured 16th Street as a European-style boulevard leading straight to the White House. Rumor has it, when L’Enfant was dismissed by George Washington (apparently storming off and taking his plans with him), the assistant surveyor, Benjamin Banneker, recreated the plan for the city from memory. Although details are fuzzy, Banneker is a celebrated innovator in African American history and the muse behind the new Kimpton Banneker Hotel on 16th Street. Come for the public artwork, especially the lobby mural by Victor Ekpuk, a D.C.-based Nigerian-American artist, as well as an abstract portrait of Banneker by Rob Matthews and works from the nonprofit Black Artists of D.C.
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