5 Fantastic Things to Do in Bethesda MD: Minutes From DC

WHY GO: Bethesda MD, and North Bethesda’s Pike and Rose District, in Montgomery County are the closest it gets to Washington DC (just 8 miles away). But you might never get to the US Capital, once your realize how much there is to do, see, and eat in this burgeoning area.

Enjoy High Tea accompanied by live Classical Music. Visit the museum dedicated to formerly enslaved hero you’ve probably never heard about. See a show possibly bound for Broadway at the Round House Theater. And then be amazed by everything else you can do in Montgomery County MD (e.g. Glen Echo Park).

Lust is Saturday Night, Love is Sunday Morning sign, Sunday Morning Bakehouse Pike and Rose MD

Love is in the air in this near-DC part of Maryland. The Getaway Mavens explain all below.

And, for more dreamy weekends in Maryland with your bestie – check out Getaway Mavens Romantic Getaways in MD.

Things to Do in Bethesda and N. Bethesda MD

Josiah Henson Museum Bethesda MD

TOUR: Josiah Henson Museum & Park, Bethesda

It’s pretty incredible, in these days and times, to learn about an enslaved person turned hero who is not Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman, or even Solomon Northup (12 Years a Slave).

Josiah Henson was one of a couple of hundred enslaved people on the Riley Plantation – now a series of buildings, including a Visitor’s Center – that constitute the Josiah Henson Museum in Bethesda MD.

Riley Plantation, Josiah Henson Museum Bethesda MD

In 2006, four acres of the formerly 240-acre wheat and dairy plantation, was purchased and developed as an educational center and ongoing archeology site. So far, over 40,000 pieces of the past have been found here, with more to be unearthed.

Plan to spend at least a couple of hours or more here. Start with an orientation film in the Visitor’s Center, and then tour the park.

The Uncle Tom’s Cabin Connection

It’s inconceivable to me that Henson is not a household name, given that it was his “Slave Narrative” – his diaries – that informed Harriet Beecher Stowe when she penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Raised in slavery, he escaped from Kentucky to Canada in 1830, and then, like Tubman, returned many times to save 118 more people.

Former slave, Josiah Henson, meeting Queen Victoria in 1877

Uncle Tom’s Cabin became such a best seller (second only to the Bible), Henson was invited to England to meet Queen Victoria in 1877. Nearly 140 years later, Queen Elizabeth presented President and Michelle Obama with documentation of that auspicious event.

Harriet Beecher Stowe awakened Americans to the horrors of slavery, so much so that President Abraham Lincoln credited her with flaming the passions leading to the Civil War. Legend has it Lincoln said to Beecher Stowe, “So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!”

At that time, Southerners called the accounts in Uncle Tom’s Cabin “highly exaggerated.”

Josiah Henson’s Bravery

Born within an institution that treated humans like chattel, Henson was a boy when he began to attend church and discovered that God was egalitarian. It changed his whole outlook on life. He was a quick learner, extremely capable, and as such Riley promoted him to Overseer.

A gambler and deep in debt, Riley offered Henson his freedom if Henson took 18 other slaves to his brother’s plantation in Kentucky so he wouldn’t be forced to sell them to settle his debts.

On his way, Henson traveled through Ohio, a Free State. He could have escaped then, but was conscientious about following through on his promise to Riley. Big mistake. No surprise, Riley reneged on his vow, forcing Henson to take matters into his own hands.

Back in Kentucky, Henson made the 6-week, 700-mile trek to Ontario several times, establishing a colony for Free Blacks, along with a sawmill training school. There, he wrote his diaries, which were published in 1849.

When Beecher Stowe read them, she created the serialized Uncle Toms Cabin, initially published in installments in The National Era, a DC abolitionist newspaper. In 1852, the collection of stories became a book, and was translated into dozens of languages. Josiah Henson became famous, but would claim throughout his life, “My name is not Tom and never will be.”

