Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Washington DC. Washington DC is so full of monuments, museums, and college students that it’s easy to forget actual human beings live here. But they do, and they’re not all lobbyists and politicians!
For our 24 hours in Washington DC, we’re going to get a little off the beaten track. We’ll eat at some hidden gems that are popular with both locals and tourists. We might even stop into some of DC’s many watering holes for a cocktail or three. But don’t worry, Internet Stranger. There will also be a museum stop. I’m not a heartless politician.
24 Hours in Washington DC
Where to Stay?
Ordinarily, this is an area where I recommend possible hotels for my readers. Sometimes I even just recommend my favorite neighborhood. This is not one of those times. You need to spend your 24 hours in Washington DC at the Malolo Bed and Breakfast in Washington DC. The rooms are stunning, and there’s an amazing breakfast spread every morning. Plus the owners, George and David, are the nicest people you will ever meet.
It’s not terribly centrally located, but you can get here easily using the subway or a rideshare. Stay here! You have no choice!
24 Hours in Washington DC
What to Pack
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. It’s so hot in DC in the summer, so it’s smart to wear sandals. I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
Also, don’t forget the sunscreen! The sun can get scorching! My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. You don’t want to sling a heavy bag all around DC. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
24 Hours in Washington DC
Morning: DC Food and History Tour on H Street
Food tours are one of my favorite ways to see a city, even a city like Washington DC that is not primarily famous for its cuisine. At this point in my trip to Washington DC, I was also eager to get off the National Mall. So I was excited to see that Urban Adventures offers a Food and History Tour on H Street. This would be the perfect way to see some local spots and also feed my tummy.
It’s always a bit difficult to recap a food tour for my readers, since I can’t exactly feed you through the internet. But I can share with you…
approximately top 5: h street food
1) union kitchen
Our first stop was at a grocery store called Union Kitchen. But this wasn’t any ordinary food store! Union Kitchen is dedicated to stocking local small brands. This is a lovely and delicious way of helping small business owners find an audience. We were each given a Bagel Bite from the small company Poppy’s Stuffed Bagels.
Mine was filled with cinnamon crunch, which made me feel like someone crossed a bagel breakfast with a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Breakfast mash-ups are definitely an idea whose time has come! Let’s keep it going! Cross French toast with Count Chocula! Donuts with eggs and bacon! Eggs Benedict with Lucky Charms! (OK, maybe not that last one.)
2) ethiopian coffee
I’m from New York City, and we tend to think we are home to just about every immigrant community under the sun. But DC outshines us when it comes to certain cuisines, especially Ethiopian. We didn’t get to try Ethiopian food on this tour–it’s hard to create small portions of injera. But we did get to stop for some Ethiopian coffee at an adorable, family-run cafe.
As a bonus, we got to drink the coffee in the adorable garden in the back of the cafe. It was the perfect place to escape the oppressive Washington DC humidity!
3) ben’s chili bowl
If you say “DC cuisine” to people, it’s possible that they’ll come at you with “Monkeys’ brains, though popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not often to be found in Washington DC.” But it’s much more likely that they’ll say “Ethiopian food and Ben’s Chili Bowl”. Ben’s Chili Bowl is touristic, but you can’t spend 24 hours in Washington DC without trying one of their chili dogs.
Ben’s Chili Bowl was founded by Ben and Virginia Ali in the 1950s. (Mr. Ali has since passed away, but Mrs. Ali is still sharp as a tack.) Everyone from Barack Obama to Anthony Bourdain has eaten here. It’s not just a place to get a delicious hot dog, it’s a part of history. The Alis donated food to the civil rights activists during Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington back in the 1960s. So you’re not just eating sausages when you’re here, you’re also eating a part of history.
The famous dish at Ben’s Chili Bowl is the half-smoke, a DC specialty sausage made with an equal mix of pork and beef. You could try to be independent and order something else, but why? Being one of the sheeple is underrated!
4) & Pizza
This confusingly named local chain (you pronounce it and pizza) had me a little skeptical. Why is the pizza on a flatbread? Why would anyone want to eat pizza outside of New York City anyway? But I was won over by the fun toppings like garlic ricotta and especially the spicy pepperoni with honey. Even better were the creative sodas like cereal milk cream soda. I’m lucky they don’t bottle that stuff or I’d never drink plain water again.
5) sol mexican grill
I’ve never thought of DC as being famous for Mexican food, but then there’s about a million things I don’t know. Sol Mexican Grill is another family-run business that serves many different kinds of Mexican food. But our guide said the specialty was their fried fish taco, so that’s what I ordered. The tilapia is battered in beer, and as one of our Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin, said, “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.” So I think this taco really honors the founding of our country.
6) dangerously delicious pies
What’s a proper food tour without dessert? Pie is always my favorite dessert, so I was excited to see that we were stopping at Dangerously Delicious Pies to conclude the tour. Dangerously Delicious Pies was started close to DC in Baltimore, so one of their pie specialties is something called a Baltimore Bomb.
Normally I wouldn’t advise talking about bombs in DC unless you want to get up close and personal with the Secret Service. But the Baltimore Bomb is worth it. It’s a disturbingly dense cheese pie made with a local Berger cookie. Bite into one of these Baltimore Bombs, baby, and you certainly won’t need dinner.
But this wasn’t even the only pie we got to sample on the tour! We also snacked on cherry, sweet potato, and chocolate cream. I was lucky to be part of a large group because we got to order more slices and share with each other. So if you’re the only person who books the tour, I recommend forcing random strangers to join you so you get to try more pie. They’ll be frightened at first, but they’ll thank you later!
