We initially booked our semi-spontaneous trip to Washington, D.C. when we heard the original forecast for the cherry blossom peak. It happened to fall over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, which kicked off Dave’s week-long vacation. What a perfect coincidence! After a small blip in our AirBnb booking process (we cancelled and rebooked another within an hour of the refund cutoff…), we were off!
I managed to adjust my schedule that Friday, so we could leave around 3:30 and make it to DC in good time. Cold brew, homemade protein bites, and Spotify in hand, the drive didn’t feel so bad. (That tends to happen when your car buddy is also the person you love). After settling into our AirBnB (which ended up being the perfect choice!), we were ready to venture out into the city.
As it turned out, the cherry blossom forecast was wrong, but some food, drinks, photography, and coffee soothed the disappointment. We’ll just have to try again next year!
After taking a nap without boundaries (aka waking up without setting an alarm), we got ready in the apartment and whipped up an amazing breakfast before heading out for the day. While eating out at restaurants is always a highlight of our travel experiences, cooking at home let us enjoy the other meals without turning a simple weekend getaway into a money pit.
The air was crisp but warmer than home as we walked from our AirBnB towards the metro to explore the Capital Hill neighborhood. Before hopping the blue line to downtown, we got our fix at a bright green coffee shop. I’ve been known to scope out the coffee shop scene before trips to enjoy impeccable latte art set against side lit marble table tops, but this time, I let serendipity guide us. With a local farmers market drawing crowds, the shop we found was cozy and full of families and the latte and coffee we enjoyed were delicious!
First on the list of attractions was paying RBG a special visit. The Supreme Court building offers a perfect photography opportunity between the massive marble columns and is a must-see for any law/politics enthusiast (like me).
Since it was close by, we stopped into the National Archives, but what we really came to DC for was…
The National Portrait Gallery
Both of us had the Portrait Gallery at the top of our lists once we realized the Obamas’ portraits were displayed there. Seeing hundreds of people, from teens to older couples and everyone in between, waiting in line at a museum on a Saturday just to see these incredible portraits lifted our spirits in these often disheartening times.
As it turns out, the crowds weren’t a fluke. According to ArtNet, “even though the portraits only went on view February 12, midway through an already-short month, the NPG saw its highest monthly visitor total in three years, according to the museum. Among the 176,700 visitors, 50,024 of them passed though the museum doors on President’s Weekend alone—an over 300 percent increase over the same holiday weekend the previous year.”
We poked around a bit after seeing both pieces, but restless with excitement, we decided to move on. We hopped back on the metro, which inspired dreams of a similar system in Pittsburgh. Hi, bring more light rail to the Burgh, plz!
With brightened spirits despite the cloudy weather, we followed our stomachs to Chinatown. We found an amazing ramen spot, Daikaya Ramen, but the wait was about 45 minutes. Thankfully, they also owned the bar upstairs so we just had to settle for delicious pre-lunch saki bombs & Japanese cocktails. Drinking before noon is totally cool on vacation, right?!
Cherry Blossom Pop Up Bar
Aside from the Obamas, this little gem was the reason for our trip. We arrived around 4:30, expecting a ridiculous line, but considering it was also St. Patrick’s Day, the line wasn’t as terrible as it could have been. After about an hour and the entertainment of watching a person behind us get kicked out of line for drinking from a flask, we were ushered into the flowery booze paradise. Floor to ceiling decor quickly transported us to the streets of Tokyo in the back room, a tea house in the middle bar, and a cherry blossom garden in the third. That’s right, THREE BARS. We enjoyed some Japanese beer and I passed off my ID for the chance to drink a Neko Colada, a pina-colada-style drink from a cat cup. I am unashamed because LOOK HOW CUTE.
Millennials will Millennial, as they say.
To wrap up our first day in the capital, we grabbed a quick bite for dinner, took an Uber to a local bar, and fell into bed without setting an alarm. I never knew how much I’d appreciate that tiny fact until I found myself as a real adult.
