The Yes/No Guide to Washington D.C.

A lowdown on what to do, what to wear, and what to eat in the nation's capitol.

The nation’s capital has undergone a pretty incredible transformation in the last decade or so. Not that far back, commuters headed out to Virginia and Maryland as soon as possible after a day in the District. Now, Washington D.C. has turned into one of the best cities for young professionals. People now want to stay, not escape. Cultural attractions, a growing menswear culture, surprisingly diverse nightlife, and an exciting restaurant scene are all reasons why you might want to spend a few days getting to know Washington D.C. Here’s how to make the most of a visit to the District.

Style

  • Colorful Chinos, OCBD’s, and all things preppy – Yes. While DC is the capitol for our entire country, geographically it lies on the East coast, and many of the residents’ style reflect a distinctively preppy flavor.
  • Polyester – No. A general rule for sure, but D.C. is humid year round, and brutal in the summer.
  • Layers – Yes. The weather is as much Boston as it is South Carolina… depending on the season. The temps are unpredictable year round.
  • Your “nice” suit – Yes. Unlike most places around the country, DC is still largely a business (not business-casual) town. That means lots of guys know how to wear a suit, tie, and a nice pair of dress shoes. Don’t be afraid to bring along that suit you usually only wear for special occasions. It’s standard-wear here.
  • A“going out” outfit – No. The majority of DC’s nightlife (With notable exceptions. See below) leans heavily casual. While this is no excuse to not dress well, you also don’t have to worry about wearing a blazer to dinner or designer jeans to the bar.
  • A tuxedo – Yes. If you are the type to plan ahead and are looking for an excuse to wear your tux, DC is known for hosting a variety of black-tie events.
  • An umbrella – The District is built on a swamp and it experiences a variety of precipitation year-round.
  • Comfortable shoes – Yes. DC is a dense city designed long before the horseless carriage took all the fun out of a leisurely stroll. Walking is one of the best ways to explore the District. Bring at least one pair of shoes that will allow you to stay on your feet for extended periods of time.
  • Go clothes shopping – Yes. For the many Dappered readers who mostly or exclusively shop for clothes online, visiting well-stocked stores can be a fun trip outside the comfort zone. I recommend visiting both local branches of major brands, like SuitSupply and the Brooks Brothers Slim Fit Only shop. Also check out a few local clothing purveyors, such as Hugh and Crye for great shirts, and if you’re willing to splurge on a custom suit, Brimble and Clarke can make you one for around $800.

DC StyleGetting around (& looking good) in D.C. is easy.

Travel & Accommodations

  • Summer trips – No. While summer is travel season and many of America’s patriotic holidays fall between late May and early September, summer in DC is frequently hot, humid, and overcrowded with tourists.
  • Spring and Fall – Yes. The more temperate months of the year bring not only better weather, but also fewer crowds, limiting your exposure to 7th graders who haven’t quite figured out how to use deodorant.
  • Flying into DCA – Consider No. While Reagan Airport (DCA) is by far the closest and most conveniently located for access to the District (located on the Metrorail’s Yellow and Blue lines), it is also a small facility and you often pay a premium to fly in and out. Explore flight options out of Dulles and Baltimore-Washington Airports. While they are further from the District, there is easy public transportation access from both. The 5A Metrobus (which runs every 40 minutes from approximately 6AM to midnight seven days a week) will take you from Dulles Airport to L’Enfant Metrorail Station in the heart of DC or Rosslyn Metrorail Station in northern Virginia for $6 per passenger. The trip from Dulles to the District will take approximately 45-60 minutes depending on traffic. The Penn line of the MARC train (a commuter rail system which serves Washington, DC and Maryland) provides service between Union Station in central DC and the BWI Marshall Rail Station, where free shuttles serve the airport terminal. The MARC train between BWI and Union Station takes approximately 40 minutes and also costs $6. It runs Monday through Friday from approximately 5AM to 9:30PM. There is a train every 30 minutes. On weekends, an Amtrak train services the same route between 6AM and midnight for $15-$40 depending on the time of day. For most of the day, the Amtrak trains run every 30 minutes. Does that mean flying into Regan is a terrible idea? Absolutely not. But there are other options.
  • Renting a car – No. Unless you plan to venture significantly outside the DC metro area, there is no need for a car. DC has excellent public transportation that reaches out to the near suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, and short-term car rental options such as Zipcar and Car2Go are widely available.
  • Rent a Capital Bikeshare – Yes. Capital Bikeshare is DC’s bike sharing program and you can purchase access to the city’s many bike rental kiosks for a day, week, or month at a very reasonable fee. If weather cooperates, exploring the city by bike is both efficient and lots of fun.
  • Staying only in the District – No. Unlike a lot of cities’ suburbs, many of the areas surrounding DC proper are just as exciting as the District itself. Some of the area’s best attractions and most scenic neighborhoods lie in Northern Virginia (such as Arlington Cemetery, Mount Vernon, and Old Town Alexandria) and in Maryland (such as Annapolis).
  • Hailing cabs – No. DC cabs, all too frequently, are dirty and in poor condition. Drivers can be unreliable, have been known to rip off those who don’t know the city, and are less than excited about accepting credit cards. Stick to Uber, and its cheaper alternative UberX.

