Those who visit the nation’s capital for the first time in a decade or so are in for a pleasant surprise. Overlooking (if one can) the federal government’s maladroitness, as a destination, Washington today possesses a dynamism that, along with its fabled history, qualifies it as a great American city. It’s now entirely possible to spend a couple of memorable days here without once eating a New York strip steak or darkening a marble corridor. Check those boxes on your first visit, then come back for This Town’s revelations.
1) 3 P.M. History of Struggle
Since its opening in September 2016, the city’s hottest draw has been the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture on the National Mall. The museum’s immense collection is well worth the long lines. The artifacts — including Nat Turner’s Bible, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and the first edition of Booker T. Washington’s 1907 book “The Negro in Business” — are themselves impressive. But the three-tiered layout lends the feeling of a journey, by turns painful and triumphant. The path ends with a moving video collection of contemporary African Americans reflecting on their life experiences (free admission; walk-up tickets are available on weekdays starting at 1 p.m.).
2) 6:30 P.M. Laid-Back Deliciousness
The galloping culinary scene in Washington coincides with the regrettable trend of no-reservations restaurant policies. But Himitsu, arguably the city’s most creative dining spot, makes the ordeal relatively stress-free. Give the host your name and cell number, then amble down the street to one of the many Petworth neighborhood waystations (such as Ruta del Vino and Hank’s Cocktail Bar), and enjoy a glass or two until a text message informs you that your table awaits at the tiny Japanese-inflected creation of the chef Kevin Tien. His ever-rotating menu includes shareable and uniformly delectable plates of raw seafood, roasted soy chicken and Asian-spiced vegetables. In suitable weather, the streetside tables maximize Himitsu’s chill, not-your-grandfather’s-Washington vibe. If you’re solo, you could do worse than to snack away at the bar while trying wines from countries as far-flung as Bolivia and Georgia. (Dinner for two without wine, about $100.)
3) 10 P.M. Nightcapping with the Demimonde
The “No Clowns” sign on the door hints at the stodge-free ethos of Showtime Lounge, a miniature and easily overlooked cash-only pub in the unprepossessing neighborhood of Bloomingdale. Step inside and you’re under the city’s floorboards: framed images of Humphrey Bogart and spaghetti Western stars on the walls, foreign-language songs from the speakers and a beguiling cast of locals not likely to be found on a CNN panel. Beers on tap, Utz potato chips for food. For the butt-end of the evening, Showtime is an optimal closer.
4) 9 A.M. Upmarket Morning
It took a few years, but now Union Market in the city’s northeastern quadrant has become Washington’s swankiest and most-trafficked indoor market. Though the 22,000-square-foot space hosts several restaurants, some excellent specialty vendors and a seasonal farmers’ market, it achieves peak appeal during weekend breakfast hours. That’s when mostly young and affluent locals gather at tables over the freshly prepared goods of (among others) DC Empanadas, Panorama Bakery and Peregrine Espresso, while others avail themselves of the city’s best fresh seafood and meat grocers. After becoming properly caffeinated, stretch your legs and search for take-home items like imported spices and high-end cutlery.
5) 11 A.M. Celebrating Women Artists
Though the sumptuous and expansive National Museum of Women in the Arts was opened in 1987, the world’s only major space dedicated to the work of female artists has never received the touristic attention it deserves. The museum’s recent special exhibits include abstract works by female African-American artists and a Mexico City-based artist’s use of a clothesline to depict instances of violence against women. Its permanent collection features work from around the globe, as well as revered American artists like the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz and the impressionist painter Ellen Day Hale. On the mezzanine level, a quiet and lovely cafe is one of the city’s best refuges (admission for adults, $10).
6) 1 P.M. Winery in the Capital City
One of the fastest-growing neighborhoods is the 42-acre stretch along the Anacostia River known as the Yards. Though it teems with barhopping millennials, the area hasn’t been regarded as a fine-dining destination. That may change with the recent opening of the District Winery — which, as its name suggests, makes more than a dozen wines on-site, using grapes harvested from Virginia, California and New York. The wines, crafted by the Brooklyn Winery veteran Conor McCormack, are uniformly excellent (particularly the zinfandel and cabernet franc). You can tour the winery, try each selection at the tasting bar and buy bottles to take home. Best of all, enjoy exquisite pairings of the wine with New American cuisine at the casually elegant in-house restaurant Ana, overlooking the river. (Winery tour and tasting, $35. Lunch for two without wine, about $80.)
