WHY GO: You’ll probably recognize names of the towns that make up Montgomery County MD, on the northwest border of Washington DC: Rockville, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Chevy Chase and others. Once considered the “Land of Malls,” this Maryland county is transitioning into attractive “Town Centers” – perfect for those who want to work, eat, and play within steps of their front door. But Montgomery County MD is fast becoming a draw for tourists, too, with a top-tier High Tea accompanied by live Classical Music, a famous still-swinging Dance Palace, a former amusement park turned Arts Center, a medical museum displaying the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, and so much more. It’s time to revisit this “bedroom community” so close to home.
Things to Do in Montgomery County MD
DO: Tea With Chamber Music at Strathmore Mansion, N. 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. Dining on scones with clotted cream, crustless cucumber sandwiches, and an abundance of sweets in the middle of the day is the ultimate guilty pleasure.
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 spend time in the great gift shop. Tea on select Mon, Tues, Wed 1pm-2:30, $24, includes performance and light lunch ($28 for premium teas).
EXPLORE/TOUR: Glen Echo Park. Unleash your creativity (or put on your dancing shoes) at this former amusement park turned Performing and Fine Arts Center, where budding photographers, painters, silversmiths, jewelry-makers, sculptors, writers, musicians, actors, glass and clay artists, and ballroom dancers can learn from the best. There are over 1,000 classes to choose from – from short drop-ins to multi-month long series – for adults, kids, and teens, though just walking around the leafy acreage on a fine fall or spring day brings joy.
In 1891, what became Glen Echo Park was built as the Chautauqua Assembly – an educational summer camp, but by the late 1890’s it had transitioned into an amusement park. The trolley line came right up to the stone-tower entrance, and through much of the 20th century, Glen Echo was one of the premium amusement parks in the DC area. In 1960, students from Howard University protested the park’s policy of segregation, and by 1968, it closed down (some blamed those protests for the Park’s demise). By 1971, Glen Echo was turned over to the U.S. Park Service and effectively abandoned. But starving artists saw an opportunity. Early on, some began to set up shop in the decaying buildings. Adventure Theatre and Academy moved to Glen Echo in 1971. The Puppet Co. moved here in 1983. Other fine artists followed.
Glen Echo is now part of the George Washington National Memorial Parkway, one of the few National Parks that is arts-oriented, and managed by Montgomery County’s Glen Echo Park Partnership for Arts and Culture. In 2009, a $23 million renovation brought facades and interiors of buildings back to their original boldly colorful, geometric Art Deco grandeur. Following an expensive face-lift, the 1921 Dentzel Carousel spins once again, and is the only ride left over from Glen Echo’s Amusement Park days. You can learn the art of wheel throwing and hand clay building in yurts run by Glen Echo Pottery. The former Crystal Pool- is now a glassworks studio. The entry towers, Candy Corner Concession, and other former ride offices have been turned into art galleries, studios, and drop-in-arts for kids.
There are two Children’s Theaters on premises – so the landscape turns into a rush of screaming kids on any given school day. The Washington Conservatory of Music moved into one corner of the former arcade, and provides classes in every conceivable musical instrument, even ukulele, folk guitar, Irish Fiddle, and voice. There’s an Aquarium where kids can learn about sea creatures and climb the tree house-pirate ship. For some reason, the old bumper car pavilion is a wedding venue favorite. And the former Hall of Mirrors is now, ta-da! a Dance Studio for children and adults.
And speaking of dance, the famous Spanish Ballroom, opened in 1933 with 7,500 square feet of dance space to accommodate 1,800 foxtrotters, still attracts thousands of people a week from all over the country. There’s Thursday Night Blues Dancing, Friday and Sunday Contra Dance, and every Saturday night – Swing. Amazingly, $18pp buys you an hour Swing lesson and three hours of dance time to a live band – one of the cheapest date nights ever. Though it’s open year round, the Spanish Ballroom is not heated or air-conditioned. Thankfully, body heat and constant motion will warm you up in winter – but in the summer….well, that’s what the fans are for.
Of all the studios, my favorite is Glen Echo Photoworks, drawing faculty the caliber of Richard Batch, who has captured iconic images of a young Bill Clinton and Jackie Kennedy, among hundreds of other notables. Photoworks is both gallery and school, with forty 3-month classes and workshops per year, including several in “old fashioned” film photography utilizing darkrooms stocked with enlargers and film developer trays. Classes are popular, as this emerging, highly visual generation looks for ways maximize cell phone and digital camera skills, and use their “retro” 35 mm ones more effectively. Check website for classes, events, and gallery hours.
