LGBTQ travel: Explore Washington, DC

A Tour of Her Own tour guide Ella Schiralli, left, and TOHO founder and president Kaitlin Calogera, right, walk across the rainbow crosswalk in Dupont Circle.
A Tour of Her Own tour guide Ella Schiralli, left, and TOHO founder and president Kaitlin Calogera, right, walk across the rainbow crosswalk in Dupont Circle.
Heather Cassell

Washington, DC comes to life in the spring. This makes it the perfect time for LGBTQ travelers to visit our nation’s capital.

“DC as a whole is very welcoming the city,” said Bill Hanley, a 53-year-old gay man who is the area director of sales and marketing at the Hotel Monaco, which hosted my stay in DC. LGBTQ travelers, Hanley said, should visit the capital. 

Hanley noted that DC offers something for every queer traveler, from historic sites and free museums for families to good restaurants and a vibrant nightlife for singles and couples.

Founded by President George Washington, DC was built on the land along the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers after it was ceded by Maryland and Virginia on July 16, 1790. Through wars and protests, economic downturns, and boom times, DC has withstood the test of time, evolving into a bustling city filled with ceremonies, history, character, and a vibrant dining scene.

DC is a city of museums, historical sites, culture, and current legislative battles on Capitol Hill. The city boasts more than 70 museums, and they are all free for the public to enjoy. 

DC has “all the aspects of a big city, but it’s a small city,” said Hanley about one of the things the DC native loves about living in the capital. “It’s easy to navigate. It’s got a lot of great little pockets and neighborhoods.”

There are 131 neighborhoods to explore in DC. The most popular enclaves are the city’s gayborhoods: Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, and Logan Circle, as well as trendy neighborhoods: Adams Morgan, Georgetown, NoMa, U Street Corridor, and Foggy Bottom.

He also likes the diversity of the neighborhoods and the “beauty of the city.” One of his favorite things is how monuments from Georgetown to the Potomac get illuminated at night and light up the city. It makes it a beautiful nighttime drive.

As candidates start to bid for president in 2024, and anti-LGBTQ bills sweep the nation, 2023 is a great year to remember what it means to be American, particularly an LGBTQ American. There’s no better way to do that than to celebrate pride in our nation’s capital.

Capital Pride kicks off in the summer from June 2-11. DC’s pride is celebrating its 50th anniversary — this year with the theme “Peace, Love, Revolution.” DC will be the site for the next World Pride in 2025.

What to do

I got acquainted with DC with Kaitlin Calogera, founder and president of A Tour of Her Own and author of “111 Places in Women’s History In Washington, DC That You Must Not Miss,” and TOHO tour guide and longtime DC lesbian resident Ella Schiralli. The tour was the perfect way to start my 72-hour visit to DC. Calogera, a bisexual woman, made DC’s feminist and queer story come to life and gave meaning to sites, such as the lesbian feminist separatist collective, The Furies Collective house, and The Women’s National Democratic Club, which celebrated its centennial last year. 

We also visited sites making history today, such as the city’s newest lesbian bar, As You Are (which just celebrated its one-year anniversary at its Barracks Row home) and the Human Rights Campaign’s headquarters, where Kelley Johnson is the first queer Black woman to head the LGBTQ advocacy organization.

Unfortunately, Calogera, who is an advocate for DC’s women’s and LGBTQ community, lost everything that she owned in an apartment fire, March 13, reported PoPville. A GoFundMe was set up to help her rebuild her life.

On day two, I walked the National Mall to see the Lincoln Memorial, war memorials, and the Washington Monument.

A view of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
A view of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.Heather Cassell

On day three, I walked to the White House, which is open for tours to the public, and visited the first of two museums the Renwick Gallery, which is across the street from the White House, and exhibits American 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts. Some upcoming exhibits not to miss are: “Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies” (June 16, 2023 – January 29, 2024) and “Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea” (July 28, 2023 – January 14, 2024).

I spent the rest of my third day immersed in the National Portrait Gallery. Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraits have returned to the gallery after a national tour. I caught the first part of the “I Dream A World,” Brian Lanker’s powerful portrait series of remarkable Black women. The second installation recently opened and runs through August 27.

Another much-anticipated exhibit “Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures” is running now through March 24, 2024, at The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Theater lovers visiting the capital before May 13 will enjoy catching the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel, R&B, and possibly the mother of rock ‘n roll in the biographical musical, Shout Sister Shout!,” at the historic Ford’s Theatre.

Foodies will enjoy the 31st annual Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle, June 24-25.

To get up-to-date information about queer things to do in DC, check out the Washington Blade, or the visitors’ bureau’s LGBTQ page.

Where to eat

I can’t forget my dinner at Lyle’s restaurant and bar in Dupont Circle. The chef is just as bold as the restaurant’s jazzy decor, with incredible flavors from the kitchen. The restaurant also features a well curated wine list that features a variety of boutique and midsized wineries, including some Black-owned, such as the McBride Sisters Wine Company, and women-owned, such as Une Femme Wines, wineries.

I also enjoyed dining at gay-owned, Mi Vida, at its 14th Street location off the U Street Corridor. The hip restaurant with dark Mexican decor serves up plates inspired by traditional Mexican dishes and street food that are packed with flavor. This month, Mi Vida is opening a third location in Penn Quarter across the street from the Hotel Monaco and the National Portrait Gallery. Mi Vida’s first location opened at District Wharf. Mi Vida is a partnership between New York and DC gay powerhouse restauranteurs Roberto Santibanez of New York’s well-loved Fonda, which has several locations around the city, and Knead Hospitality + Design’s Jason Berry and Michael Reginbogin, who are behind award-winning DC eateries Succotash Prime, The Grill, Gatsby, and Bistro du Jour.

I was less enamored with longtime Dupont Circle favorites, Annie’s Paramount Steak House and All Day by Kramers, where I had breakfast and a light lunch one day that left me unimpressed after much hype. Local burger and pizza chain Matchbox served up a delightful juicy Bistro burger (its specialty), and its signature Matchbox Lager, that fueled me up for exploring DC.

Where to stay

I stayed at the Hotel Monaco, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The hotel recently hosted Capital Pride’s kick-off event for the season and is a co-sponsor of Capital Pride. The hotel is in the perfect location for exploring DC (it’s near two convenient subway stations) and enjoying the pride festivities on Pennsylvania Avenue. Across the street is the National Portrait Gallery. It was also very close to several of the city’s sites, gay-owned restaurants, and upscale shopping.

Hanley said the hotel offers a package that donates $5 per night to the Trevor Project. Check the site or call and ask for the package.

Feminists will appreciate staying at the award-winning Hotel Zena, which adorns itself with 60 original pieces of women artists’ works depicting famous women in history. The hotel is also a co-sponsor of Capital Pride.

Millennials and Gen Z queer travelers visiting DC might consider Selina, which opened in June 2022 in NoMA, a trendy emerging neighborhood with new restaurants. The hotel isn’t as close to the city’s center or gayborhoods, but it is home to DC’s only gay-owned brewery, Red Bear Brewing Co. The hotel is a quick train ride from DC’s famous sites and museums.

Getting there and around

I took a pleasant three-and-a-half hour train ride from New York’s Moynihan Train Hall to DC’s Union Station. The train costs slightly less than flying, depending on the time of day. Another — and much more affordable — option is to take a bus from New York.

I got my steps in walking around DC. I also hopped onto DC’s metro, which uses the digital card, SmartTrip, or I grabbed a ride share to get around DC. The city also has plenty of motorized scooters and bikes that are popular with visitors.\