WASHINGTON — A travel bug recently nestled itself into my consciousness with a specific appetite for affordable, easy-to-get-to weekend trips to destinations on the Eastern seaboard. I’d indulged that little guy a few weeks ago with a jaunt up to Boston, land of my college existence and my first “big girl” job out of school. But this is the story about one place and one place only, one of this nation’s best-kept vacation secrets, Washington, D.C.
I’d heard the perfunctory, “It’s a great city” from friends and family and wanted to see for myself what this metropolis had to offer a long-weekend visitor. And what better time to head down to the resident city of all of the country’s political leaders than President’s Day weekend?
My first step was figuring out the logistics of my transportation. I wanted to travel quickly and, I hoped, as inexpensively as possible. I’d been a sporadic Bolt Bus rider for a little less than a year and began checking the website regularly for tickets. This was no more than a month before my departure, but the following notification loaded after searching for itineraries leaving on the Thursday before President’s Day weekend: “Bolt Bus schedules for the date you have selected are not available at this time on our system. We try to keep 4 to 6 weeks of schedules available at all times.”
But that was an empty promise. So I bided my time, strived for a bit of patience, and when the dates finally were available I immediately booked for one reason and one reason only: I had managed to secure the highly coveted, ultra elusive, $1 Bolt Bus fare. All was forgiven.
We arrived no more than 10 minutes past the estimated time and I was plopped in the middle of Union Station. And then I realized I’d never traveled to this city alone and didn’t know anything about the public transportation system. Poor planning on my part. Or was it?
A Metro system of a different color
At 25 years old and with fairly extensive foreign travel experience, I think I have a strong navigational grasp. But this was a true test of “am I an autonomous fly-by-the-seat of my pants gal who could wing it and stay calm and alert before broadcasting that I might be a pickpocket’s dream target?” Gumption kicked in and I wandered around the low-ceilinged but clean and friendly Union Station, D.C.’s equivalent to New York’s Penn Station, only it was a fraction of the size and no one seemed to be in that much of a rush.
After finding the Metro station and getting some cryptic instructions from the friend I’d be staying with about taking the red line toward Glenmont but getting off at Silver Spring, I faced a piece of machinery that I don’t think Steve Jobs could’ve figured out how to use. Bewildered by what seemed like an archaic piece of equipment, I stared blank-faced and completely stumped on how to obtain a ticket for the train or what the cost of a ride might be. Ha, joke was on me because as it turns out you pay by distance and not per ride. This was a bizarre system for a New Yorker who’d only ever lived in Boston, where we ride for $2.50 and $1.75 a trip, respectively.
A kind soul took pity on me, and in the gentlest way possible got me a ticket for what she believed to be the approximate amount of money for my stop. I thanked her and headed through the gate, scanning my paper ticket. Safely on the platform, I tried to decode the digital updates, which made no sense. Time of arrival I understood, but the number of cars on each train? I still can’t figure out why that’s relevant. For anyone. As I tried not to stare and advertise the fact that I was indeed a tourist, the same sweet stranger who had helped me purchase my ticket caught up with me to “make sure I got on the right train.” Hello, kindness! So good to see you crop up in the least expected of situations. This gorgeous woman must’ve taken pity on my ragged appearance (I was sporting a red Jansport that I used to rock in high school, embracing the whole “traveler” style of luggage and all). Right then and there, I dubbed this a friendly and helpful city.
But I was out of my element. The people and the whole vibe in the metro station were “off.” The metro felt futuristic but in an old school way, similar to the subterranean train systems in Brussels or Prague. There was carpeting in the train cars and the seats were made of fabric. I couldn’t help but let the thought of bed bugs and unsanitary and unsavory thingamabobs fill my mind as I counted the stations rush past as the train barreled toward Maryland.
Piece of cake, or pizza
Finally reunited with my college friend after a day of traveling, a low-key night was in order. The New Yorker in me was craving pizza for some odd reason since I’d just left the land of all that is holy when it came to the Italian street food. We ordered a delicious wonderment of woodsy goodness, appropriately called the Edge of the Woods pizza from Pete’s Apizza. While overpriced at $24.95 for a large, the combination of sauteed savoy spinach, caramelized onions, Ricotta cheese and fried Italian eggplant was divine. And lasted for at least three to four meals/snacks between the two of us that weekend. Craving = satiated.
Animals, for free!
The next day we ventured out in the early afternoon to the zoo, but this is not just any zoo. It’s the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, the official zoo of this fine country. And shock of all shocks, it’s free. That’s right, no entrance fee. No gates, even. You just walk right in and can walk right out at your leisure. It’s really a marvel coming from a six-year stint in the land of cover fees to go to even the lamest bars (I’m talking to you Boston) and the city that never sleeps, where the rents are high and the groceries even higher. The weather was mild, in the low 50s and partially sunny. It was a pleasant, short walk from the Mount Pleasant neighborhood to the zoo, and every staff member was knowledgable, answering questions even when we didn’t ask. They even let their elephant go on independent walks on a serene, enclosed path uphill through the woods, I kid you not. I don’t know who was more enthralled by this slow-moving spectacle, my friend Alyson St. Amand and I well into our 20s or the toddlers at the zoo that day.
