10 Tourist-Free D.C. Places You Should Explore as an Undergrad

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Now that you go to school in D.C., you need to get over the touristy spots and find new places to visit. The first time most people visit the nation’s capital, they make sure to see the Smithsonian Museums, the monuments and the White House. While all of these places remain popular, I think that you can’t get a full look at DC without visiting some of its hidden treasures. Just because these spots aren’t tourist traps doesn’t mean they don’t have as much to offer.

1. Ford’s Theatre

You may recognize this as the famous location of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This historical landmark still puts on productions, like classic performances including A Christmas Carol and Ragtime. You can take a tour of the theatre, visit the attached museum or venture across the street to the Petersen House where our 16th president died. The Petersen House recreated the scene of when President Lincoln died, complete with the original bloodstained pillowcase. In other words, this theatre provides a unique opportunity to step back in history and view an important event that shaped the country.

2. National Press Club

Photo by Shira Stein

Shira Stein

As a journalism major, I get a thrill every time I walk into the National Press Building and take the elevator to the 13th floor, AKA the National Press Club. Since 1908, the National Press Club has been a place for journalists and communications professionals to learn and grow. Some of the events that the club holds include a forum on mental health and violent events hosted by RTI International, a luncheon with the CEO of Girl Scouts or a book signing with Vice President Dick Cheney. Becoming a member doesn’t require any lengthy applications or any hassles—they only require you to prove you’re journalist or a communicator and pay $200 per year. Even if you don’t become a member, you can still visit the restaurant within the club, The Fourth Estate, or attend public events.

3. U.S. Botanic Garden

For a more natural view of D.C., visit this beautiful garden after taking your tour of the U.S. Capitol building. You can relax and walk through the garden after a long day of sight seeing—you might even see the endangered tree of life flower. “There was just so much to explore. We stepped inside and I got this feeling that we couldn’t possibly have time to see everything that I wanted to see. Once we made it inside, I wasn’t bored for a second,” Stanford University freshman Sarah Schisla said. The conservatory looks especially cool in the winter when the East Gallery runs trains through the plants.

4. Bureau of Engraving and Printing

If you’ve ever wanted to see money made, visit the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and take a guided tour. You’ll walk over the production floor, seeing each stage of the process. With the new set of currency slowly rolling out over the next few years, you might even see what soon-to-be-released money will look like. Because of the complicated process to make U.S. currency, this tour allows you to see how the BEP stops counterfeiting. At the end of the tour, you can buy a bag of shredded currency with money that they probably made there. Sounds like a pretty cool souvenir to me.

5. Embassy Row

If you want to visit other countries without technically leaving D.C., hit up Embassy Row. Although the embassies don’t actually sit on a single street, you’ll find a great deal of the embassies on Massachusetts Avenue between the U.S. Naval Observatory and Scott Circle. Some of the embassies hold regular open houses, or if you want a fuller experience you can pay to go to an embassy party and sample the food and culture of a country. “My favorite part about embassy row is how you can learn so much about so many countries in a small amount of space and time. You can tell the pride [embassies] have for their country. It’s great that people go because they have an opportunity to visit a country through the lenses of the people who know it the best,” American University junior Julieta Barbiero said. For the best view of Embassy Row, take one of the buses down to Dupont Circle or walk along it (be ready to walk over three miles).

6. Library of Congress Reading Room

Photo by Shira Stein

Shira Stein

Although the Library of Congress sounds like a tourist trap, the reading room in the actual library feels like anything but. Most people don’t know that you can easily get a free library card in the Madison Building (which makes a nice and free souvenir) and then research any topic you choose. You could look up old newspapers, your family’s genealogy or read about Henry David Thoreau. “It’s a great quiet study space and the greatest texts in the world are at your disposal for research,” AU sophomore Christine Machovec said. For a bookworm, it’s the ideal place to curl up and read at the largest library in the world.

7. Renwick Gallery

The hidden secret of D.C. locals is a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum located across the street from the White House. The Gallery only reopened in November 2015 after a two-year renovation, and became extremely popular because of the “Wonder” exhibit. This exhibit consists of large pieces of art made from unconventional materials like dead insects or cut tires. The museum focuses on innovative art that isn’t necessarily like most traditional art. “Everyone says that everything in D.C. is one of a kind, but the Renwick truly is one of a kind. From its unique architecture, location right by the White House and array of wholly unique exhibits, you can’t get a better experience anywhere else,” AU sophomore Jordan McCormack said. Although part of the “Wonder” exhibit already closed, the next exhibit will surely look just as amazing and inventive.

8. Newseum

Photo by Shira Stein

Shira Stein

Before you even walk into the Newseum, you’ll notice a wall of 80 front pages that change every day to reflect the newspapers of the world. Although the museum is one of the few museums in D.C. that actually costs money, the $20 entry fee (for college students with their ID) is well worth the experience. The building itself offers amazing views of the U.S. Capitol Building, the Washington Monument and the National Mall from its rooftop. During my visit, the 9/11 struck me most, especially since it featured the front pages from newspapers the day after it happened and photojournalist William Biggart’s coverage, who died while covering the attacks. “There is a beautiful focus on the honor of the journalistic profession, and multiple exhibits showcase the little-known history of journalism,” AU junior Kenzie Phillips said. This museum shows you how the news media has shaped history.

9. National Museum of Health and Medicine

Located right outside D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland you’ll find the National Museum of Health and Medicine. “People are drawn to American and European History, yet they often overlook a vital history: medical history,” AU sophomore Casey Culhane said. The museum holds skeletons, preserved organs and artifacts related to the assassination of President Lincoln (including the bullet that ended his life). Some of the artifacts are somewhat gruesome, but super interesting, especially for pre-med students. “My favorite part of the museum was learning about old conditions that used to plague the public that we no longer see/hear about…They had preserved body parts that were covered in small pox,” Culhane said.

10. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Photo by Shira Stein

Shira Stein

You’ll recognize The Kennedy Center for the amazing concerts and productions it hosts every day, but most people don’t know about its daily free concert at 6 p.m. on the Millennium Stage. The beautiful architecture and decoration of the halls make it the perfect place to take a cute Insta-worthy picture. The rooftop terrace of the Kennedy Center is one of the only free terrace views in downtown D.C. and provides a beautiful view of the Potomac River and the downtown. For theater majors, the Kennedy Center hosts touring productions, and in the 2017-2018 season it will even showcase Hamilton. If you want to see another historical place on the waterfront, right next door you’ll find the Watergate complex, known as the site of the DNC break-in that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

*Updated July 6, 2016 with original video.

Shira is a sophomore pursuing a dual degree in print journalism and biology at American University in Washington, D.C. She is a self-described overachiever who grew up near San Francisco and likes to makes sure that you know so. Beyond a passion for journalism and genetics, she enjoys singing, going monumenting, and obsessing over politicians and YouTubers.


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