Washington, DC and its surrounding areas are known for American history and lots of it. So much so, that Washington DC's art and gallery scene tends to fly a little below the radar. But with its heavy cultural presence and a metropolitan area that includes Virginia and Maryland, there is plenty of art to see on a weekend visit to DC, and lots of it left to save for the next visit.
Day One: A late afternoon or evening arrival doesn't mean you're out of luck where art in Washington DC is concerned. Depending on how adventurous you feel, you can either visit an arts and culture-centric restaurant for dinner and planning, start your art adventure immediately, or both!
Busboys and Poets is a DC staple, with great food, amazing art, and an inclusive, forward-thinking mission. And, it has a bookstore attached that features a curated mix of unique, mission-aligned books, magazines and gifts. If you're lucky, your visit might coincide with one of the many events it hosts.
After dinner, you can retire to your hotel to get a head start on the next day, or take in DuPont Underground, which often has late-night hours and shows. This venue is self-explanatory. It's 15,000 square feet of repurposed space beneath the city’s iconic Dupont Circle, opened in 1949 as a trolley station, and was designated as fallout shelter in the late 1960s. The space was mostly abandoned from the mid-nineties until 2016 when it was repurposed as DuPont Underground.
Day Two: Start your day early and explore the greater DC area. Two half-day trips we recommend are Alexandria, Va. and Glenstone, in Potomac, MD.
If you don't have access to a car, Alexandria is a great option. With many destinations directly along the Blue and Yellow lines, exit the King Street station for the easiest access to Old Town, a quaint, historic neighborhood full of restaurants, shops and art. It's an incredibly walkable area, and offers a trolley service through Old Town Alexandria as well.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center is just a few steps from the Potomac River Waterfront and water taxis to Georgetown in DC, another good transportation option. The Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria is home to the nation’s largest collection of working-artists’ open studios - currently at 82 - under one roof, along with seven galleries, two artists' workshops and more. An enclosed space, the Torpedo Factory is a great spot for exploring art in all seasons.
Misha's coffee is a short stroll away and takes you back toward the train station, a perfect route to see a little more of Alexandria and grab some fuel for the rest of your day's adventure! If you need something a little more substantial and enjoy seafood, Hank's Oyster Bar is a repeat visit for us.
If you have access to a car and a little more time to spend, Glenstone is well-worth the drive to Potomac, MD. While it is recommended that you reserve a ticket three months out, there's an interesting workaround for on-the-spot visitors. Access Maryland's 301 bus route, and it will drop you right off at Glenstone's welcome center. We did this and had no trouble being admitted.
Glenstone is relatively new, and this extremely stylized place is spread out over nearly 300 acres, and features a comprehensive indoor space called The Pavilions, overseen by docents dressed in matching grey, minimalist shifts. Photography is permitted in outdoor spaces only, and no bags are allowed in (lockers are provided.)
Indoor art on display while we were there included works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly and Ellsworth Kelly along with Kerry James Marshall and Roni Horn. Michael Heizer's "Collapse" is a very dramatic outdoor sculpture that is essentially a cluster of 15 massive steel beams "collapsing" into a giant hole. The drop is steep and without guardrails, so docents only allow three-to-five guests on its terrace, heavily escorted and in short intervals, from noon to 1 p.m. and 3 to 4 p.m.
Glenstone's most recognizable piece is Jeff Koons' "Split-Rocker," a massive half-horse, half dinosaur head made from live, flowering plants that seems to rise up out of the meadows and hills as guests wind their way from the welcome center to the pavilions.
Glenstone could be a half-day or a full-day. We chose to cut this visit short and save some for next time, and four hours still gave us plenty of time to see amazing art, plus have a little rest in the cafe with a cold drink and a snack.
The Phillips Collection:
Make your way back to DC and check out The Phillips Collection, a museum that's large, but not overwhelmingly so - a comfortable end to a day out of town. If your "weekend" happens to include a Thursday, it will be open until 8:30 p.m.! This DuPont Circle art museum is repurposed from a home, and uses its many rooms to showcase the art in intimate and interesting ways.
Its rotating exhibitions often have a human interest perspective, and the permanent collection includes Wolfgang Laib's "Wax Room: Wohin bist Du gegangen – wohin gehst Du? (Where have you gone – where are you going?)" This interesting permanent installation allows visitors to step into a narrow chamber constructed from beeswax. The Phillips Collection's wax room an interesting experience that you won't easily find elsewhere, and it smells amazing! Be prepared to leave all bags outside the wax chamber, as it is very delicate.
While you are in DuPont Circle, be sure to look around you! It is home to a very large concentration of embassies, so you will notice a whole world's worth of flags from represented countries lining the blocks.
National Museum of Women in the Art and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden:
Day 3: If you have a good half-day to spend before heading back home, I recommend the National Museum of Women in the Arts, especially if you are traveling with young girls. (The museum is great for ages 12 and up.)
It's easy to get through in a couple of hours, and focuses on art by women and other, often-underrepresented, artists. The art on display is as diverse as the artists, in a range that includes pieces by Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot as well as contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman, Elizabeth Catlett, Hung Liu and Amy Sherald.
If there's time, wrap up your visit with a quick stroll through the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, and visit the huge Kusama Pumpkin and "The Drummer," an interesting and dynamic rabbit sculpture by Barry Flanagan.
Stopping for lunch? We enjoyed Jose' Andrés' China Chilicano, an interesting Peruvian/Chinese/Japanese fusion restaurant that included delicious dumplings and yucca fries. Compass Coffee has multiple locations and is a great place to take a short break in the area.
A weekend is plenty of time to hit the highlights of a great art adventure, while leaving plenty leftover for the next time. Its many museums, galleries and art spaces, along with its proximity to Maryland, Virginia and beyond also means that it would be easy to personalize the trip to your interests.