Out of Town - Weekending in Washington, D.C.

If Washington, D.C., has any drawback for weekend visitors, it’s that it has far too many museums, monuments, and attractions to visit in just two or three days. Furthermore, this progressive metropolis has developed an impressive array of cosmopolitan restaurants, festive gay bars, and hip hotels in recent years. There’s a lot to see and do, but if your time in town is limited, don’t fret - with a little planning and plenty of stamina, you can enjoy a wonderfully engaging and enriching weekend in the national capital.

Your first night in town, consider grabbing a light dinner in Dupont Circle, and then perhaps exploring a few of the neighborhood’s extensive gay-nightlife options. P Street due west of Dupont Circle cultivates an interesting mix of eateries - one of the best is Pizzeria Paradisio, which bakes tantalizingly good wood-fired pies. Or just off busy 17th Street, another stretch of popular if less critically acclaimed restaurants, you can tuck into such down-home fare as Old Bay-seasoned peel ‘n’ eat shrimp and tangy barbecued oysters at Hank’s Oyster Bar, one of the culinary stars of the city.

A few of the many notable spots for Friday bar-hopping including J.R.’s, a classic stand-and-model video bar on 17th Street, and its multi-level down-the-street neighbor, Cobalt. Over near P Street, Omega is the grandpa of Dupont Circle gay clubs - a racially diverse disco and lounge that packs in crowds into the wee hours.

On Saturday morning, preface a day of sightseeing by enjoying a light breakfast at the Dupont Circle branch of the local Firehook Bakery and Coffeehouse chain. Or for a more substantial brunch, try the cafe at the long-running indie bookstore, Kramerbooks & Afterwards - the Maine lobster omelet topped with lemon hollandaise sauce is a real crowd-pleaser.

When it comes to cultural attractions, Washington is an embarrassment of riches - there may be no other city in the nation with a greater number of daytime diversions. Among the possibilities along the city’s National Mall, try to check out a few of the Smithsonian Institution museums. Highlights include the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the National Portrait Gallery. Also set aside time to see the moving U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which distributes a pamphlet, “Homosexuals,” that details the persecution of gays and lesbians in Nazi-occupied Europe; there are also gay video testimonies in the museum’s library.

If you’re an art lover, don’t miss the city’s largest non-federal museum, the Beaux-Arts-style Corcoran Gallery of Art, which contains more than 11,000 works of art. Its emphasis is on late-19th- and early 20th-century European painting, American painting and portraiture, and photography. The Corcoran has an excellent little cafe, perfect for grabbing a light lunch to break up your explorations. Several blocks north of the Mall, in Old Downtown, is the outstanding National Museum of Women in the Arts. The permanent collection includes works by the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, and Berenice Abbott, and quite a few excellent rotating installations keep this facility fresh and exciting.

In the evening, head to the city’s exciting and constantly evolving U Street corridor, a 10-minute walk northeast of Dupont Circle. A number of hip restaurants have opened in this neighborhood in recent years. Start off at Cork Wine Bar, a spacious haunt drawing a trendy crowd for mostly Italian, Spanish, and French wines by the glass and bottle, and light tapas (a full selection of entrees are available, in case you’d rather just dine here for the evening). For nibbles, consider the avocado served with pistachios, toasted-pistachio oil, sea salt, and grilled bread.

Next, stroll a few blocks north to Marvin, an elegant but relaxed Belgian bistro with an innovative Low Country Carolina spin. Don’t miss such memorable starters as Southern-inspired shrimp-and-grits, or Belgian-style moules frites with shallots, fennel, and white wine. Country-fried chicken with waffles, and braised pork shank with French green lentils rank among the top main courses.

From here you’re within walking distance of some of the city’s hottest gay bars, among them Be Bar, a dark and urbane spot with a small but packed dance floor and a mixed-gender following; Halo, a cool and colorful bi-level lounge that’s especially popular earlier in the night; and Nellie’s Sports Bar, a modern and stylish take on a classic sports bar that pulls in a mix of women and men. Serious revelers should finish the night at Town, a late-night gay disco that’s slightly off the beaten path (you might want to cab it here) - this bustling warehouse club is open till 4 a.m.

Having spent Saturday touring museums, set aside Sunday for a more relaxing, outdoorsy exploration of some of the city’s charming neighborhoods, where lively shops and “family”-friendly cafes proliferate. Begin in the morning by walking north from Dupont Circle up to the artsy and international Adams-Morgan neighborhood, which is home to a mix of West African, Asian, and Latino restaurants and residential enclaves. Have brunch at gay-popular Perry’s, an Asian-influenced modern American restaurant with a commendable sushi bar - the acclaimed Sunday drag brunch is a delightful experience if you don’t mind a towering drag queen plopping down on your lap and scrambling your eggs to the disco remix of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

Head back to Dupont Circle for a leisurely tour of the neighborhood, which has been one of the nation’s most gay-identified enclaves for more than four decades, although it’s becoming increasingly more eclectic each year. The area possesses a wealth of open spaces, parks, statuary, and grand 19th-century architecture. You’ll find quirky and engaging shops and eateries on virtually all of the major streets fanning out from the Dupont traffic circle.