How “Uncle Tom” Became a Negative Stereotype

Unfortunately, in an attempt to disempower African Americans after Reconstruction and during Jim Crow, threatened whites used blackface minstrel shows and cartoons to pervert the original “Tom” into an emasculated stereotype. The phrase “Uncle Tom” became synonymous with someone who kowtowed and was subservient to Whites.

The Riley House and Log Kitchen Josiah Henson Museum MD

Until recently, locals called the Riley House “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” But of course, Uncle Tom was a work of fiction, and it’s not a cabin. The Riley Family occupied the home until 1926. The property was subdivided in the ‘30’s – when some slave huts were still standing.

The original Riley home has changed and been added on to, yet the log-built kitchen still remains. The home and adjoining Log Kitchen together serve as an excellent museum – with educational panels, archeological finds, and interactive kiosks. Learn much more about Henson, Riley, and their descendants – many who are still involved in this project.

The few places for parking at the museum is for handicapped only. All others must park at the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center, located 1.5 blocks away at 5900 Executive Boulevard, North Bethesda. From there, follow a walking path to the sidewalk to the corner of Nicolson Ln and Old Georgetown Road. There are interpretive signs about Josiah Henson’s life that will also direct you to the museum.

SHOP: Shops at Wildwood, Bethesda Near Josiah Henson Museum

A short drive from the Josiah Henson Museum – this upscale strip mall has a few must-visit shops. Find cool gifts (including funky matchstick incense) at Red Orchard, and then cool down at Sarah’s Handmade Ice Cream, known for its flights of the most inventive, dense, and creamy ice cream flavors.

High Tea Strathmore Mansion N Bethesda MD
High Tea Strathmore Mansion N Bethesda MD

DO: Tea With Chamber Music at Strathmore Mansion, North Bethesda

There are two buildings on the Strathmore campus, and it is impossible to confuse them. One is the contemporary 2,000-seat modern glass concert hall that would not look out of place among the theaters at, say, Lincoln Center in NYC.

The other is the 1899 Georgian Mansion, “one of the handsomest summer homes near Washington,” according to the Washington Evening Star in 1903.

The latter is where you want to be for an indulgence rarely seen anymore: high tea in a soaring wood paneled room while classical musicians play.

You’ll dine on scones with clotted cream, crustless cucumber sandwiches, and an abundance of sweets. In the middle of the day, it’s the ultimate guilty pleasure.

Tea, sandwiches, and treats at High Tea - Strathmore Mansion - Bethesda MD
Tea treats Strathmore Mansion MD

People of all backgrounds, colors, ages, and nationalities have been partaking of this sophisticated ritual at Strathmore Mansion for 35 years, taking tea on proper china served by cheerful volunteer “Tea Ladies.” You can quickly identify the regulars. They are the ones who come solo, book in hand.

While waiting for the event to begin, peruse the latest art exhibit throughout the mansion. And don’t miss the great gift shop. Check website for tea times and prices.

This was chosen as one of the Best Places in Maryland to Pop the Question

Exterior of the Roundhouse Theater Bethesda MD

THEATER: Roundhouse Theater, Bethesda

Opened in 2002 and revamped in 2019, The Roundhouse Theater is poised to be more vibrant and welcoming post-Covid shutdown, with a re-imagined lobby bar and adjusted acoustics.

setting the stage for new production at Round House Theater Bethesda MD

The theater is a community magnet, with eight stage productions a year, innovative projects, and unique programming. For example, the public can sit in on play development – in essence learning how actors and playwrights work together to get an idea from page to stage.

And each year, The Teen Production Company, chosen from all over Montgomery County, can get in the action – developing and staging a four-day performance (the Sarah Metzger Memorial Play).

Lobby and lobby bar at Round House Theater Bethesda MD

The soaring, sun-flooded lobby area buzzes with patrons participating in the Actor Talk Back while nibbling menu items and drinking cocktails themed to what’s on stage at the time.

