What is Washington D.C.’s cultural scene like?

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Washington, D.C. has earned its title as the nation’s seat of power. The city houses the three branches of the federal government, plus thousands of lobbyists, lawyers, advocates and journalists all vying for their slice of the pie, which makes for an interesting scene.

Washington also has more than half a million residents; the metropolitan area, which includes the surrounding Virginia and Maryland suburbs, is the eighth largest in the country, and with that comes thriving ethnic pockets that represent African, Asian and Latin American cultures. And thanks in large part to the sartorial smarts of first lady Michelle Obama, D.C. is ditching the stuffy pants suits and getting more fashion-forward.

In this power town, a long list of iPhone contacts trumps a fat bank account any day of the week. Power drives Washington and the people who run it. From lobbyists to lawyers to journalists to politicos, Washingtonians make a living off of knowing who matters — and who doesn’t.

You can see it everywhere — from the highway-clearing motorcades that shuttle diplomats around town to the sequestered tables at top restaurants that cater to an elite group of regulars. At happy hour, you’re more likely to overhear ladder-climbing twenty-somethings debating international policy than the merits of a college football team. Even playtime nods to power, with popular annual events like the Roll Call Congressional Ball.

Despite a palpable air of power, a true local — someone born and raised here — is a rarity in Washington. A genuine local wears that native status like a badge of honor. Everyone else is quick to point out how long he or she has been a resident — five, 10, 20 years.

Why the fuss? D.C. has earned a reputation for being a transient city for good reason: Lots of people come here for school or short-term jobs in the federal government. And not that it’s a bad thing: The come-and-go nature has allowed D.C. to become a melting pot in the truest sense. Rather than lacking an identity, the city has merged the hustle and bustle of northern cities with the appealing small-town feel of the South. Home to hundreds of embassies, D.C. also has an international flair, with cultural events and festivals celebrating traditions from around the world.

Ethnic enclaves abound, too. At Ninth and U streets, Northwest, there’s a hub of authentic Ethiopian restaurants. In the Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, you’ll find Latino grocery markets, cafés and street vendors. For a taste of authentic Asia, head just outside the city to the Eden Center in Falls Church, Va. It’s packed with enough Vietnamese restaurants and bakeries to make any world traveler pine for Hanoi.

There’s really no phrase or easy way to describe the culture in D.C., except to say that it’s an eclectic mix of people from every country, background and status, all jumbled in one bustling city bent on who’s in power.

  • On January 23, 2014
    Michael Austin answered the question: Michael Austin

    What are the best places in Washington D.C. to get wine by the glass?

    The nation’s capital is home to several restaurants and wine bars with great by-the-glass programs but three of the best are Westend Bistro, which is a cross between French bistro fare and contemporary American cuisine, mixing flavors of the Chesapeake, Provence and the French Riviera; Minibar, the avant-garde food temple of chef José Andrés; and The Pig, a pork-centric restaurant that adheres to nose-to-tail cooking and sourcing local seasonal ingredients, including vegetables from their farm in nearby La Plata, Maryland. At The Pig, four separate four-ounce Coravin pours are available for $19 to $24: Duckhorn Goldeneye pinot noir, Caymus cabernet sauvignon, DuMOL pinot noir and Spottswoode cabernet sauvignon. Sommelier Michael H. Kennedy II handles the wine picks at Westend Bistro and they do not disappoint. The exciting news is, a glass of literally any wine on his impressive list can be had for one-fourth of the bottle price — a rare opportunity for wine lovers.
  • On July 2, 2013
    You answered the question:

    What are the best things to do with kids in Washington D.C.?

    Although the Smithsonian offers kids lots of learning opportunities as they have fun exploring the Natural History or Air & Space Museum, there are two local and unique museums that transport kids to a make-believe world where they can become a spy and save the world (International Spy Museum) or a news broadcaster and take home a tape of themselves announcing the day's news (The Newseum). Children of all ages also enjoy front-row box seats to a Nationals game...we can even provide the glove to snag a foul ball or two!
  • On July 2, 2013
    You answered the question:

    What are the best things to do with kids in Washington D.C.?

    Although the Smithsonian offers kids lots of learning opportunities as they have fun exploring the Natural History or Air & Space Museum, there are two local and unique museums that transport kids to a make-believe world where they can become a spy and save the world (International Spy Museum) or a news broadcaster and take home a tape of themselves announcing the day's news (The Newseum). Children of all ages also enjoy front-row box seats to a Nationals game....we can even provide the glove to snag a foul ball or two!
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  • On July 2, 2013
    Mary Beth Albright answered the question: Mary Beth Albright

    What is the weather like right now in Washington D.C.?

