An Off-the-Beaten-Path Guide to the Perfect Weekend around Washington DC

Just 15 minutes outside of DC, Great Falls National Park is a great place for adventure
Just 15 minutes outside of DC, Great Falls National Park is a great place for adventure Geoff Livingston
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Washington, D.C. may be known as a buttoned-up town buzzing with politicians, policymakers, and partners from white-shoe law firms. But take a step away from the suit-and-tie clad crowd of Capitol Hill and K Street and you’ll find a thriving population of weekend warriors who revel in all of the natural nooks and crannies of our nation’s capital and its surrounding area.

Here’s a peek at some of those scenic spots, plus paces to fill up, unwind, and rest your legs once all is said and done.

Where to Get Caffeinated

Filter is a great place for weekend warriors to get their caffeine fix before a day of DC adventure Travis Estell

Whether it’s a pour-over that perks you up or you’re feigning for a flat white, D.C. has plenty of options for that perfect cup of caffeine (or decaf, if that’s more your speed).

If an exquisitely executed milk foam fleur-de-lis floats your boat, head on over to Filter Coffeehouse and espresso bar. This inconspicuous café—tucked in to the basement of a brick rowhouse in Dupont Circle—serves up a well-edited selection of roasts from Ceremony Coffee in Annapolis, MD. Known for its single-origin pour-overs, Filter also serves up a mean mocha made with organic chocolate. In the Brookland area? Check out Filter’s brand-spanking new location. Part of  The Bike Rack bike shop, this spokes-meets-Joe partnership is totally unique in DC.

If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’d be remiss to skip a trip to the cheekily-named Baked & Wired in Georgetown, offering the most decadent combo of cupcakes and coffee. Choose from a rotating selection of well known filter-brewed coffees (think: Portland’s Stumptown and Michigan’s Madcap), then pair it with a little bite of heaven—AKA any one of this shop’s small-batch baked goods. For a one-two punch of sweet and salty, go for the Elvis Impersonator, a banana cupcake topped with peanut butter frosting and drizzled with chocolate (ask for it “porked” and you’ll get candied bacon sprinkled on top), only available on the weekends.

For a pick-me-up with a view, snag a seat on the Parisian-style terrace at Café Du Parc, part of the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. Enjoy your coffee and pastry en plein air as you sit just a stone’s throw from the White House and within view of Freedom Plaza. From your perch on Pennsylvania Avenue, you’ll have access to people watching at its finest.

If you don’t have time to languish over your latte, grab a quick cup at La Colombe, just for the sake of sipping from coffee brewed by its Steampunk, a $15,000 machine said to produce a more flavorful—and less fussy—cup. Or pop into Peregrine Espresso, which has earned nods as one of the best boutique coffee houses in the nation.

Where to Hit the Trail

Exploring Rock Creek Park—the oldest and largest urban wilderness park in the country Sarah Flynn

You don’t need to venture far from DC proper to jettison the urban environs and become absorbed with nature. If you want to stay within the city limits, you can hit up Rock Creek Park, a 32-mile trail system which weaves its way through the woods of Washington and on to Montgomery County, MD. The oldest and largest urban park in the national park system, Rock Creek is currently celebrating its quasquicentennial (that’s 125 years), and will offer events throughout the summer and fall to mark its lasting legacy.

If you’re coming from downtown, pick up the trail at any number of access points, including the Melvin Hazel Tributary Trailhead (Sedgwick Street and Connecticut Avenue, NW), accessible by the Cleveland Park Metro on the red line. Or start at the park’s nature center (5200 Glover Road, NW), and plan the timing of your hike around a ranger-led astronomy program at the adjacent planetarium—the only one of its kind in the National Park System. (Saturdays and Sundays at 1 and 4 p.m.)

Further south of downtown, in Arlington, VA, you can spend a long time exploring Potomac Overlook Regional Park. Once a working farm that supplied produce to DC, today this sprawling 70-acre swath of woodlands is carved into several trails featuring stream crossings, small bridges, and, true to its moniker, lovely views of the Potomac below. As you hike, look out for coyote, deer, woodpeckers, and osprey—all of which call this park home.

Seeking some Zen? Head to Kenilworth Park and Gardens in northeast DC for a peaceful stroll around its historic ponds, where larger-than-life lotus flowers and water lilies bloom in the summer. (Visiting in the morning? Join a ranger-guided pond tour held on the weekends at 10am from April through August.) For a more rugged view of the park, turn on to the River Trail, which takes you through the woods on a path sandwiched between a marsh and the Anacostia River. What’s that noise? That’s the sound of you, completely relaxed. Ahhh.

Where to Go Climbing

Climbing on the Virginia side of Great Falls National Park Brian Jeffery Beggerly

When it comes to climbing within the vicinity of DC, Carderock is the place to be. Thanks to an easy-to-get-to location right off the Capital Beltway and scads of parking, this small cliff band lofted high over the east bank of the Potomac River is a no-brainer destination for weekend (and newbie) climbers. Here you’ll find dozens of clean, well-established routes of varying difficulty, plus killer views from the top: Some climbs will take you more than 60 feet up, offering sweeping vistas of the Potomac and beyond as a much-deserved reward after your climb.

