Off the Mall: Washington, DC’s, Penn Quarter and Chinatown

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Sports, Spies, Art, Restaurants and Bars

There’s much more to Washington, D.C., than just the Mall and its museums and monuments.  Penn Quarter buzzes with day and night life. In this vibrant neighborhood sports lovers and  concert-goers head to the Capital One Arena, art admirers ogle the paintings and sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, foodies dine at award-winning restaurants, and nightlife denizens visit the neighborhoods’ plentiful bars.Once home to D.C.’s largest Chinese community, only a few hundred Chinese residents and fewer original businesses remain. As a homage to the neighborhood’s past, some venues, including the Capital One Arena, feature their names in Chinese. The colorful  Friendship Arch is the area’s most visible reminder of its ethnic heritage. Constructed in 1968 as a gesture of goodwill  between the “sister” cities of D.C. and Beijing, the arch gains fame as one of the world’s largest, single-span archways constructed using traditional Chinese architectural methods that eschew nails or metal.

A stay at the trendy Kimpton Hotel Monaco keeps you in the heart of Penn Quarter.

Tip: In spring and summer obtain timed tickets ahead of time for tours of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

Day 1 in DC

Morning: Art Museums
Start by exploring the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, a.k.a. the Old Patent Office Building, now home to two Smithsonian museums.  At the National Portrait Gallery,  find the faces that match the famous names you’ve heard about in American history, including all the presidents–the only such collection in the U.S. outside of the White House–many First Ladies, as well as suffragettes, abolitionist, astronauts and others.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of American art. Experience America showcases works that captured Americans during the 1930s Depression. Other highlights include American landscapes, works by African Americans, Asian Americans as well as thought-provoking temporary exhibits.
Opt to lunch in  the airy, glass-canopied Kogod Courtyard, whose cafe serves salads and sandwiches or at one of the area’s cheap eateries.    


Become a sleuth at the International Spy Museum. Learn about spy gadgets,  dead drops and real life, unlikely heroes such as Julia Child who parlayed her fame into occasional fact-finding.

Tip:  Sign-up ahead of time for one of the museum’s special experiences.

For an afternoon sweet treat, try a scoop or two at Pitango Gelato Penn Quarter. The shop serves some of the city’s best gelato. We especially love its  tasty and flavorful diary-free sorbets.
Restaurants and nightlife abound.  Celebrity chef José Andrés’  helms five area favorites. Minibar by José Andrés, received of two Michelin stars, Zaytinyaserves Mediterranean small plates, Jaleo features tapas and paella, Oyamel Cocina Mexicana has Mexican food, and China Chilcano dishes up  moderately priced Peruvian fare with Asian and Spanish accents. Other neighborhood stars include  Rasika, known for its sophisticated, modern Indian cuisine.

Tips: Book well-in-advance for tickets to the Capital One Arena and for a table at the area’s popular restaurants. Several offer well-priced pre-theater menus; sometimes you need to ask for these menus.

After dinner, cheer on local teams or rock out at a concert at the Capital Center, or take in a play at The Shakespeare Theatre, a venue offering excellent productions of the Bard as well as other plays.  The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company offers interesting, offbeat plays. A D.C., family, holiday tradition is seeing the yearly staging of  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre, the site of President Lincoln’s assassination. Although you might want  to wait until after the play to explain the venue’s history.

Après sport or theater, indulge in a craft cocktail at Dirty Habit, Kimpton Hotel Monaco, or at one the neighborhood’s many other bars.

Day 2 in DC

Head over to the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. During a tour, guides explain what happened on the fateful evening of April 15, 1865. Allow time to view the museum downstairs as well as see the Aftermath Exhibits that detail the nation’s reaction and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, the assassin. Petersen House, where Lincoln died, remains open until Christmas Day 2017, then closes for months of preservation work.

If traveling with children, consider visiting Madame Tussauds, where gradeschoolers and teens can take selfies with notables such as presidents Lincoln and Trump,  musical icons Miley Cyrus and Taylor and sport stars Alex Ovechkin and Tiger Woods.
Sate your hunger at Graffiato where you can stuff yourself with the multi-dish and drink Bottomless Brunch or choose from entrees such as chicken and waffles or breakfast pizza.  
Explore the Newseum, which details how free speech supported by legitimate news-gathering is crucial to democracies.  Allow time to see some of the 15 films and to explore the 14 galleries. Eight sections of the Berlin Wall plus a guard tower are displayed on the concourse level. The 9/11 gallery is both compelling and uncomfortable to view.  In search of a lighter moment? then peruse the First Dogs Gallery.
Enjoy more of Penn Quarter’s wonderful restaurants and  bars.