- I’ve already visited the main monuments and sights of Washington DC, so this guide will be based on enjoying the city, its nightlife and its less touristy things to do. For classic DC stuff, read my lo-fi, lil’ baby travel blogger guide from 2014. Sorry in advance.
- I tried to partner up with brands and venues for my trip, but found no one willing to collaborate. This is the life of a not-so-influency blogger: sometimes you get very lucky to work with amazing brands, and sometimes you don’t. And that’s ok, too, because every deal and gift matter more and feel more fun. You partner up with different brands who believe in you and watch you grow. All of this to say that everything I’m about to recommend, I’ve paid for myself – except from flights and accommodation, which were funded by my university. #ILoveAcademia. So if I mention a brand a lot, it’s not because I’m working with them, but because I love them. And anyway I only work with brands I love, and disclose my partnerships too.
This time I got to DC from London, with WOW Air. I booked early this year and managed to get return tickets for just over £400, including a 20 kg hold luggage allowance. WOW Air is a low-cost Icelandic airline that provides a way better flying experience than many other budget airlines I’ve travelled with. For starters, the plane – and the staff – are hella cute. Icelandic peeps must have very good genes. But back to the flight.
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My flight left at 11.40 from Gatwick Airport and had a brief layover in Reykjavik, where we changed flights and flew to Baltimore Washington International for about six and a half hours. The planes themselves aren’t spacious, and there isn’t much leg room, but they are very new and have this purple brand colour going on that is way less boring than other airlines’ liveries and interiors. Also, seats and walls have cute one-liners written on them and their toilets smell of a pleasant orangey perfume – you might think it sounds dumb, but it’s quite a perk on a jam-packed six-hour flight. The flights left and landed on time on the way to DC, but were about an hour late to board on the way back, leaving us only about 20 minutes to get to the gate in Iceland. Luckily the staff were kind and helpful, we made up for lost time on the flight and the Keflavic airport is so tiny it literally takes you ten minutes from one gate to the other. Only thing I have against the experience is that for some reason it took aaaages for people to disembark – about 30 minutes – but that might be a coincidence.
The flights landed in Baltimore – not DC – but the nice thing about not landing in cities like NYC or DC is that border control doesn’t take ages. I was out in about 20 minutes, as opposed to the full hour and a half I remember spending queueing at the customs at New York JFK. By the time I got out my luggage had already been left out for me.
To get to DC from BWI you can take a cab for $80/100 or, if you are a broke student like me, you can take a free airport shuttle to the pretty dodgy Amtrak/MARC station. Here, a $36 ticket will get you to Washington DC’s Union Station in about 30 minutes.
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Where To Stay
I stayed in a lovely Airbnb in between Logan Circle and Dupont Circle, a location that I highly recommend for its closeness to public transport, DC’s main attractions and some of the city’s best bars.
My Airbnb was only 45 minutes’ walk away from the Mall and the main museums and about 40 minutes’ walk from the gorgeous university neighbourhood of Georgetown, so a perfect position to be in. Having booked four nights early this year, I spent $623 on the whole apartment.
Airbnb in America seems slightly cheaper than in London and, although there are plenty of luxury hotels in the area, I must say I felt really happy with my experience. I had a huge bedroom with a comfy bed and a giant TV with a guest-enabled Netflix account, so I could binge on Alyssa Edwards’ Dancing Queen when I was jet lagged and sleepless at 5 in the morning.
Where To Eat and Drink in Washington DC
To be 100% honest, I have found good but not great dining experiences in DC. Many restaurants only offered tables for one at the bar, and are pretty snooty about it – which pisses me off, because I’m a serial solo eater. I have found a proliferation of pseudo Italian restaurants and French bistros with medium prices, but the most interesting restaurants, the Michelin starred ones, were beyond my budget. Unlike in London, I didn’t see too much adventurousness in cooking – but I might be wrong, and I’m happy to take recommendations for next time. These are the places that I did like.
With a few branches all over town, Firehook Bakery sells giant pastries and yummy breads that’ll keep you more than satisfied all morning. A cinnamon roll bigger than my face and a cappuccino were just over $5 in the Dupont Circle, Q Street branch. I went in really early – at 7.30 on a Saturday morning, blame jet lag – and loads of clients were already making their way in to take away some pastries or eat in by the window and watch the city wake up. Great atmosphere, great pastries!
Apparently Duke’s Grocery is meant to be inspired by East London eateries, and it even has London Pride on tap. Needless to say, I have had enough of London Pride at home so I went for one of their craft beers instead, a pumpkin ale by Alestorm which was delicate and not gross and overpowering like the pumpkin ales I’ve tried in the UK trying to nurse my Halloween obsession.
Atmosphere-wise, Duke’s could recall East London for the type of crowd and for some aspects of its menu, but its dim lights and patio tables make it a full on American dive/restaurant, and a successful one at that. It was not even 7 when I went, and it was already packed.