VISIT: C&O Canal Great Falls Tavern Visitor’s Center, Glen Echo. It’s a lovely mile walk along the canal to the Great Falls overview from the Great Falls Tavern, built in 1823 – now a Visitor’s Center and Museum. Plan to spend an hour or so here, especially if you want to take a canal boat ride (in season only). $10 per car or $5 per person to get into the park.
VISIT: National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring. Founded by Surgeon General William A. Hammond in 1862, this institution highlighted the “Medical and surgical history of the War of the Rebellion.” Now, the Department of Defense’s National Museum of Health and Medicine is tucked away in a modern building behind the U.S. Army Forest Glen Anex. Since 1862, the Museum of Medicine has moved nine times (last located in the now defunct Walter Reed Army Medical Center), until this edifice was built as its permanent home in 2011.
The earliest artifact can be seen just inside the entrance – a human skeleton purchased from Auzoux Labs, in Paris, France, in 1867. An array of glass cases hold a multitude of specimens: bone fragments with gunshot wounds, diseased appendages, medical tools, shrapnel, innovations in medical technology, and some pretty significant relics.
The most macabre pieces of history are on view in the Abraham Lincoln’s Final Hours exhibit – including the bullet that killed him, and several pieces of his skull removed during the autopsy. Nearby, another display delineates all the ways a human brain can be damaged, from blunt force to projectiles to bullets.
Learn about Dr. Mary Walker who was initially rejected by the Union Army during the Civil War, volunteered as a surgeon in a DC Hospital, was captured by Confederate forces, and, later in life became the only woman to receive the U.S. Army Medal of Honor.
The most stirring artifact is a section of the pitted and iodine-stained concrete floor of Trauma Bay II from the Air Force Theater Hospital Balad in Iraq – which boasted a 98% survival rate. A semi-permanent medical tent, it was demolished in 2007. Open daily 10-5:30, free.
GO: Montgomery Parks Brookside Gardens, Silver Spring. Don’t be in a rush here – plan at least an hour to meander through and around fifty stunning acres of gardens, woodlands, ponds and terraces – and an indoor Conservatory. Free, gardens open daily sunrise to sunset, Visitor’s Center 9-5.
TOUR: Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park, Sandy Springs. The walls literally talk at Woodlawn Manor. After a major renovation in 2016, the 1832 Stone Barn on this farm managed by the Montgomery Park System offers one of the most engaging ways to learn about slavery and the difficult decisions encountered by both the enslaved (to run or stay) and the slave owners (to free them or not). Interactive exhibits highlight the area’s agricultural landscape, the Underground Railroad and the Quaker experience in Montgomery County, revealed through the lives of the Woodlawn’s residents – the Palmer family and enslaved laborers.
Dr. William Palmer, a Quaker, built the farm in 1832, and though he did not believe in owning other human beings, his second wife brought as many as 13 slaves into the marriage. This decision cost Palmer his standing in the Quaker faith. He was excommunicated – or in Quaker terms, his fellows “read him out.”
The three-story Stone Barn serves as a multi-media museum, where roughhewn stonewalls come alive with projections of ten 90-second video vignettes of actors in period dress interpreting the enslaved and slave-owning families. You’ll see Quaker kin discussing potential punishments for breaking the law – harboring runaway slaves in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act, and enslaved families deliberating on whether or not to attempt escape at risk of death. One segment depicts a young couple telling friends that freeing their elderly slaves seems cruel: “Where would they live? Who would care for them?”
Continuing on through the barn, the lower level served as stables and root cellar, where now enlarged photos stand in cleverly for the livestock that would have been kept here.
For now, the Mansion itself, renovated in the 1970’s with no original furniture, is a popular backdrop and staging area for weddings, with plans to expand children’s hands-on programming, period dancing, and adult lectures. Walk over there on a fine Spring, Summer, or Fall day, and the gardens pop with color.
Woodlawn Park also features a 4-mile round-trip hiking trail, marketed as the Underground Railroad Experience. Numbered landmarks include “The Brambles” – where freedom seekers could conceivably hide, and the Y-Shaped tree which could have been a coded meeting place. Though there was no evidence of this particular forest path being an escape route, it’s a way to tell the story that is very much a part of Montgomery County. Trail open daily dawn to dusk, Stone Barn Open April-Nov., Fri and Sat 10-4, Sun. 12-4, $5. Check website for Night Hikes on the Underground RR Trail and other events.
