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With the 2024 AIA Conference on Architecture set to kick off next week on June 5 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., RECORD reached out to several locally based architects, design writers, museum leaders, and others seeking recommendations for conference attendees who might be looking to peel off and explore the nation’s capital beyond the convention center floor (where you’ll find RECORD at booth 345). While our guide includes noteworthy D.C. buildings, ranging from historic to contemporary, it also features storied cultural institutions located at a remove from the dense crowds of the National Mall, lesser-trafficked memorials, bustling urban markets, trendy cocktail bars, and much more.

Below, you’ll find our insider's suggestions for making the most of a trip to the District.

Pilgrimage-Worthy Historic Architecture

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The Octagon House. Photo by Aude, Wikimedia Commons

The Octagon House (1799 New York Ave. NW) is one of the most phenomenal historic houses in D.C., designed by Dr. William Thornton, the first architect of the Capitol, for Colonel John Tayloe III, a Virginia planter. Completed in 1801, this was a private house in the very early days of the new federal city, built on ground recommended by George Washington, who predicted how the city would develop. Significantly, President James Madison and his wife, Dolly, resided in the House in 1814 after the White House was burned during the War of 1812 and in which he signed the Treaty of Ghent. The building is also well-known as a haunted house, which I experienced while working there! —Mari Nakahara, Curator of Architecture, Design, & Engineering, The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The National Gallery of Art'’s West Building (6th St. and Constitution Ave. NW) is my favorite: finely proportioned, refined, elegantly detailed, and restrained in its sense of classicism. A close second is the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building (900 Jefferson Dr. SW). However, the best part, the interior, is currently closed. —Susan Wertheim, Chief Architect, National Gallery of Art

Modern Marvels

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The Hirshhorn Museum. Photo courtesy the Smithsonian Institution

The Hirshhorn Museum ( Independence Ave. SW and 7th St. SW)  is a lovely cylindrical, concrete counterpoint to the rectilinear swath of nearby government buildings; I.M. Pei's National Gallery of Art East Building, whose 19-degree "knife-edge" corner is also a key stop on any architectural pilgrimage. Deane Madsen, RECORD contributor; founder of BrutalistDC

The recently completed Stead Park Recreation Center (1625 P St. NW) by VMDO Architects is a zero-energy community center in the Dupont Circle area that puts a fully restored historic carriage house as the focal point of a revitalized urban park. —Noah Marble, principal and studio director of D.C. office, EskewDumezRipple

The U.S. Tax Court (400 2nd St. NW) stands in Judiciary Square. Commissioned by the General Services Administration, Victor Lundy designed the building in 1966. Completion was delayed because money for the project was shifted to help fund the war in Vietnam. It is Lundy’s most significant public building in its Modernist expression, use of materials, and engineering. The U.S. Tax Court was one of the most successful efforts to improve the quality of architecture built by the federal government using principles developed under President Kennedy in 1962. —Mari Nakahara 

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The U.S. Tax Court. Photo courtesy GSA, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Outside the Gallery Walls: Favorite Works of Public Art

Each immersive mural by Aniekan Udofia is a gift to D.C. both during its inclusive process of creation, when passersby are incorporated into the compositions, and after it’s painted, when it becomes a backdrop to the city’s everyday life. Visiting Aniekan’s publicly subsidized murals free of charge is a fitting afternoon activity in a place known for its free access to art. Theo Morrow is another D.C. artist using bright colors to enliven the streetscape, finding small-scale municipal opportunities to reimagine D.C.’s Brutalist structures in hyper-saturated palettes. Benches, utility boxes, Metro signs, and construction fences all become canvases to expand Morrowland, Theo’s playful and mystical alternate reality. —Andrew Linn, co-founder and co-principal of 2023 RECORD Design Vanguard BLDUS

Capital Strolls: Neighborhoods to Explore by Foot

The Union Market neighborhood, a mile north from historic Union Station, is bustling with activity and character, rich with all the gritty traces of what was 200 years ago, the commercial hub of Washington, D.C. The market—at the heart of the neighborhood—reopened in 2012 after a fire destroyed the original 1800’s structure. One of the first contemporary urban food halls at that time, it continues to be one of the best places for foodies and local events. Surrounding the market are wonderful coffee shops like Pluma (391 Morse St. NE), independent shops like Made In DC, (325 Morse St. NE) and Salt&Sundry (1309 5th St. NE), and great bars like St. Anselm (1250 5th St. NE). The diversity, rich character, and vibrant energy of the neighborhood are why we chose it as the location for our new office. —Elba Morales, principal & director of design, Washington, D.C., Hickok Cole

