Are We in D.C.? 15 Surprising Sights

Just off the beaten path, discover Washington’s wacky side with all things weird and wonderful.

Washington is, of course, known for monuments and memorials. On first glance, it may seem that the capital is all august institutions and grand marble edifices. But look more closely, and you’ll find some surprising, even downright strange, sights to behold. Here are some of our favorite odd-ball attractions.


Big Chairs

Anacostia's Big Chair

It appears that the nation’s seat of government nurtures an obsession with oversized furniture. Take, for example, the 14-foot Adirondack chair on the front lawn of Georgetown’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Built by students in 1996 for an art project on the National Mall, the green giant now inspires great thoughts and photo ops. 3500 R St. NW

An even bigger chair, once the world’s largest, presides over a street corner in Anacostia. The 19.5-foot Duncan Phyfe replica was commissioned in 1959 by the Curtis Bros. Furniture Company, which had a showroom on the spot. In an inspired marketing move, the company then hired a model to live in a glass “house” constructed on the seat, complete with a shower, bed, TV and balcony. She lasted 42 days before deciding “to return to earth,” but the chair remains a local landmark. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and V St. SE


“The Awakening” Statue

"The Awakening" statue

At the water’s edge in National Harbor, a giant struggles mightily to surface from the sand. But visitors, rather than fleeing in fear, delight in climbing all over J. Seward Johnson’s aluminum artwork that stretches 72 feet across and 17 feet high. Brave little kids even sit inside the giant’s gaping mouth, frozen in mid-scream. 153 National Plaza, Oxon Hill, Md.


Spite House

The Spite House

The builder of this 1830 home in Old Town Alexandria wasn’t trying to keep up with the Joneses. In fact, he constructed what may be the narrowest house in the country, at just 7 feet wide. The purpose? To keep loiterers from entering his alley, hence the name. The tiny abode has attracted considerable attention, even being featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But the curious can’t go inside, because people actually live there. 523 Queen St., Alexandria, Va.


Naked Mole-Rat

Naked mole-rat

At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, there are the impossibly adorable pandas, and then there’s the naked mole-rat. With pale wrinkly skin, buck teeth and almost invisible eyes, this species doesn’t win any beauty contests. But it has some amazing attributes. Not only can the 3-inch-long mammal reach a life span of 30 years (in an underground ant-like colony of up to, gulp, 300 individuals), but it’s an expert excavator with jaws strong enough to bite through concrete. And while the naked mole-rat is no panda-level celebrity, the rodent has attracted its own cult following. 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW


“The Exorcist” Steps

“The Exorcist” steps

Perhaps D.C.’s most genteel neighborhood, Georgetown also claims one of the city’s creepiest sights. Remember the 1973 horror flick in which Linda Blair’s head spins—all the way around? You’ll want to keep your head on straight, and your grip on the railing tight, when visiting the steep stone staircase where her character’s priest falls to his death. (The poor stunt double had to take the tumble twice). Between Prospect St. (at 36th St.) and Canal Rd. NW


Darth Vader Grotesque

Darth Vader grotesque

At the Washington National Cathedral, more than 100 carved gargoyles and grotesques adorn the facade (and function as part of the rain control system). But the most surprising may be the “Star Wars” villain, who glares down from the northwest tower. Credit for his appearance goes to Christopher Rader, a winner in the cathedral’s design-a-carving competition for children in the 1980s. Vader’s hard to spot from the ground, so bring binoculars or take a guided gargoyle tower climb ($50). 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW


Kilroy Etching

 

Kilroy etching

Granite pillars, triumphal arches and the gold-starred Freedom Wall. These are hallmarks of the National World War II Memorial. But stroll around the exterior of the National Mall landmark to find what appears to be a bit of graffiti. In two secluded spots, the etchings—“Kilroy was here” along with a droopy-nosed bald guy peering over a wall—honor a drawing that American GIs left behind on places where they camped or were stationed. 17th St. NW between Constitution and Independence Aves.


“House 1” Sculpture

 

“House 1” at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

You can’t look at this work in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden without feeling slightly dizzy. And it’s not from the cocktail tasting you savored last night. Pop art master Roy Lichtenstein designed his brightly colored, aluminum “abode” to simultaneously project toward and away from the viewer. Also among the sights here: a giant typewriter eraser, a towering bronze spider and a rabbit in the pose of Rodin’s “Thinker.” Constitution Ave. and 7th St. NW


The Adams Memorial

Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery

For a mysterious and moving sight, head to the manicured hills of Rock Creek Cemetery. Inside a circular hedge of evergreens, a hooded figure, with no clear identity or gender, faces an empty marble bench. Author and diplomat Henry Adams hired Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design a statue for the tomb of his wife, Marian “Clover” Adams, who committed suicide in 1885. Over the years, the memorial has drawn many pilgrims, including Eleanor Roosevelt, who took solace here during a rough patch in her marriage. “I’d come out here alone, and sit and look,” she said in an interview. “I’d always come away feeling better.” 201 Allison St. NW


Freaky Flora

A carnivorous pitcher plant

Alongside the elegant orchids, begonias and ferns at the U.S. Botanic Garden sprout some strange specimens. Consider the titan arum, aka corpse flower, whose defining feature is a giant blossom reeking of rotting flesh. (The odor attracts its pollinators, naturally carrion beetles and flies.) Adding to its intrigue, the plant blooms unpredictably and only after years of mustering enough energy. The most recent bloom occurred in early August 2016, when thousands of intrepid visitors lined up for the sight (and smell). The carnivorous plants, too, are big draws. Think Venus flytraps, with their hair-trigger leaves that snap shut on trespassing bugs, and pitcher plants, whose nectar lures insects into a pool of digestive enzymes. 100 Maryland Ave. SW