24 Hours in Washington DC
Afternoon: National Portrait Gallery
At this point, you might be worried that I would take you through 24 hours in Washington DC without bringing you to even one museum. Never fear, Internet Stranger! I would not do you like that. Washington DC is home to a miraculous number of free museums, so it would be a crime to spend 24 hours in Washington without visiting at least one.
And it will be my pleasure to take you to the American National Portrait Gallery. (There’s a British National Portrait Gallery in London too, but they just have portraits of things like kings and queens and Ed Sheeran, so no one cares about them.) But at the National Portrait Gallery in DC we have portraits of all our presidents. (There are other portraits too, but we don’t have time to see them all. There are a lot of Americans out there.) I can’t show you all the 40-something presidential portraits, but I’ll be happy to share…
three fun facts: presidential portraits
1) what’s the strangest portrait?
Of course, one of our most portraited presidents is Mr. Abraham Lincoln. He may not be the Father of Our Country, but he’s one of a very few presidents every American admires, no matter what their political persuasion. There are many portraits of Honest Abe out there, including a couple before he grew his beard. (Legend has it that he grew a beard to please a little girl who told him he’d look better with one.)
But one of the most interesting portraits of Lincoln is the one above. It was done using words from his famously eloquent speeches. I wonder what would happen if someone tried to make a portrait like this of our current presidents. I guess they’d use words from his tweets?
2) what’s the saddest portrait?
Many presidents sit for their official portrait once they leave office. Of course one president who didn’t have this option was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was assassinated in office. So instead, he’s represented in the National Portrait Gallery by this abstract and unfinished painting done at his home in Florida shortly before his assassination in 1963. The painter was a woman named Elaine de Kooning.
I’m not one of those people who romanticize JFK; there was a lot to criticize about his record as president. Still, there’s no doubt that his assassination was a major turning point in American history. There’s something appropriate about having his portrait, done just before all the major societal changes that happened in the 1960s, look so confusing and out of focus.
3) what’s the coolest portrait?
Obviously it’s this portrait of Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley. (Michele Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald is also in the National Portrait Gallery.) Wiley is an African-American artist who usually paints African-American subjects posing like figures from famous western paintings. But President Obama here isn’t posed like another painting. He’s his own man in his own chair with his own giant field of flowers!
The flowers each have a difference significance. For example, the chrysanthemum is apparently the official flower of the city of Chicago, where Obama spent his early political career. Do cities get flowers? Does my hometown New York City have a special flower? I think it should be Pizza Rat.
24 Hours in Washington DC
Evening: DC Craft Cocktail Tour
Now I know we did a food tour this morning and ordinarily I wouldn’t suggest that you do two tours in your 24 hours in Washington DC. But since we ate so much this morning, I think instead of having dinner, we should explore DC’s craft cocktail scene. As a solo traveler, I don’t usually like going to bars by myself. It’s generally a good way to meet terrible men, but not much else.
That’s why I was happy to find the Urban Adventures DC Craft Cocktail Tour. I could enjoy some fine beverages in the company of a group of strangers, none of whom seemed like terrible men. I know you’d rather have a drink than information, but sadly modern technology has not figured out how to send craft cocktails through the internet. So you’ll just have to be satisfied with…
Three Fun Facts: DC Cocktails
1) was there prohibition in DC?
OMG yes! We started our tour at the Temperance Fountain, which dispenses water and not even a little craft beer. Prohibition was so popular in DC that it started 3 years earlier in the District of Columbia than it did in the rest of the country. (For my readers not up on their early 20th century American history, Prohibition is the period, mostly during the 1920s, when alcohol was illegal in the United States.)
Of course, politicians being what they are, prohibition was not very popular with congressmen. Our guide told us that there was one bootlegger getting illegal booze into DC for every six congressmen. No surprise that the lawmakers were the biggest scofflaws!
In honor of Prohibition, we went to a speakeasy style bar called Denson DC and had a cocktail called Mr. Owl. (It’s named after the Tootsie Roll Pop mascot because it tastes like one.) Somehow I think this drink tastes better than whatever bathtub-gin-containing concoction they were drinking in secret during Prohibition.
2) what’s the most historically interesting bar?
I don’t know what the most historically interesting bar in DC is, but I do know the most historically interesting stop on the tour. Our second bar stop was at this rooftop bar with great views of the monuments lit up at night. They also make a solid old-fashioned. (Keep in mind that only the first drink is included on the tour. The rest you choose and order on your own.)
But the place of historical interest was located just next to the bar. Our guide said that this Wok and Roll across the street is where Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth hid out when he was escaping justice for his crimes. I was a little confused because I didn’t think they had Chinese takeout in the 1860s. (In fact, I don’t think they had rock and roll, so the pun wouldn’t make any sense.) But apparently the building was something else back in Lincoln’s day.
3) forget this history! Where’s the good booze?
Fine! Last time I try to teach you anything. My favorite cocktail on the tour was the Tokyo Sour at Dirty Habit DC. It was made with Japanese whiskey, matcha, citrus, and egg white, which I’ve decided means that it has many health benefits and I should drink one every day.
And speaking of health, I decided that having three cocktails on an empty stomach was a a bad decision, so I ordered my favorite drinking food: a hamburger and fries. No one else ordered food, which I assume means that they all woke up with terrible hangovers, whereas I woke up the very picture of health. Thanks Grease and Carbs! You’ve never let me down.
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Washington DC!
What would you do with 24 hours in Washington DC? Was John Wilkes Booth a fan of egg rolls? And if someone says they’re going to send the president a Baltimore Bomb, will the Secret Service come after them? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Washington DC. If you have time for 24 hours in Washington DC with the Spy Museum try this itinerary. And if you want 24 hours in Washington DC with the National Mall, enjoy this itinerary.