D.C. has a long history of alley houses, few of which have survived to the present day, but a new wave is bringing residents back into the city’s alleys. Outlawed for decades after mid-20th century urban renewal campaigns, 2016 legislation aimed at alleviating the housing crunch made building alley houses possible again. Unnamed alleys have recently been named to honor past trailblazing artists and preservationists like Adelaide Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Ruth Ann Overbeck, and Elizabeth Catlett, and are having high-performance, healthy houses built in them. Other alley developments feature projects with multiple units, like Adolf Cluss Court, Duvall Court, Ebenezer Court, Kings Court, and Walker Court. —Andrew Linn

Dining & Drinking Destinations with Distinct D.C. Charm

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Le Diplomate. Photo by APK, Wikimedia Commons

For great meals, we recommend Le Diplomate (1601 14th St. NW) along with Pastis (1323 4th St. NE) and El Presidente (1255 Union St. NE), both of which are in the Union Market neighborhood. —Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO, and Nord Wennerstrom, director of communications, The Cultural Landscape Foundation

D.C.’s food scene is pretty incredible—and this is coming from (former) life-long New York foodie! For a great food and cocktail scene with a unique D.C. vibe, I would concentrate on Chinatown and Penn Quarter. Both Denson Liquor Bar (600 F St. NW) and Silver Lyan (900 F St. NW) offer incredible “underground” cocktail experiences. Then head walk over to the Izakaya at Daikaya (705 6th St. NW) for inventive Japanese dishes, fun bites, and skewers. Or try to snag a reservation at new hotspot, Moonrabbit (927 F St. NW). —Aileen Fuchs, president and executive director, the National Building Museum 

Almost every city has a collection of food halls these days, but the trend arguably started with places such as Eastern Market (225 7th St SE), which opened in 1873 and still features farm stalls and butcher shops among more contemporary prepared food offerings. Blagden Alley, one of the District's interstitial streets that carve into superblocks within the L'Enfant Plan, hosts a variety of evening options, from dinner at Tiger Fork ( 922 N St. NW, Blagden Alley NW) to drinks at Death & Co. (124 Blagden Alley NW) or The Dabney (122 Blagden Alley NW)—or coffee in the morning from La Colombe (924 Blagden Alley NW  and other locations) to cure it all on your way to the Convention Center. —Deane Madsen

Purple Patch (3155 Mt Pleasant St. NW), a Filipino-owned and -operated restaurant located in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, is great for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or any meal in between. It was Washington Post food critic Tom Sistema’s 2023 restaurant of the year. —Noah Marble

Recommended Museums (of the non-Smithsonian Variety) 


National Museum of Women in the Arts. Photo © Kate Wichlinski, courtesy of NMWA

The National Museum of Women in the Arts (1250 New York Ave. NW), of course! Following a transformative $70 million-plus renovation led by Baltimore-based preservation architect Sandra Vicchio & Associates it is the place to see in the heart of Washington. NMWA is the first museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts, addressing the gender imbalance in the presentation of art by bringing to light important women artists of the past while promoting great women artists working today. —Susan Fisher Sterling, director, National Museum of Women in the Arts

The Kreeger Museum (2401 Foxhall Rd NW) is a 1963 Philip Johnson–designed art museum nestled onto a five-acre site in Northwest D.C. —Noah Marble

Off the Mall: Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) Gems That Many Visitors Overlook

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Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by agnosticpreacherskid, Wikimedia Commons

For an off the Mall destination, go to Dumbarton Oaks (1703 32nd St. NW) in Georgetown, an extraordinary collection of art (medieval and Pre-Columbian), architecture (buildings of architectural significance include the Pre-Columbian Gallery, designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1963, and the Research Library designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and finished in 2005), and landscape architecture by Beatrix Farrand, which was singled out by National Geographic as one of the ten best gardens in the world in 2014. —Charles Birnbaum and Nord Wennerstrom

The Titanic Memorial (4th and P Streets, SW) near Washington Channel Park in Southwest D.C. is a memorial to the men who gave their lives to save women and children. This part of Southwest D.C. also has a lot of circa-1960s multifamily housing, some of it designed by Cloethial Woodard Smith and some by Charles Goodman, with Dan Kiley–landscaped grounds and courtyards. I also just discovered a Harry Bertoia bronze relief wall mural at Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport (behind TSA screening area near Capital One lounge). —Susan Wertheim