    Summer can be tough in DC but so far we've had a mild summer with temperatures rarely above the high 80s. It's been a bit like a jungle, too, with light rain every afternoon. The best advice is, grab a bottle of wine and some bread and cheese and head out for a picnic -- as long as it's before 3 pm. August is usually the hottest month so there's still time for things to get hot and steamy, as it normally is. 

    For now, bring a light sweater (not a jacket — could be too heavy and even the chicest jacket becomes an annoying burden when lugged all around town) and keep your fingers crossed that we don't reach the 100s, as we have most summers. 
  • On July 2, 2013
    Mary Beth Albright answered the question: Mary Beth Albright

    What is the one must-do activity when visiting Washington D.C.?

    Sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom, attending a state dinner, and dancing onstage at an Inaugural Ball. But let's say those options aren't available to you this weekend. I could spend an entire day around the Jefferson Memorial (and not just because my husband proposed to me there). The Jefferson has it all — history (of course) and on a hot summer day it's always below 80 degrees in the cool marble memorial with Jefferson's statue towering above. Seclusion when you want it, which the other memorials don't have, the Jefferson's nooks along the Tidal Basin, where the famed cherry trees twist around their gnarled trunks to form private worlds for weary tourists. There's plenty of lawn space for picnics, an indoor exhibit (and bathroom), views of the White House and Washington Monumnet, and if you must work in some cardio, round out the day with a paddle boat rental. Sure the Jefferson is a bit more difficult to get to than the other monuments, but so worth it.

    For true Jefferson fanatics, The Jefferson Hotel is offering a fun promotion this summer called "Where's Tommy?" The staff hid cartoons of Thomas Jefferson in some of the city's most monumental spots (the White House, the Capitol, the National Archives), so it's an easy way to make sure you hit DC's best locations. Before venturing out, you'll meet with a presidential historian to inform you about the sites you'll visit, then take off on a free Capital Bikeshare rental. Find Tommy in all locations and win a Jefferson bobblehead and -- best of all -- one of the hotel's excellent strawberry-aloe popsicles (two of Jefferson's favorite plants in his garden).
  • On July 2, 2013
    Mary Beth Albright answered the question: Mary Beth Albright

    What are the best kids activities in Washington D.C.?

    I have a five year old and there's always something to do in DC. The museums are amazing and because they're free, we pop in for half an hour just to see the fish tank or the butterfly room at the National Museum of Natural History or to just say hi to the giant pandas at the National Zoo. I'm never on a three-hour museum death march as I sometimes am when I pay $25 to get in. Theater is terrific — Adventure Theater, Imagination Stage, the Smithsonian's children's programming of music and puppet shows are all thrilling for kids. Glen Echo Park in Maryland requires a car but your reward is an antique carousel, playgrounds, and a dinosaur hunt area. DC's Aquarium is hidden in the basement of the Department of Commerce (who knew?) and is a small but worthwhile gem. The Rock Creek Park Nature Center inspires kids' innate attraction to nature, with horses, a small planetarium, and tons of special lectures. The small water park on Georgetown Harbor attracts fun-seekers of all ages -- sometimes in suits, sometimes fully clothed -- with a gorgeous view of the Potomac River. Walk down just a few steps for young kids to get a thrill feeding the ducks.

    For very young children, head to the National Building Museum's Building Zone where toddlers can construct with enormous legos and build cars from block. Run upstairs for the Play Work Build exhibit featuring giant foam blocks and a virtual building screen. The museum's main room is gigantic and on a rainy day you'll find dozens of kids just running from end to end, playing tag and enjoying the indoor fountain.

    Now that it's summertime, pcik-your-own farms are up and running. Butler's Orchard in Maryland is a 30-minute drive outside of the city, but a world away with hay rides, super fast slides (adults can't stay off of them), and easy blueberry, raspberry, and apple picking. Best of all, the Dogfish Head Brewery Restaurant is on the way home to DC, where you'll sample more than a dozen of their hard-to-find craft beers. 
  • On July 2, 2013
    Mary Beth Albright answered the question: Mary Beth Albright

    What are the best activities to do in Washington D.C.?

    On July 11 from 6-8 pm, the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park hosts the seventh annual Brew at the Zoo, a celebration of craft beers with tons of creative food and drink. For one night, the Zoo allows the 21-and-over crowd to take over and enjoy suds from more than 60 breweries while cavorting with the animals. (Just make sure to avoid beer-soaked bets about who can jump in the lion cage.)

