In a high-octane environment like DC, Washingtonians and visitors alike could always use a little oasis of calm, whether it’s an election year or not. Meditative museum spaces, secret gardens, and spiritual retreats are all tucked away right in the midst of this frenetic city. Here are ten peaceful spots in Washington, DC, where you can take a deep breath and disappear for awhile.

The Franciscan Monastery’s Rose Garden around Portiuncula Church is a beautiful escape from the concrete jungle of DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
The Rose Garden around Portiuncula Church is a beautiful escape from the bustle of DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Quiet cloisters

The Franciscan Monastery is a tree-shaded oasis of peace in Northeast DC’s Brookland neighborhood. It features replicas of Holy Land shrines – including the Chapel of the Ascension, Tomb of Mary, and Grotto of Gethsemane – as well as the Grotto of Lourdes. Winding, flower-edged pathways beckon leisurely strolling. But the most relaxing spot is hands-down the nearby cloisters, which enclose a formal rose garden with benches ideal for quiet contemplation. The tiny Portiuncula Church here replicates St. Francis’s original church in Italy.

Artful repose

Sit in the alcove in front of Albert Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra Nevada, California” at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and you are swept into the depths of this enormous oil painting. Golden sunlight splashes on a glassy mountain lake, surrounded by soaring mountains. Looking closer, you spot a family of deer pausing by the lake shore, perhaps struck by the idealized wild beauty. A flock of ducks takes off in the shadows. It’s the next best thing to being out in the middle of Mother Nature herself.

Waterside reflection

A brick and gravel pathway along the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, the C&O Canal Towpath leads you into a shady, serene realm just steps from Georgetown’s frenetic streets. Find a bench between Thomas Jefferson Street, NW, and Wisconsin Avenue, NW, and reflect on how the placid water mirrors the leaves, listen to the sweet song of cardinals, sparrows, and, in season, chickadees. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a great blue heron, standing statuesque in quest of a fishy meal before taking flight on its broad, graceful wings, long legs trailing behind.

The towpath alongside the C&O Canal in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
The towpath alongside the C&O Canal in the Georgetown neighborhood of DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Georgetown Park’s labyrinth

Most people head to Georgetown for shopping or nightlife, not a labyrinth. But there it is, in Georgetown Waterfront Park, a painted spiral path based on ancient methods of meditation and prayer, in the most stunning of scenes overlooking the Potomac River. All you have to do is start walking (or dancing or singing) the labyrinth to its center, then make your way back out again. Your mind relaxes, the world’s chatter disappears, and – who knows? – you may discover inner peace.

Kayaking the Potomac

Hop aboard a kayak at Thompson Boat Center and within seconds you’re paddling around Theodore Roosevelt Island, a woodsy isle in the middle of the Potomac that the wilderness-loving, 26th President of the United States himself would have loved. You can float upstream to Georgetown and beyond, or downstream for a waterborne take on the National Mall’s marble monuments. Wherever you go, the quiet dipping of your paddle and birds flitting overhead are the only sounds you’ll hear.

Kayaking past Georgetown University along the Potomac River offers tranquility in the heart of the city © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Kayaking past Georgetown University along the Potomac River offers tranquility in the heart of the city © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Cool contemplation

The repetitive shapes strike you first. Circles representing Heaven and squares representing Earth, a design inspired by the gardens and architecture of the sacred, Ming-Dynasty-era Temple of Heaven in Beijing. You’re at the Moongate Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, a tranquil space centering on a small granite island surrounded by a black granite pool. Sit on one of the surrounding stone benches and contemplate the relationship between the concepts of Heaven and Earth. The water offers a cool respite from hot summer days.

A stunning stroll

One of the country’s most scenic paved trails is the Mount Vernon Trail. It winds along for 18.5 miles along the Virginia side of the Potomac River between Rosslyn and Mount Vernon, providing five-star views of Washington’s marble-clad monuments across the way. Strategically placed benches offer a place to stop and take it all in. Better yet, throw down a blanket (or yoga mat) along the river’s grassy banks and count how many bald eagles you can spot. The most stunning segment is between Memorial and Key Bridges.

Sleek serenity

The Kreeger Museum is an unsung gem in upper Georgetown. It hides away off busy Foxhall Road, NW. Pay the entrance fee and you’ll be rewarded with a nearly empty, über-modern house filled with priceless works of contemporary art. Seek out the dining room where the pretty pastel colors of several Monets can put even the noisiest mind to rest. If it’s sunny, pay no fee and stay outside in the grassy sculpture garden, a blissful, songbird-friendly kingdom where picnicking is encouraged.

A quiet spot in the Garden Court of the US Botanic Gardens.
A quiet spot for contemplation  in the Garden Court of the US Botanic Gardens © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Relax among foreign flora

Washington, DC is a hub of international people, places and things. United States Botanic Garden is a beautiful, glass-enclosed garden on Capitol grounds that has a political raison d’être – to assemble plants from military and exploring missions, foreign governments, and government agencies. But there’s absolutely no need to know that as you enter the balmy, birdsong-filled space and wander pathways edged by more than 4,000 flourishing seasonal, tropical, and subtropical plants. In the Garden Court, find a bench, close your eyes, and listen to relaxing ambient music as water splashes in the Alhambra-style fountain.

Peaceful garden delights

Gardens are always peaceful places, but there’s something special about the ones at Dumbarton House. Part of it might have to do with the fact that this meticulously preserved Federal mansion is not the most famous historic site in town – meaning you may very well have the place to yourself. Its 1.2 acres of colonial-era gardens and terraces, sprinkled with tree-shaded benches and wandering pathways, provide a bird-serenaded respite from daily life. On summer Sundays, Serenity Yoga (http://dumbartonhouse.org/event/sunday-serenity-yoga) is offered on the grounds.

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