7) 4 P.M. Forgotten Warriors
A trip to the nation’s capital wouldn’t feel complete without at least a glancing view of its many war monuments. The most underappreciated one is today — thanks to President Trump’s ongoing war of insults with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — perhaps the most topical: the Korean War Veterans Memorial, on the western flank of the National Mall, in the shadows of the much-visited Lincoln Memorial. Dedicated in 1995, its evocative centerpiece consists of 19 stainless steel statues of American soldiers trudging through heavy brush with grim and hyper-alert expressions. In subtle acknowledgment of that war’s vague objectives and not-altogether-satisfying outcome, the etched tribute notes that the soldiers “answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
8) 5:30 P.M. Rooftop Refreshments
Few buildings in Washington are wrapped up in the city’s political intrigue as much as the Watergate, a complex of condominiums and hotel rooms on the banks of the Potomac River. Though the botched burglary in 1972 that metastasized into the toppling of the Nixon presidency began in what the hotel now bills as “Scandal Room 214,” today there’s an additional reason to visit: the Watergate’s Top of the Gate outdoor bar, which opened this past summer and offers the best 360-degree, cocktail-laden views of the city. There is even a small ice-skating rink (with artificial ice) nestled beside the bar. If the weather turns foul, repair to the amply stocked whiskey bar on the lobby level.
9) 7:30 P.M. Riverside Seafood
Washington’s newest development to the southwest, the Wharf, is still a work in progress and for the moment retains the half-populated and over-polished facade of the waterfront town in “The Truman Show.” Already, however, it features one of Washington’s culinary stars: Del Mar de Fabio Trabocchi, the brainchild of Fabio Trabocchi, whose Italian restaurant in Georgetown, Fiola Mare, has supplanted Cafe Milano as the city’s reigning celebrity magnet. Mr. Trabocchi’s Spanish and seafood-centric restaurant opened its doors in October and has instantly become a Michelin star-worthy enterprise. In studied contrast to hip newcomers like Himitsu, Del Mar’s cavernous and fish-sculpture-bedecked interior is designed to dazzle the eyes. But as with all of Mr. Trabocchi’s restaurants, the food still counts most here. From the mango-colored gazpacho to the velvety Iberian ham to the selection of standout paellas, Del Mar is the only reason anyone needs to visit the Wharf — though likely there’ll be more in the coming months. (Dinner for two without wine is about $140.)
10) 10 P.M. Cozy Coda
Yet another fast-developing Washington neighborhood is Brookland, dominated by Catholic University and the majestic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The city’s newest high-quality restaurant, Primrose, opened here just after Thanksgiving. Though the casual, if gorgeously appointed, French bistro serves on-target country staples like coq au vin and boeuf Bourguignon until 11 on weekend nights, Primrose is also ideally suited for nightcaps. Sitting at the bar among a diverse neighborhood crowd with one of the restaurant’s 15 wines by the glass (all from France or Virginia — several of the latter being made by the co-owner Sebastian Zutant) to accompany stout cheeses and rillettes de lapin, you would have no reason to suspect that you’re in anybody’s idea of a swamp, much less a drain-worthy one.
11) 10:30 A.M. District Dim Sum
Among northwest Washington’s many high-activity neighborhoods — Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan — the Shaw district is the latest to be lit up with clever dining spots. One of Shaw’s newest and best is Tiger Fork, a temple of Hong Kong cuisine situated in an alleyway. The eclectically red-and-bamboo Chinese interior (designed by Lauren Winter, who also fashioned Primrose) is smile-eliciting, much like its weekend “Dim Sum and Then Some” menu. Hong Kong-style French toast, Chinese bacon and creamed tofu are among the Sunday hangover remedies, best teamed with a prosecco and passion fruit liqueur-based drink known here as Bad Girl Mimi. (Brunch for two without drinks is about $70.)