The US capital has plenty of big-time attractions that lure visitors from far and wide. But to get a glimpse of the real DC, seek out some of the many quirky, unexpected sights tucked among the city’s stately buildings and flowery parks.

It's easy if you know where to look. Here are nine of the best.

Cream labyrinth design surrounded by green under sunny blue skies in Georgetown in Washington DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Zone out while weaving your way to the center of this labyrinth in Georgetown © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Get to the center of a Zen experience

Georgetown is famed for its shopping, dining and nightlife. So you might not expect to find an outdoor labyrinth smack in the middle of the hustle-bustle of the busy Georgetown Waterfront Park. But there it is, with the kayak-filled Potomac River and stately Key Bridge as a backdrop. Walk (or dance or sing) your way to the center of the spiral, then work your way out again. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll find inner peace along the way. You’ll find the labyrinth at the bottom of 33rd St NW.

Peep some crazy gargoyles and grotesques

When the grandiose, neo-Gothic National Cathedral was being completed in the 1980s, children were asked to compete to come up with best ideas for the gargoyles and grotesques that would adorn the cathedral’s towers. Children’s creativity is endless, as shown by the wide range of fun and quirky gargoyles and grotesques you can spot today, including a girl with pigtails and braces, a birdwatcher . . . and Darth Vader. He’s located high up on the northwest tower; you can see him by exiting the cathedral through the northwest doors, or approaching the building from the northwest parking lot. Or join one of the Gargoyle Tours (May through September) to hear the stories behind them all.

Three men and a large gray dog sit outside at cafe tables with white tablecloths on a sunny day in Washington DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
JFK proposed to Jackie in a booth at Martin's Tavern, a DC staple since 1933 © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

See the booth where Camelot was born  

A young senator named John F. Kennedy, Jr, proposed to beautiful Jacqueline Bouvier on June 24, 1953, at Georgetown’s historic, intimate Martin’s Tavern. There was no bended knee that evening, or grand words spoken – just a quiet dinner that kicked off the reign of Camelot. A brass plaque at Booth No 3, now known as the  “engagement booth,” marks the spot where many a couple has since become engaged. The staff keeps chilled bottles of champagne on hand to toast the veritable flock of lovebirds following in their footsteps.  

A three-foot stone with a rounded top sits behind a green fence marked by a plaque that explains the stone is one of 40 that originally established the city's boundaries. Green vines form the backdrop. © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Considered the USA's first federal monuments, 40 stones like this one marked DC's boundaries in the 1790s © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Seek out America’s first federal monuments

At a glimpse, DC’s 40 boundary stones – each one a three-foot-tall stone pillar in an iron cage – don’t look like much. But these unassuming little stones are rather remarkable. Back in the 1790s, a team headed by amateur astronomer and mathematician Benjamin Banneker surveyed the land, determining the parameters of the new Federal City and marking them with these engraved stones. And there they are – 36 original and four replica – tucked among the hustle-bustle of modern city living. If you travel to each one, you’ll visit DC’s diverse neighborhoods, from gritty Anacostia to tony Arlington (a chunk of Virginia was once part of the District of Columbia, remember). For those without the tenacity or time to visit all 40 (aka most of us), one of the coolest is at Jones Point Park in Alexandria, hidden in the sea wall. Visit this website for detailed info.

Stand in the footsteps of MLK

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr, made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He addressed a quarter-million people, who had gathered for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That march served as a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, leading to laws including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can stand on the exact spot from which he orated, taking in the magnificent view of the Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument and, in the distance, the US Capitol. How do you know where to stand? By the engraved words marking the precise spot. Hint: they’re on the landing located one flight of steps down from the top of the memorial.

Close up of the white stone walls of the WWII Memorial in Washington DC, with a black line drawing of a man with a long nose peeking over a wall and the words 'Kilroy was here' © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Ubiquitous during WWII, the 'Kilroy was here' graffiti also adorns the WWII Monument in DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Find a bald-headed man who provided reassurance to troops

During World War II,  sketches of a big-nosed, bald man peeking over a fence alongside the words “Kilroy was here” appeared all over the world, wherever battles were being fought. The droll-faced graffiti indicated that an American comrade had been there before, a fact that comforted many a frightened soldier. (It’s said his appearance baffled Japanese and German troops, and even Hitler set out to find what he concluded as being a devious spy.) So it’s fitting that there are two of them hidden at the World War II Memorial. Hint: Look for one near the Pennsylvania pillar, behind the gilded fence.

Make a quick trip to the Holy Land

Who needs to go all the way to visit the Holy Land? You can experience some of its most revered sites – at least excellent replicas of them – at the neo-Byzantine Franciscan Monastery in DC’s Brookland neighborhood. This oasis of tree-shaded peace harbors copies of such shrines as the Grotto of Gethsemane, Chapel of the Ascension and Tomb of Mary, as well as the Lourdes grotto and St. Francis’ little Porziuncola Chapel. There’s also a rose garden nestled in a stone cloister, with plenty of benches to sit and contemplate. In spring, flowers burst everywhere in a wild extravaganza, though it’s lovely to visit any time of year.  

An assortment of Barbie dolls dressed for the Fourth of July holiday in red, white and blue, amid greenery around a small pond in a front yard in Washington DC © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
Barbie and Ken change activities (and outfits) with the season at Barbie Pond on Q St © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Dive into Barbie Pond on Q Street

Okay, this one admittedly is quite whimsical, but DC locals love it. Depending on the season or what’s going on in town or the world, a small-pond-bedecked front yard at 1454 1/2 Q St NW, near Logan Circle, is decorated with Barbies and Kens in an ever-changing parade of themes and scenarios. Catch them jumping out of pumpkins on Halloween or playing hoops during the NCAA tourney or decked out for Pride. Stop by and see their latest, or check them out on their super-popular Instagram page.

Bright green grass and crisp white numbers mark the yard lines on a football field, with the Gallaudet scoreboard in the background © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet
The football huddle originated in the 1890s, on the field at Gallaudet University © Barbara Noe Kennedy / Lonely Planet

Line up on the field where the football huddle was born

In the 1890s, Gallaudet University’s quarterback, Paul Hubbard, rounded up his players into a tight circle to discuss plays. The players at this deaf university wanted a way to hide their plays from the other hearing-impaired team as they signed. And thus was born the football huddle. The Gallaudet Bison went on that year to the NCAA Division III playoffs for the first time ever, and other teams began picking up on this ingenious way of keeping a team’s playbook hidden from the opposing team. You can visit the since-refurbished Hotchkiss Field at Gallaudet University, where it all unfurled. Better yet, if it’s fall, take in a game.

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