D.C. Hidden Gems and Treasures

Like most major cities, the best places in DC aren’t always located near the main attractions. In fact, a number of these hidden gems are nestled away from the more prominent spots in backstreets and less visited neighborhoods. Visiting lesser-known treasures - mansions, museums, beautiful gardens, memorials, and churches - enable travelers to not only avoid the crowds but feel more like local experts. So let’s leave the obvious stuff to the tourists, and check out these hidden treasures!

5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015, USA
Rock Creek Park is the main stretch of woodland that runs through the city’s northwest corridor. If you want to escape the mob of tourists on the Mall, or you just want to spend time in an urban oasis, head to Rock Creek Park. Any section between the Kennedy Center and Pierce Mill has features aplenty—running/biking trails that follow the twists and turns of the creek, tennis courts, idyllic scenery, and the occasional distraction like the National Zoo. On weekends, Beach Drive, located just north of Pierce Mill, is closed to vehicular traffic, transforming into an ideal trail for running or biking. To enter the park at Pierce Mill, take the Metro to Van Ness/UDC and head down Tilden Street. It will be about a 15-minute walk to the mill. For those looking for a more strenuous workout, a hike or a run on the Western Ridge Trail might just fit the bill.
3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002, USA
Whether you have a green thumb or just love to bask in nature, you’ll want to check out the National Arboretum before you bid D.C. adieu. Spring is one of the best times to visit, when the azaleas, rhododendrons, and native trees are in full bloom. Summer visitors will enjoy beds of colorful annuals and perennials. And any time of year, be sure to stroll through the Bonsai Pavilion, where you can see an amazing collection of Japanese and Chinese bonsai plants, some more than 400 years old. Bring along a picnic lunch and head to the spot where the original columns from the U.S. Capitol are located—you’ll never forget the view.
4155 Linnean Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA
Marjorie Merriweather Post was a wealthy American socialite and heiress to the Postum Cereal fortune. Her Washington home is now a museum, and the home’s original furnishings have been maintained alongside all the near-priceless collectibles that Marjorie amassed during her lifetime. Thanks to a curator friend who trained her eye to identify pieces worthy of collecting, Marjorie filled Hillwood with museum-quality pieces of furniture, works of art, Russian icons, rugs, and tapestries as well as fine porcelains, glassware, and jade carvings. The collection also includes two rare diamond-studded Fabergé eggs. Every inch of wall is decorated, and luxurious fabrics drape the windows. Some visitors might find it all a bit too ostentatious; others will think it simply exquisite. To say that Marjorie was an obsessive collector is an understatement, and the best way to take it all in is to go on the Mansion Tour. The gardens are as well dressed as the interiors; there are several interconnected garden “rooms,” and each is of a different style, such as French Parterre or Rose Garden. On nice days, you’ll see people picnicking on the grounds.
201 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20006, USA
The Art Museum of the Americas is supported by the Organization of the American States and has a permanent collection that focuses on contemporary Latin American and Caribbean art by both established and up-and-coming talents. Although it’s on the beaten tourist path and right near the White House, most visitors to D.C. don’t realize this small museum exists (look for the yellow wrought-iron sculpture near the entrance). The upside is that there are absolutely no crowds to contend with. The second-floor galleries are separated by a magnificent blue tiled loggia inspired by Aztec and Incan art, and there’s a small sculpture garden with a water fountain and a statue of Xochipili, the Aztec god of flowers.
4798 Western Ave NW, Bethesda, MD 20816, USA
As a licensed guide for Washington, D.C., I’ve often been asked what the oldest monument in the city is. Well, may I present to you one of 40 sandstone monuments, and also the oldest in the U.S. Dubbed the Boundary Stones, they were placed in 1791 and 1792 by surveyors Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker to mark the official boundaries of the newly formed capital. The stones run along the original diamond-shaped border at one-mile intervals. On one side, the stones are engraved with “Jurisdiction of the United States” and on the opposite either “Maryland” or “Virginia.” The other two sides bear the year the stone was placed and the compass variance. Although some have been lost, destroyed, replaced, or repositioned, history buffs have taken to finding the rest in the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. The stone pictured is at the northwest border of Washington and Maryland, next to a bus stop. To find the rest, visit the Boundary Stones website.
