Preparing for the Pope

When Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington, DC, in 2008, I was working near the National Mall and had virtually no interest in religion. But I learned he was going to be cruising down Pennsylvania Avenue in his Popemobile, and really, how often do you see that?

So I took a long lunch and ran through thick, sweaty throngs of devoted Catholics, Protestant protesters, official PopeGear© hawkers, and looky-loos like me to watch a little foreign man sitting behind Plexiglass. He rode by at 10 miles an hour, waving to the crowd in a halty, mechanical motion, and then he was off to his next papal adventure.

Pope Francis’ US visit later this month will draw enormous crowds. If you can go, by all means see him! Go for the history, go for the amusing anecdote. Just don’t go for spiritual fulfillment, because, when you’re shoved into a space with thousands of other bodies and you’re hot and tired and hungry, a two-second glimpse of a man in a car is not going to cut it.

If you want spiritual fulfillment, try these places instead:

1. The Baltimore Basilica


America’s first cathedral was built in the early 19th century in Baltimore, Maryland. Today it is a hodgepodge of neoclassical design, modern renovations, and a spectacularly spooky underbelly. Though open to the public 7 days a week, John Paul II was the last papal visitor.

2. Cathedral of St. Matthew

Picture of the Inside of the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, DC

Located in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, many Washingtonians walk by this historic landmark every day without ever giving it more than a glance. Its plain exterior is deceptive, though, for inside boasts soaring ceilings, intricate, shimmering mosaics, and the largest pipe organ you’re likely to ever see. The Cathedral of St. Matthew is where part of JFK’s state funeral was held, and it is also a favorite for visiting popes–Pope Francis is meeting with bishops for a midday prayer here.

3. The National Gallery of Art

Picture of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC

Though DC’s National Gallery of Art isn’t bursting with papal visits, it is bursting with Catholic imagery. With everything from coinage to Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, the galleries are the ideal place for quiet, spiritual reflection.


Tuesday Tip: Native Foods Cafe

There are plenty of dining options in Washington, DC, but few that are fast, reasonably priced, and manage to be both healthy and delicious. Native Foods Cafe–locations at Navy Memorial, Farragut North, and Falls Church–miraculously hits that sweet spot.

The menu is entirely plant based, but with options ranging from Baja Blackened Tacos to Crispy Chicken, Bacon, and Avocado Club Sandwiches, you’d never know it. The DC locations also have a range of eco-friendly beers and wines from which to choose.

In addition to a plant-based and organic-when-possible menu, the restaurant itself also incorporates sustainable practices. Compostable packaging, repurposed fixtures and furniture, LEED-certified lighting…it feels good to eat here.

Of course, plenty of Washingtonians feel the same way, and the small space at Navy Memorial fills up very quickly during the weekday lunch rush. If it’s a nice day, get your meal to go and then dine on the nearby Memorial steps.

Native Foods Cafe started in Palm Springs, CA. It now has restaurants throughout California as well as in Colorado, Oregon, Chicago, and DC.

Tuesday Tip: Ice Skating in the US Capital

With news that another polar vortex is setting its sights on the contiguous US, thoughts are naturally turning to winter and its cool-weather pursuits.

Three outdoor ice-skating rinks in Washington, DC, are getting ready to open up and herald the arrival of the most wonderful time of year. Rockefeller Center may get all the attention, but the public rinks 200 miles southwest are even more exhilarating!

Washington Harbour
The Washington Harbour Ice Rink will open in a few days and run through March. The rink–normally a large fountain–is larger than that other rink in NYC, and it only costs $10 to skate. Located in historic Georgetown, Washington Harbour is surrounded by restaurants, fine shopping, and an unbeatable view of the Potomac.

Canal Park
The ice rink at Canal Park is a smaller venue than Washington Harbour, but its track-inspired layout is a fun alternative to the usual circular expanse of ice. Located in Southeast DC, Canal Park is $9 and offers ice-skating classes for ages 3 and up. Opened on November 8.

