Let us take a moment to reflect upon two incontrovertible truths:
- The monuments and museums in Washington, D.C. are unsurpassed and are a must-visit for all locals and visitors.
2. There is SO MUCH MORE to Washington, D.C. than the museums and monuments.
My family loves the museums in D.C. but we tend to let the tourists have them in the summer and save them for the winter days when we have exhausted the options for fun in our house and need to get out before we go stir crazy. The same goes for the monuments- they are absolute treasures, but they only necessitate a visit every so often. Those too are better saved for when guests are in town, because visiting them with someone who is experiencing them for the first time is really the best way to see them. Don’t get the wrong idea- I’m not above the tourist stuff; I’ve spent hours sweating my butt off on the Mall on the 4th of July, and I still feel a swell of pride when the Capitol Dome comes into view. I have read the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Memorial with my heart in my throat and think there’s nothing prettier than cherry blossoms in bloom around the Tidal Basin. The landmarks are landmarks for a reason- they stir something emotional within you and make you feel connected to your fellow Americans. You look around and feel a sense of camaraderie with everyone around you who owns this shared history. Even the people you just elbowed and cut your eyes at on the Metro.
But looking past the landmarks, DC is a city full of diverse and fascinating neighborhoods. It is The Nation’s Capital, but it also has an identity as a complex and intricate city in its own right. So much goodness lies off Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues. Looking past the monuments you can see the small things that make Washington DC uniquely Washington DC.
Inspired by Thrillist’s list of 13 DC Secrets You Had No Idea Existed, my girls and I spent a few hours in the city the other day, burrowing into the small corners that house some of DC’s best kept secrets. We hit three DC neighborhoods: Kenilworth, Brookland, and Palisades. I want to stop right here and say something real quick: don’t be intimidated by going into the city alone with your kids. (DC residents please don’t roll your eyes too hard.) I know the idea of loading your kids onto the Metro and navigating the city while keeping an eye on them and toting all your paraphernalia can be daunting. So too can the idea of driving around, trying to find an unfamiliar location, unsure exactly of where you’re going, with your kids screeching in the backseat. I’m here to tell you, you can do it.
I remember moving here four years ago and being incredibly intimidated by the idea of driving anywhere in DC. Could not do it. Could not imagine doing it. I feared what would happen if I got mixed up about where I was supposed to be going and worried people would get mad at me and honk. I worried they’d see my Virginia plates and think “There’s another idiot Virginian who can’t drive in DC.” Little by little, I grew more sure of myself (and developed more aggressive driving tactics) and realized, hey. I can do this. It’s just a city. What’s so impossible about driving in a city? Even one with lots of traffic and one-way streets. Even with my kids in tow. Even if people honk. Does this reveal me as a rube? That’s okay. We all have to start somewhere. If you think you might be a rube, I’ll be a rube with you.
If you don’t live in DC, you can’t just walk out your door and set off on foot exploring new areas. And riding the Metro might not be second-nature to you and so you avoid it. And driving in the city is initially confusing and makes you anxious so you avoid that as well. Have faith in yourself. Load up your kids and give it a shot. Watch out for the tourists standing in the middle of M Street taking pictures in front of Georgetown Cupcake, but other than that, you’re good to go. You don’t need a friend to go with you, you don’t need your spouse. Just you and your kids. I promise you, you’ve got this.
The great thing about the three places I’m going to share with you today: they are all easy to drive to and all have onsite parking. Since we’re going full confession mode here, I’ll share another one with you: I can’t parallel park to save my life. There was never a need to do it where I grew up or went to college or when I moved to Texas for my first job so I just… never bothered to get good at it. So anywhere I need to go that doesn’t necessitate parallel parking is a plus for me.
Okay, enough with the pep talk. Let’s get on with ourselves.
Our first stop of the day was in the Kenilworth neighborhood in NE DC at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. These are, as the name might suggest, water gardens which house flowering plants that grow in water. Have you ever stood in a veritable forest of lotus blossoms? Let alone in a residential neighborhood in Northeast DC?
At Kenilworth Gardens, you can do that!
The gardens are located in the natural wetlands along the Anacostia River and go back to the late 1800s when Civil War veteran Walter B. Shaw purchased the land and planted water lilies he had transported from his home in Maine. He maintained the ponds on his land, cultivating a wide variety of water lilies, with the help of his daughter, Helen Shaw, who eventually convinced Congress to purchase the land in the 1930s in order to preserve it. The result is the garden you can visit today, teeming with ponds that are overflowing with all manner of water lilies, lily pads, lotus blossoms, and various birds.
Inside the gardens the steady humming of insects surrounds you and you would never guess, if you didn’t know, the you’re just minutes from the interstate and the nonstop movement within the city. It is as calm and bucolic an environment you are likely to find in the middle of an urban sprawl.
In addition to the lily ponds, a boardwalk extends into the marshland all the way out to the Anacostia River. All through the marshland are various birds- while walking on the boardwalk we saw egrets, Canadian geese, and blue heron.