Fairly empty for a random Friday in February, the zoo was a playground for silly picture taking and getting the best views of the pandas, monkeys, and scary creepy crawly creatures in the reptile house. Worth a visit if you’re in the D.C. area.
Heading to Tryst for a late lunch was the perfect way to end a day outdoors. Everything about this Adams Morgan neighborhood food destination was pretty amazing. It had a low-key vibe and lots of telecommuters typing away on their laptops, sipping their coffee like it was an IV filled with creativity. Tapping in to my Arab roots, we ordered the Lebneh dip as an appetizer. The Tryst menu describes it pretty well, “A Lebanese tangy yogurt served with za’atar—a blend of oregano and thyme—olives and lavash.” This strained yogurt is thick like cream cheese, but has a more savory taste profile. It tasted truly authentic, like having Sunday morning breakfast with my parents.
I ordered the Rodney sandwich, overflowing with flavorful and tangy curried chicken salad, lettuce and tomato on toasted multigrain bread slices that were dotted with sunflower seeds on the edges. Toasty and comforting only begins to capture the essence of the sandwich, and the textures and flavors were all delivering the perfect lunch experience. I paired my meal with a cocktail they call a “Peach and a 1/2,” made with Tito’s organic vodka, Dolin Blanc, fresh orange and peach bitters. I was satiated and relaxed thanks to the coffeehouse-style decor of cluttered mismatched tables, chairs and couches in a long room with a pastry and coffee counter on one side of the large dining area.
Not being able to resist dessert despite my jeans trying to resist staying closed, I indulged in the strawberries with warm Nutella for dipping. I’ve been a sucker for that hazelnutty chocolate goodness since my summers living in Frankfurt, Germany. With an iced latte to go, Tryst sent me off in delicious style.
Hike it off
In the true spirit of shaking things up, I jumped at the chance to go hiking. Not too many good trails in Manhattan. Plus, after that indulgent meal at Tryst, what better way to burn calories than in the gorgeous, albeit brisk, D.C. outdoors? We headed out in the early Saturday morning hours to Rock Creek Park, a lengthy forest-like expanse for hiking, biking, and in some parts, horseback riding. During two hours of aimless meandering up and down the trails, we barely saw any fellow mountaineers. But we did stumble upon the creek and the horse stable, where they let us pet a gorgeous brown-haired mare. Channeling my inner five-year-old I embraced the moment, jumping up and down like a pre-teen being told she was literally getting a pony for her birthday.
To the hill, Capitol Hill
Next up on the agenda was a visit to the world’s largest library with more than 151.8 million “literary items” on about 838 miles of bookshelves. Sigh. A writing and reading maven’s dream come true. The free iconic landmark I needed to visit was, of course, the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. Ornamented with stained glass windows and gold-trimmed crown molding, the central foyer was a feast for the senses. Colors of light swam fancy-free throughout the building and the Roman-serifed typeface of infamous literary quotes dotted the walls. One of the highlights of the visit was standing in the middle of an exact recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s actual library, a circular glass encasement of leather-bound classics organized in the most intriguing way.
Right across the street is The Capitol, one of many great photo opps on the National Mall. The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial stands sentient over a large pool of water, facing west toward the Washington Monument, and well past that, the Lincoln Memorial. Fun fact: it’s the second-largest equestrian statue in the United States. Who knew?
The National Mall is a veritable treasure trove for anyone seeking art and culture, flanked on either side by countless national museums and galleries. Being late in the afternoon on a Saturday, many of the museums were getting ready to close (all free with the exception of the Newseum, which I’m dying to visit). Luckily, thanks to the outdoor Hirshorn Sculpture Garden outside of the Hirshorn Museum, I got to indulge my art craving without concern for closing times.
A little Spain in my mouth
Never one to turn down an invitation for tapas, we headed to Churreria Madrid in Adams Morgan, a restaurant, bar and tapas hole-in-the-wall. It legitimately looked like a rundown building that formerly housed a mediocre deli, but like Aladdin it was a true diamond in the rough. Authentic and completely unpretentious, this Spanish restaurant was inviting and warm–literally and figuratively. Upon walking in I was greeted in Spanish, which didn’t cease the entire night. I don’t know what it is about me that makes people think I’m fluent in Spanish. Luckily, I am, so I faked it throughout the entire meal. With the TV blasting “Sabado Gigante,” the classic Saturday evening Spanish-language variety show on Univision, and only one other couple dining when we first entered, the atmosphere was classic “townie.” I felt that the waiter was my lifelong friend and the subsequent couple and small family that entered after us were members of my extended family.