National Gallery of Art
The one near and dear to my heart. Located in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden on the National Mall, the NGA’s ice-skating rink–with its easy Metro accessibility–is the most convenient of the three DC options. It’s also the most cultured rink, with famous and provocative statues by Miró, Lichtenstein, and more just feet away. Skating is $8 and opens on November 14.

Tuesday Tip: Nat Geo Museum

It’s not free like many other DC museums, but the National Geographic Museum is well worth a visit.

Located near the White House, Nat Geo is perfect for inquisitive tourists and those tired of the sometimes-stuffy buildings on the National Mall. It also tends to be less crowded than its Smithsonian cousins and offers some of the East Coast’s best science-focused exhibits.

The current highlight is Spinosaurus: Lost Giant of the Cretaceous. The largest of all predatory dinosaurs, Spinosaurus was discovered more than 100 years ago but somehow never gained the notoriety of fellow carnivore Tyrannosaurus Rex.

In Nat Geo’s exhibition, visitors will see a full-sized Spinosaurus model, ogle real dinosaur fossils, and trace the discovery and re-discovery of the ancient giant.

If you’re anything like this wannabe-paleontologist (and wannabe-astronomer…and wannabe-physicist…) the Nat Geo Museum is the place for you!

The Nat Geo Museum is open daily, 10AM-6PM. Adult tickets are $11 and can be purchased online. Special note: To celebrate National Fossil Day on October 15, Nat Geo is offering a buy one, get one free admission deal for entries on that day. Use promo code FOSSIL at purchase (purchase must be made online).

DC VegFest

Today was DC’s VegFest, hosted by Compassion Over Killing. Even though I’ve been veg for years and even used to volunteer for COK, somehow I’ve never made it to their big annual festival.

Picture of sign at the DC VegFest

The event draws about 10,000 people. There was already a long line by the time I got there, about 45 minutes before the gates opened.

Picture of line to get into the DC VegFest

The line to get in. I was at about the mid-way point.

In all honesty, the only thing I really wanted was the food from Vegan Treats. It’s by far the most popular booth at the festival, and I ended up just trading one line for another.

Picture of the DC VegFest

The line for Vegan Treats

I think you will agree it was worth the wait.

Picture of baked goods from Vegan Treats

Picture of baked goods from Vegan Treats

My friend and I walked around for a little while longer as we sampled food and enviously stared at the purchases of others.

And then we went to a brewery.

Picture of DC street life

At the brewery, for some reason

Annnnd then I went home to eat this:

Picture of baked goods from Vegan Treats

All in all, a good day.

Tuesday Tip: Free DC

Beyond food and lodging, there’s no reason a tourist visiting Washington, DC, need spend any money. Get a hotel near the National Mall, and you’re within walking distance to dozens of free activities suitable for the entire family.

Stop by one or more of the (mercifully air-conditioned) Smithsonian museums to see objects from the Apollo 11 moon landing, the infamous “puffy shirt” from Seinfeld, or a nearly complete Tyrannosaurus rexTake a stroll through the US Botanic Garden or survey the city from the Washington Monument. Visit the Library of Congress for year-round public tours and lectures. The National Gallery of Art (pictured above) has outstanding examples of both US and European art, and during the summer months you can enjoy a free, live concert at the NGA’s Jazz in the Garden. At the nearby US National Archives, you can view this country’s most-important documents  as well as the only copy of the Magna Carta on display in the US. Visit in the summer and you can take part in Screen on the Green–a beloved DC tradition–or come during the winter to see the national Christmas tree at the White House.

No matter when you visit, DC has something free–and fun–to enjoy. Pay a visit to the US’s surprisingly affordable capital city today!

Top 5 Drinkeries in Northwest DC

Washington, DC, is positively busting with bars and pubs. There are so many from which to choose, in fact, that it can be difficult to weed through the masses. The following establishments are close enough to the usual sightseeing haunts to be accessible for visitors, but are far enough away not to be overrun by tourists. Try one out the next time you’re in town for a more-authentic DC experience!

