It may be hard to imagine much of anything in Washington, DC as a “hidden gem.” After all, this is one of the most iconic cities in the world, known for its incredible restaurants, museums, and landmarks, as well as its spectacular annual cherry blossom bloom in the spring.
However, with a bit of effort and willingness to get off the beaten path, you’ll find some amazing Washington DC hidden gems.
Whether you're a longtime local or just visiting, exploring like this is the best way to really get a sense of the city’s culture. Ready? Let's go!
Must-see Washington DC Hidden Gems
From top-secret speakeasies to elaborate staircases in the middle of historic neighborhoods, there are plenty of hidden gems to discover in Washington DC.
This not-so-little urban oasis provides a much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of life in the big city. Stroll the garden’s 446 acres, filled with impressive collections of everything from azaleas to magnolias to dogwood trees.
The real stars of the show at the arboretum, though, are the bonsai trees and the National Capitol Columns. The columns were built in 1828 (!!) and were actually part of the Capitol up until 1958!
Added bonus: the arboretum is totally FREE to enjoy!
2. Smokey the Bear’s Corporate Office
Thanks to him, people all over the world know that “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” Stop by this hidden gem in Washington, DC, located inside the lodge at the U.S. Forest Service Headquarters, to pay homage to Smokey the Bear.
An animatronic Smokey, his feet propped up on his desk, greets visitors with his signature line.
This Washington, DC hidden gem is something of a twofer — a historical site as well as one for foodies.
Opened in 1805, the Municipal Fish Market is the oldest continuously-operating open-air fish market in the entire country. Enjoy stunning views of the city and Potomac River as you shop the fish vendors. You’ll find fresh-caught oysters, shrimps, Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, and many other types of seafood.
4. Spanish Steps
Nestled in the posh Kalorama neighborhood, the Decatur Terrace Steps, more commonly known as the Spanish Steps, are one of the must-sees when it comes to Washington DC hidden gems.
The steps are beautiful, four-tiered and wide with a lion-head fountain. What makes the staircase most interesting, though, is its history.
It was built in 1911 as a solution for pedestrians and neighborhood residents on a road that was too steep for vehicles to cross. This hill, on what should be 22nd Street NW, runs between S Street and Decatur Place. Coming from the north, it's well-hidden from plain view.
There's more than meets the eye at MOM's Organic Market in College Park. Tucked into a secret room behind the frozen section, you'll find a full-blown pinball parlor!
The room has about three dozen coin-operated pinball machines ranging from vintage 1970s and '80s-era games to modern ones with all the latest bells and whistles.
Fridays are tournament nights, which attract a huge local following. Bring cash; games range from $.50 - $1.00 per play.
This Washington DC hidden gem is for all the history buffs. Visit this picture-perfect cottage, built in 1842, where President Abraham Lincoln lived during the Civil War.
While the cottage itself is beautiful, its real allure lies in the history it holds. President Lincoln thought of and enacted some of his most significant legislation here, including the Emancipation Proclamation.
Imagine a nautical-themed tiki bar, complete with fishing nets, lobster cages, rope decor, and barrels. Now imagine this bar is hidden away within the unassuming front of a popular donut shop.
We've just described Captain Gregory's, nestled inside Sugar Shack. To find it, look for the red-white-and-blue flag sticking out of one of the walls. Reservations required.
8. MLK, Jr. Time Capsule
A real-life time capsule, this Washington, DC hidden gem is set to be opened in 2088 — exactly 100 years after it was buried.
Under Freedom Plaza, a memorial of the late Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, lies a capsule that includes his Bible, a favorite robe, and most unusually, a 51-star flag.
While you’re visiting, take a good look at the stone pavers outside Freedom Plaza. They’re arranged to depict a map of the city!
As the “oldest continuously-operated miniature golf course in the United States,” East Potomac’s mini golf course is unquestionably one of the most interesting hidden gems in Washington, DC.
It was built in 1931 and while it’s been renovated a few times over the years, the mini-golf course retains many of its original features. Today, it’s listed on the National Register for Historic Places — the only mini golf course listed!
10. Capitol Dome
We're finishing our list of Washington DC hidden gems with one that's actually in plain sight: the Capitol Dome.
The dome was constructed between 1856 and 1866 from 8,909,200 pounds of cast iron. It is truly a "masterpiece of American will and ingenuity."
To see the Capitol Dome, visitors must be accompanied by a member of the House or Senate. Call your local House Representative to request a tour.
And whether you've already been or you haven't checked DC off your bucket list just yet, The Wander Club Shop Travel Tokens are the perfect way to commemorate your travels. Choose from a huge selection, including National Park Tokens, U.S. States, Landmarks, and even Custom options!
Safe travels, and enjoy getting off the turf exploring Washington DC hidden gems!