18 Hidden Gems in Washington, DC
Our Nation’s Capital draws tourists from around the globe to visit attractions such as the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. While these famous sites should definitely be on your Washington, DC itinerary, don’t let them eclipse the less-famous, yet equally-intriguing attractions you can find along the way. Here are 18 of our favorite Washington, DC hidden gems to explore while you’re here.
This 15-foot giant blue rooster is a sight to behold! Originally commissioned for the City of London, it was acquired by the Glenstone Museum in Potomac, MD, who has loaned it to the National Gallery of Art. The sculpture currently sits atop the Gallery’s terrace. This goofy DC hidden gem is a perfect pit stop as you explore the areas in and around our Nation’s Capital.
2. Smokey the Bear’s Office at the Forest Service Headquarters
Only YOU can prevent forest fires. But did you know you can also visit Smokey Bear’s office, located in the lodge at the U.S. Forest Service Headquarters? It’s a fun little spot to check out interactive forest service maps, enjoy the sounds of nature in an indoor mini-forest, and of course receive a classic greeting from Smokey Bear himself.
3. Constitution Gardens
A less well known park is Constitution Gardens, which includes 50 acres of land surrounding a beautiful pond. In the center of that pond you’ll find Signers Island – home of a memorial to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. The park was created for the 1976 bicentennial, and remains an oasis of serene views, wildlife, and winding paths to stroll as you enjoy this lovely DC gem.
4. MLK Jr. Time Capsule
Buried beneath Freedom Plaza, and marked with an engraving in the stone, is the MLK Jr. time capsule. Set to be opened in 2088 the capsule includes a bible and a robe, among other items, which belonged to Dr. King. Throughout the plaza you’ll find quotes about DC from historical figures such as Mark Twain, George Washington, and James Bryce, all engraved in the stamped concrete of the Plaza.
5. National Museum of the Marine Corps
Under the command of Marine Corps University, and adjacent to the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, is the National Museum of the Marine Corps. It might not get the same amount of press as the museums on The Mall, but that doesn’t make it any less of a gem. The Museum is the result of a private-public partnership between the USMC and the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. It’s filled with interactive exhibits and artifacts designed to truly immerse visitors in Marine Corps History.
6. East Potomac Mini Golf
Who knew that a mini golf course would be on the National Register of Historic Places? Not only is the Mini Golf Park at East Potomac Golf Course the oldest miniature golf course in the country, but it’s the only mini golf course left in DC proper. Its classic 18-hole design remains largely unchanged since its inception in 1931, making it one of the oldest attractions on our list of hidden gems in Washington, DC
7. The Municipal Fish Market
Opened in 1805, The Municipal Fish Market at the Wharf is another historic hidden gem of DC, and is said to be the oldest, continuously operating open-air fish market in the U.S. Stuffed to the gills with seafood vendors selling both cooked and raw local seafood, you can’t go wrong here. Enjoy Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs, oysters, shrimp, and fresh-caught fish while taking in some of the most spectacular views our Nation’s Capital has to offer.
8. Georgetown Waterfront Park
If you’re looking for a true gem, don’t miss Georgetown Waterfront Park. Located along the banks of the Potomac, the park boasts a labyrinth perfect for a quiet contemplative stroll, gardens full of native flowering plants intended to help keep local pollinator populations strong, and a set of granite river steps connecting the riverfront promenade to the water’s edge.
9. Ben’s Chili Bowl
A delicious Washington DC institution, and a true (not so hidden) DC gem, can be found on U Street. Ben and Virginia Ali bought the former Minnehaha Theater building in 1958 and turned it into their restaurant – Ben’s Chili Bowl – which has come to provide so much more than just food to the local community. After you grab a half smoke – topped with Ben’s famous chili sauce, of course – step outside to peek at what has become another beloved DC gem in recent years: Ben’s Chili Bowl Mural, depicting influential African Americans, many with ties to the District.
10. Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens
Marjorie Merriweather Post, daughter of Post Cereal founder, Charles Post, fell in love with the art of interior design as she furnished her elegant home in New York. Upon moving to DC and purchasing Hillwood Estate in 1955, she decided she would turn it into a museum. Her goal was to both inspire and educate the public by sharing her beloved collection of Russian and French art as well as her beautifully landscaped grounds. If you’re looking for a DC hidden gem that includes a little bit of history, you’ll love Hillwood Estate.
11. Culture House
While it’s brightly colored exterior precludes the Culture House from being a hidden Washington, DC gem, it’s a gem nonetheless. Friendship Baptist Church was built in 1886 and later given its Technicolor makeover by artist Alex Brewer. A few years back, the entire building was reimagined and the Culture House was born. It is now home to art of all kinds and welcomes artists from around the globe. Within the Avant Garden outdoor space you’ll find more art, including one of the largest outdoor murals in DC. Check their website for details about current exhibits and upcoming events.
12. Gravelly Point
Formerly known as Abingdon, this estate was purchased by members of George Washington’s family in 1778. In fact, this is where Washington’s beloved granddaughter, Eleanor, was born in 1779. The estate was home to many well-known families until 1930, when it was destroyed by a fire. In 1998 the land was purchased by the Washington Metro Airports Authority and converted into a park. Today, Gravelly Point’s main attraction is the view of airplanes as they come and go from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), which is just a few feet away.
13. U.S. National Arboretum
The U.S. National Arboretum was established by Congress in 1927 and has become a serene urban sanctuary full of unique plant collections in a natural setting. Today it’s home to roughly fifteen gardens and collections such as the Capital Columns, Friendship Garden, and the National Grove of State Trees. This natural museum provides the opportunity to unwind (and, of course, learn something new) as you meander through the 466 acres of garden space.
14. Spanish Steps
Decatur Terrace, informally known as the Spanish Steps, was originally built in 1911. The goal of this staircase was to make it easier for residents to descend the steep hill between S Street and Decatur Place. Today, this unique set of stairs (located on 22nd St. SW) is a gem and neighborhood landmark all in one, making it a great stop on your tour of Washington, DC hidden gems. Snap a selfie, enjoy a bite to eat, and take in the historic scenery before you continue on your way.
15. National Capital Trolley Museum
Experience the sights and sounds of the trolley era at the National Capital Trolley Museum. Full of exhibits, interactive programs, and even the chance to ride through the woods on a street car from the trolley era, this hidden Washington, DC gem is a must for the entire family.
16. DuPont Underground
Located – as you may have guessed – below DuPont Circle, DuPont Underground is a non-profit whose goal is to provide a platform for all disciplines of creative expression. Originally a trolley station, and later a fallout shelter and food court, this underground space now houses various art exhibits throughout the year. Since they’re only open when there is an event occurring, it’s best to visit their website for an up-to-date listing of current happenings before visiting.
17. National Inventors Hall of Fame
With a goal to inspire emerging creators and honor the history of innovation, the National Inventors Hall of Fame offers unique learning opportunities and interactive exhibits for the entire family. Check out the Gallery of Icons or the Intellectual Property Power exhibit to get started. What’s more,they offer STEM programs for students of all ages, making this hidden DC gem so much more than just a single-day experience.
Who knew a nearly 20-foot chair-shaped sculpture would mean so much to so many residents? While it may not be one of the most hidden places in Washington, DC, Chair is definitely a gem! Chair was originally built out of mahogany and erected in 1959, but years of wear and tear meant a refresh was in order. The sculpture was rebuilt out of aluminum and reinstalled in 2006. This unique piece of art is a landmark that holds a special place in the hearts of area residents. You have to see the sculpture for yourself to truly grasp its magnificence, so visit this DC gem to see what the fuss is all about!
Book Your Reservations Near Washington, DC
The Hotel at University of Maryland offers easy access to all of DC, even those attractions that are off the beaten path. Our luxurious accommodations provide the perfect place to relax and recharge after a day of visiting any (or all!) of these Washington, DC hidden gems. In fact, our Monumental DC Package even includes two SmartTrip Metro Cards to get your adventures started. Contact us today to book your stay!