Part of what’s frustrating about the idea that a government shutdown makes Washington, DC not worth visiting is that it ignores the extent to which Washington exists as a city independent of the federal government. It’s absolutely true that Smithsonian Institution museums and national monuments are gorgeous, and fascinating, and eminently worth visiting, not to mention free to visit. But treating them as if they’re the sum total of what their is to do in the city proper or the greater Washington area is part of a larger erasure of the District of Columbia as a place where people who don’t work for the federal government, or who aren’t here as part of the political apparatus, live and work, and make food and art.
I was lucky enough to move to Washington decades after my parents had lived here as a young married couple, and to know the friends they’d made while they lived here, people who exhibited in local galleries and raised money for local organizations in between stints working for national organizations. It meant that even though I was one of the many young people who came to Washington because it was where a certain category of jobs happened to be–in my case, fact-checking for National Journal–I got an early education in the idea that Washington wasn’t simply a transitional town, but a place where people lived their entire lives independent of the federal government, and that was worth building a life here because of the institutions they’d built, too. We need a separate conversation about treating federal employees with the respect that they deserve, and seeing public servants as full human beings who provide a huge range of services to our communities. And we need to integrate that conversation with a larger understanding of Washington, DC as an independent city with a history and culture other than that which flows from the federal government.
But for now, if you’re considering canceling a trip to Washington because of the shutdown, I’d urge you to reconsider, and I’d like to offer up some some suggestions for how to fill up your itinerary if holes have emerged in it. And if you’re planning a trip to Washington in the future, or rescheduling one that’s already been called off, I hope you’ll consider these ideas, and think about making plans that take into consideration that Washington’s a wonderful city entirely separate from its position as the seat of America’s national government. It’s not easy to reverse the equation, given the way Washington’s reputation has lingered, but it’s worth thinking about the fact that federal institutions are part of what make Washington terrific, rather than the only thing keeping a stunted city afloat. Need proof? Here are a whole bunch of ways to see this for yourself:
1. Walk DC’s Heritage Trails: Washington has a rich array of heritage walks marked with information-rich placards that teach you about important buildings and the history of different neighborhoods. The Downtown Heritage Trail and Greater U Street Heritage Trail are available through a mobile app, while you can explore DC’s historically African-American neighborhoods through a series of walking tours as well. Getting away from the Mall is one of the best ways to demonstrate that the shutdown isn’t stopping you from enjoying Washington, DC, and learning the city beyond the United States Capitol is a way to reject the idea that Congress’ actions are all there is to the city. But more to the point, Washington’s a genuinely interesting place, and the walks will take you through gorgeous neighborhoods and give you a chance to explore the city’s incredible architecture.
2. Check Out All The Museums That Are Still Open: Yes, you have to pay for admission to private museums, which could make a trip to DC a bit more expensive if you’d planned on free admissions to Smithsonian facilities instead. But lots of private museums in Washington remain open during the shutdown. There’s the National Geographic Museum. The Corcoran Gallery. The Phillips Collection. The Newseum. The National Building Museum. The Art Museum of the Americas. The DAR Museum. The Folger Shakespeare Library. The Luther W. Brady Art Gallery. The Hillwood Estate. The Historical Society of Washington, DC. The Kreeger Museum. The Textile Museum. Tudor Place. And one of my favorite museums in DC, President Lincoln’s Cottage At Soldier’s Home remains open, too. That should be enough to keep even the most dedicated museum visitor busy for a long, long time.
3. Visit Eastern Market And Union Market: Maybe you’ve got a place to cook during your visit to the District. Or maybe you just want to look at some gorgeous produce and to check out a funky flea market where you can find everything from gorgeous vintage Life magazines to good-condition Coach purses. If so, Eastern Market’s a terrific place to spend an afternoon. And if you want to grab something to eat and check out some hip little housewares shops, you could try Union Market, to the north of Eastern Market, where you can find terrific sandwiches, gorgeous steaks, and truly impressive cheese. Both of the markets are embedded in different kinds of DC neighborhoods–Eastern Market’s just off the Hill, while Union Market lies in between a series of warehouses. Visiting both in a single day requires some stout walking shoes or a bus map, but it’s an interesting way to get a sense of how DC is changing.
4. Get Your Garden On: It’s a shame that Meridian Hill Park, one of my favorite places in all of DC is closed. But you can check out landscape art and rare books collections at Harvard-run Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. There are beautiful gardens, not to mention the religious space, at the Washington National Cathedral. I had no idea there was a big Franciscan Monastery in Washington until I started poking around for this piece, but there is, and it has gardens and a hermitage!
5. Eat. And Drink: Washington may not be New York City in terms of restaurant density, and its best ethnic food is still out in the suburbs. But even in the seven years I’ve lived in the District, the city’s become a much better place to eat and to drink. You can’t go wrong by picking at random from the three lists my former employers at Washingtonian put together of the 100 Very Best restaurants in the region, Cheap Eats, and Dirty Cheap Eats. A couple of personal favorites? Cashion’s Eat Place, which does seasonal American cooking with a lot of Greek notes, G Street Food for the chicken Banh Mi, the toasted marshmallow milkshakes at Good Stuff Eatery, the noodles at Taan Ramen, the fried spinach at Rasika, the bourbon menu at Bourbon (though I dearly lament the departure of their Anchorman-themed cocktail menu), the deeply lethal punch at Mockingbird Hill and the wine at Proof.
This is obviously an incomplete list, and I’m sure DC denizens of longer vintage will chime in here with recommendations of their own.