Lonely Planet Local Barbara Noe Kennedy has been living in Washington, DC, for more than 20 years. She’s watched the cityscape transform from a staid affair into a buzzing global destination with an outstanding foodie scene, rejuvenated neighborhoods, thrilling theater, amazing music and more. The short of it? It’s an exciting time to be in DC.

The Martin Luther King, Jr memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC is presented at night in profile
The Martin Luther King Jr monument on the National Mall is extra impressive at night © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

When I have friends in town...I always take them on a monuments-by-night walking tour. Seeing the Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington monuments all lit up at night is world-class magnificence. The view from the Lincoln steps, looking back across the Mall to the Capitol, always blows me away. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is remarkable as well, the larger-than-life figure of the great man glowing out of the darkness.  

Features - non-smithsonian-museum-dc-live-like-local-b16d227ce87c
The breakfast room at Hillwood is all refined elegance © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

While the Smithsonian museums are great...there are so many more museums that get overlooked. Hillwood is a former heiress’ estate, filled with French and Russian antiques – including two Fabergé eggs. Kreeger Museum is a private collection of Impressionist and American artists displayed in a postmodernist house. And Anderson House, near Dupont Circle, is the headquarters and museum of the Society of the Cincinnati, the secretive patriotic organization whose first president general was none other than George Washington. It looks like a sumptuous Gilded Age villa, definitely more opulent than the White House itself.

A typical weekend involves...a run! I have run around the National Mall hundreds if not thousands of times (including during the Marine Corps Marathon), and I’m convinced it’s one of the world’s best runs. A grand esplanade edged by some of the world’s most famous museums and memorials, the Mall changes by the light of the day, by the season. I’ve seen it afloat in cherry blossoms, covered in snow, at the break of dawn, and beneath a star-studded night sky. Washington has been declared one of the nation’s fittest cities, so you won’t be the only one on the trail.

Features - live-like-local-dc-eating-fc98777b0b69
Union Market is DC's most happening food hall © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

For delicious food on the go...lots of people head to Market Lunch at Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, where you can get their famous crab cakes and blueberry-and-buckwheat pancakes. Artisans and farmers set up stands to sell their wares around the market and on the street in front; you’ll find some cool gifts. That said, the hip spot these days is Union Market in Northeast DC, where all kinds of unique vendors sell culinary goodness. If you like oysters, the Rappahannock Oyster Bar is front and center.

For cheap eats...Julia’s Empanadas is a local favorite. There are now two locations, one in Adams Morgan and the other on Connecticut Avenue just off Dupont Circle. It’s just a little walk-in place with nowhere to sit. But the empanadas – small handheld savory pies with various fillings – are amazing. I’m a fan of the turkey empanada, with spring onions, turmeric and jalapeno.

Features - like-local-dc-bike-transportation-19ad825dfed8
Rain or shine, a bike is one of the best ways to navigate DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

One thing I hate about Washington is...the traffic. And it’s getting worse and worse. Do yourself a favor and take the metro. Or hop on one of the Capital Bikeshare bikes (many of which are now dockless bikes – you just drop them off wherever you want when you’re done). Washington’s a very friendly biking city, and in fact there are paths that you can follow to take a nice spin around the major monuments on the Mall, and even across the river and up to Old Town (which is about 10 miles, by the way).

When I want to get out of the city...it really depends on what the weather’s doing and what my mood is. My husband and I enjoy eating crabs at a crab shack near Annapolis (Cantler’s is one of the best); wine-tasting in Loudoun County (Chrysalis and Stone Tower are two of my favorite wineries); and hiking Old Rag or another trail at Shenandoah National Park. But you could also explore the oyster trail in the Northern Neck of Virginia, bike the back roads outside Centerville, Virginia (beautiful rolling pasturelands, with the hazy Blue Ridge beyond), visit Baltimore or Richmond...I could go on.

For a night of entertainment...head to the brand-new Wharf area, which shows that DC is finally getting smart about using its riverfront. Here, the Anthem theater brings in big acts for audiences of 6,000, though my go-to place has become the more intimate Pearl Street Warehouse, designed after an Austin roadhouse. On a warm evening, it’s also enjoyable just to walk around the neighborhood and see what’s going on. There’s free live music, street performances and plenty of places to get a cocktail or grab a bite.

Features - live-like-local-dc-library-congress-335ee8b7a582
The Library of Congress is the closest you'll get in the States to a European palace © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

If I had to recommend one venue...I might say the Library of Congress, because it’s generally not on people’s radars. It’s like visiting a European palace, with all the columns and mural mosaics and marble statues. The symbolism everywhere is amazing (be sure to take a tour). You’ll see a Gutenberg Bible from the mid-1450s, and there are rotating exhibits showcasing American history and culture. For a really cool souvenir, you can use your driver’s license to get your own library card.

To spend a day outdoors...hop aboard a kayak (you can rent them at Thompson’s Boat Center, near the Kennedy Center) and paddle around the Potomac River, with some of the world’s greatest monuments in plain view. I used to do that when I worked downtown, during lunch, and I never got tired of it. There are also kayak rentals at Key Bridge Boat House, the new Wharf Boathouse and Ballpark Boathouse.

Features - WashingtonSecrets-live-like-local-dc-843d5a6fb42f
Barbara poses in front of the Wings mural by Collette Miller © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

For Washington secrets …This being Washington, of course there are all kinds of secrets swirling around. And I’m not talking about the government. Different sights have hidden elements that make for a fun treasure hunt. The National Cathedral, for example, has a Darth Vader gargoyle. There are two “Kilroy Was Here” cartoons hidden in the National World War II Memorial. And on the façade of the Embassy Row Hotel on Mass Ave you’ll find human-size angel wings by Colette Miller, who has painted them around the world to remind humanity we are angels on earth.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

Explore related stories

Features - bengies_drivein_lonelyplanet-33715877232b

Family Travel

The 10 best drive-in theaters in the US

May 21, 2020 • 6 min read