dc metroGet to know the DC Metro. Photo Credit: Chris Phan

Food & Drink

  • Traditional DC restaurants – No. Until the last decade or so, DC’s dining scene leaned heavily on wood-paneled steak or seafood restaurants that catered to tourists and those dining on an expense-account, leading to boring menus, inflated prices, and mediocre service.
  • Innovative DC restaurants – Yes. In the last decade DC’s dining scene has evolved dramatically, with an explosion of exceptional, reasonably-priced restaurants. For innovative takes on traditional ethnic cuisines try Rasika for Indian, Jaleo for Spanish tapas, and Oyamel for Mexican. Founding Farmers is worth a visit for sophisticated, locally-sourced takes on your childhood favorites. Hank’s Oyster Bar has not only a large variety of oysters that change daily, but also spectacular cocktails.
  • Ethiopian Restaurants – Yes. DC has a huge ethnic Ethiopian population. Fun Fact: More individuals of Ethiopian descent live in DC than any other city in the world other than Addis Ababa. DC has a spectacular selection of Ethiopian restaurants as a result. Recommendations: Ethiopic on H St NE and Dukem Ethiopian on U St NW.
  • Ben’s Chili Bowl – No. Endorsed by both Bill Cosby and Barack Obama, Ben’s is probably DC’s most famous restaurant, and has the long lines to show for it. It’s particularly popular as a late- night post-going out snack. Despite Mr. Huxtables’ endorsement, Ben’s signature half smoke (essentially a chili dog) is mediocre at best.
  • Fast Gourmet and Amsterdam Falafel – Yes. Locally famous for their giant grilled panini and falafel sandwiches, respectively, these two late-night dining spots live up to the reputation.
  • Speakeasy/Underground Supper Clubs – Yes. As DC’s dining and drinking scene has become more sophisticated, a number of underground bars and dining establishments have sprung up in recent years. The Columbia Room near the Convention Center and Harold Black in Eastern Market have particularly good drinks and knowledgeable bartenders. If you are in town for an underground supper conducted by the chef at Chez Le Commis (check the site for schedule), it’s the best value in gourmet dining in the city (Full disclosure: the chef is a personal friend).
  • Lime Ricky – Yes. Invented in DC, this cocktail is often described as “air conditioning in a glass.” Competes with a cold, refreshing beer for the best thing to have in your hand during a warm DC afternoon.
  • Late night drinking – No. In DC, most bars and clubs close down around 3AM and start to get quiet around 2. If you are looking for a “sun coming up, 5AM” kind of evening, for better or worse, DC isn’t that city.
  • Happy hour drinking – Yes. A city where everyone is always “networking”, DC has a great happy hour scene. Particularly if you are traveling for business, check out the local watering hole before heading back to your hotel. Recommendations: Vinoteca on U St. for a great wine happy hour, Bullfeather’s near the Capitol Building to mingle with Congressional staff, and Co Co Sala for their “chocolate and bubbles” happy hour if you are with your lady friend.