Busboys & Poets
After waking up slowly and blissfully, we sought out our favorite meal of the week: BRUNCH. As soon as we walked through the doors at Busboys & Poets, I could tell we made the right choice. First, there were bookshelves full of novels from diverse authors tackling issues like gender, race, and class. There were photography books, travel books, and quirky trinkets to peruse at your leisure. Not to mention the sign hung behind our table at breakfast that read:
“Busboys and Poets is a community where racial & cultural connections are consciously uplifted… a place to take deliberate pause and feed your mind, body & soul… a place for art, culture & politics to intentionally collide. We believe that by creating such a space, we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community & the world.”
All this before coffee or omelettes!
Washington, D.C. Leica Store
After breakfast, Dave’s camera sense tingled. According to Google Maps, we were within walking distance to the camera store of all camera stores!
Dave here… I walked into the store with an up-front disclosure: “I am not in the market for a Leica.” However, I did explain that one day, I wanted to own an M-mount 35mm rangefinder, and wanted to hold and feel a Leica – just to see what all the fuss is about. Leica has successfully marketed that their absolutely insane prices are justified due to the “Leica Experience.” Well, ladies and gentlemen, I certainly was treated to that experience that day.
When the sales associate greeted me and listened to my disclosure, he could not have been kinder and more understanding. He immediately produced a brand-new Leica M7 for my inspection. The M7 certainly isn’t my first choice of Leica kit, but I mostly just wanted to see how their system felt. The rangefinder was much brighter and easier to focus than I could imagine. The advance lever felt great, but not as smooth or impressive as I was led to previously believe. A nitpick. The shutter sound, or lack thereof, was exquisite however…
Nerding out aside, chatting with the sales associate was fun, and after explaining that the Leica I really wanted to see was an M6, he went behind the counter and brought me his own personal M6 (loaded with film). He insisted I could fire the shutter, but I could not waste this man’s film! The camera was black and beautiful, just like the $3300 Leica Summicron 35mm f/2 lens attached to it.
Back to the Portrait Gallery
After leaving the cameras behind, I (Dave) found out that the Portrait Gallery had some prints from Edward Weston, Gordon Parks and Dorthea Lange, so we continued the photography nerd-ism and actually went back to see what we had missed. The exhibit focused on gritty, realistic portraits of the American working man and woman. Seeing the detail of Weston’s large format prints (shot at f/64) was worth the trip alone. I was captivated by the stories behind the moments, and it was truly a black and white photographer’s dream to see some of these famous images up close. I was particularly enthralled by the Yousuf Karsh photographs, and his gorgeous use of lighting. Maura was enraptured by the photographs of immigrant workers in Immokalee, Florida, where she traveled on an “immersion trip” in college.
We rounded out our trip by paying a visit to a local brewery – something I (Dave) make a point to do on any vacation. After some preliminary and logistical research, Hellbender Brewing emerged as the best choice for us.
The standout for me was their Wee Heavy – one of my favorite styles! A full-bodied, strong and malty Scottish Ale with some peat smoked malt, from what I could tell, this beer was brewed closely to the traditional style. The high alcohol content (just below 9% abv) was not overpowering, and the peat smoke flavor was just the right amount. From my experience brewing with Beechwood smoked malt, it is very difficult to get the perfect amount of smokiness in the beer, especially with peat smoke. This beer balanced it with the caramelly malts well, resulting in a complex beer and a welcome respite from an oversaturation of American hoppy beers.
With a light dinner and a few beer samples in our stomachs, we bid adieu to Washington, D.C. and started our trek back to Pittsburgh.
Dave and I are both planners – we take joy in and find much of the excitement of travel in the discovering the places we’ll explore in the months to come. Think Google Itineraries, Pinterest boards, and Yelp reviews. But this trip was different. We booked on a whim, which turned out to be wrong anyway, but it lead us to some truly amazing moments and happenstance. We felt collective nostalgia and connection with the hundreds of others in the room as we gazed upon the faces of the Obamas, enjoyed spontaneous ramen and marveled at grandiose museums, tiny shops, and effective public transportation. We didn’t see the cherry blossoms, but we sure enjoyed this city!