The grounds of the Smithsonian Castle in full spring plumage. (©Shutterstock)

The Gardens of Washington, D.C.: A One-Day Guide

By Jean Cohen on 04/08/14

Ever since that Adam-and-Eve eviction, mankind has yearned to live (or at least vacation) in a paradise of fruits and flowers. And the capital, especially in the bloomin’ month of April, satisfies the undeniable desire with “official” gardens: the National Arboretum with its bonsai and azaleas, the orchid-rich U.S. Botanic Garden and, thanks to Lady Bird Johnson, roadside plots ablaze with tulips and daffodils. 

Some fine gardens, alas, are private, including Jackie Kennedy’s roses at the White House. But many properties invite us in—historic manses like Georgetown’s Tudor Place,  Alexandria’s Mount Vernon and Carlyle House, their plantings inspired by centuries-old designs. Dum-barton Oaks, a Harvard botanical study center, features terraced acres and, on occasion, sculpture popping up amongst the topiary.

Morning: Exploring the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral

Welcome the day with matins at the Franciscan Monastery gardens, blessed with Biblical allusions near the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. In northwest D.C., Washington National Cathedral opens its grounds at dawn. Paths wind through “medieval” plots on the north side and into the Bishop’s Garden of roses, herbs and perennials.

Afternoon: The Smithsonian Castle and Renoir

Verdant wonders on the National Mall? Indeed. By the Smithsonian Castle, the Haupt Garden features Victorian parterres, pools and a “moongate." The American Indian museum offers native foods at Mitsitam Cafe and a landscape of indigenous plants. Steps away, Renoir’s “A Girl with a Watering Can” pauses in 1876 sunshine at the National Gallery of Art.

Evening: Restaurants with floral notes

The gardens may be dark, but there's no reason to stop your tour. Instead, redirect to some blossoming restaurants. Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve, named for the chef’s daughter not Adam’s wife, graces vegetables with spring onion flowers, and D.C.’s Fiola Mare pairs ahi tuna with grapefruit that’s dotted with violets and pansies. A few chefs here tend their own gardens, but floral “notes” surface more often in cocktails like the hibiscus margarita at Arlington’s Fuego Cocina y Tequileria.

Gallery: Gardens (and more) in D.C.