1. L’Enfant Café
2000 18th St NW; Red Line, Dupont Circle

If the metal replica of the Eiffel Tower on its roof doesn’t lure you in, L’Enfant Café’s quaint outdoor seating will. The French-style bistro owns prime real estate on the corner of Florida and 18th, and underneath its patio umbrellas is the perfect place to watch DC’s comings and goings. The menu offers a range of both Provençal and northern fare; however, those who abstain from animal products will not find much beyond pommes frites. Perhaps more appealing are the beer selection—which includes mostly European ales—and wine list—which draws heavily from France. Prices are fairly standard for the area and certainly more reasonable than Paris.

2. Fox and Hounds
1537 17th St NW; Red Line, Dupont Circle

This dive-y bar fills up quickly on weekday afternoons as DC’s federal workforce swarms to its doors. Get there early enough, though, and you’ll be able to take advantage of the unbeatable happy hour discounts: For four bucks, the bartender will fill a water glass with rail alcohol of your choosing and hand you a small, glass bottle of your mixer. You control the potency; you control your hangover. The grub is good, too, with next-door restaurant Trio supplying the food. Sit outside and watch the people, or stay inside to watch the game. Either way, just be sure to take it easy on those mixed drinks – they sneak up fast!

3. Russia House
1800 Connecticut Ave NW; Red Line, Dupont Circle

All manner of Russian stereotypes can be found within this elegant townhouse just down the block from the Dupont Hilton. There’s the moody lounge itself: lushly appointed with dark wood and red fabric, heavy drapes blocking out the sunlight. There’s the food: the menu boasting borsch, blinis, and $100+ caviar (vegans will be completely left in the dust). And then there’s the vodka. The vodka listing is its own booklet, including every possible type of the clear alcohol. Try potato vodka from Poland or wheat vodka from Ukraine. Feel better about yourself with an organic or gluten-free sample, or splurge on an unusual flavor like Rye Bread, Chipotle, or Salted Caramel. If straight vodka’s not your thing, you can also have any vodka made into a mixed drink. Regular prices are on the high side (shots averaging about $10 a pop), so shoot for happy hour to save yourself a few bucks.

4. Vapiano
1800 M St NW; Red Line, Farragut North

Vapiano is a German chain, and its M Street location is surrounded by office buildings and parking garages. Despite this, it is one of the best places to eat and drink in northwest DC. Upon entering, each customer is handed a meal card with which to ring up food and drinks during the evening. (At the end of the meal, simply hand back the card at the cash register and pay—as everyone will have his or her own card, there are no separate checks and no pesky tasks like splitting up the bill.) To the right, sleek counters and chalk menus tempt customers with soul food, Italian-style: antipasti, hearty pizzas, and fresh pasta. Everything is made to order, and the innumerous possible ingredient combinations mean everyone will find something to enjoy. The lounge offers a wide selection of wines and spirits and a few happy hour deals. There is ample seating inside and out; that said, it is a favorite among the suit-clad Washingtonians who work in this area and it is best to get there early.

5. Cleveland Park Bar and Grill
3421 Connecticut Ave NW; Red Line, Cleveland Park

At first blush, Cleveland Park Bar and Grill appears to be nothing more than a large sports bar, its walls lined with television screens broadcasting numerous games. That’s because the real action is on the roof: Head through the bar to the fairly hidden staircase at its back. Once you climb to the top, you’ll enjoy great views and a more-relaxed crowd while still partaking in a wide range of beers at reasonable prices. The menu isn’t terribly extensive, but the restricted eater should be able to find one or two options. And, like most DC places, there is a happy hour, although those looking for discounted imports will be disappointed. Get there as early as you can to secure a seat, and then sip on your drink as you watch night fall on the city.

What’s your favorite DC drinkery?