If you happen to be in Woodley Park in the early morning, you may be startled by a noise better suited to the Serengeti than to an American city. Those sunrise roars echoing over the treetops of Rock Creek Park come courtesy of the lions at the Smithsonian's National Zoo, whose vocalizations can be heard as far as five miles away.
The occasional growl doesn't disturb this quiet, shady Northwest neighborhood. Woodley Park offers a mid-city sanctuary for nature lovers alongside a variety of tasty options for diners, all watched over by a huge mural of Marilyn Monroe.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Woodley Park served as a relatively high-altitude retreat for D.C.’s wealthier denizens during the city’s muggy summers. It's named for a mansion once owned by Philip Barton Key, a prodigal Loyalist who returned to Maryland after the American Revolution and established himself as a person of substance despite his continuing Anglomania. (Key’s Woodley House took its name from another Woodley House in the UK.) While its steep hills make it slightly less accessible than other D.C. neighborhoods, Woodley Park remains a favorite place to stroll, eat and commune with nature.
The National Zoo's giant pandas have been delighting visitors with their antics since the arrival of D.C.'s first panda couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, in 1976. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
The National Zoo is one of the nation’s oldest and most responsible zoological parks, with a focus on research and education and a special campus at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) where scientists tend to and study endangered animal populations. More than 360 species and almost 1,800 individual animals call D.C.’s 163-acre zoo home, including a number of new species and zoo-born babies arriving over the last two years. The zoo prides itself on spacious exhibits that mimic a variety of habitats, including the Amazon Basin and the United States’ own Great Plains.
Zoo opening hours have shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect vulnerable animals and some areas are still closed, including the Bird House and portions of the Asia Trail (not to worry: the Giant Panda House and viewing area remain open). A free timed entry pass is currently required for visitors. Insider tip: Metro riders can exit at Cleveland Park, rather than Woodley Park-Zoo, to avoid an uphill walk.
Stroll the Park
The zoo is located in the heart of Rock Creek Park, the green oasis that spans D.C.’s Northwest quadrant and offers joggers, bikers and walkers over 32 miles of hiking trails and paths to explore. One of the park’s best-kept secrets is the Rock Creek Park Horse Center (5100 Glover Rd. NW), which offers trail rides and lessons for both experienced equestrians and first timers. The city’s only public riding facility is a little north of Woodley Park proper, but still well within the lion-roar radius—not that it seems to bother the horses.
Where to Eat
- Open City (2331 Calvert Ave., NW)
A destination for classic American comfort food, especially breakfast, which is served all day. Weekend brunch lines can be overwhelming, so prioritize off-peak hours.
- Duke’s Counter (3000 Connecticut Ave., NW)
Sister to Foggy Bottom’s own Duke’s Grocery, this highly rated burger spot offers tasty pub treats in a laid-back atmosphere directly across from the main entrance to the zoo.
- Hot N Juicy Crawfish (2651 Connecticut Ave., NW)
Fans of seafood, spice and getting your hands dirty shouldn’t miss Hot N Juicy. A scan of online reviews will confirm that even visiting New Orleans natives approve.
- Vace Italian Deli (3315 Connecticut Ave., NW)
Structured with the sauce on top of the cheese—which some say reduces sogginess—pizza at Vace is both delicious and divisive, which might make it a perfect destination for law students and other debate fans. No dine-in.
- Lebanese Taverna (2641 Connecticut Ave., NW)
One of the D.C. area’s first introductions to classic Lebanese cooking alongside Adams Morgan’s Mama Ayesha, this local institution has expanded to multiple locations.
- Dolan Uyghur (3518 Connecticut Ave., NW)
This family-run favorite is dedicated to preserving the unique flavors of Uyghur cuisine, which has origins in northwestern China and shares borders with Afghanistan, India, Mongolia and Russia.
- Baked by Yael (3000 Connecticut Ave., NW)
Yael Krigman, a GW alumna (!), runs this tasty local bakery, which offers gluten-free options alongside cake pops, bagels and “duffins,” a decadent donut-muffin hybrid.
How to Get There
From Foggy Bottom:
- Metrorail: From Farragut North, Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan is just two stops up the Red Line toward Shady Grove (Cleveland Park is one stop beyond that).
- Metrobus: From 17th and I, catch the L2 north to Chevy Chase Circle to reach the National Zoo in under 10 minutes.
From Mount Vernon
- Campus Shuttles- Take the Vern Express from the Mount Vernon campus to the Foggy Bottom campus, then use the Metrorail or Metrobus methods mentioned above.