Great Falls National Park on the Virginia side of the Potomac River is another magnet for D.C.-based climbers. Like Carderock, you can’t beat its convenience: After a quick, 15-minute drive west from the city and a short walk from the visitor’s center parking lot, you’ll find yourself in the shadows of nearly a dozen cliffs lining the Potomac along River Trail. Among those? Microdome, a 40-foot face with several routes. (Tip: Hit this spot in the early afternoon, while it’s still under a nice cover of shade.) Walk another mile downstream to hit up Echo Rock, which stretches for more than 1,200 feet and rises 70 feet.

If you want to eschew the ropes and harnesses all together, find local bouldering’s at its best in the Northwest Branch trail system. Located about 10 miles from downtown and just off the inner loop of the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring, MD, you can access some 90 problems just off the trail in this bouldering area, most of which are within a five minute walk from the parking lot on Route 29 (conveniently located near a shopping center with a Trader Joe’s and Starbucks). Here you’ll find a variety pack of problems with both hard grades and simpler climbs for beginners. Just be careful if you find yourself crossing the stream that runs through the woods as the rocks are super-slippery.

Where to Paddle

Stand up paddleboarders on the Potomac Alan Kotok

If you’re looking to spend some time on the water, paddle no farther than the Potomac River, which offers an extensive area to explore D.C. by boat.

A good place to start is Thompson Boathouse, where you can rent kayaks and canoe for $16.50 per hour ($22 for doubles), then launch you vessel right there into the Potomac.

Head north and paddle past the sun-seekers on the Georgetown waterfront (give ‘em a wave if you’re so bold) before continuing on, getting a rare from-the-water view of iconic DC sites like the Watergate building, the Kennedy Center, the Washington Monument, and the Pentagon.

Or, begin at Fletcher’s Boathouse, where you can rent a kayak, canoe, or rowboat. From there, row your way to Fletcher’s Cove, taking in the serene surroundings of this portion of the Potomac, exploring wooded alcoves and spotting turtles, fish and birds. (And try to keep your cool if you see a snake swimming by…it happens. )

For those who’d rather stand up paddle, Paddlesort SUP offers rentals and lessons with groups heading out on to the Potomac from Angler’s Lot in Potomac, MD.

Where to Unwind

Evan Cooper

Historically, DC has never been much of a superstar on the food front compared to other major cities. But in recent years, innovative chefs and savvy business developers have stepped in and revamped the restaurant scene here. And in a city often divided by political beliefs, there’s no doubt everyone can agree that D.C.’s food scene is booming—no matter which side of the aisle you’re on.

For a full-on foodie experience, make a reservation at Minibar in Penn Quarter. The much celebrated avant garde restaurant—the brainchild of Spanish chef José Andrés—offers a whimsical and downright out-of-this-world menu. If you’ve ever wanted to eat a salad out of the cup of a fried pig’s ear or taste cotton candy eel, this is your place. (Just plan in advance, as reservations are tough to come by, and the restaurant is closed on Sundays.)

Looking for something more down-to-earth? Make your way down to the Georgetown waterfront and check out the newly-opened Orange Anchor. The summer game is strong here: There are 30 types of rum, beer is served in Koozies, and if you make it there for Friday’s happy hour, you can slurp down all of the oysters you want for just $1 a pop.

For a late-night bite, head to GBD in Dupont and order up any kind of comfort food you’re craving. An acronym for “golden brown and delicious,” you’ll find just that at this cozy-cool spot. The buttermilk fried chicken is a must-try, while the baked-on-site brioche doughnuts, in flavors like Nutella and butterscotch pudding, are sure to end your night on a sweet note. (Open until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday; kitchen closes at 1 a.m.)

Where to Get a Good Night’s Rest

The Hotel George near Capitol Hill NCinDC

There’s definitely no dearth of hotels in DC, but if you’re looking for a vibe that’s more hipster than Holiday Inn, a boutique is your best bet.

Kimpton has a stronghold on the boutique scene, with nine charming hotels sprinkled throughout the District. The newly renovated George near Union Station on Capitol Hill is one its swankiest spots, with rooms featuring playful modern art depicting its namesake, George Washington. (All Kimpton properties evening wine hour, loaner bikes, and their signature animal print robe, so don’t hesitate to take advantage.)

For a nice, comfortable stay without the bells and whistles, peruse sites like AirBNB or VRBO for options. We found this bright and airy gem of an apartment dubbed as an “urban treehouse” in the desirable Columbia Heights Neighborhood for just $130 per night.

And if you really want to get away from it all? Tuck yourself in to a treehouse at the Maple Tree Campground in Rohrersville, Maryland (about 60 miles from downtown DC). Check into your very own tree cottage lofted 8-feet in the air, complete with king-size mattresses and a table and chairs, then fall asleep as the crickets chirp and the wind rustles the branches surrounding you.

Wherever you rest your head, one thing’s for sure: With so much to cover in this city, you’ll definitely be ready for a solid night’s sleep.

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