Literary Places in a Literate City


This may be old news to some, but to those who haven’t yet heard, permit me to brag a bit: for the THIRD year in a row, Washington, D.C. is the most literate city in the US!  (The study, of cities with 250,000+ residents, is conducted annually and looks at variables such as number of bookstores, newspaper circulation, and internet resources, among others.)  Fellow Washingtonians, we should be very proud.

Last year when we won, I tossed up a quick celebratory post. This year, though, I think more of a party is in order. Because… Three years running. That’s good stuff. And what better way to toast my town than with a literary crawl of Washington, D.C.?  This is a town that’s full of history and promise alike, and amply blessed with things to see, places to eat, and literary gems.  So, here are ten D.C. attractions, places to read nearby, and books to check out that celebrate, portray, or speak to our nation’s very literate capital.

10.  Mount Vernon

George Washington’s estate sits on the banks of the Potomac, looking from Virginia to Maryland.  You can stroll through history here, walk in the footsteps of Presidents on the well-trod floors of the Mansion, feed heirloom sheep, marvel at Farmer George’s ingenious barn, and wander amongst cherry trees in the nursery.  And you can wonder at the spirit of a small band of rebels who dared to take on an Empire, and at their leader who could switch from drawing up battle plans to instructing Martha on what curtains to purchase for the new dining room in the blink of an eye.

What to Read:  1776, by David McCullough.
Where to Read: the Mount Vernon Inn, over a steaming bowl of “pretty terrific” peanut and chestnut soup.

9.  Old Town Alexandria

It’s older than America!  In GW’s day, Old Town was… well… not that old, and it was a thriving small city south of the wetlands that would one day become Washington, D.C.  The Potomac was a thoroughfare and all kinds of travelers passed through on their way to and from Mount Vernon, or to stay.

What to Read: March, by Geraldine Brooks.
Where to Read: Misha’s Coffeehouse, with a cup of something hot, or The Grape and Bean.

8.  The Library of Congress

It’s America’s Library, so you know I’m all over this.  I used to work near the LOC and I’d walk over there on my lunch break just to marvel at the domed ceiling and the public exhibits.  I can’t imagine a better shrine to books and words.

What to Read: The Portable Thomas Jefferson, by Thomas Jefferson (Merrill Peterson, Ed.).
Where to Read: Mitsitam Restaurant at the National Museum of the American Indian – yum.

7.  The Supreme Court

The highest court in the land, and a temple for those of us who stammered our way through moot court competitions.  You can catch an argument there – they’re open to the public and only the most contentious cases fill the court gallery.  Or you can just goggle at the crisp white shrine to justice and recite Article III of the Constitution in your mind.  (Just me?)

What to Read: The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin (obviously!).
Where to Read: Walk over to Eastern Market and plop down at Market Lunch.  Have pancakes.

6.  The Capitol

It’s where the people’s work gets done… or not, depending.  (Mostly not.)  You can watch floor debates from the gallery or get a tour if you contact your Representative ahead of time (or if you know someone inside, as most Washingtonians do… there are almost as many Hill staffers as there are K Street lawyers in this town), or you can just pose for a snapshot and admire the iconic dome.

What to Read: The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell (Americans should be informed!).
Where to Read: Over a beer at Hawk and Dove, rubbing elbows with Dem staffers from the House.

5.  The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. is the most famous address in the United States.  And whether you like the current resident or not, it’s probably the coolest photo op in D.C.

What to Read: Murder in the White House, by Margaret Truman (yes, President Truman’s daughter).
Where to Read: Breadline, where the staffers get their sandwiches and cookies, or the Hay-Adams Hotel if you’re fawncy.

4.  The National Archives

The most famous, important, heart-stirring documents from our nation’s history are here, and you can see them for free!  If you want to get up close and personal with the Declaration of Independence, this is the place to do so (but hands off, Nicholas Cage!).  Or you can be like me – bypass the Declaration and make straight for the Constitution.  I like to have a moment with Article III and the First Amendment.  What?  You totally have favorite parts of the Constitution, too.

What to Read: Common Sense, by Thomas Paine (another important historical document!)
Where to Read: Pop over to the National Gallery of Art and grab a gelato from the Cascade Cafe while you read.

3.  Kramerbooks

It’s part bookstore, part cafe (with an emphasis on pie… mmmm, pie) and that’s reason enough to visit this D.C. institution just north of Dupont Circle.  But it also has the dubious honor of being a favorite hangout spot for Monica Lewinsky (remember her?).  So you can shop for books, have a slice of their amazing blueberry pie, and indulge your secret love of scandal, all in one spot.  Best bang for the buck in D.C., and that’s even if you buy lunch and a book.

What to Read: A Vast Conspiracy, by Jeffrey Toobin, or anything from the shelves – support indie bookstores!
Where to Read: Afterwords, the attached cafe and bakery – have the crab and avocado salad, and a slice of pie.

2.  The Watergate

Oooooh, more scandal!  (Like it or not, there’s plenty of it to go around inside the Beltway.)  This upscale apartment building and hotel is the scene of the famous Watergate break-in that ultimately brought down a President (and that also caused us to add -gate to the end of every scandal that followed).  The apartments are popular with Washington bigwigs (when I first moved to D.C., I lived two blocks away on New Hampshire Avenue and used to go to the Watergate for Chinese food all the time; once hubby and I were mistaken for staffers and almost charged $75 for Condi’s order – then we fainted, because we were poor, yo) and – bonus – you’re just across the street from the Kennedy Center, if you fancy a musical interlude.

What to Read: All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (what else?!).
Where to Read: Grab a table at Chen’s and have the eggplant in spicy sauce.

1.  Georgetown

One of my favorite haunts, this upscale neighborhood that grew up around the intersections of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street, N.W. has shops, restaurants, and history in abundance.  Jackie Kennedy once walked these brick sidewalks.  And The Old Stone House, the only surviving pre-Revolution structure in the District, still stands here (and freaks out the more nervous among us after dark – it’s said to be haunted by the ghost of a murderous misogynist).

What to Read: Katharine Graham’s Washington, by Katharine Graham.
Where to Read: At the Haagen-Dasz shop, where you can nurse a shake and check out the Georgetown map mural.

Have you been to D.C.?  Do you have favorite literary haunts, or Washington-inspired reads?

18 thoughts on “Literary Places in a Literate City

  1. You really know your city. I loved your choices of places but I especially liked your book choices that go so well with the locations. Excited about coming for a visit.

    • We can’t wait for your visit, too! Maybe we can walk around Mount Vernon if the weather is nice. Peanut hasn’t been there yet and I think the stroller is tough enough to handle the paths.

    • Thanks! Such fun we had on our indie bookstore crawl of D.C. I think of you every time I go to Kramerbooks, Second Story or Politics & Prose now!

  2. Can you get a Cosmo at Kramerbooks?
    Do they still have a Magna Carta at the National Archives, or was that the one Sotheby’s auctioned a couple of years ago?

    • Heh, I don’t know if they serve alcohol – but probably just beer and wine if they do! It’s a tiny little cafe.
      Magna Carta is gone from the archives; I don’t know if it was auctioned but I’ve never seen a copy there. The only copies I’ve seen have been in England. So if there was one at the archives, it must have been auctioned off.

      • They still have their copy, from 1297, on loan to the National Archives from David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group. It had been taken off display for a new case system, but came back about a year ago. Worth a trip.
        And, Cosmo was Kramer’s seldom-heard first name.

  3. As a fellow DC metro person, a great list! I would also recommend Margaret Truman’s books for mystery lovers (hers are usually set in the DC area). For places to eat, the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street NW, near the White House.

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