Tourists flock to Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian, White House, and other famous historic sites such as the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and many more. If you’re looking for low-key activities to try, then you’re in luck. In Washington, D.C., you can ride a horse, tour the catacombs, or search for a two-inch-tall military K-9 that served in Korea. Book a stay at one of many Washington, D.C. vacation rentals for your next getaway. Check out the top hidden gems in this capital city.
1. Rock Creek Park Horse Center
Rock Creek Park, a serene urban oasis, features picnic areas, paved hiking and biking trails, and unpaved walking trails. If you walk to the mill area, you find several rustic bridges that cross Rock Creek. This wooded sanctuary with trails hides a secret gem that many people miss–Rock Creek Park Horse Center. Savvy visitors head to the stables to take riding lessons, go on guided trail rides for riders age 12 and up, and queue up some pony rides for the kids who are under age 12. You need no riding experience to go on the one-hour trail ride through the park’s wooded trails.
2. Catacombs of Washington, D.C.
Beneath the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., a network of passageways connects three subterranean galleries that depict early Christendom. In 1898, a group of Franciscan monks decided to create this miniature replica of the Holy Land as a gift for Americans who could not travel overseas. Guided tours begin near the main altar, through a Gothic styled door. You pass through rows of symbolic wall graves that represent Christian burials in the early Roman catacombs. The grounds include a world tour of Roman and Middle Eastern religious shrines in addition to the grottoes of the tomb of Jesus and the Garden of Gethsemane. Apart from guided tours, guests stroll amidst the landscaped gardens and outdoor statuary on their own.
3. Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens
For the best getaway inside the city, you find the rarest of gems — the former estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Post bought Hillwood Estate in 1955, and decided to turn it into a museum to depict life in the 20th century. The mansion-turned-museum holds the largest collection of art pieces from Tsarist Russia found outside of Russia, including two Faberge Eggs, royal porcelain, and other artifacts from the Romanov family. The estate features 25 acres of year-round gardens and forested areas. Wander about the mansion and the estate on a self-guided tour, or join one of the hour-long guided tours of the mansion.
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4. Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Garden
A one-armed Civil War Veteran, Walter Shaw, lived along the eastern branch of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. During the day, he worked as a clerk, then he went home to dig and expand the ponds on his property where he could grow aquatic plants, including the Lotus flower. Shaw died in 1921, and in 1938, the National Park Service bought the 8.5-acre property from Shaw’s daughter, Helen. Summer hours run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and winter hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
5. Lincoln’s Cottage
The 34-room Lincoln Cottage is where President Abraham Lincoln moved his family from the White House for three consecutive summers during the Civil War. He drafted the Emancipation Proclamation in this house, and spent a lot of time with the men at the Soldier’s Home, which is also on the property. Tour guides focus on Lincoln’s ideas, ask thought-provoking questions, and invite guests to engage in discussions. Off the beaten path, the cottage site includes ample parking. Look for D.C. vacation rentals in this area, which lies outside the metro area.
6. Navy Yard Railway Gun
Sitting in a parking lot at the Washington Navy Yard’s museum, the railway gun is one of the biggest pieces of artillery in the world. America built five of these long-range weapons during World War I to reach German trenches in France. The last of the five, this behemoth hosts a 14-inch diameter gun capable of shelling targets up to 20 miles away. Weighing 179,614 pounds, moving them on the railroads was the only way to get these guns close to the front lines. Visit the Washington Navy Yard Monday through Friday for a close-up look, or view the railroad gun from the Anacostia River Trail at any time.
7. The K-9 of the Korean War Veterans Memorial
It’s only two inches tall, but the German Shepherd and his soldier hold their place on the Korean War Veterans Mural Wall, and in history. Approximately 1,500 dogs deployed to Korea from 1950 to 1953, with most working as sentries to silently alert their handlers of potential intruders. Taking time to search for this military K-9 gives you a deeper, personal account of the soldiers and their experiences as you scan the photographic images that were sandblasted into the granite. Search closely, and you can find the image of a real soldier with his German Shepherd.
8. “History on Foot” Tour
Step back in time to April 14, 1865, and relive the night that John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Dressed in period clothing, your tour guide portrays Detective James McDevitt, an investigator who was on duty at police headquarters a half-block from the theater when the assassination happened. He leads your group from the Ford Theater along Booth’s escape route, visiting eight sites along a two-and-a-half hour tour that ends near the White House. Take your kids who are ages eight years old and up for this walking tour.
9. National Bonsai Museum, National Arboretum
The National Bonsai Museum holds a centuries-old treasure that few people realize is there–a Japanese White Pine bonsai tree that survived Hiroshima, and dates all the way back to 1625. The Yamaki family planted and tended this special tree for five generations before donating it to America. Opening in 1976 when Japan presented 53 bonsai trees for the American bicentennial, this unique museum houses 150 of the miniature trees. The bonsai collection includes beeches, maples, and pines, among other species representing a variety of styles.
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