These hidden gems are also part of the draw.
The last time I was in Washington, DC, it was a quintessential 1980s family holiday. We ticked off all the biggies. We queued up for the White House, took the lift to the tippy top of the toothpick-esque Washington Monument, and stood at the boots of a mammoth and marbled Abraham Lincoln. Now, I'm in the land of presidents and politics again, but this time none of the usual tourist magnets are on my itinerary. Here's what to see in DC once you think you've seen it all.
A labyrinth of catacombs lies beneath the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, in an area of DC that few people visit. The dimly lit subterranean passages of this Roman Catholic cloister exist thanks to the resident Franciscan friars' desire to create a reproduction of the Holy Land for North Americans unable to make the pilgrimage to Rome in the late 1800s. A formal Papal endorsement provides pious credence and sanctions the boy martyr's bones held inside - the only true human remains in this sombre space. Upstairs, a replica of the tomb of Jesus and other truly grand religious reproductions form a spiritual Uffizi. Allow two hours to include a walk through the hushed gardens. myfranciscan.org
Scents of the world
Smell is the sense tied closest to memory and more dependable for recall than vision. At Qatar America Institute for Culture's Perfumery Museum, visitors gain insight into the power of perfume via interactive exhibits, such as vintage vessels from the likes of Lanvin and Guerlain on loan from a Qatar-based antiquities collector. Led to "test the nose", the curious are encouraged to explore their olfactory prowess at a station with scented strips held inside of bell jars. Single notes like myrrh, oud or labdanum beg to be identified, with guests using their noses and the large Fragrance Wheel for reference. Bridging Qatari, Arab, North African, South-west Asian and other global cultures is a sensory experience that exists nowhere else. qataramerica.org/perfumery-museum
The spooky corner
Classic horror film fans will trip over themselves to behold The Exorcist Steps - the simple but significant location in the 1973 movie, The Exorcist. Located near the corner of 36th and Prospect streets in tony Georgetown, these 75 stairs are the same narrow ones that Father Karras sacrificed himself on after taking the demon into himself. They're extra spooky at night, and in 2019, they became a National Landmark. If you're coming for a photo, be respectful of the residential neighbourhood they're located in ... or else.
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Hear me out; Washington National Cathedral isn't about going and seeing religious artifacts and antique ecclesiastical furnishings - at least not in the way you think about them. In fact, the two standout but under-the-radar must-sees here reference what some would consider the antithesis of religion. Up high, gleaming in swathes of sunlight, is the Space Window pane, and embedded in it is a piece of rock, 3.6 billion years old, collected from the moon's Sea of Tranquility in 1969. The pane depicts planets and fizzy stars in jewel-toned hues, while the moon rock is encased in a clear nitrogen-filled capsule for preservation.
The other salute to space at the cathedral - the sixth largest on the planet - has a definite nod towards pop culture. Keen spotters and those in the know will see a rather familiar face peering down at them from one of the cathedral's north-west towers. Often referred to as a gargoyle, the face of Darth Vader is actually a grotesque, installed in 1986. cathedral.org
It only opened in September 2023, but the beautifully appointed Australian Embassy (cost $US237 million or $364 million) is surely making a name for itself in the diplomatic district. The building enjoys a relationship with the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection museum in Charlottesville, Virginia, meaning visitors can see some of the best Indigenous art outside of Australia. Look for works by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Walter Tjampitjinpa and Yukultji Napangati - Jay-Z is a collector.
Yes, it's possible to soak up stellar city views without queueing for hours at the Washington Monument. Just head to the Old Post Office Tower - the third-tallest structure in Washington, DC - which provides a bird's-eye perspective of the National Mall, the steely Potomac River, the emblematic Capitol Building and the neighbourhood around which it sits. Almost 100 metres up, visitors can see the Bells of Congress, which - according to lore - are intentionally not bonged during office hours. This is to avoid annoying the IRS Commissioner, whose office sits directly opposite. nps.gov
Hillwood Estate was once the home of cereal mogul Marjorie Merriweather Post and now houses the largest collection of Faberge outside of Russia. Ms Post was fascinated with politics, foreign affairs and Catherine the Great, who, like Post herself, was a woman well ahead of her time. These interests became even more entrenched when one of her four husbands, diplomat Joseph E Davies was appointed Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1937.
At Hillwood, priceless artefacts of Imperial history sit alongside 18th-century French and English antiquities, including two painfully bejewelled Easter eggs, a bowenite clock that belonged to Tsar Nicholas II's mother and Post's own preciously adorned snuff boxes. At the onsite cafe, grab a colourful bowl of borscht or Spinach and Frisee Aux Lardons and make a day of it. hillwoodmuseum.org
Getting there: Virgin Australia (United) connects to DC's Dulles International Airport via Los Angeles or San Francisco, see: virginaustralia.com. Qantas connects via Dallas Fort Worth, see qantas.com.
Staying there: The Royal Sonesta Washington, DC Capitol Hill, is a convenient and spanking brand-new hotel. It's the first in the Capital Hill neighbourhood in 40 years, see sonesta.com
The AC Capitol Hill Navy Yard is comfortable and close to the riverfront at Navy Yard. It's a bit more casual than the Royal Sonesta, see marriott.com
Getting around: Uber is an easy grab from anywhere, and the app works with AU accounts. For public transport, DC's busy Metrorail connects all four quadrants of DC with suburban Virginia and Maryland should you wish to go further afield. Fares range from $US1.85 to $US6.
Explore more: washington.org
The writer was a guest of Washington, DC.