DC eatThe restaurant scene has evolved far beyond  the previous
reputation for steak and cigar dinners in wood-paneled backrooms.

Sights & Sounds

  • Going for a run on the Mall – Yes. The National Mall is probably the only running trail in America where in the space of a few miles, you can enjoy some of the nation’s most treasured monuments (Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial). If you have some extra gas in the tank, I strongly encourage you to explore some of the more out of the way, but equally impressive memorials on the Mall (MLK Memorial, FDR Memorial, Vietnam Memorial).
  • Evening in Adams Morgan – No. Commonly referred to as the Bourbon Street of DC, this Northwest neighborhood’s main strip is known for a dense group of bars that all, to varying degrees, resemble a mediocre fraternity party. Unless you have a particular hankering for sticky floors, drunk underage college kids, and well liquor, stay away. A notable exception (if dive bars are your thing) is Dan’s, one of DC’s few true dives where drinks are served out of ketchup squirt bottles.
  • Evening on U St./14th St. – Yes. In recent years, the U St. and 14th St. corridors have blossomed into the epicenter of DC’s dining and nightlife. There is a wide variety of great bars (try Marvin for great music and excellent roof deck), music venues (Rolling Stone recently named U Street Music Hall one of the best dance clubs in America) and restaurants (too many to list, but Bistro La Bonne has incredible, reasonably priced French cuisine).
  • Free Museums – Yes. DC has more amazing free museums than you could fit into a weekend, or a week, or a month. Whether your interests lie in technology (Smithsonian Air and Space), history (the National Archives house the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights), or art (National Portrait Gallery), DC has world class museums that won’t cost you a dime.
  • Paid Museum – No. Sustained by the constant flow of tourists, DC boasts an incredible amount of overpriced museums that will offer you little more than the opportunity to spend some quality time around sweaty preteens and their annoyed parents. There is one notable exception…
  • The Newseum – Yes. Although it’s pricey and often crowded, the Newseum (a museum focused on the history and industry of documenting current events) is generally considered one of, if not the, best museum in DC. Check out a chunk of the Berlin Wall, the satellite antennae from the top of the World Trade Center, and an exhibit telling the story of every photograph to have won the Pulitzer Prize.
  • White House Tour- No. Today it is actually impossible to get a tour of the President’s humble abode due to Sequester-related budget cuts. (UPDATE: And like that, on the day this post goes live, they’re back open for tours) But even if/when tours do return, they are generally mediocre, require booking far in advance, and essentially consist of a walk around a couple rooms in the East Wing and a hallway filled with photographs of the First Family. Instead opt for…
  • Capitol Building tour. – Yes. Easy to walk in and get the tour with some of the expert tour guides (look out for folks in the red coats) of the building where Congress does (or doesn’t) do its work. The tours are free, filled with excellent trivia about the nation’s history, and an opportunity to check out one of the truly awe-inspiring buildings in the District, and the country.
  • Georgetown on the weekends – No. Colonial and stylish, Georgetown is probably the city’s most iconic neighborhood. Come Saturday and Sunday afternoons, though, it is also the city’s most crowded. While Georgetown’s main drag (M St.) is definitely worth a stroll, try and make it over to GT during the week when the crush of tourists dissipates.
  • Eastern Market on the weekends – Yes. Located only a few blocks from the Capitol, Eastern Market combines a farmers market, flea and antique market, and an indoor grocery market-café space. A great place to stroll through on a weekend morning and pick up some groceries or a unique souvenir.

 DC MarketOn the weekends, skip Georgetown and instead visit the Eastern Market.

The author, Serge E., settled in DC after stints in Moscow (he could see Russia from his house), Chicago, London, and Boston. He came for a career in politics and policy, and stayed for the happy hours. He also loves exploring the District’s many up and coming bars, restaurants, and stores.

Are you familiar with a city that should get it’s own yes/no guide here on Dappered? Tell us who you are and why you think you’ve got the right perspective to write one, here.