10 Things You Can Still Do in D.C During a Government Shutdown–For $10 or Less!

2 people walking past each other in front of a brick wall

Tara YarlagaddaMatsui Washington Fellows

October 16, 2013

In the past year or so, I’ve gone from India to Lafayette to Berkeley to Chile to Lafayette once again and finally arrived in D.C, realizing that I am perhaps destined to be a global nomad. I will support myself by living out my dreams of being a faux National Geographic photographer, taking low-quality photos all around the world with my beloved iPhone 5 camera. My parents will be so thrilled.

But about D.C: Within the span of a month, D.C has suffered from a tragic mass shooting, a deadly and tragic car chase taken straight out of a scene from 2 Fast, 2 Furious, and a man self-immolating on the National Mall. Suffice to say, something’s rotten in the District of Columbia. Oh, and let’s acknowledge the 500- pound elephant in the room that has caused federal workers to sit at home in their pajamas and millions weeping over the utter decline in civility and sanity in our political system (and the fact that the National Zoo’s PandaCam is no longer posting live-feed of the adorable panda babe and his mom):


Congress decrees from Capitol Hill that no humans shall be allowed on the National Mall during the federal shutdown. However, squirrels are apparently welcome.

The shutdown had crushed my dreams of seeing all 18 Smithsonian museums (not including the National Zoo or the Castle). However, I quickly realized that I had already been seeing plenty of sites that had no connection with the national parks or museums, and the majority either for free or at a relatively low cost. Despite the shutdown, I was determined to live it up in the City of Magnificent Intentions (the humorous nickname bestowed upon D.C by Charles Dickens). With that in mind, I’d like to share with you some of the best sites, smells and sensations I’ve been able to experience in D.C during the shutdown.

1. Cupcakes. Cupcakes.

Food is intimately connected with the culture of a place, and D.C is no exception. The limited options for high-quality, low-cost ethnic food (Hello D.C Chinatown; the ‘Chinese’ food you offer is a sad, feeble specimen compared to your robust counterparts in San Francisco and Oakland) speaks to the relative lack of diversity in D.C. However, there are a few exceptions to this, including a delicious falafel place that I’ll highlight shortly

Californians love their frozen yogurt (better known as fro-yo), and so do D.Cers, but the true stars of this city are the cupcakes. D.C is sin city for those with a sweet tooth, and you’ll surely emerge with a few more cavities and dental appointments if you frequent these following places:

Sprinkles-Rating: 2.5/5; Price: $4.50

Despite the cute name, you should steer clear of this place. Sprinkles is the poor (wo)man’s version of Crumbs. For cupcakes with sickeningly, artificially sweet frosting and surprisingly dull and dry batter, look no further than these babies. You’re better off saving your money for any of the many other cupcake vendors in the city.

Sweetbites Mobile-Rating: 3.5/5; Price: $3.00-$3.50

Cupcakes on wheels–who could resist? I sampled the Peanut Butter and Chocolate, and while it had just the right amount of sweetness to satisfy my craving, as far as cupcakes go, it wasn’t particularly memorable. It was a decent size for the price, but not a steal like Crumb’s ‘Happy Hour’ deals.

Georgetown Cupcake-Rating: 3.5/5; Price: $2.75

Ahh, the much-raved-about starlet behind the hit TV series D.C Cupcakes. Honestly, my reaction after sinking my teeth into one of their cupcakes was “This is good, but I’ve had better.” A bit on the small side too. Granted, I only tried one cupcake (Lemon Blossom), so perhaps I need to give it another go before passing judgment. Go here just for the sake of taking the obligatory ‘posing in front of Georgetown Cupcakes’ photo. If you have to wait 20+ minutes in line though, skip it and head on over Georgetown’s lesser-known, yet delightful…

Baked & Wired-Rating: 4/5; Price: $3.50-$4.00

Baked & Wired is tucked away from the bustling main street and picturesquely located next to a riverbank and Georgetown schooner. Location aside, this place has insane sounding (and tasting!) ‘cakecups.’ Take your pick between ‘Dirty Chai,’ ‘Flapjack’ and ‘Chocolate Cupcake of Doom.’ I sampled “Elvis Impersonator: AKA Unporked Elvis”: an oh-so-sweet and fluffy medley of chocolate, peanut butter and banana. The icing is occasionally a bit too sweet for my liking, but for a ‘once-in-a-blue-moon cupcake,’ this place will not fail.

