Saturday, January 28, 2023

D.C. walking tours that go beyond the National Mall


Here in D.C., there might be a hidden history on the blocks where you walk to work, the streets you jog along and the corners where you stop for a bite. One easy way to learn more about your own city is to join a walking tour — and no, they’re not just for tourists at the National Mall.

Many tour companies are branching out beyond the monuments to offer neighborhood tours (such as DC by Foot’s “Historic Anacostia” or Washington Walks’ Logan Circle tours). There are also jaunts focused on specific interests and intriguing Washingtonians. Need some examples? We asked guides to share the off-the-beaten path walking tours that they think would be most appealing for locals.

Explore U Street via food or music

Two tour companies have figured out imaginative ways to connect with U Street’s past, back to its time as bustling “Black Broadway.” During Blue Fern Travel’s “U Street Food Tour,” walkers meet at Ben’s Chili Bowl for half-smokes, then set off to see the Lincoln Theatre and the site of Duke Ellington’s first paid gig, with stops for snacks along the way from local restaurants. You can join a public tour with a couple of friends or sign up for a private tour. (A portion of the ticket price goes to hunger-fighting organization Bread for the City, and Blue Fern Travel also runs tours featuring local restaurants in Alexandria and Georgetown. By fall, the company will add a second food tour in Baltimore and its first “Fizz Tour” focusing on drinks, offering a Silver Spring brewery itinerary.) Public tours are $99 per person. The base private tour price is $299 for two people plus $125 for each additional person, with a maximum of 10 people. Contact Blue Fern Travel for private groups from 11 to 150.

Civics educator-turned-tour guide Tim Wright of Attucks Adams offers 90-minute U Street tours featuring a playlist of the corridor’s musical history from jazz to hip-hop, go-go and punk — all corresponding to the neighborhood’s sights. You can join a public tour via Airbnb Experiences or arrange a private tour. “This U Street tour is equally satisfying for someone who dropped into D.C. and doesn’t know anything and someone who was born here in 1950 or 1960 and they’ve lived here their whole lives,” Wright says. Other Attucks Adams tours include a “rights walk” down Pennsylvania Avenue that focuses on the emancipation of enslaved D.C. residents and a suffragist parade demanding the right to vote for women. All Attucks Adams tours are available for private groups, starting at $125 for up to five people. Book a spot on the public Art & Soul of Black Broadway tour on Airbnb for $25 per adult and $20 per child.

How tour guide Carla Smith would spend a perfect day in D.C.

Live out your “Gilded Age” dreams

While you’re waiting for new episodes of HBO’s soapy historical drama “The Gilded Age,” you can learn all about D.C. rivalries that played out via the grand homes of Embassy Row. “There’s an incredible diversity of designs and styles. It’s like a giant game of keeping up with the Joneses. All these rich Washingtonians are trying to show each other up; each mansion is bigger and fancier than the next,” says Carolyn Muraskin, the owner of DC Design Tours. She leads a walking tour from Dupont Circle up Massachusetts Avenue and into Kalorama, encouraging walkers to look up at all those extravagant homes owned by famous and lesser-known movers and shakers of the Gilded Age. “We cover all the different styles, like how to identify Italianate revival or Second Empire, and then all the juicy tidbits about all the rich people who lived there,” she says. As with all of Muraskin’s architecturally focused outings, you can schedule your own private tour or join up to 20 other walkers on a small-group public tour. Tickets to join any small-group public tour, including “Dupont Circle & Embassy Row,” are $35 per adult and $20 per child. Private bookings start at $250 for up to six people, with added fees for larger groups.

Follow in Frederick Douglass’s footsteps

Longtime friends John Muller and Justin McNeil call themselves and their colleagues at the recently formed Lost History Associates “street historians,” creating walking tours, heritage markers and presentations devoted to the untold stories of D.C. communities. “People are reevaluating what history is told, why it’s told, who is telling it,” Muller explains. The duo has been developing new tours, such as tracking down the history of Georgia Avenue as an underground railroad route. A core focus is abolitionist, statesman, writer and “Lion of Anacostia” Frederick Douglass. In-person and online walking tours explore different aspects of Douglass’s life by retracing his steps in Anacostia, Capitol Hill, Howard University and farther afield in Baltimore, Annapolis and beyond. Public tours cost $12.50 to $22 per person; contact organizers for one-on-one tours or private group tours.

Ways to learn about architecture and history on your walk

Find and photograph D.C.’s most charming alleys

David Santori has a way of making the streets of D.C. look so elegant and European, and his @frenchieyankee Instagram account inspired a side hustle. “I received so many messages from people wanting to know either where I walk or what streets are the best or the cutest or the prettiest for photos,” he says about how he started his one-on-one “The Other D.C.” walking tours in 2018. The French native fell in love with the city after moving here in 2016 and started posting neighborhood photos on Instagram at a time when most D.C. Insta shots were focused solely on landmarks and monuments. He wants to show visitors (and locals too) that there’s much more to D.C. than the Mall.

“There are a lot of unusual places, and just delightful streets and hidden gems and back alleys everywhere,” he says. As the only guest on the tour, you can follow in his footsteps to find the most picturesque spots in Georgetown, Logan Circle, Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Santori will also share his mobile photography tips and the Instagram best practices that netted him thousands of followers. (Get a taste for Santori’s style with his @theotherdc Instagram account curated with photos using the tag #theotherdc to showcase a very pretty side of the District). Personalized walking tours for singles, couples and families range from $135 to $250.

Learn about old-school D.C. scandals

There have been so many affairs, murders and altogether sordid events in this town over the decades that DC By Foot is able to offer tours devoted to scandals in multiple D.C. neighborhoods. The tour company offers popular ghost walks, but its scandals series is “the biggest one for locals, because it’s a fun night out,” explains Canden Arciniega, manager and guide at DC by Foot. “Everyone is into true crime right now, and there’s so much of it in D.C. that we do Capitol Hill, Embassy Row/Dupont Circle and then Georgetown,” she says. Arciniega’s such a fan of the topic that one of the books she’s written is called “Wicked Georgetown: Scoundrels, Sinners and Spies.”

During the company’s scandals walks, you’ll stand at the site of attempted murders on Embassy Row, learn why Lafayette Square is called “Tragedy Square” and discover Arciniega’s personal favorite scandalous story about the May-December romance behind Georgetown’s Bodisco House, recently owned by John F. Kerry. Then there are the X-rated missives penned by the 29th president. “Hearing the risque love letters of Warren G. Harding is very entertainingly awkward,” Arciniega jokes about the frank, not-so-family-friendly tour material. DC By Foot’s scandals tours will be available on select dates in the summer as public tours and as private tours, then will run regularly as public tours in the fall. Public scandals tours start at $35 per person; contact organizers for one-on-one or private group tours.

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