The Roundhouse stages two inaugural productions a year. If the one you choose to see goes on to Broadway, you can say you saw it here first. Check website for schedule.

TOUR: Clara Barton National Historical Site

The Clara Barton National Historical Site interprets the benevolent and gutsy life of the founder of the Red Cross, Clara Barton, who was born in Massachusetts in 1821 and died in Maryland in 1912. Barton earned the nickname, “Angel on the Battlefield,” as she and her fellow nurses braved Civil War clashes to tend to wounded soldiers where they lay.

EXPLORE: Bethesda Row Arts and Entertainment District

Thirty years ago, there was “nothing here,” but you’d never know it now. This area of Montgomery County MD has over 200 restaurants, theaters, shops, and hotels, including a completely renovated Hyatt Regency that sits atop a Metro Stop. Come for world class performances, art galleries, and more in downtown Bethesda.

Pike and Rose N. Bethesda MD
Pike and Rose N. Bethesda MD

EXPLORE/STAY: Pike and Rose, N. Bethesda MD

This mixed-use development was constructed deliberately to appear as if buildings were of different styles and ages. Pike & Rose has all the trendy big box fun and games – and some newly emerging names.

Find R.E.I., LL Bean, Pinstripes, I-Pic Movie Theater (with lounge chairs, blankets, food and beverage service), a Farmers Market, as well as some of the area’s best restaurants. (see below).

Bark Social dog park at Pike and Rose N Bethesda MD

There’s a splashy dog park, Bark Social, for pups and their people. And a small central park for hanging out and socializing.

Public park at Pike and Rose N Bethesda MD

The trendy Canopy Hotel (see below) opened in March ’18, has been drawing more and more people to this hopping section of N. Bethesda.

Best Restaurants in Bethesda MD Including N. Bethesda, Pike & Rose

Smith Island Cake is a specialty at Bethsda MD's Seventh State Restaurant

EAT: Seventh State in the Marriott Downtown Bethesda

This hotspot restaurant, across the courtyard from Marriott’s International Headquarters, offers modern American cuisine with a Maryland twist (think crabcakes!).  The Seventh State – its name a nod to Maryland as the 7th state entering the Union, is also  known for serving the multi-layered Smith Island Cake, the official designated dessert of Maryland.

Interior - Mon Ami Gabi Bethesda MD
Mon Ami Gabi Bethesda MD

EAT: Mon Ami Gabi, Bethesda

If you have a hankering for “sizzling” Escargot, book a table at this Mon Ami Gabi (one of 5 countrywide). This classic French bistro features all of your favorite saucy, buttery dishes done to perfection – including, of course, Steak Frites. So popular, there was hardly an empty seat on a cold April Monday night. Hence, RSVP’s are highly recommended.

Java Nation Bethesda MD

EAT/LUNCH: Java Nation, Bethesda

On a busy road between a dry cleaners and a package store, Java Nation was bustling, on a March Sunday, with diners drawn to its social, delicious, and healthful aspects. There’s indoor/outdoor seating with halfway option: an eye-pleasing wind-protected patio. Menu offerings run from Mexican fare to Avocado Toast. A fully stocked bar turns this place into Cocktail Heaven at night.

Malina Restaurant Pike and Rose, Montgomery County MD

EAT: Melina in Pike and Rose, N. Bethesda

The latest restaurant to open at Pike and Rose, Melina, is not your father’s OPA! Greek restaurant. The ambiance is modern and sleek and service, attentive, but not too. Starters are fantastic, such as the Charred Baby Gem Salad – more like grilled Romaine, topped with Manouri Cheese, Lemon Confit, Pistachio Pesto – and flavorful Chicken Thigh skewers.