About a 15-minute Uber-ride away from downtown is Sycamore & Oak (1110 Oak Dr. SE) in Congress Heights. Within Ward 8, the most overlooked ward in the city and the zip code with the youngest population, Sycamore & Oak is part of the major transformation of the historic St. Elizabeths East Campus. The retail village, managed by the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation, is an incubator that houses 20 Black-owned businesses inside a beautiful timber pavilion. This is a wonderful place for lunch and shopping, and a great opportunity to see in real-time how a neighborhood comes together to create a place for arts, culture, and entertainment programming that is actively informing the design of a future mixed-use project that will be built here. —Elba Morales

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The Great Hall of the National Building Museum. Photo by Kevin Allen, courtesy NBM

While the National Building Museum (401 F St. NW) isn’t so “hidden” it certainly is a gem that blows most people away. Visitors of all ages are initially awestruck by the interior Corinthian columns (largest in the world when built). Design enthusiasts will be attracted to much of the current content including three new exhibitions: Building Stories, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Southwestern Pennsylvania, and Capital Brutalism. —Aileen Fuchs

Obligatory Tourist Traps

The United States Capitol might be the most recognizable building in the world, yet standing atop it, unbeknownst to millions, is the mysterious bronze Statue of Freedom, one of the only representations of a woman (or in this case, a goddess) on the National Mall. Facing the rising sun to the east with her back to the Washington Monument and White House, Lady Freedom was designed by a group of people with diverse political beliefs, and she watches over the good and bad that happens daily in Congress. Visit her 19-foot plaster twin in the Capitol Visitors Center for free without taking the full Capitol tour. What you once thought of as a giant white dome towering above law chambers becomes a billowing platform that elevates Lady Freedom as she radiates her majesty across the city. —Andrew Linn

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The Washington Monument. Photo by f11photo, Shutterstock

For the best views of the city, climb aboard an elevator to the top of the Washington Monument and see D.C.'s gridded L'Enfant Plan layout from 500 feet above. The National Parks Service runs distributes same-day walk-up tickets; if they're out of tickets, try your luck at the less-crowded tower above the Old Post Office Tower (1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW), which offers a 270-foot-high vantage overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. For the height-averse, the L'Enfant Plan is recreated in pavers of white marble and black granite at Freedom Plaza (1325 Pennsylvania Ave. NW), which opened in 1980 and was designed by Venturi Rauch & Scott Brown with landscape architect George Patton. —Deane Madsen

DMV Road Trip: Out-of-Town Destinations

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Great Falls Tavern in Potomac. Photo by Russ, Wikimedia Commons

Stop at the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center (11710 Macarthur Blvd, Potomac, Maryland) for a quick walk to some amazing natural beauty. —Noah Marble

For art and architecture aficionados, the day trip to Glenstone (12100 Glen Rd, Potomac, Maryland) is a must. Beyond the original Gwathmey Siegel–designed gallery and residence, the museum nearly quadrupled in size with its 2018 addition by Thomas Phifer and Partners and a subsequent sylvan pavilion in 2022, also by Phifer, to house an installation by the late Richard Serra. Entry to Glenstone is guaranteed when taking public transportation; Maryland Transportation's route 301 drops off at the museum. [Editor’s note: Phifer’s Pavilions are currently closed for renovation while the grounds and other buildings remain open.] —Deane Madsen

Editors’ Picks:

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Eastern Market Station on the D.C. Metro. Photo by aidanlang, Shutterstock

The D.C. Metro, Harry Weese
The REACH at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Steven Holl Architects (2700 F St. NW)
PAHO Headquarters, Román Fresnedo Siri (525 23rd St. NW)
The Watergate Complex, Luigi Moretti (2600 Virginia Ave. NW)
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Mies van der Rohe, renovated by Mecanoo and OTJ (901 G St. NW)
St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Michael Graves (1901 Independence Ave. SE)
House of Sweden, Gert Wingårdh and Tomas Hansen (2900 K St. NW)
Washington National Cathedral, George Frederick Bodley, Henry Vaughn, Philip Hubert Frohman (3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW)
FDR Memorial, Lawrence Halprin (400 W. Basin Dr. SW)
Shaw Neighborhood Library, Davis Brody Bond (1630 7th St. NW)
Mead Center for Performing Arts/Arena Stage, Bing Thom Architects (1101 6th St. SW)
The Washington Hilton, William B. Tabler (1919 Connecticut Ave. NW)

Compiled by Matt Hickman, Matthew Marani, and Pansy Schulman