Crumbs-Rating: 4.5/5; Price: $4.00 (**$2.00 during their half-off weekly deals)

Don’t be deceived by the less-than-stellar reviews on Yelp. Crumbs features a spread of playfully decorated enormous cupcakes, ranging from the more traditional vanilla to the savory chocolate ‘Blackout.’ These gigantic and delectable cupcakes will satisfy the hungriest soul, and if you head over there during what I like to call their ‘Happy Hour’ period (cupcakes for 1/2 the price–> $2.00 ginormous cupcakes!). you’ll receive a sweet, blissful deal. The one on 17th street in front of the Farragut Metro station offers half-price ($2.00) cupcakes on Saturdays from 5-7 PM.

2. Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park and Hana Japanese Market

For an escape from the tourist traps along the National Mall and the ritziness of Dupont Circle, look no further than Meridian Hill, AKA ‘Malcolm X’ park. This quaint, three-tiered park features an expanse lawn surrounded by ample reading benches, a monument dedicated to good ol President Buchanan, Joan of Arc, and a cascading waterfall flanked by a column of walkways and a bounty of flora. Perfect for a fall stroll with friends or a significant other.

For all you Japanophiles out there: Just a few blocks down from Malcolm X park is this hidden gem in D.C: Hana Japanese Market. I sought shelter from a bought of nasty rain in this adorable shop, satisfying my sweet tooth craving with a $2 Mochi purchase and some instant Thai peanut-sauce powder.

3. U Street–West Coast Meets East

U Street is where the hipsters, social justice folks and artists of D.C roll. If you’re a Bay Area transplant like me and feeling a bit homesick for the high-energy activism of S.F and Berkeley, this will quickly become your go-to spot. This place has no shortage of good eats. Beloved by a number of celebrities–including President Barack Obama and Bill Cosby–Ben’s Chili Bowl is a D.C landmark that lives up to its well-deserved reputation. Pick up a basket of chili-cheese fries for $5.95, plop down at the counter, and enjoy. Veggie and turkey burgers are available as well for all types of foodies

For a combination of glorious comfort food, social justice literature, and powerfully recited spoken word poetry, stop by Busboys and Poets. The restaurant has multiple locations throughout the city, but I’ve got a soft spot for the U Street location, having experienced an incredible spoken word event there during an Amnesty International conference.

4. Georgetown

Georgetown Cupcakes and Baked and Wired have already been mentioned, but beyond that, this charming college town has much to offer. Georgetown is shopper’s paradise for those in need of retail therapy, featuring everything from Nike to the highbrow Vineyard Vines ($30 key-chains–WHAT). There is also a bounty of fine restaurants in this area that are perfect for meeting with an old friend or an out-of-town guest. Stunning views of the Potomac River will also make the trip to Georgetown worth your while.

Georgetown University is striking in its beauty, with grand, uniform stone and red brick buildings and well-maintained infrastructure. The Lauinger Library is also open 24 hours (!) every week of the academic year, offering sleep-deprived students a much-needed study spot. Haunt the infamous Georgetown steps while you’re here to get a good workout and complete your tour.

5. Washington National Cathedral

Whether you’re religious or not, this place is a must-see before you leave D.C. On a sunny day, the exterior of the church is remarkable, cream-colored architecture and numerous arches and steeples, flanked by wide green lawns. However, that doesn’t even compare to the striking interior. Ornately decorated stained-glass windows depict iconic religious figures and saints, reflecting beams of colorful light throughout the main hall. Short of making a trip to the Vatican, this is the next best thing. Additionally, if you are so inclined, please attend a service here. The church is remarkably progressive in its attitudes towards social justice, particularly regarding LGBT matters, openly criticizing church leaders who disseminate anti-gay propaganda. It’s come a long ways from the days when it honored Robert E. Lee, the former leader of the Confederate Army who defended slavery.

6. Yuppie it Up in Adams Morgan

During the daytime, this place is a fun place for families and singles alike to wander around and window-shops, exploring the variety of ethnic shops, used bookstores and restaurants, ranging from African and Tibetan wares to halal markets to the beloved “Amsterdam Falafelshop.” At Amsterdam: For only $5.50, you receive a warm pita pocket filled with three divine falafel balls, allowing you to fill the rest of the pita with your choice of UNLIMITED heavenly sauces, colorful veggies, baba ghanoush, and more.

At nighttime, this place becomes a veritable feast of college students and 20-somethings living la vida loca in D.C and enjoying its smattering of hookah joints, nightclubs and dive bars.