Julii Fresh Bistro Pike and Rose N Bethesda MD

EAT: Julii in Pike and Rose, N. Bethesda MD

Care to dine in Left Bank chic? Julii, across from the Canopy Hotel, (and within view of the “Bark Social” dog park), is a swank melding of 1920’s and 2020’s Paris. Arrange for a table in the pretty dining room, or sit on a emerald green velvet stool at the bar, and enjoy French Onion Soup, Trois Fromage, Steak Frites, or Bluefin Tuna Nicoise, among other Fresh delights.

The Block Food Hall at Pike and Rose N Bethesda MD

EAT: The Block Food Hall in Pike and Rose, Bethesda

Gourmet Food Halls are great if you’re looking for something good, fast, street, and relatively cheap. The Block delivers on all of these. With a notable Asian influence (Kyoto Matcha, Opa’s Korean BBQ, Ahn-Mazing Viet Kitchen, Pokeworks), and Little Miner Taco – plus a serious full service bar – it’s like dining at a Food Truck rodeo, but with a roof over your head.

Summer House Restaurant at Pike and Rose N Bethesda MD
Summer House Pike and Rose MD

EAT: Summer House Santa Monica, Pike & Rose, N. Bethesda

This whitewashed, cathedral-ceilinged, stylish Summer House Santa Monica, fresh both in its food offerings and bright and airy ambiance, has that unmistakable California vibe. Naturally, handcrafted sandwiches, soups, and salads are popular.

But the Poke Bowls are Summer House standouts. Chose Classic Hawaiian, Salmon, and Spicy Tuna served over rice or greens.

EAT/BREAKFAST: Sunday Morning Bakehouse, Pike and Rose

Of course, it’s always Sunday morning at the modern and bright Sunday Morning Bakehouse. Oven fresh goods are drool worthy – with some unusual offerings, like Macha Croissants, flecked in green.

DINE/WATCH: Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club at Bethesda Theater

The emphasis at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, in the renovated Art Deco Bethesda Theater, is on the music. The Theater brings both well-known crooners – like Backstreet Boy, Nick Carter – and locals, like the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Youth Orchestra, to the stage.

Best Hotels in Bethesda and N Bethesda’s Pike and Rose MD

Guest Room Bethesdan Hotel Bethesda MD

STAY: The Bethesdan Hotel, Tapestry Collection by Hilton

In an apparent attempt to draw a younger, style conscious crowd, guest rooms at the Bethesdan Hotel, Tapestry Collection by Hilton are now modern-swanky and airy – certainly a refreshing change from the dark and bulky guest room décor of yore.

Right in the midst of downtown Bethesda, these hotel modifications (emphasis on the “Mod”) have extended to the ground floor reception, lobby, and restaurant area.

If you want to get away to a city, be within walking distance of a slew of restaurants and theaters, or if in the mood, to just hunker down and cast sensual, loving glances at your special person – the updated Bethesdan Hotel is one excellent place to do so.

Canopy Hotel Pike and Rose N Bethesda MD

STAY: Canopy By Hilton Bethesda North

The spiffy section of N. Bethesda, Pike & Rose, is the perfect setting for Canopy – Hilton’s answer to Gen X and Millennial travelers who are all about being enthusiastically social, and seek out craft drinks, opportunities to mingle, and stylish streamlined rooms.

Canopy Hotel Living Moss Wall from 3rd Floor N Bethesda MD

There are all the bells and whistles the modern traveler has come to expect: dog-friendly (50 lbs. and under), living walls, filtered water to fill your water bottles, and neutral colored sunlit rooms with industrial floor to ceiling windows, subway tile bathrooms, and a design-forward aesthetic.

About 30 minutes away from the Washington DC Mall by Metro, Canopy Hotel is a great alternative to more expensive lodgings in the City. Especially if you drive down and have to park your car.

First Impressions of Canopy Hotel N. Bethesda

Walk in on the ground floor to find innovative art everywhere. The two-story living wall, covered in multi-colored moss, depicts shades of Montgomery County.

