BYGONE COLLECTION / ALAMY
En español | Not long after college, I took my first grownup vacation — a Caribbean cruise. Despite seasickness on the first few days and sunburn on the last, the adventure filled me with a wanderlust that has proved unquenchable. Since then I've visited six continents; only Antarctica remains on my geographic bucket list.
Of all the countries I've visited, the most international destination among them, curiously, has been the capital of my own: Few places on the planet can match the cultural and ethnic diversity I've found in Washington, D.C. Over the course of countless visits, I've watched tourists and residents alike use Washington as a lens on the world at large — and have collected some of their viewing secrets below.
It's May. Do you know where your cultures are?
The District of Columbia has celebrated May as International Cultural Awareness Month since 2010, and the city takes that designation seriously: Passport DC is a monthlong event offering more than 100 free programs and activities. The biggest draws occur on the first two Saturdays of the month, when 70 embassies open their doors to the public, giving us "undiplomatic" types a peek inside the world of international relations.
Around the World Embassy Tour: May 3, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More than 40 embassies — from Afghanistan to Zambia — invite visitors inside to experience their distinctive food, dance, music, art and fashion.
Shortcut to Europe: May 10, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sip Viennese coffee, groove to Croatian pop music, or learn a few beginning steps of a traditional Greek dance (horos) when the 28 members of the European Union showcase their distinct cultures and cuisine.
Fiesta Asia: May 17, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. This Pennsylvania Avenue street fair celebrates Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month with cooking and cultural demonstrations, plus more than 100 live performances from five stages.
Around the globe, around the calendar
Don't despair if you can't get to D.C. in May; you can sample the city's international vibe at other times throughout the year as well.
The Embassy Series: Launched 20 years ago to promote "global cultural diplomacy through music and the arts," this concert program has become one of the hottest tickets in town. The Embassy Series stages 25 musical performances a year in embassies or ambassadors' residences. Tickets are pricey — they range from $50 to $150 — but typically include a reception featuring regional food and wines.
Very cherry: Forget the tourist-slammed Tidal Basin; you haven't experienced spring in Washington until you've walked, run, skated or cycled beneath the cherry blossom petals that shower down from the trees encircling nearby East Potomac Park. It all started as a gesture of international friendship 102 years ago, when Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki presented the city with 3,020 saplings. Today some 3,750 mature cherry trees ring the Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park and the grounds of the Washington Monument. A tip for those who succeed in timing their visit with peak blooms: Take in the spectacle at sunrise or sunset, when the crowds are manageable.
Pandamonium! The National Zoo's Asia Trail houses several species from Asia, including the giant pandas who double as ambassadors for international wildlife conservation. Ever since Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived following President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China, Americans have been enamored with these cuddly but endangered creatures. Baby panda Bao Bao's debut in January turned the already-popular exhibit into a real, uh, zoo — but it's well worth a visit.
Jefferson Memorial: Our third president is credited with introducing Italy's Palladian architecture to the United States, showcasing it in famous domes at Monticello and the University of Virginia. So it's only fitting that the Jefferson Memorial, overlooking the Tidal Basin, is modeled on the Pantheon in Rome.
During nearly every visit to D.C., my significant other and I seek out the sorts of unique cuisine we've enjoyed on our world travels. When it comes to international cuisine well beyond Mexican, Italian or Chinese standards, D.C. does not disappoint.
Ethiopian: The city's thriving community of expatriates from the Horn of Africa guarantees city visitors a wide choice of authentic Ethiopian eateries. Many of these cluster in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood; others are scattered throughout the District.
Latin: From Argentina to Venezuela and every flavor in between, Latin cuisine abounds in nearly every price range and part of town.
Mediterranean: Cava Mezze serves up delicious Greek food in warm, casual settings on Capitol Hill and in the suburbs. For Lebanese food, try Zaytinya in the city's booming Chinatown neighborhood. (But be aware that the prices and decibels match the high ratings.) Meanwhile, Turkish food is coming on so strong that the city sponsors a Turkish Cuisine and Restaurant Week in September (which, as you may suspect by now, is also Turkish Cultural Heritage Month in the city).
To know before you go
Go early. In 2013, roughly 75,000 people attended the embassy open houses and Fiesta Asia. You know what that means: Pack comfortable shoes and a lot of patience.
Ditch your wheels. Parking downtown is expensive; ride a Metro train downtown from your suburban hotel instead. (But woe betide any visitor caught standing on the left side of an escalator!) Free shuttle buses are available for the embassy open houses.
Check the Web. Event calendars are available online for such standout organizations as the International Club of D.C., Goethe-Institut (German), Mexican Cultural Institute, House of Sweden, Casa Italiana and La Maison Française.