201 Allison St NW, Washington, DC 20011, USA
Since 1719, Rock Creek Cemetery has been a final resting place for notable Washingtonians and is the oldest colonial cemetery in D.C. It is marked with ornate gravestones and mausoleums, with the most prominent featuring a bronze statue of a shrouded figure known to many as “Grief.” Sculpted in 1891 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, it is the grave of historian (and descendant of U.S. Presidents John and John Quincy Adams) Henry Adams, who had it designed as a memorial for his socialite wife, “Clover” Adams. A favorite spot of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, visitors enjoy the contemplative space and admire its Buddhist-inspired design.
2118 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA
Built between 1902 and 1905 along the now-famous Embassy Row, this 50-room Beaux Arts mansion was the winter residence of Ambassador Larz Anderson III, a career American diplomat, and his wife Isabel Weld Perkins, an author, Red Cross volunteer, and nurse. They used the home to entertain D.C. and the world’s social and political elite. After Larz’s death in 1937, Isabel gave the house to the Society of the Cincinatti, an organization comprised of descendants of American Revolutionary War officers, of which Larz had been a faithful member. Since then, the house has served as the Society’s headquarters. Guided tours explore the first and second floors with the eclectic collection of fine and decorative arts primarily from their European and Asian travels (he was Ambassador to Belgium and Japan) and historic artifacts and relics commemorating the American Revolution and the Society.
1400 Quincy Street Northeast
Completed in 1899, this Byzantine and Romanesque-style church is a popular destination as a place for pilgrimage and worship for thousands of visitors to D.C. Run by the Order of St. Francis of Assisi (Franciscans), the monastery and its magnificent gardens house realistic replicas of shrines from the Holy Land and worldwide, which the Franciscans have cared for during the past 800 years. These include Christ’s tomb from the Church of the Holy Sepuchre, Tomb of the Virgin Mary, Chapel of the Ascension, the Grotto of Gethsemane, the Grotto of Lourdes, and the catacombs of Rome which house the remains of two saints brought from there, St. Benignus and St. Innocent.
1307 New Hampshire Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036, USA
Built from 1892 to 1894, this uniquely intact Victorian mansion was the home of German-American philanthropist and beer magnate Christian Heurich. Considered the world’s oldest brewmaster, he ran the Christian Heurich Brewery on the site where the Kennedy Center now stands—until his death in 1945 at the age of 102. At this museum, visitors can learn the story of one of D.C.'s most successful entrepreneurs and his family, his influence on America’s brewing industry, and the construction of his 31-room mansion. As D.C.'s first fireproof home (he had a fear of fire), it is replete with hand-carved wood, 15 fireplaces with individually carved mantles, hand-painted ceiling canvases, luxurious furnished rooms, original Heurich family heirlooms, a bierstube (“beer room”), elevator shaft, and gas and electric lighting fixtures.
1725 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036, USA
Few local D.C. residents know about St. Matthews Cathedral, and I would really be surprised if any visitors to D.C. knew about it, since it’s the National Cathedral that gets the mention in the guidebooks. That’s too bad, really, because this tiny Catholic church, with its unassuming exterior, has a glorious interior that few people see and appreciate. (Believe it or not, I get to come here for my Spanish classes.) Although it is a neighborhood church, it’s had its moments in the national spotlight. There have been many funeral services held here for notable people, including President Kennedy. For a cathedral, it has a very small interior—there are only seven chapels. The walls and ceiling are decorated with stunning images of angels and saints, including Matthew, rendered in marble and mosaic. The center dome helps to make the space feel larger. Last, but not least, there is a beautiful organ that is often featured in concerts and recitals; the sound of the music that pours forth from it is amazing! If you are visiting from out of town, I would recommend going to the church in the late morning. Then walk back toward the White House, stopping for lunch in McPherson Square. That’s where some of D.C.’s fleet of food trucks parks every day. Find a spot in the park to eat and enjoy your time in D.C.! The church is located about five blocks north of the White House and is a short walk from the Farragut North Metro station.