The central chandelier, feathered with pages from the first National Geographic magazine issues, celebrates local notable, Gilbert Grosvenor, the founder of National Geographic, who was considered “the father of photojournalism.”

Privai Spa on 3rd Floor Canopy Hotel N Bethesda MD

Take the elevator to the 3rd floor reception area where you’ll also find the entrance to Privai Spa.

Rooms at Canopy Hotel N Bethesda MD

Suite Living Room Canopy Hotel N Bethesda MD
Suite Living Room Canopy Hotel N Bethesda MD

All 177 large contemporary rooms, in shades of gray and sand, range from 330sq. ft to the one bedroom 780 square foot suite.

Each features a refrigerator drawer, a glass milk-bottle that serves as a water jug (fill with filtered water at designated water and ice stations on each floor), flat screen TV’s, and all the customary amenities you’d expect from a luxury hotel.

Reception Desk at AC Marriott Bethesda

STAY: AC Hotel (Marriott), Bethesda

An enclosed rooftop fitness center steals the show at the new 220-room AC Hotel that sits in the shadow of the Marriott International Headquarters in Bethesda. A lifestyle Marriott brand, AC Hotels tout a “European vibe with local flare.” This one, built from ground up, shares a soaring commercial office tower.

AC Hotel Bethesda Lobby seating

The sunlit lobby, in colors of earth and stone, features local art. The large lobby bar attracts crowds – with plenty of drink options on tap. Sure – ten taps are devoted to beers, but cocktails and wine are on tap as well.

Carella Restaurant at AC Hotel Marriott Bethesda MD

Dining at AC Hotel Bethesda

Restaurant Corella features tapas and other Spanish fare in a room atmospherically illuminated by delicate, weblike paper light sculptures hanging from the ceiling. The food is delish, the vibe at the large modern bar, convivial, and the service – friendly and efficient.

Corella Restaurant outdoor water features Bethesda MD

On the patio outside, water tumbles from uplit fountains, and heat lamps arch over tables and seating. It makes for a cozy space in the midst of downtown Bethesda.

Spinning atop AC Hotel Bethesda MD

Fitness Center

In an unusual and, hopefully, trendsetting twist, the 4,000 sq. ft. state of the art Fitness Center is atop the hotel, rather than in the basement. Stare out walls of windows offering views of booming downtown Bethesda as you lift weights, work the machines, or sweat through a virtual spin class. 

Guest Room AC Marriott Bethesda

Guest Rooms

Guest rooms are also in those calming shades of wood and stone, with floor to ceiling windows and 15” smart TV’s. Lines are clean and modern – with wood-like floors that can take a beating.

Across from a Metro (one stop to DC lines), this AC is well positioned for travelers who want to drive to the DC area from, say, Connecticut, but don’t want the hassle of finding or paying for a place to park in the District.

(AC Hotel Bethesda was included on Getaway Mavens Best Romantic Hotels in the Northeast US 2022 list.)

STAY: Hyatt Regency Bethesda

Built in 1985 (“where there was nothing out here”), perched atop a Red Line Metro stop, and now newly revived (after a $40 million renovation in November 2017), the Hyatt Regency Bethesda is once again the best place to stay for luxury weekend travelers who don’t want to deal with the hassles (or price) of driving and parking in Washington DC.

With the Metro Station right downstairs, it takes less than 20 minutes to get to downtown DC. On weeknights, there’s a “Welcome Wine and Cheese,” and on Wednesday nights a Manager’s Reception with wine, beer and small bites.

Hyatt Regency Bethesda Atrium View From Above
Hyatt Regency Bethesda Atrium View From Above

The lobby is Hyatt-soaring, with trademark center atrium reaching to the stars, and all 390 guestrooms are handsome and tidy: nice havens for both the corporate and leisure traveler.

Plus, the hotel is within steps of over 200 restaurants, boutiques, galleries, and theaters in the adorable Bethesda Arts and Entertainment District. 

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  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

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