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Capital cool in D.C.

Washington, D.C., is calling all cool cats for 2014.

“Our theme for this year is ‘DC Cool,’” said Theresa Belpulsi, vice president of tourism for Destination DC. “We have had an $8.5 billion renovation of our city — our neighborhoods. In the past 10 years, our city has changed so much.”

While the world-famous Smithsonian museums and grand monuments on the National Mall will always be must-sees in our nation’s capital, as a result of the booming opportunities just around the corners from these sacred icons, the tourism experts are luring visitors to places that perhaps have been absent on past itineraries.

“We know that groups are more independent these days and are asking for more unique things to do and see,” said Belpulsi.

Michelle Cragle, director of marketing for Cultural Tourism DC, agrees. Her organization, with a mission to celebrate real experiences for residents and visitors and to promote the importance of culture and heritage of the many local neighborhoods in the city, offers groups tour opportunities that many would never know existed.

“While we are geographically a small town, Washington, D.C., is an ethnic and cultural microcosm of our country and even the world,” she said. “To get to the heart of D.C., you have to go beyond to see where people live their daily lives.”


Open Houses From Around the World

Groups can have an international experience in D.C. by visiting one of the many embassies throughout the city. Embassy Series, a program that showcases the best of each culture in each nation’s symbolic home in Washington, has hosted more than 300 concerts in 46 different embassies.

“These performances are held throughout the year,” said Belpulsi. “This is such a cultural experience. It’s so high-end and an experience you can’t get anywhere else. For example, when you walk into the Russian House, you are going to hear Russian performers and eat Russian food.”

Cultural Tourism DC is host to Passport DC, a celebration in May where groups can also experience the food and culture in the city’s embassies.

“With the food, dance and music, it’s like walking into a party at every embassy. With representation from more than 40 embassies representing six continents, this is a way to take a journey across the globe without ever having to leave the city,” said Cragle.

For foodies, May is also the time to witness the city’s Embassy Chef Challenge, a two-part competition that hosts embassy chefs cooking their specialties from around the world.

“The first part is like a challenge from the ‘Top Chef’ television show,” said Cragle. “The second part requires guests to vote on the best overall winner.”


More Foodie Fun and Culture

Visitors can experience a variety of D.C.’s cuisine any time of the year with DC Metro Food Tours. Ethnicity and history are also often highlighted on these tasty tours that are offered on foot or via motorcoach.

“There are many different neighborhoods that groups can learn about, not only the food, but a narrated education about the neighborhood’s past,” said Belpulsi.

“Just as an example, on U Street, nicknamed the Black Broadway — and home to the second-largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia — the area has been lovingly preserved. At one time, African Americans were not allowed to own property aboveground, and there are many venues underground that have their original integrity.

“Many think this is where our jazz history began, as artists like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald got their start in the Howard Theatre, an aboveground theater that when you were invited to play there, you knew you had made it. All of this and, of course, great food is included on the tour.”

Belpulsi recommends groups not miss “the great Sunday Gospel Brunch” at the Hamilton restaurant, just outside the Howard Theatre.

The theater is “located in a one-time landmark department store that now boasts a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system,” and “visitors are privy to not only a huge, delicious buffet but a gospel choir with frequent visits from well-known vocalists,” she said.

“Another culinary venue is located at the national American Indian museum. They are known for their cafe and a chef table for groups, [which] are treated to American Indian food.”


Neighborhood Hospitality

In the fall, WalkingTown DC offers an insider’s look into the heart of Washington’s arts, culture and heritage by dozens of free guided walking tours in the four quadrants of the District. Examples of the tours are Historic Chevy Chase; 16th Street, Avenue of the Presidents; History and Production of U.S. Currency; and From Civil War to Civil Rights.

“For groups here other times of the year, our neighborhood heritage trails can be walked at your own pace via an app on your phone that includes audio education,” said Cragle.

Also in autumn is Art4All DC, a citywide festival of the arts that offers more than 200 events.

“This is really a celebration of our neighborhoods,” said Cragle. “Dance, music, theater — groups can choose what area they want to visit, park their vehicle and celebrate with everything from live music on neighborhood porches to professional productions.”