Story and Photography by Julie Gargotta
If you ask people why they live in the Susquehanna Valley, you’ll likely get varied answers. For some, it’s the high quality of life that the region offers: the charm of idyllic farmlands, smaller metropolitan areas and beautiful suburbs, all within minutes.
“People from New York and New Jersey will come to vacation here to visit the Amish country and fall in love with the area,” explains Darlene Fenstermacher, realtor with RE/MAX Associates. “As opposed to living in a big city, we have all to offer in one area.”
For others, it’s all about location. “We are a tourists ‘golden triangle’ with Hersheypark, Lancaster County and Gettysburg,” says David Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. Not only does the area have a lot to offer to visitors and residents alike, but also geographically it’s prime. “I know many people that travel to New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. on a regular basis,” says Black.
But it’s not just the train-riding business set that benefit from the centrality of our region to major metropolitan areas. We’re perfectly positioned for fun, weekend getaways, too. So grab your GPS: We’re heading to Washington, D.C.
When it comes to Washington, D.C., there’s so much to see and do that one can easily feel overwhelmed. The city is rife with history, and many visitors from all over the world flock to our nation’s capital every day to take advantage of the free museums and monuments. In fact, 2011 was a banner year for the city, with a record-setting 17.9 million visits, according to the D.C. Visitor’s Center. All around the city, construction cranes arch toward the sky; scaffolding climbs like ivy along the Washington Monument. These are signs of the billions currently being spent on infrastructure development throughout D.C. And on May 1st, there will be a new addition to the lot: An expansive 16-floor Marriott Marquis will open its doors on Massachusetts Avenue to travelers hungry for a historical refresher.
But, take a closer look past the statues and memorials, past the National Mall, hotels and construction projects. There’s another D.C. that’s living and breathing, filled with more than a dozen distinct neighborhoods.
“Visiting D.C. is a rite of passage, and a lot of people experience the city on an eighth grade history trip,” explains Destination DC’s Kate Gibbs. “But there are really two sides to the city. D.C. is also a city of neighborhoods. There’s so much food, music and culture that it’s really a good time for adults to reconnect.”
This is the D.C. that sparkles as the sun goes down: one of a bustling and lively sort, with trendy bars and top-notch nightclubs. There are concerts, comedy shows, dive bars. Not to mention an ethnically varied array of restaurants that reflect the diversity of the city itself.
And you don’t have to see it all to feel you’ve “done” the city. You can savor experiences within specific neighborhoods and digest bits of history along the way.
With Gibbs’ expert tips in mind, Harrisburg Magazine filled up the tank and took the two-hour trip to D.C. ourselves. We wanted to experience the duality of the city, packing our weekend with a healthy balance of history and mixed drinks. Check out our weekend itinerary below. Then create your own itinerary and go explore.
11 a.m. – Park/Metro,
5717 Greenbelt Metro Drive
We ditch our car at the Greenbelt station of the metro (in Greenbelt, Md.) and hop on the green line. Thirty minutes later, we are in center city D.C. breezing into our hotel located in the Penn Quarter neighborhood (and, yes, we snagged a great deal on Priceline for the room).
12:30 p.m. – Burger, Tap & Shake, 2200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
For lunch, we’re looking for food fast, without the fast-food feel. We opt to try Burger, Tap & Shake, located yards away from the Foggy Bottom metro stop. This trendy eatery serves up juicy, delicious burgers as well as a variety of boozy milkshakes, or “shaketails.” BTS’s “6 buck chuck” is a great value for the money – perfect for an inexpensive D.C. nosh to kick off a day of sightseeing.
2 p.m. – The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW
The official memorial to the Holocaust, this museum is an incomparable educational experience that is a must for visitors. Inside, we each receive a passport that shares the story of a real person that experienced the Holocaust. Then, we follow along with exhibits to reveal their fate. The opening floor takes us back in time to the 1930s, as Hitler rose to power and anti-semitism grew throughout Germany. Visitors peer through the glass-encased exhibits, reading silently and taking in the archived photos, historical footage and artifacts. The middle floor chronicles the “Final Solution,” from the establishment of ghettos to concentration camps. The last floor then features the united liberation efforts to free prisoners from Nazi camps. The footage of prisoners, starved and gaunt, being liberated is incredibly emotional to watch. At the end of our two-plus-hour visit, we quietly shuffle into the Hall of Remembrance, where an eternal flame burns and gives way for private reflection. We think about everything we’ve seen, read the inscriptions and names of victims on the walls and watch as other visitors light memorial candles.
8 p.m. – Matchbox, 1901 14th St. NW
Dressed to the nines, we’re back on the metro once again and heading to U Street, a semi-residential area that’s also filled with a multitude of bars, restaurants and nightclubs. The area is rife with young people and has a great vibe.
