In the District: Take a few tips from the locals Neighborhoods: In places like Friendship Heights, Adams Morgan and Capitol Hill, you'll find the Washington of residents, not just tourists.

Short Hop

May 03, 1998|By Elizabeth Gehrman | Elizabeth Gehrman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Once you've done the tourist thing, where do you go for the real Washington, the one Washingtonians know and sometimes even love? The one in which you're more likely to overhear, "And she signed it 'Love, Tipper' " than "Darn, the gift shop's closed"?

One place to find this parallel universe is in Washington's neighborhoods, those old-fashioned havens where office workers and tour guides and struggling artists live no matter who's occupying the White House.

Start your day the way the locals do: with breakfast at Eastern Market on yuppieish, almost suburban Capitol Hill. There's nothing spectacular about the menu - omelets, crab cakes, scrapple - but a plate is heaped and cheap, and every Saturday and Sunday, the line is out the door. The market itself was started in 1973 in a pair of buildings abandoned by D.C.'s transportation department, and has grown into a weekend happening, with arts and crafts, an outdoor flea market and buskers strolling about. The Hill itself, like many Washington neighborhoods, is an architectural treasure chest of Victorian and Queen Anne gems.

The Adams Morgan district, developed in the late 19th century, is also home to much of Washington's best architecture, with grand Italianate and Beaux Arts mansions, regiments of rowhouses, and ornate chapels and churches. Though the area is best known for its ethnic food - Portuguese, Egyptian, Ethiopian, French, Indian, Vietnamese and Caribbean share just a few blocks of 18th Street - it also holds one of the district' most beautiful green spaces. The cascading waterfall and terraced gardens of Meridian Hill Park on 16th Street Northwest, also known as Malcolm X Park, are based on classic 18th-century European designs. Once considered as a site for the White House, the park today offers occasional free concerts and provides an oasis from city life.

For those with kids in tow, the old can seem new in D.C. - if you know where to look. The always-worth-a-visit National Zoo recently added a rain-forest exhibit in which monkeys, birds and other animals roam free in the canopy overhead. And this year, steel yourself for a trip to the Museum of Natural History's insect exhibit. If you can't take it for very long, you can always escape to the nearby mall carousel to recover from the creepy crawlies.

The Doll's House and Toy Museum in Friendship Heights is another option that's sure to fascinate, with its antique toys, games, dolls and doll houses, including a miniature six-story New Jersey apartment house.

Though technically not a museum, the Discovery Channel Store, opened in March in the MCI Center, is four themed levels of barely controlled, irresistible pandemonium. Yes, it's crammed with tantalizing merchandise displays designed to separate you from your money, but it also has a T. rex skeleton cast, the world's largest ant farm, a World War II B-25 bomber, interactives galore (from paleontology to world cultures and ecosystems), an observatory, a high-definition theater and events that really do bring out the kid in everyone. Get a preview at its Web site, www.flagship.discovery.com.

For the under-12 set, plan at least a few hours - you'd find it tough to tear them away - at the Children's Museum, on Third Street Northeast in Capitol Hill. The immediate vicinity isn't much, but inside is a magical world where hands-on exhibits include a spooky cave, a child-size Mexican town square, a multilevel cityscape playground, an intricate mirrored maze and an animation studio that lets kids star in a cartoon right alongside Wile E. Coyote. Little ones will wear themselves out here so thoroughly that Mom and Dad might even find themselves looking forward to a childless evening on the town.

Night life in Washington, once considered as dull as Al Gore on "Meet the Press," has picked up considerably in the past few years. Perhaps predictably in this town that prides itself on its sophistication, the hottest tickets around are those that cater to the new cool: cigar bars and martini lounges. Ozio's and Sam and Harry's steakhouse are still going strong, as is the James Bond-themed Felix, the first bar in the District to tap into the nascent swing craze, with bands like Lush Life and the nine-piece RKO Orchestra playing on Wednesday nights. Or, if you'd rather work up a sweat with Latin dance, the salsa, merengue and tango still sizzle at Habana Village and Coco Loco, both of which offer lessons for those who've got the beat but not the feet.

There are also several happening options for visitors whose touring has left them longing for a more subdued evening. The Kennedy Center offers eclectic free concerts every evening, and the Phillips Collection, near Dupont Circle, is host to an "Artful Evenings" series on Thursday nights, which consists of live music and a cash bar ($5 for nonmembers).

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