Written by Washington, D.C.’s Renee Sklarew, The Unofficial Guide to Washington, D.C. (Unofficial Guides) is the insider’s guide to Washington at its best, with more than 50 restaurants and nearly 100 hotels reviewed and ranked for value and quality―plus secrets for getting the lowest rates.
This is a long-time local’s guide to navigating and treasuring your time in Washington, D.C., with summaries of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, worthwhile entertainment venues, and a guide to shopping in the dozens of diverse museum shops in the city.
This revamped guidebook caters to the traveler who is on a budget, with a family or wants to have a truly “local” experience. The author recommends popular and convenient restaurants and diverse fast-casual options for visitors on the go. Rather than extensive looks at a few attractions, she summarizes a broad collection, including hidden gems and lesser-known museums.
An Excerpt from the new Unofficial Guide to Washington D.C.
Shopping at Washington, D.C.’s Marvelous Museum Shops
By Renee Sklarew
If by shopping you mean the sort of souvenirs you take home for the family, you can combine your sightseeing with your shopping. Some of Washington’s greatest finds are in its museum gift shops.
A museum’s orientation is a good guide to its shop’s merchandise: prints, art-design ties, and art books fill the National Gallery of Art shop; model airplanes and other toys of flight are on sale at the Air and Space Museum, and so on.
The largest Smithsonian shops are at the Museum of American History, which sells toys, clothing, musical instruments, and recordings from countries highlighted in the exhibits; although all the museums have some items reflecting the collection.
Some of the hippest gifts are currently on view—sort of—at the International Spy Museum, which stocks video and CD copies of old spy TV shows and themes, pens disguised as lipsticks, disguises for people, and miniature cameras.
The Museum of the Bible has an exceptional collection of Biblical-related merchandise, and while there aren’t many souvenirs at Madame Tussauds, you can take selfies with the wax celebrities.
Several museum shops are overlooked by tourists.
Among the best is the National Building Museum shop, which sells design-related books, jewelry, architecturally inspired greeting cards, and gadgets.
The Arts and Industries shop, a pretty Victorian setting stocked with Smithsonian reproductions.
The National Museum of the American Indian, with its turquoise and silver jewelry, Zuni pottery, hand carvings, and rugs.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts, with Frida Kahlo dolls and Rosie the Riveter bookends.
The National Museum of African Art shop, a bazaar filled with colorful cloth, Ethiopian crosses, and wooden ceremonial instruments, such as hand drums and tambourines.
The Hirshhorn Museum, with its selection of gifts for the photography enthusiast
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery shop, with cases full of brass Buddhas, Chinese lacquerware, jade and jasper jewelry, feng shui kits, and porcelain.
The Renwick Gallery, which stocks unusual art jewelry and handblown glass.
The Shakespeare-lovers’ treasure trove at Folger Shakespeare Library (everyone needs a Shakespeare magnetic poetry kit).
The shop at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, stocked with videos, opera glasses, and other gifts for Jackie and John lovers (such as costume jewelry inspired by the late former First Lady).
The Hillwood Museum has jewelry and ornaments inspired by Marjorie Merriweather Post’s famous collection of Fabergé eggs and Russian porcelains. The expanded shop at Mount Vernon offers reproductions of Martha’s cookbook, George’s key to the Bastille, and period china and silver patterns.
The DAR, or Daughters of the American Revolution Museum shop, sells Americana-themed memorabilia, such as decorated china, jewelry, clothes, flags, and quilts. The shop at the National Geographic Museum offers clothing, jewelry, toys, and accessories from all around the globe.
The Cathedral Store on the grounds of the National Cathedral features stone gargoyles, prayer books, rose-window silk scarves, statues of religious icons, and rosaries.
A visit in mid-September may mean you’ll catch the Museum Sidewalk Sale at the Kennedy Center. This all-day event features those same treasures—books, textiles, jewelry, and prints—at significantly lower prices. Another excellent shopping opportunity comes during late November: the annual Museum Shop Around, held at the Mansion at Strathmore, where (for a fee of $8) shoppers will find merchandise from all the Smithsonian museums and others under one convenient roof.
