Why You Should Visit Washington, D.C. This Summer

New outdoor dining and streateries, museums practically to yourself, and one of the nation’s best bars is reopening—for starters.

Why You Should Visit Washington, D.C. This Summer

A pair of José Andrés restaurants are just two of the reasons to visit.

Courtesy of Jaleo DC

America’s cities are back: bigger, bolder, and packed full of exciting events, new outdoor spaces, and reimagined dining. Check out Cities We Love for inspiration this summer.

Tell a local you plan to visit Washington, D.C. in the height of summer and you might get a curious look. “But won’t it be . . . humid?” Sure, but listen to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, and those balmy temps will sound like a bonus. “This is the best season, if you ask me,” Mayor Bowser said in a recent sit-down interview. “We won’t have as many people as we usually have, and you’ll be able to get in to see everything you want to see. Our restaurants are fully open, our nightlife is coming back, and we have beautiful parks and things to do.”

After a year of lockdown and political turmoil, the nation’s capital is officially back in business. Across the region, which includes Maryland to the north and Virginia to the south, residents have achieved 70 percent COVID vaccination rates, and Mayor Bowser is “pushing hard” to reach the remaining 30 percent. Visitors are asked to follow local protocols, including masking on public transit and in federal buildings, but there’s currently no citywide mask mandate in place.

And people are out and about: enjoying the city’s glorious rooftop bars, like Hedy’s Rooftop and the Thompson’s Anchovy Social at the Yards; vibrant waterfront neighborhoods like the Wharf and Buzzard Point; and best of all, the 500-plus “streateries,” or street dining destinations akin to those that have popped up in NYC, creating a café culture that previously didn’t exist—and keeping businesses alive through the pandemic. The mayor has proposed a bill to allow outdoor dining for the rest of the year and for six-month stretches in 2022 and 2023.

What to do in D.C. this summer

At the new Planet Word museum, kids and adults like can explore language through immersive exhibits.

At the new Planet Word museum, kids and adults like can explore language through immersive exhibits.

Photo by DuHon Photography

The Smithsonian reopens

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian, which manages 19 of Washington’s biggest museums, galleries, and the National Zoo, has begun a staggered reopening—so families looking to keep their kids busy this summer, take note. Popular attractions like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Portrait Gallery, the Renwick Gallery, and the zoo have resumed operations, requiring (free) ticketed entry, and the National Air and Space Museum will come back by July 30. Although the new-in-2020 National Children’s Museum is temporarily closed due to the pandemic, a museum devoted to language, Planet Word, now offers up an immersive, voice-activated experience within the historic Franklin School. Consider all the air-conditioned culture at your disposal.

Getting off the Mall

But it’s not just about visiting Washington—it’s about getting better acquainted with D.C. on the whole. “There was always an undercurrent of cool beyond Capitol Hill and K Street—not to mention strong African American and LGBTQ communities,” writes Natalie Beauregard in our roundup of the best neighborhoods to visit in D.C., “but the city has really come into its own in the past 10 years, ditching its reputation as transient and embracing local voices instead.”

Where to eat and drink

As Beauregard notes, “Travelers should head to Columbia Heights for the food, specifically the Middle Eastern fare at the acclaimed Maydan (where dishes like sweet potatoes, swordfish kebabs, and lamb shoulder are cooked over a wood-burning hearth) and the Latin American cuisine down the street at Seven Reasons (which Esquire named the best restaurant in the country in 2019). Also worth trying is Filipino favorite Bad Saint (currently offering takeout, delivery, and patio self-seating) and prix fixe spot Rooster & Owl (don’t miss the barbecue carrots with cornbread ice cream).”

And if you’re looking for a night out unlike one you’ve had in D.C. before, just follow Mayor Bowser’s lead: “Heist is hosting their club on the [rooftop] of the Kennedy Center overlooking the Potomac. It’s just super fun,” she said. “It does two things: It helps them bring their nightlife business back but also puts the Kennedy Center in a new light—this is a performing arts venue for everyone.” Book your table now.

Where to stay

AFAR favorites like the Eaton D.C., well suited for working remotely long before lockdown, and the sleek and modern Conrad Washington D.C. (one of our best new hotels in the world in 2019) will serve you well any season.

Stay at the Eaton: from $239/night, expedia.com; Stay at the Conrad: from $316/night, expedia.com

New in the last year: the Riggs, a stately 181-room hotel with a destination bar, Silver Lyan, reopening July 16 under the watch of “world’s best bar” winner Mr. Lyan (Ryan Chetiyawardana), has taken over the late-19th century Romanesque Riggs Bank building near the National Portrait Gallery. A hotel with a call to action, the Riggs is also committed to supporting the community, with particular attention paid to Black Lives Matter DC, DC Central Kitchen, and Horton’s Kids.

Stay at the Riggs: from $319/night, expedia.com

Go deeper

Restaurateur José Andrés continues to deliver with Jaleo and his newcomer, Spanish Diner, serving dishes from Andrés’ birthplace Asturias in his U.S. home of Bethesda, Maryland. But those who wish to follow Andrés’s leadership in the nonprofit sector should enlist in a World Central Kitchen relief team. WCK has served a staggering 36 million meals in more than 400 cities and has been one of the quickest responders during the pandemic and at crises like the recent Miami building collapse. Through #ChefsForAmerica the WCK is also “making a key connection between people who need meals and restaurant workers and drivers who need to earn a living.” Donate to provide meals to families in need.

>>Next: The Best Cities in the U.S in 2021

Laura Dannen Redman is AFAR’s editor at large. She’s an award-winning journalist who can’t sit still and has called Singapore, Seattle, Australia, Boston, and the Jersey Shore home. She’s based in Brooklyn with her equally travel-happy husband and daughters.
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