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I ordered the truffle mac n’cheese ($8) because I kept hearing everyone behind me order it, and it was delicious. The plate itself is not too big – the size of a tapas plate – but if you’re a solo eater it’ll fill you up so much you won’t be able to eat anything else. The pasta is tender and the cheese is… well… very cheesy! It’s a massive meal disguised as a small plate.
Having struggled to find much quality stuff food-wise in DC, this place really blew my mind. Part of a hotel chain, The Riggsby is a venue in its own kind. Part cocktail bar, part restaurant, its decor already gives you an idea of what you are going to find: top notch food and great drinks.
I went for a very early brunch, still trying to get over my jet-lag, and bailed on the alcohol but went for the caramelised banana pancakes. When I got my plate I instantly believed I had made the right choice. To give you an idea of how good the pancakes were, I don’t even like caramelised bananas. I find them so sweet they make me queasy. Still, I finished the monster portion that was The Riggsby’s pancake plate ($12) because it was bloody delicious, topped with maple syrup and hazelnuts. The pancakes were fluffy and light, the bananas not overly sweet.
The atmosphere adds to it. Modern art on the walls, paintings of The Rolling Stones outside and The Stones themselves on the radio, this venue made me go: THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. A much needed rescue from slightly underwhelming restaurants.
Teaism in Dupont Circle was recommended to me in 2014 already, during my first visit. I didn’t get the chance to go there then, but I made sure I made time now. I’m glad I did. I snuggled at Teaism with a book and a hot spicy chai while having some waffles during my last, rainy day in DC and I recommend you do the same. They’re famous for their brunch French toast, but unfortunately it’s only available on a weekend, so make sure you don’t go on a Monday like I did.
With window seats and an upstairs sitting room, Teaism is the ultimate relaxing breakfast, lunch and dinner spot. With jazz playing in the background and warm lighting, it’ll leave you feeling full and relaxed.
Off The Record
Hotels in DC seems to be the best bet for perfect service and even better food and drink. Off The Record is in the basement of The Hay Adams Hotel just off Lafayette Square – in front of The White House, just to give you an idea – and it’s an infamous journalist haunt. Upstairs, the restaurant is politicians’ venue of choice.
Off The Record is so wrapped up in red velvet that it looks like a boudoir, but it nods to the City of Power with a variety of political cartoons hung on the walls and, crucially, even painted on the coasters. Eater DC says that: “The bar’s politically inspired drinks and classic cocktails (think: mint juleps, icy mules, and tangy rickeys) are legendary,” but I can’t drink cocktails anymore – not even the “Sweet Melania” mocktail – so I went for a “Corruption” DC Brau, a delightful hoppy IPA.
While I was there, the staff were kind enough to allow me to take home three coasters picturing The Clintons, Putin and Angela Merkel. The juices they use for cocktails are apparently home-made, and the personal touch is evident in their demeanor and in their behaviour towards you. If you don’t come here, you legit suck.
Just when I was about to lose hope looking for something tasty but healthy, I found Doi Moi after heading back along the path of a guided tour I did. I guess you could call Doi Moi an Asian fusion fine dining restaurant, because its portions aren’t as ridiculously big as your run-of-the-mill US size portion… which means a dish of noodles is the size of what you’d get in Europe. I spent about $30 for my whole meal. My dinner included hot green tea, steamed tofu chickpea buns, which were lightly spiced and fresh thanks to the vegetables inside, and the star dish: rice noodles with stir fried mushrooms and zucchini.
The restaurant itself has minimal but slick white decor, with some mosaics on the wall and spreads an air of calm and relaxation all around. The staff are lovely and knowledgeable and thank God I listened to them because I was about to choose something else instead of those noodles!
Quirks and Events
Airbnb Experiences Street Art Tour
I had never used Airbnb’s experiences option but now I’m glad I did. For £14 (so I suppose about $18) local resident Korey took us around the most instagrammable street art in Washington DC, around the Logan Circle and U Street area, formerly known as Black Broadway.
Korey was fun and approachable and very knowledgeable. She told us the story of the area and its graffiti. Apparently, a plan called DC Murals is involving street artists to upscale U Street and tell its history, shining a light on the past of its most remarkable residents. Black history is at the top of the agenda here – DC was known as Chocolate City due to the amount of black people it hosted, but they are now being kicked out due to gentrification. The mural project helps shining a light on their lives.
Korey took us to The Howard Theatre, which hosts a variety of events but also saw famous DC artists play here for the first time back when black performers weren’t allowed to, and to the U Street area, the Black Broadway known for its jazz bars. Apparently, this area has recently become more popular but it has a history of riots that dates back to the years of the murder of Martin Luther King.
Some of the most striking graffiti around here were by Anie Kan, who represented the area and its favourite personalities – such as the Obamas, Prince and Billie Holiday – through a psychedelic graffiti style. The one in this picture is called Intergalactic Jazz and its colours are a joy for everyone who looks.
As a local, Korey was also able to recommend cracking venues to us and to tell us the best ways to get around. I highly recommend going on a tour with her!
