10 Offbeat Spaces to Get Weird in DC

There’s more to DC than its straight-laced TV persona.

Photo by Amaury Laporte
Photo by Amaury Laporte

Contrary to popular belief, Washington, DC, has so much more to offer than just high-powered politics. Despite a straight-laced persona reflected on television shows and traditional news headlines, DC behind the scenes is actually packed with oddities worth seeking out, from funky dive bars and mystery mansions to a spot known as “Capitalsaurus Court.”

So, sure, the Smithsonians are always great, and anyone coming into town has to make their way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but getting a real taste of the city’s flavor requires breaking out a map and making your way over to these kooky, beloved local favorites that help keep DC weird.

Despite its name, this mystery “mansion” is actually four historic row homes in Dupont Circle that have been opened up on the sides to create one giant Franken-property. Since its opening day on Valentine’s Day in 1980, the Mansion on O Street has been beloved by mystery lovers, who can explore its over 100 rooms and search for some of its 70-something secret doors. As you make your way through themed rooms, find floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stocked with thousands of books, art pieces, a hidden wine cellar, Beatles memorabilia, and generally funky stuff. For those who want the full experience, the Mansion also doubles as a hotel with equally strange themed rooms.

Photo by Mike Maguire

The Capitol stones

For over a century, the Capitol stones stood as part of the east facade of the Capitol Building (hence the name), until a fateful 1958 renovation saw them unceremoniously dumped near an unnamed trail in the national park that runs through the city — Rock Creek Park. Now, these moss-covered stones still stand there piled on top of one another like ancient ruins. A piece of DC history, the stones are an eerily beautiful sight to come upon while on a traipse through nature. 

One of DC’s most beloved dives, Madam’s Organ commands attention as soon as you see its facade on 18th Street in the colorful neighborhood of Adam’s Morgan. The side of the building is famous for a controversial mural featuring a fiery-haired woman with the bar’s name emblazoned on her cleavage, but that’s not even the funkiest part of Madam’s Organ. Inside, you’ll find four floors of debauchery, where the drinks are typical but the vibes are unique thanks to funky decor and live blues, rock, and jazz shows. The dive’s motto maintains that it’s the place "Where the Beautiful People Go to Get Ugly,” which will make sense to anyone who partakes in an aptly named karaoke night there.

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Photo by Matt Kieffer

‘The Exorcist’ Steps

Need to fuel up on gas before you drive over the Key Bridge in Georgetown? While your travel buddy is inside grabbing a bottle of iced tea, you can make your way over to the long, steep staircase there — the site of the climactic showdown that pitted priest against demon in the infamous horror movie, The Exorcist. The treacherous stairs were built back in 1895 on the side of a car barn building that trolley cars were kept inside of. Now, visitors can make their way up the steps while taking in the ivy-covered walls on either side. Just make sure to keep a hand on those guard rails, as rumors say the stuntman fell twice while shooting the famed horror scene.

Capitalsaurus Court

When DC construction workers were digging into the ground to lay sewer pipe in 1898, they would have never expected to come across mysterious dinosaur fossils in the excavation process. Nevertheless, they became makeshift paleontologists for the day, uncovering a section of dinosaur vertebra, which scientists determined was actually from a previously undiscovered species that was dubbed Creosaurus potens. A 30-foot-long predator, scientists have deduced that the mystery creature weighed more than two-and-a-half tons when it walked the earth. Luckily for the dino, it was given a much catchier name in 1990 by local paleontologist Peter Kranz: Capitalsaurus. That famed bone is now held at the National Museum of Natural History, but those who visit F Street SE at the northwest corner of Garfield Park are able to see a very unique street sign named for Capitol Hill’s official dinosaur

Photo courtesy of Stoughton/NIST

Newton’s apple tree

The tale of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree begins hundreds of years ago and across the world, when the English mathematician sat underneath his tree’s boughs and received an apple straight to the noggin. It was that experience that led Newton to develop the theory of gravity in 1687. Fast forward to 1957, and that same tree is still going strong — so strong, in fact, that a scientist was allowed to collect four saplings and use them to create genetic clones of the famed hardwood. One of those clones ended up in, you guessed it, Washington DC, specifically International Park among the embassies, where it's guarded by the Secret Service. Head over there for a casual picnic or afternoon read shaded by the famous branches, where a bronze plaque tells visitors: “Science has its traditions as well as its frontiers.”

Favored by college students and anyone generally looking to have a wild night in Adams Morgan, Dan’s Cafe is a bonafide DC institution. This is not the kind of place you head to if you’re in the mood for top shelf bottles or a fancy cocktail, but it is the perfect spot for if you’re in the mood to drop a quick Jackson on a squirt bottle full of your favored liquor — a unique way to imbibe with friends as you lean on covered pool tables and bop along to oldies. 

Photo by Rosie Grant

Despite a very official-sounding title, the Congressional Cemetery has a very unlikely origin story, having been founded as a private burial ground by eight Washingtonians back in 1807. That very year, its first member of Congress was buried there — Sen. Uriah Tracy of Connecticut. Since then, it has become the traditional site for lawmakers and other notable Washingtonians to be laid to rest, such as Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s first director. Congressional Cemetery isn’t all about the afterlife, though, as it has served as a site for events from concerts and outdoor movie nights to book clubs and 5K runs. The cemetery also has its very own dog walking program, for which eager puppy parents could end up on waitlist for over a year or more.

Photo by Ted Eytan

Barbie Pond

An unusual but always delightful sight in the city is the cast of Barbies found in front of a row house on Avenue Q by Logan Circle, where a number of the classic dolls are arranged by mystery artists to reflect a kooky theme. Whether the dolls are encouraging locals to head to the polling booths to vote, riding unicorns for LGBTQ+ Pride Month, or decked out in ball gowns, the Pond is the kind of community art project you can only find in DC. Surprise yourself with an Avenue Q stroll, or check out their latest theme on Instagram

You’ll find Bloomingdale’s most iconic dive, Showtime Lounge, inside a converted barber shop. There, take in its sights and sounds: the classic jukebox with an impressive collection of over 2,000 music tracks, hipsters downing cans of cheap beer, and bar patrons shoving dollar bills at the bartender (it’s cash only). The main attraction, though, is the dive’s house band — the aptly named Granny and the Boys. The band features one almost 90-year-old granny on the keys, and four middle-aged men. They play on Sundays only.