If you are planning a trip to Washington DC, you may have some well-known landmarks on your itinerary, like the White House and the National Mall, but to get a real taste of this city that has served as the nation’s capital since 1800, you also need to visit some hidden gems in DC.
1. Rock Creek Park
You will want to see the capitol steps hidden deep within Rock Creek Park. Some of these steps may date back to when workers rebuilt the capital following the War of 1812. Workers who removed these steps from the capitol during its renovation under the Eisenhower administration are lovingly tended and covered with beautiful vines. Yet, no one knows who does the work to protect this hidden gem in DC.
2. Old Stone House
If walls could talk, the Old Stone House in the Georgetown neighborhood would have a fantastic story to tell. This hidden gem is the oldest unchanged building in the city. Unfounded stories said that George Washington used the building while working with Pierre L’Enfant to lay out the city. But research by the National Park Service reveals the house had a rich history of hats, locks, clocks, and used cars.
3. Spanish Steps
While seldom covered by the national news, Washington’s 692,000 residents live in small neighborhoods, like Kalorama. To get an authentic taste of Washington DC, head to this neighborhood to see the Spanish Steps. Workers constructed these steps to look like the ones in Rome. Workers initially built the steps in the early 1900s as part of the national City Beautiful movement. The Spanish Steps also serve the beneficial purpose of connecting S Street and Decatur Place, NW.
4. U.S. National Arboretum
If you think that Washington DC is made up entirely of blacktop and buildings, take a break from the city’s urban sprawl to visit the U.S. National Arboretum. See twenty-two of the original Corinthian sandstone columns that were once part of the U.S. capitol before its expansion in 1959. Then head to the area where the tulip poplar trees grow to see Mr. President, a bald eagle, and his latest fling. While he happily nested with the First Lady bald eagle for five years, they’ve since broken up.
5. The Titanic Memorial
Originally on the site of the Kennedy Center, this little seen memorial remembers the men who gave their lives so women and children could be saved during the sinking of the Titanic. Its base was designed by Henry Bacon who also designed the Lincoln Memorial. It was dedicated in 1931 by Helen Taft, widow of former President Taft
6. United States Naval Observatory
It is hard to imagine that when President John Quincy Adams had the United States Naval Observatory built in 1825, this building tucked away on Embassy Row was far from the city’s light pollution. The first operating budget for this facility responsible for the restoration, repair, and rating of navigational instruments was $330. Charles Goodyear constructed the first time ball in the United States for this facility. Keeping the precise time has always been essential to the naval observatory’s purpose. It is the home to the Master Clock used by the GPS satellite constellation run by the United States Space Force.
7. Number One Observatory Circle
Within the same complex as the United States Navy Observatory is the official home of the vice president of the United States. It has been the official home since 1974. Every vice president since Walter Mondale has lived in this home that workers initially constructed as housing for the United States Navy Observatory superintendent in 1823.
8. Eastern Market
If you get hungry while exploring Capitol Hill, head to Eastern Market. Pierre L’Enfant left room for this market when he drew up Washington DC’s original plans. The market was designed by Adolf Cluss, who also designed the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, which opened to the public in 1873. Over the years, workers added to the market many times. On April 30, 2007, nearby residents awoke to the sound of fire engines and gasped as they discovered that the Eastern Market was burning down. In a rare display of unity, private entities and the government worked together, and the market reopened in 2009. While visiting, you may want to go to the weekend flea market to find hidden gems.
9. Home of the Commandments
The Home of the Commandments is a hidden gem near the Navy Yard. President Thomas Jefferson chose this site in 1801, and workers built the home in 1806. It is the oldest continuously used public building in Washington DC, and one of very few not burned during the British invasion in 1814. All but the first two commandments of the United States Marine Corps have lived in this Georgian-Federalist style house.
10. Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States
When the pope visits Washington DC, he stays at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States. This building along Massachusetts Avenue also serves as the official office of the apostolic nuncio, the equivalent of an ambassador. This building contains numerous rooms decorated with historic Roman furniture, and there is a beautiful garden behind the home.
11. Hill Center At the Old Navy Hospital
President Lincoln commissioned $25,000 to construct a United States Navy hospital in 1864. The new hospital treated its first patient, a black seaman named Benjamin Drummond who suffered from a leg wound after being held in a Confederate prison in 1866. Hospital staff continued to treat patients at this facility until 1906. After a period of neglect, the organization behind the move to get Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s birthday recognized as an official holiday used the building as their headquarters.
12. BenchMark A
Very near the Washington Monument is a 12-foot-tall Washington Monument hidden under a manhole cover. This hidden gem in DC is where all geological maps in the city are measured, and it is entirely underground. In the past, the monument was buried underneath bricks in the shape of a chimney, but that has been removed. You can see this treasure if you can get park rangers to remove the manhole cover. Scientists use this hidden treasure because it is more stable than observations on top of the ground and cannot be affected by the earth’s orientation.
13. Cuban Friendship Urn
The Cuban Friendship Urn was fashioned from the fragments of a marble column destroyed in a 1926 hurricane that honored the men who died when the USS Maine exploded in Havana’s harbor. The urn was given to President Coolidge in 1928 to The urn was placed in East Memorial Park. When workers constructed 14th street in 1957, they removed the urn. It was not rediscovered until 1998 and put back close to its original location. No one is sure where the urn was for the 41 years it was missing.
It can be challenging to find these hidden gems on your own. Book a tour with Off the Records before your next visit to Washington DC.