7. Korean Cultural Center Screening and (Free) Feasts

Twice a month, the Korean Cultural Center in D.C organizes FREE film Korean screenings and serves complimentary appetizers. An advance RVSP is required in order to attend these events, but it’s a mere two minute procedure to fill out the RSVP form. These events are incredibly well-put together and enjoyable, featuring bestselling Korean films and a spread of mouth-watering Korean goodies. I’m by no means a Korean film buff–I saw my first Korean film at the center a month ago–so these events are open to anyone who is culturally curious, willing to learn, and eager to experience great cinematography and cuisine (did I mention that it’s free?).

The most recent event featured a a heart-wrenching tearjerker of a film entitled Miracle in Cell No. 7 , as well as a spread of red bean and cream buns and tantalizingly sweet banana milk. Mmm. My ideal dinner. They occasionally display special exhibits, like the gallery of Hangul art (apologies for the crude simplification, but it’s essentially Korea’s version of calligraphy, done with a modern twist and flair).

8. Politics, Protests, World Leaders–Oh My!

Given that D.C is the epicenter of U.S politics, this one should be self-explanatory. As a Political Science major, D.C is heaven in one metropolitan area, featuring an array of prominent politicians and gatherings of activists.

Recently-elected Somalian president Hassan Sheikh Mohammed speaks at the Woodrow Wilson Center about challenges and successes in Somalia’s first year of civilian, democratic governance since the start of the civil war in 1991. The WWC offers several free events like this to the public each month.

9. Join A Group or Volunteer in an Organization of Your Personal Passion

Ok, so I’ll admit, this one isn’t exclusive to D.C. However, D.C being the capital of the nation, it is pretty much second only to New York City in possessing the maximum number of organizations catering to whatever interest you may have. My personal passion is the protection of human rights; back at home, I’m an active member of Amnesty International, the largest grassroots human rights group in the world. My social justice nerves were getting antsy after a month of not advocating for righteous change, so I found a local Amnesty group at Meetup.com. I stopped by their meeting one day after work, and voila! I am now officially a dedicated East Coast Amnesty-er. In addition to participating in rallies, I’ll be lobbying on key human rights issues, including the need to pass the International Violence Against the Women Act (IVAWA) and getting members of Congress to adopt a prisoner of conscience.

10. Merry Markets, Bargain Books and…Cranberries?

I can’t stress enough the low-quality and exorbitant prices at the ironically nicknamed “Communist” Safeway on Corcoran Street. *sigh* At least D.C has an abundance of farmers’ markets to tide me over. For a delightful Sunday brunch, stop by the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market. The produce here is somewhat pricer than your typical Trader Joes’ bananas, but nothing that will break the bank. $3-4 for a bunch of pears and $2.50 per croissant will fill you up and leave leftovers for snacks later. Pro-tip: Look out for the produce that is slightly slightly nicked or overly-ripe–they’ll still taste great and last you a few days, but you’ll receive a hefty discount.

Afterwards, treat yourself to a shopping spree at the Eastern Market weekly street fair, just 2 blocks up from the Eastern Market metro. This market features various trinkets, antiques, furniture, women’s dresses, jewelry, salsa, potted plants, T-shirts, arts and crafts–you name it, it’s got it. Great place to pick up a unique gift for a friend. To quell the bookworm in you: Head over to Capitol Books just around the corner and navigate your way through stacks upon stacks of featuring every topic known to man.

Also, just for fun: Being the nation’s capital, D.C will feature anything and everything wacky that passes through the USA. Ever seen those Ocean Spray commercials depicting farmers wading through a seemingly-endless sea of cranberries in comfy overalls? Well, take a look at this replica 24-hour ‘cranberry bog’ I witnessed at Union Station in D.C; it featured a farmer in overalls, harvesting machines, and as seen on TV, a field of floating cranberries.

And those were the highlights of the wonderfully random things I’ve done since the federal government went awry.

headshot of Tara Yarlagadda

"My name is Tara Yarlagadda, and I am honored to be a recipient of the Fall 2013 Matsui Fellowship. I would like to give special thanks to the Matsui Center for its vital work to create a more democratically engaged nation and empower individuals to become involved in public service. I have been interested in the UCDC program since I attended an informational session during the first semester of my freshman year at Cal. I have had my heart set on being a part of the program ever since. As a Political Science and South Asian Studies double major, D.C. interests me for several reasons, not the least of which is the plethora of opportunities available to interact and network with knowledgeable professionals and similarly passionate individuals. I am excited to experience D.C. not merely as a tourist, but also as a resident by exploring its various nooks and crannies and understanding its unique culture as a melting pot of diverse peoples and visions. UCDC in particular offers such a well-structured program with much guidance and support from the staff directors, in addition to a variety of classes taught by renowned professors, that I could not pass up the opportunity to apply before I graduated from Berkeley."