Sure, properly exploring our capital requires a tour of the city’s best attractions, countless meals at the best restaurants in D.C. and weekends spent navigating the best local museums. But to truly experience D.C., you’ll have to look beneath the surface. From a church-themed bar to a magic shop tucked above a historic theater, these secret spots in D.C. are stuff of local legend. It’s finally time for you track them down.
Secret spots in DC
Petworth Citizen is a top notch, casual destination for any day of the week, serving both classic cocktails and revamped interpretations alongside a largely local beer list. You'll definitely want to get in the back area Reading Room on the weekends, when Chantal Tseng offers her tour de force Literary Cocktail sessions. Each week, she delivers an entire cocktail menu devoted to authors, books or literary subjects of her choosing.
What was once an underground streetcar station now serves as a public platform for visual, sound, performance and interdisciplinary art. Open only during scheduled events, the 75,000-square-foot space originally opened in 1949 and sat vacant for decades before a group of dedicated artists banded together to re-open it to the public.
The menu at this subterranean spot changes weekly and is drawn up (literally) by bar director Adam Bernbach, who also oversees the drink programs at Doi Moi, Estadio and Proof. Depending on the night, the elaborate doodles may spell out a tequila-based dark and stormy, Pimm’s Cup or punch du jour. The space is modern, eclectic and bright (considering it’s hidden underground), and the risqué bathrooms are plastered with vintage nudie pics.
This Bloomingdale gem is a serene secret kept by those in-the-know. You’ll find it down an alley and surrounded by private homes that are lucky enough to use it as their backyard. Given its off-the-radar location, the public park used to have a seedy reputation, but a group of concerned citizens in the neighborhood cleaned it up and planted a garden that now boasts beautiful foliage.
Okay, maybe the name gives it away. But it’s still not immediately obvious that there’s a hidden bar at this fast-casual restaurant on 14th Street. The storefront is a relaxed dining room where you can order South American-style chicken at the counter. Beyond a walk-in refrigerator door lies a sleek bar with inventive cocktails that hover around the $10 mark. Co-owned by a revered local DJ, the space also boasts turntables and a record collection that guests are encouraged to rifle through.
Tom Brown and head bartender Mick Perrigo partnered up to open Left Door, adding another worthy destination to the bustling 14th Street scene. Tucked away behind an unmarked door and up a staircase is the lounge space, likely filled with people looking for exciting cocktails, low key vibes and good conversation. The bar is somewhat reminiscent of a comfortable home parlor, just one that happens to be replete with vintage spirits and high-end ingredients from across the globe. The cocktail menu is updated frequently, offering a pleasant excuse to keep returning.
Technically a research division of the Agriculture Department, this 446-acre haven always has many more trees than people, even on its busiest days during the spring azalea season. Highlights include a boxwood collection, dwarf conifers, an Asian collection, a herb garden and “herbarium” of dried plants, as well as the National Bonsai Collection, which contains more than 200 trees donated by Japan and is said to be worth something in the order of $5 million. Also on display, somewhat incongruously, are 22 columns removed from the Capitol’s East Front during its 1958 expansion. See the website for details of tram tours, talks and other events such as garden fairs.
The Gibson has managed to maintain its popularity and place in the city’s cocktail culture for years. Behind the unmarked doors, a speakeasy-style operation offers a lengthy lineup of compelling seasonal cocktails covering a full spectrum of spirits and taste profiles, as well as a variety of old-time favorites.
Washington National Cathedral was built in 14th-century Gothic style, stone upon stone, without structural steel, an exercise that took most of the 20th century and was only finished in 1990. Its medievalism has been somewhat updated: there’s a gargoyle of Darth Vader in the north-west corner, while the much-admired stained-glass Space Window contains a piece of lunar rock. The top of the tower is the highest point in DC; there are great views from the observation gallery. The cathedral offers self-paced CD-based audio tours; alternatively, join one of various guided tours, which are held at regular intervals.
This vibrant community space is hiding in plain sight, at the end of a cul-de-sac in Southwest D.C. The massive, technicolor building is covered in psychedelic colors and was formerly the Friendship Baptist Church. Today, it’s comprised of 15,000 square feet covered in graffiti. It plays host to free yoga on Wednesdays as well as cultural, corporate and private events, including art shows, dinner parties and weddings, throughout the week.