The NPS website maintains a detailed history of the gardens and an inventory of the lilies that were originally grown and cultivated by Walter Shaw- his notes on the flowers are contained within this document and several varieties are named by him for people important to his life (one species of lily is named N. Odorata Luciana for his wife, Luciana; another variety is N. Helen Fowler for his daughter).
The gardens are absolutely stunning and a must-see. They are located at 1550 Anacostia Ave NE, Washington, DC and are open daily from 8 am – 4 pm. Because Kenilworth Gardens are a National Park (the only National Park dedicated to the cultivation of water plants!), parking and admission is completely free.
Moving eastward through the city, our next stop was the Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery located in Brookland at 1400 Quincy St NE. Brookland is somewhat of an enclave for Catholic institutions in the city; in addition to the monastery, The Catholic University of America, Trinity University, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception are all located in Brookland.
The Monastery was built in 1898 and is still a fully functioning church and self-sustaining community. The grounds and gardens are open to the public daily from 9 am- 4:45 pm; guided tours are available on the hour from 10 am- 3 pm.
Surrounding the church and monastery is the Rosary Portico, decorated with Christian symbols and 15 chapels depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary.
Behind the walls of the portico is a staircase that leads down to the gardens, which hold their own against the beauty of the monastery.
Walking around the garden you see markers depicting the Stations of the Cross, a shrine to St. Anne, the mother of Mary and patron saint of grandmothers, and a tomb that is modeled after the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem, inside which candles are lit in eternal prayer for Mary.
If you aren’t Catholic, don’t let that deter you from visiting the Franciscan Monastery. I am not Catholic either but that didn’t prevent me from taking in and enjoying the hushed reverence of the grounds and gardens and appreciating the imagery and detail embedded in every aspect of the design. My 6 year old loved viewing the tableaux in the Rosary Portico and naming stories from the Bible that she recognized (by which I mean, she saw the scene of the Nativity and got pumped remembering Christmas is coming in JUST FOUR MONTHS!). I did help her out by explaining some of the ones that weren’t obvious to her.
Parking at the Franciscan Monastery is located in a small lot across the street, and is free. Feel free to sign up for a guided tour in the visitors center office, or simply wander the grounds at your own leisure.
Driving east through the city on our way back to Virginia, we made our final stop at Palisades Recreation Center in NW DC (5200 Sherier Pl. NW). I once again made the error of going to the DPR site to check the address of the rec center and accidentally put the DPR main office address into my GPS instead of the rec center address, which means we got a pleasant though slightly unnecessary detour down the entirety of Rhode Island Avenue. Don’t be like me. Double check your addresses properly before inputting them into your GPS.
Our main reason for visiting Palisades Rec Center was an art installation in the woods known as the Glass Forest. Before I could entice my kids to tramp through some backyards and into the trees with me, I let them have some runaround time on the fantastic Palisades Playground. This place was like the Platonic ideal of a playground. Soft squishy running surface, a small splashpad, a percussion instrument station, climbing equipment shaped like a fort. In my humble opinion, it’s worth making the drive out to Palisades just to let your kids take in this well-designed playground.
After my kids had gotten their fill of play, we headed back toward the parking lot but made a detour into the woods to see the Glass Forest. It took some cajoling for my 6 year old to be convinced to go see what I described to her as “very cool art” in the woods, which is weird because she definitely hasn’t seen The Blair Witch Project. I promised her to just trust me and she would enjoy it and she went along suspiciously, until we found the Glass Forest at which point she thought we had discovered some sort of fairy garden. You must must must come find the Glass Forest- a small section of the woods set back off the trail filled with sculptures made from scrap and found objects. The Prince of Petworth first wrote about the Glass Forest back in 2012, so it’s been around for at least a few years, but it seems to frequently change and might not be the same any two times you visit. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before- all at once ethereal, ever so slightly spooky, and somewhat otherworldly.
Our favorite installation in the Glass Forest (and presumably the reason why it is called the Glass Forest) was the “mobile” hanging from a tree in the back made up of broken glass shards, mirrors, and glittery objects strung up from branches. It spun in the wind and caught the light, constantly throwing out prisms and light flares, while also reflecting the trees behind us, making it seem as if we were caught in one all-encompassing light consumed forest all around us. Does this make any sense? No? Just go.It’s very Alice in Wonderland; I can’t properly describe or show the entire experience.
At the end of our planned stops, we had logged over five hours in the city, and had spent a grand total of just $10 on lunch while we were out and about. None of these places cost any money to visit, and were open for us to take in and enjoy at our own pace. There still remain 10 more “secret” places on the list and we have every intention of tracking them all down.
On the Kenilworth Gardens website is a phrase that has settled within me for several days after first reading it – it described the gardens as “places within places.” This can be extrapolated to the city of DC itself- it’s a city of places within places. Look beyond the big and flashy and find the small and contained. The monuments and museums have their place, but to truly feel like you’ve “seen” DC, and taken in some vital part of the spirit of the city, take a trek into one (or three) of its 90 neighborhoods and submerge yourself in the culture of that neighborhood. The most wonderful things await you there.