400 Michigan Ave NE, Washington, DC 20017, USA
Since its dedication in 1959, this Byzantine-Romanesque shrine to the Virgin Mary has welcomed over one million visitors a year, among them Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Mother Teresa. At more than 77,500 square feet, it is the largest Catholic church in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth-largest church in the world. Walking through the basilica, 70 ornate chapels, oratories, and sacred images like the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel flank the sides of the upper church and crypt, and the shrine’s gorgeous ceiling bears one of the largest and most intricate mosaic renderings of Jesus. Named “Christ in Majesty” (some have humorously nicknamed it “The Scary Christ” due to his stern look), it’s made up of over three million tiles.
1226 36th Street Northwest
Run up and down 10 times, and you’ll feel the burn! This is a favorite among Georgetown University athletes and the student body, especially on Halloween. Made famous by the 1973 horror classic written by Georgetown alum William Peter Blatty (class of 1950), the dark, narrow, 75 steps are part of the film’s climax (in which a Catholic priest rids himself of the devil by hurling himself out of a window and down the steeply sloped stairs to his death). As you make your way to the top, head to 3600 Prospect St. NW to see the the brick house where the film’s exorcism occurred.
1725 22nd St NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA
Tucked away in the Kalorama neighborhood is an urban oasis of steps and terraces connecting S Street and Decatur Place NW. Designed in the early 20th century during D.C.'s “City Beautiful” movement, the Spanish Steps vaguely resemble the original version in Rome, but the smaller scale and residential surroundings create an intimate, sheltered feeling. Like Rome, D.C.'s Spanish Steps are a neighborhood landmark and a natural gathering place with a romantic touch.
Washington DC is home to the Naval Observatory, the official source of time for the US military and by extension, the country. Computers, cellphones and cable TV boxes all have their clocks set to the time kept here. The observatory offers tours that take place after sunset so you can peer into the large telescope and see the twinkilng stars hanging high up in the sky and you can ask all the questions you want of the astronomers who will be guiding you around. Hands down, this is one of the best FREE tours in town! It is also one of the most difficult tours to sign up for as they fill up weeks in advance. The tours are only offered on select Mondays from 8:30pm to 10pm and they may be cancelled at any time. Reserve as early as you can!
Washington, DC 20008, USA
Located along M Street in the heart of Georgetown’s hustle and bustle is the oldest extant home in DC. Built by a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker/carpenter in 1765 using locally sourced rock, timber, and earth, the Old Stone House still retains its rugged stone appearance even after being threatened with demolition in the 1950’s. It was the urban legend that President Washington and city designer Pierre L’Enfant met here to plan the layout of DC that saved the building. Today, guests can tour the three-story structure to learn about its history and late 18th century colonial living in the DC area.
1644 31st St NW, Washington, DC 20007, USA
This 1816 neoclassical Georgetown neighborhood gem, once the home of Martha Custis Peter, a granddaughter of First Lady Martha Washington, stands as a microcosm of early American history and culture witnessed through the eyes of six generations of the prominent Peter family spanning 178 years. Guided tours take you inside, which have graced US Presidents, leading politicians, military leaders, and dignitaries, and feature over 15,000 objects from the mid-18th to late-20th centuries, among them the largest collection of George Washington’s personal items outside of Mount Vernon. Books, silver, ceramics, jewelry, paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs, manuscripts, furniture, glass, weapons, musical instruments, a 1919 Pierce-Arrow 48-B5 Roadster (the Peter family car), and one of only three surviving letters from George to Martha Washington can be viewed. Afterwards, explore the beautifully manicured 5.5 acre gardens, with Bowling Green, Boxwood Circle, Tennis Lawn, dining terrace, gazebo, open lawns, and various garden structures and spaces replete with flowering trees, roses, and English Boxwood.
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