I know, I know, what about the food you ask? We put in an order for an appetizer platter, Entremes 4×4, which included four croquetas (chicken fried croquets), four empandillas (mini meat empanadas otherwise known as meat pies), four pieces of tortilla espanola (potato and egg omelet typically served at room temperature) and marinated aceitunas (that’s olives). As if that weren’t enough, we also sprang for a starter order of the platanos fritos con crema (fried/sauteed plaintain bananas served with sour cream in the madura style and not tostones, so they were served slightly crispy on the outside and as soft as mash on the inside). And patatas bravas. What? Too much for two people you say? It wasn’t. Plus, I’m a sucker for patatas bravas.
The real standouts of the meal were the platanos, which were exquisite in their simplistic, but perfect, execution. The croquetas also satisfied, although I would’ve like a more layered flavor experience. It was too one-note for my liking, lacking seasoning and depth. I was hoping for a kick of saffron, or paprika, or a hit of garlic. Anything, really. But still, fried goodness that was creamy on the inside and crispy on the outside. Like Bourdain says, a sneaker would taste good deep-fried.
We split an entree of pescado frito, fried red snapper with a side of arroz amarillo (saffron rice) and patatas guisadas (roasted potatoes sauteed in a light, lemony and garlicky oil-based sauce). The fish, fried in its entirety, head and all, was light and flaky and full of simple but classic flavors. The skin was crisped and delicious, and despite being riddled with bones, the fish meat was sumptuous. Definitely worth the extra effort of avoiding fish bones to indulge in what I like to call real food–unprocessed and free of overdone embellishments.
The sangria was weak but refreshing and chock full of diced apple and peach. For dessert, por supuesto, we ordered the churros con chocolate. They aren’t kidding around with the servings here; one order of churros includes a dozen of the doughy, lengthy, pipe dream of a donut coated in sugary sweetness and served with thick, bittersweet hot chocolate dipping sauce.
I’m already dreaming of the pescado frito and platanos, contemplating a return trip.
Brunch of champions
Sunday, in my book, is the day where I pay my respects to one thing I solidly believe in: the practice of brunch. After settling into the literary and artistic haven that is the original Busboys and Poets on 14th and U, I made a ballsy brunch move choosing to combine the Neptune and
Florentine specials (essentially a crab cake Benedict and a spinach Benedict) into what can only be described as food porn (thanks again Bourdain). For now we’ll just call it Dinah’s Benedict. It was freaking delicious; the chefs here certainly know their way around a poached egg. For an accompaniment there was a choice of home fries or grits. Being in the mid-Atlantic I felt warranted a close enough proximity to the South and I went straight for the grits. Best decision of the day. With a creamy consistency that was heavy enough to stand on its own but fluffy enough to deceive my mouth into thinking it was eating clouds, they were well prepared and cheesy (yes, I asked for cheese, give me a break I was on vacation and the calories and cholesterol don’t count).
Another upside, the Bloody Marys and mimosas are $5 with brunch on the weekends, and hell, that’s a steal in NYC. These were not your typical tomato-juice based, spicy morning beverages. They were dense, not like some watery versions that are a dime a dozen. They serve them with a celery, olives and some kind of crazy pepper that I’ve never encountered before. But the best part had to be the Old Bay seasoning enveloping the rim with a sinfully spicy kick. Good morning, Maryland!
Settling in with our laptops for some writing and reflecting downtime, I caved and ordered a Thin Mint Latte, a coffee made with organic mint syrup, chocolate, steamed milk and two shots of espresso. This place is more than just simple yet elegantly cooked food and unique twists on classic drinks, but they have a bookstore and embrace a cultural and racial openness through their artwork, poetry slams and other events for the literati.
Packing centuries’ worth of history into one day
On my last day, fittingly President’s Day, we took in the standard D.C. sites: the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the National Mall. All free, all doused in here-and-there slivers of February sunlight, and not at all too packed with tourists. A city intricately steeped in this baby of a country’s history, Washington, D.C. seems to have an endless array of sightseeing spots. It’s similar to New York City in that way, but this widespread urban area isn’t part of any actual state (remember that third grade geography) but touches on Virginia and Maryland in an interesting mix of cultures and neighborhoods. I don’t think you could spend a lifetime here and visit every bar, restaurant, museum and gallery or walk down every street. Exactly what I love, that je ne sais quoi that keeps you intrigued and craving more of everything, the food, the people, the sights.
My departing Bolt Bus ended up leaving a whopping 20 minutes late to my, and every other passengers’, dismay. After such a great, relaxing and exploratory weekend, I felt a little disillusioned complaining. But then again, this leg of my ride was costing me $20 and not $1.