    Live entertainment and food samples from some of the area's best restaurants, including Belga Cafe, Matchbox, and Et Voila! round out the evening. Food trucks will swing by if you want to purchase extra food (and you probably will, because Jose Andres's Pepe Food Truck will be there with its irresistable Iberico ham sandwich). General admission tickets are $65 but spring for early admission at 5 pm for just $20 more. Sober driver tickets are $30. All proceeds go to animal care and conservation.
  • On July 2, 2013
    Mary Beth Albright answered the question: Mary Beth Albright

    Where are the best cocktails in Washington D.C.?

    Even with the demise of the martini lunch (sigh) Washingtonians love our cocktails. Jeff Faile is a master of spirits, and his talents have fully unfurled at the fabulous Fiola Restaurant. His enormous bar hosts tastings and mixology classes – our favorite is his PhD-worthy seminar on gin. Faile has the goods to back up his talents, with no fewer than a dozen bourbons to pour for any given happy hour. Love a bitter negroni? He has five kinds, including a trendy white version with Cocchi Americano.

    Faile’s alma mater, Palena, continues its reputation as the bar of record for in-the-know Washingtonians with the city’s best Manhattan. For a hip vibe, head to Black Jack for an El Dorado (tequila, habanero, and orange bitters) by the bocce ball court. Or try Jack Rose Dining Saloon for one of the city’s largest selection of spirits, with more than one hundred whiskeys alone.

    Drink Prohibition-style with the moonshine punch at Brickside Food and Drink in Bethesda, Md. And on Friday and Saturday nights, the Empress Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental has live jazz to accompany your Cherry Blossom Sling Cocktail (vodka and cherry puree). If you're more of a Rat Pack fan, The Graham Georgetown has Pin Up Mondays, with cigars, whiskey, and 1950s tunes. 
  • On July 2, 2013
    Mary Beth Albright answered the question: Mary Beth Albright

    When is the best time to visit Washington D.C.?

    Look, there's no bad time to be in the nation's capital. That said, July 2013 is a pretty fantastic time to be here. Summer is hot, sure, but DC's green spaces provide respite and perfect venues for outdoor events like plays, movies, and National Symphony Orchestra Concerts. With 20-year-old phenom Bryce Harper back on the field after a knee injury, the Nationals are rising in baseball stats faster than DC temperatures. And a DC United soccer game will give a crazed-crowd fix for the most rabid European fan of futbal.

    Then again, in winter, special events for the holidays are everywhere, from art exhibits to the lighting of the national tree and menorah to theater for all ages. Santa brunch at the Kennedy Center is a best-kept secret, and a photo with Santa overlooking the Potomac River and the monuments is priceless. Spring brings cherry blossoms — the best time to see these glorious pink puffs along the Tidal Basin is super early in the morning, before the crowds get too overwhelming. The weather is perfect, flowers are blooming, and even Capitol Hill seems a little more congenial with its milky white dome against the brilliant cloudless sky. Fall is clear and pleasant, a virtual replica of spring, and the city comes alive again with the new theater seasons and Congress back in session (which, for better or worse, means the city gets buzzier). Day trips down to Shenandoah National Park provide foliage to rival New England. 
  • On July 2, 2013
    Mary Beth Albright answered the question: Mary Beth Albright

    What is the best new restaurant in Washington D.C.?

    Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan just won the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington Award for Best New Restaurant of the Year. Executive Chef Cedric Maupillier's modern French bistro cuisine also earned him Food & Wine Magazine's award for Best New Chef: Mid Atlantic. Don't miss his maple pork cracklin', wood-grilled swordfish, and suckling pig croquettes.

    DGS Delicatessen in Dupont Circle is a throwback to the great delis of New York, in a chic and comfortable restaurant. Their old world Jewish kitchen turns out killer pastrami, chopped liver, and matzo ball soup, in addition to terrific cocktails (my favorite, the Mensch, combines Rye and blood orange bitters). The DGS sandwich shop just opened next door. 

    Table is another great new place (which thankfully just started taking reservations), offering seasonal and casual fare. Chef Frederick de Pue runs a chef's table-style restaurant, with an ever-changing menu of fresh comfort foods. Welcoming and chummy, Table's best offerings include one of the city's best coq-au-vin and housemade fresh tagliatelle with wild boar sauce.
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