A Design Lover's Guide to Washington, DC

A Design Lover's Guide to Washington, DC

Natalie Grasso
Jul 25, 2013

It would be remiss (and unpatriotic!) not to tell you to see the things you think of when you think of Washington: the Capitol, the White House, and every memorial. Most of them are, after all, remarkable examples of historic architecture and design. But herewith, a small sample of the other cool things to see when you (and your sensible walking shoes) have tired of traipsing up and down the Mall.


The Renwick Gallery: Named for its architect, James Renwick, Jr. (of St. Patrick's Cathedral fame), the Renwick is the Smithsonian's gallery for American craft and decorative art. It's a gorgeous, easily digestible space (pictured above), and only a stone's throw from the White House. Four times a year they host Handi-hour — "DC's premier crafty hour" — with craft projects, craft beer and live music.

Jazz in the Garden: After a day spent museum and monument hopping, wind down with live jazz and a picnic in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. The free performances take place from 5:00-8:30 on Friday evenings during the summer.

Mount Vernon: An easy and historic afternoon escape from the city. George Washington's home and gardens do not disappoint, and the museum is fun and informative. About 15 miles from the city by car, or, if you're feeling adventurous, 18 miles by bike.


Dumbarton Oaks: Is there anything so romantic as a summer afternoon spent wandering the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks? (No.) Afterwards, cool off inside the museum as you browse their collections of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art. Architect nerds: don't miss the Pre-Columbian wing, designed by Philip Johnson. (Pictured above: The Orangery in the gardens.)

Woodrow Wilson House: Like a time capsule. I was giddy with delight the first time I swept through this place, which has been preserved, seemingly untouched, since the former President's death in 1924. In light of the many recent re-interpretations of the 1920s (ahem: Julian; Baz), this one feels especially charming and real.

New Columbia Distillers: Shake the prohibition-era blues that you might catch at President Wilson's and swing by New Columbia Distillers, the first craft-distillery to open in the District and the maker of the highly acclaimed Green Hat Gin. The distillery offers free tasting and tours on Saturdays from 1-4.


Union Market: Revitalized and reopened in 2012, this historic indoor market is now home to 40 new artisan retailers (the exterior is pictured above, and interior below). Stop at Salt & Sundry to browse one of the coolest collections of home décor items in the city, and don't leave without an ice cream cone from Trickling Springs Creamery. On summer Friday nights, the parking lot transforms into DC Drive-In — Washington's only drive-in movie theater.

14th Street NW in Logan Circle: Your one-stop shopping destination for contemporary and cool housewares and home furnishings. Retailers lined up along this corridor include Home Rule, Miss Pixie's, Muleh, Room & Board and Urban Essentials. Conclude your day of shopping with small plates and a good glass of wine at Cork.

Cady's Alley: Georgetown's design district (pictured at end of post). Spend an afternoon (window) shopping at Waterworks, Design Within Reach and Janus et Cie. Break for a savory lunch at Leopold's (their watermelon salad is a personal fave), and then walk a few brick blocks north to see some of Georgetown's finest and most historic Federal houses.


Tabard Inn: Their Eggs Benedict is legendary.

Swing's: When you take your stroll past the White House, skip the usual suspects (Cosi, Caribou, Starbucks) and get your coffee fix at Swing's. Located on the corner of 17th and G Streets, they've been serving craft-roasted coffee in DC for nearly 100 years.

Le Diplomate: Dinner at Le Diplomate will situate you smack in the middle of bustling 14th Street, with easy access to some of DC's best bars (and the aforementioned design stores). The French brassiere-style restaurant feels like an appropriate little homage to Pierre L'Enfant, to whom we owe our wide boulevards, sprawling Mall, and other gorgeous grassy interludes throughout the city.


The Jefferson: Built in 1923, this Beaux Arts beauty underwent a top-to-bottom renovation and reopened in 2009 as one of the city's finest small luxury hotels. Guest rooms are decorated with American and European antiques and Jeffersonian artifacts. The hotel's cocktail bar, Quill, is the perfect spot for a cozy nightcap and, adding to the ambience, talented local pianist Peter Robinson tickles the ivories on Tuesday through Saturday nights starting at 9 pm. The hotel is located at 16th and M, just a few blocks from the White House.

Donovan House: A sleeker alternative to some of DC's more staid and historic hotels. Donovan House is located downtown on 14th Street, within walking distance of the aforementioned design stores and Le Diplomate.

Capella: Design-wise, Capella strikes a balance between the contemporary look of Donovan House and the old-school elegance of the Jefferson. Relax upstairs on the rooftop (which boasts some of the best views in Georgetown), or canal-side at The Rye Bar, where a rare selection of whiskies are served up in the spirit of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were in the whiskey trade themselves. The hotel is located in the heart of Georgetown.

Add to our list in the comments — what are your DC must-sees?

(Images: Natalie Grasso, with the exception of #2, The Renwick, by Oliver Devine.)

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