In case you still have the energy to tour one more museum, consider stopping by the neighborhood’s top cultural attraction, the stunning Phillips Collection. The first permanent museum of modern art in the nation, the Phillips contains many works by Georges Braque, Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, and Henri Matisse, as well as creations by such gay artists as David Hockney, Thomas Eakins, and Marsden Hartley.

To the west of Dupont Circle, across Rock Creek, is the upscale neighborhood of Georgetown, an excellent place to spend a few hours shopping on a Sunday afternoon. Head to the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue to find Georgetown’s retail pulse.

On Sunday evening, head to another of the city’s engaging and gay-popular neighborhoods, Capitol Hill, which has a handful of excellent options for dinner. At the upscale restaurant Sonoma, you can dine on superbly crafted contemporary American fare and with pairings from a dazzling wine list. A sure bet for both excellent food (of the Latin American variety) and lively cabaret is the Banana Cafe, a colorfully decorated spot with a crowd completely diverse in age, gender, and style.

The Capitol Hill pub Mr. Henry’s, with one of the best (antique) jukeboxes in town, is a great place to meet or make friends, and nosh on casual American fare. Upstairs is a smoke‑free cabaret where talented vocalist Roberta Flack got her start. Nearby, fans of country-western dancing flock to the gay bar Remingtons, and the popular lesbian bar Phase One has been the cornerstone of D.C.’s women’s scene since 1970 - there’s live music here many evenings.

In terms of where to stay during your D.C. weekend, Dupont Circle is a great lodging base, as it’s rife with hip and gay-friendly hotels, and it’s close to just about all of the noteworthy sections of the city. With a great location in the heart of the neighborhood, the stylish Renaissance M Street Hotel has sleek, modern rooms with a high-tech amenities and super-cushy linens. This is a great choice for art lovers, as the hotel regularly teams up with the Corcoran Gallery of Art to offer special deals that include admission to the museum’s latest exhibit (through late January 2009, it’s a Richard Avedon photography show), a walking map of the city, an artful in-room goodie bag, breakfast for two in the hotel’s M Bar, and preferred room rates.

Part of the gay-friendly Kimpton Group, the Hotel Palomar occupies a striking mid-rise along P Street’s restaurant row. The 335 units are among the largest guest accommodations in the city, and tall windows let in plenty of sunshine - Frette linens, upholstered headboards, marble bathrooms, and faux-alabaster nightstands lend a sophisticated, stylish vibe. A complimentary wine reception each evening, an outdoor lap pool, and an outstanding Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, Urbana, round out the many fine amenities.

Kimpton has several other great hotels in Washington (as well as a few cool properties just across the border in the northern Virginia cities of Alexandria and Arlington). Another highlight not far from Dupont Circle is the dashing Hotel Rouge, which sits just off classy Embassy Row, an easy walk from gay nightlife on R Street. It contains 137 spacious rooms bathed in reds and yellows and a swanky lounge serving such memorable cocktails as the Madonna (Cuervo, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, and fresh orange and lime juices). It’s a fine spot to kick off an evening of exploring either the bars of Dupont Circle, or the growing scene a few blocks away in the U Street Corridor.
The Little Black Book:
Banana Cafe 202-543‑5906/www.bananacafedc.com
Be Bar 202-232-7450/www.bebardc.com
Cobalt 202-232-4416/www.cobaltdc.com
Honor Mansion www.honormansion.com
Cork Wine Bar 202-265-CORK/www.corkdc.com
Firehook Bakery and Coffeehouse 202-588-9296 www.firehook.com
Halo 202-797-9730/www.halodc.com
Hank’s Oyster Bar 202-462-4265/www.hanksdc.com
Hotel Palomar 202-448-1800 or 877-866-3070 www.hotelpalomar-dc.com
Hotel Rouge 202-232-8000 or 800-738-1202 www.rougehotel.com
J.R.’s 202-328‑0090/www.jrswdc.com
Kramerbooks & Afterwards 202-387-1400 www.kramers.com
Marvin 202-797-7171/www.marvindc.com
Mr. Henry’s 202-546‑8412/www.mrhenrysrestaurant.com
Nellie’s Sports Bar 202-332-6355 www.nelliessportsbar.com
Omega 202-223‑4917/www.omegadc.com
Perry’s 202-234‑6218/www.perrysadamsmorgan.com
Phase One 202-544-6831/www.phase1dc.com
Pizzeria Paradiso 202-223‑1245/www.eatyourpizza.com
Remington’s 202-543‑3113/www.remingtonswdc.com
Renaissance M Street Hotel 888-803-1298
Sonoma 202-333-2912/www.sonomadc.com
Town 202-234-TOWN/www.towndc.com
Washington DC Convention and Visitors Association

Andrew Collins is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA and eight additional travel guides. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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