I actually didn’t get the chance to do a palm reading, but one of my favourite things about America is finding psychic shops all over the place – and this time, there was one below the pole studio I went to. Proves that pole dancers are witches. JK, anyway, I feel like you have to take advantage of the presence of these shops and get your palm read. Sometimes psychics even offer a $5 deal, but as a broke student I couldn’t really afford to spend $20 on my future.
Kramer Books & Afterwords Café
OK so if you don’t come here I don’t know what you’ve been doing with your DC time. I feel there should be a place like Kramer Books and Afterwords Café everywhere, in every country, in every city. Kramer feels like the centre of Washington DC’s culture. Open from 7 AM until late at night (and I’m talking 3 AM, not 11 PM), Kramer is a bookshop that doubles as a café and restaurant.
As a bookshop, it’s nothing short of excellent. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly, ready to give recommendations and to show you how much they love their job. The collection features books about the Middle East and mental health together with biographies, art, parodies and rare books, all displayed so wonderfully that the space lures you in and doesn’t seem to want to let you out.
Kramer also hosts events and talks, and its Afterwords café and bar has great happy hours and a fantastic selection of draught craft beers. I managed to get into Kramer every single day I was in DC, and it wasn’t because I fancied anyone. I legit just wanted to see if I’d missed out on anything.
Pole Dance and Fitness In DC
Jordin’s Paradise Dance and Fitness
Could I pass up on the chance to try pole and twerk in the US? Of course not. I can’t survive five days without pole and Jordin’s Paradise in Dupont Circle came to my rescue.
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How do pole dancers get to know a city? By trying out a studio even if they’re on holiday! I couldn’t go 5 days without pole so it was lovely to take @shanikalynn’s chair + pole class at @jordinsparadise. This is my messy freestyle at the end – I’m all about @ladygaga recently and Sexx Dreams is my jam 😛 see you soon cause I’m going in this afternoon for twerk too 😁
A pretty little studio with lilac walls and unicorn onesie clad staff, Jordin’s Paradise offers a blend of choreography and pole fitness classes. For instance, the Flirtified pole and chair class is ideal for beginners and features a split of pole and chair choreography, taught by the brilliant Shanika whose energy will get you in the right mood for a dance straight away.
Jordin’s Paradise often have discounts going on, so check out their website to sign up for a class and to make the most out of the price. Generally, classes cost about $25 for 1.5 hours, so a bit more expensive than in the UK, but they are totally worth it!
Run… or Walk
As I mentioned before, DC is a great city for walking, but I’ve also seen many people run through it. The National Mall, the Lincoln Memorial and The Waterfront are wonderful running spots if you want to follow Robin Wright’s House of Cards running route, which is why I planned running clothes… and ended up getting too many blisters on my first day by walking to the Lincoln Memorial in my tight conference heels to take a nice pictures. Don’t be like me folks. I’ve given up on running.
Cultural Stuff I Didn’t Do The First Time
The White House
Did you know that the White House has stopped allowing foreigners to visit? Americans have to ask permission to their local congressman, while foreigners in the past should have asked their ambassador to intercede. I emailed the Italian embassy and was told that we can’t do that anymore. Which to be fair is just as well, I would have rather visited with Obama in office! I did take a selfie though…
Washington DC’s Newseum looks at the history of journalism with a BIG focus on America and on the fight against terrorism. I found it quite biased but still very interesting, especially the sections featuring Pulitzer Prize winning pictures and the beautiful terrace at the top.
Georgetown Waterfront Park
A stone’s throw from the quaint university inner city village of Georgetown is a breath-taking park on the Potomac’s riverbank with restaurants and a walkway where joggers take in the sun rays and teenagers hop on boats for their homecoming party. It’s free, it’s cute, and it’s a healthy walk. Win win.
Back To Washington and The US After 2014
I would like to close this post on a personal note by saying that, with this short but pleasant trip, I feel like I’ve come full circle. When I first came to Washington DC in 2014, as part of my Couchsurfing trip, I was lost, running away from my demons and trying to forget an abusive relationship that left quite a mark on me.
I was so determined to have fun, to take everything in, that I almost forgot who I was, what I liked, what I needed. I did everything in the hope it would have made me feel better. Now I look at myself and see that I’m ok with not going to bars until the early hours, that I’m happy to walk all day and relax at night, that I’m happy not to finish a dish if it’s too heavy for me, or if I’m not hungry anymore. Mostly, I am not uncomfortable in my own company. I am not lost. I am back doing what I wanted to do as a teen, what I’ve always liked: studying, reading about creepy stuff in criminology, public speaking and showing off with my dancing.
These are small things, but they show me how far I’ve come. When I came back from the US in 2014, I weighed 63 kg, having drowned my sorrows in the over-indulgent American food. Now I weigh 62 kg, but that weight is all muscle. I eat what I want, when I want it, not when my unhappiness forces me to eat. I know my mental health, I know it isn’t great, but I’m working to fix it, or to improve it.
On Tuesday I came back having spoken at a major international event, in the cradle of global power, awaiting publication for one of my academic papers. I am happy about who I am and what I have achieved, and I am grateful to still be here.