Washington D.C. Bookstores
Washingtonians love to read, and fortunately, that’s why many independent bookstores are still in business. These local owners find success through regular readings by famous authors, as well as hosting children’s events. One of the busiest is Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café and Bookstore in Dupont Circle.
What makes this place special is the curated collection of books, especially a wide selection of travel books. It is also a delightful place to grab a cocktail or have a meal, as the bookstore is connected to the café. Shoppers are welcome to read while they eat!
Second Story Books, at 20th and P Streets NW in Dupont Circle, is among the city’s oldest purveyors of rare books, and with its Rockville warehouse boasts more than a million editions.
The fine Idle Time Books, at 2767 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan, also stocks vintage LPs, CDs, and more. Mid City is home to one of the branches of Big Planet Comics (1520 U Street NW), a major source for graphic novels and comics. Stop in one of the many Busboys and Poets bookstores/cafés to peruse tomes with a liberal bent.
In Georgetown, Bridge Street Books (2814 Pennsylvania Avenue NW) has a lovely ambiance and specializes in political writing and social commentary from both sides, as well as literary fiction, philosophy, and poetry.
Nearby you’ll find The Lantern (3241 P Street NW), a used bookstore with proceeds funding college tuition for needy girls.
The Library of Congress (bookstore.gpo.gov) is another place to pick up books, and don’t miss the Smithsonian museum shops, especially the National Building Museum and the National Gallery of Art. Also in Capitol Hill is the well-established Capitol Hill Books, which carries a wide selection of mysteries, obscure biographies, and used books from all genres.
Politics & Prose, intellectual Washington’s favorite hangout, specializes in psychology, politics, and the works of local authors—and hosts many of their book-signing parties. They have an excellent kids’ section and expert staff who love to recommend books to satisfy every curiosity (5015 Connecticut Avenue NW; politics-prose.com).
Recently, a Washingtonian used Kickstarter to open another independent bookstore, Upshur Street Books (827 Upshur Street NW). Located near the Georgia Avenue Petworth Metro station, the store has the support of D.C.’s most famous literati—George Pelicanos and Alice McDermott—and the owners host regular reading events for children.
Shops at Mount Vernon
Although it’s not widely advertised, the Shops at Mount Vernon (mountvernon.org) have the largest bookstore in the country dedicated to George Washington.
Like their parents, Washington kids also have a passion for reading. The younger set is well served by a handful of independent bookstores that have survived through their deep connection to their community.
Fairy Godmother (319 7th Street SE), near Eastern Market in Capitol Hill, has both toys and books packed into a cramped space, but your kids will love the whimsical selection of fiction and nonfiction literature.
The Children’s Playseum, on Bethesda Avenue in downtown Bethesda, not only sells books and toys, but it’s also a perfect place to bring your preschool-age kids to reward them for good behavior after touring D.C. With a few themed rooms, kids are free to interact and play, pretend, paint, try on costumes, and buy gently used books (starting at $1–$8).
On that same block is Bethesda’s Amazon store (7117 Arlington Rd), and Tugooh Toys (4823 Bethesda Avenue) for educational books and toys (a second location is at 1355 Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase). Also in Chevy Chase, you’ll find Barston’s Child’s Play (5536 Connecticut Avenue NW) stuffed full of games, toys, and books for all ages.
In the Virginia suburbs, check out Kinder Haus Toys (170 N. Filmore) in Arlington. Nicknamed “Wonderland” by fans, it’s packed with books, European toys, and designer kids’ clothing. Hooray for Books (1555 King Street) is in the main shopping area of Old Town Alexandria; they host daily storytime readings and book signings.
Renee Sklarew is a native Washingtonian who enjoys exploring her city’s many attractions, especially its incomparable museums and national parks. As a young girl, her family lived in Switzerland, where she began her passion for travel. Renee is a Study Leader for Smithsonian Associates and leads tours of historic sites and parks in the Washington, D.C., area. She contributes travel articles and photos to newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Northern Virginia Magazine, and AAA Traveler. Renee serves as dining editor for VivaTysons magazine and is the co-author of the popular book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Washington, D.C.