Sandwiched between the Columbia Heights neighborhood to the north and Logan Circle to the south, U Street has an incredible, yet turbulent history. Once known as the “Black Broadway,” the nine-block stretch was the cultural heart of the African-American community in D.C., the neighborhood where Duke Ellington learned to play his trumpet and perform. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the area bore the brunt of D.C. protests and was virtually destroyed by riots. Spurred by drug trafficking and violence, the neighborhood began to rapidly decline. But in the 1990s, the neighborhood was revitalized by new residents, construction and businesses. Now the bright lights and neon signs of hot spots sparkle down the street.
With history on the brain we make it to Matchbox, a stylish, yet rustic restaurant along U Street. Suspension cords hold lights high up above the main floor. Around us, exposed pipes, rafters and brick conjure up the feeling of industrial chic. We’re sat at a “hanging” table that overlooks a busy kitchen, one where chefs are tossing pizzas into a brick oven and gussying up plates of food to be delivered to tables. Our waiter tells us this unique venue was at one time a jazz club and, more recently, a bowling alley. The food is delicious, and the attention to detail is obvious.
9:45 p.m. – Marvin, 2007 14th St. NW
A short walk from Matchbox, and we’re at Marvin, a bar that takes its inspiration from Marvin Gaye. Downstairs the atmosphere is mellow. We instinctively head upstairs, where Motown music is pumping, and the rooftop deck is packed with bar-goers. Thanks to the well-placed heaters, it feels toasty outside despite the 40-degree temps.
11:15 p.m. – The Brixton, 901 U St. NW
We walk down U Street, passing iconic spots, like Ben’s Chili Bowl, and rowdy ones, like Nellie’s Sports Bar. Brixton is busy, too; people are crowding the bar as a quippy bartender, donning suspenders, a driver’s cap and a serious mustache, shakes cocktails. By the end of the night, as we sleepily take the metro back to our hotel, we’re all in agreement: We now love this trendy, British-style pub.
10:30 a.m. – Busboys and Poets,
1025 5th St. NW
A cheerful, yellow, large-scale sculpture greets us as we head to Busboys and Poets for brunch. Inside, the look of the restaurant is just as eclectic: funky artwork adorns the walls and cool music filters through the air. Named in honor of African-American poet Langston Hughes, who lived in D.C. in the 1920s and worked as a busboy before gaining recognition as a poet, this is a place where poetry slams, book readings and live performances take place. One server describes Busboys as a place of acceptance, where politics, art and culture come together. But we’re also blown away by the menu, which features local/organic produce and cage-free eggs.
11:30 a.m. – National Portrait Gallery, F St. NW & 8th St. NW
We spend our remaining time in D.C. perusing another free museum, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. One of the first exhibitions we come across is captivating. Black and white portraits of iconic Americans, taken by photographer Yousuf Karsh, line the hallways. Across the gallery, another exhibition, “Dancing the Dream,” features images of performers from the late 19th century to today. We peek into a side room. A small group sits on a bench watching dance clips from famous movies. They giggle and clap as John Travolta hustles across the projected screen. Before long, we’re heading home and dreaming of our next weekend getaway… New York City, anyone?
Top Tips for Maximizing Your D.C. Weekend
Don’t pay full price
Look for steals on hotel stays on sites like Living Social and Groupon, as well as directly on hotel websites. Destination DC’s Kate Gibbs says that the winter months – December, January and February – traditionally boast the best lodging deals for families. For couples, there are plenty of romantic deals specifically during the month of February. “D.C. doesn’t tend to get so so cold, so you can still enjoy your trip in the winter months,” says Gibbs.
Make the most of the metro
While D.C. is a very drivable city, parking is at a premium. Private lots, or even hotel parking, can be a pricey addition to your budget. If you have to park within the city, look for coupons online that offer parking at discounted rates. Another option? “Just hop on the train, leave your car and explore,” Gibbs suggests. Parking is free on the weekends and federal holidays at metro-operated lots. The metro spans most of the city and is easy to navigate.
Divide and conquer
Make a plan, budget time and budget money. Tourists often make the mistake of trying to squeeze in everything, which can result in the feeling of truly experiencing nothing. Instead, pre-plan: Map out key attractions you want to visit and base evening plans around specific D.C. neighborhoods, keeping your budget in mind. There are scores of restaurants in each neighborhood that run the gamut of prices. “If you want to big it up and spend your bonus check, you can do that,” says Gibbs. “But you can also get a great meal for under $10. It can be as flexible as any family’s budget.”
Love the freebies
Not only are most museums in D.C. free, they are also worthwhile stops. Spend the afternoon with Bao Bao, the recently named giant panda cub, at the National Zoo. At the National Museum of American History, marvel at the almost 200-year-old flag that inspired the National Anthem. But museums and galleries associated with the Smithsonian aren’t the only budget-minded ways to spend your day. Check out washington.org’s list of 100 Free (& Almost Free) Things to Do in Washington, D.C. There are cultural events, outdoor activities and even free performances. For example, you can pop in for a free show at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, each night at 6 p.m.