DO: Adventure Time @ Sandy Park, Sandy Springs. Test your upper body strength on this ropes-zip-line tree canopy course: a great alternative for those who tire of (or are not interested in) history and shopping. Open day and night, Spring through Fall, check website for rates and times. $55 adult for 3 hours of climbing.
EXPLORE: Takoma Park. Formerly a hippy hangout, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between Takoma Park and Park Slope, Brooklyn at the moment. On the DC border, this enclave of independent shops, boutiques, and restaurants – jammin’ with young parents pushing strollers and holding toddlers in check – was declared Washington DC’s “Coolest Suburb in America’s 35 Biggest Cities” by Thrillist in 2016.
EXPLORE: Silver Spring. The most urban Jumbo-tronny of all Montgomery County towns, Silver Spring is a business and burgeoning entertainment center. Plenty of decent restaurants, the new Denizens Brewery (corn hole, anyone?), and quiet, quaint, and laid-back Urban Winery (see below) are bringing this business center to life after dark.
EXPLORE/STAY: Pike and Rose (on the border of Rockville and Bethesda). This brand new and still expanding 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, Nike, Gap, Sephora, H&M, Lucky, Pinstripe Bowling and Restaurant, I-Pic Movie Theater (with lounge chairs, blankets, food and beverage service), and a Porsche Dealer, as well as some of the area’s best restaurants. When the trendy Canopy Hotel opens in March ’18, this hopping section of N. Bethesda is sure to be a huge tourist draw.
EXPLORE/STAY: Rockville Town Square. Another mixed-use development, this one with the vintage-looking Regal Theater Cineplex, plenty of eateries (e.g. Mellow Mushroom Pizza), a brewery (Gordon Biersch Brewery), and indie shops, proves that Montgomery County has figured out how to create lively, walkable neighborhoods from scratch within steps of a Metro Stop. (See Cambria Hotel in Where to Stay below).
Where to Eat in Montgomery County MD
EAT: Summer House Santa Monica, Pike & Rose, N. Bethesda. This whitewashed, cathedral-ceilinged, wood table, stylish eating establishment, fresh both in its food offerings and bright and airy ambiance, has that unmistakable California vibe. Naturally, handcrafted sandwiches ($13-$17), soups, and salads are popular – but the Summer House standouts are the Poke Bowls, which come in Classic Hawaiian, Salmon, and Spicy Tuna ($15.95), served over rice or greens.
EAT: Founding Farmers, Potomac. Everything’s made from scratch in this farmer-themed restaurant, including the sodas – called “Rickeye’s” here. There’s all manner of burgers, flatbreads, greens, and Southern comfort foods, but Founding Farmer’s signature dish is Spatchcock Chicken ($17), a quarter bird quick-roasted in an 800 degree oven, which keeps the meat moist and the skin crackly. Scrumptious.
EAT: Republic, Takoma Park. I can’t wait to get back to this hipster bar/grill for the decidedly un-greasy upscale bar-food, like the Roasted Spiced Cauliflower ($9) and Tempura Green Beans ($9) – the perfect accompaniments to $4 craft beer during Happy Hour. Locals also love Mark’s Kitchen – right across the street for breakfast and excellent vegan cuisine.
EAT/BREAKFAST: Silver Diner, Rockville. It’s a chain, but a good one, with 40’s era décor, and twists on traditional breakfast food, like the Coconut French Toast and perfectly cooked Egg White Omelets.
WINERY: Urban Winery, Silver Spring. It’s all about the wine (made on premises with grapes purchased “from all over”) at this mellow side-street spot. Try a flight of house wines, produced by Greek owners with Mediterranean flair. Both Silver Spring White and Silver Spring Red pair well with the delectable “mezze” plates, charcutterie and cheese platters, and flatbreads from the kitchen. You’ll probably want a double or triple portion of the warm, crusty-chewy bread straight from the oven. Tuesday night is Flight Night (wines from around the world), Wednesday is Trivia Night, and check website for other events like the hands-on “Personal Winemaking Experience.”
BREWERIES: Waredaca. What to do with an old boy’s summer camp turned equestrian center? Keep the horses, and add beer. Come taste, ride, tour and bring the kids. Alternately, Brookeville Beer Farm – Montgomery County’s newest craft brewery – is also fun for families. Plus, you can bring your dog!
Where to Stay in Montgomery County MD
STAY: Cambria Hotel & Suites, Rockville Center. Once catering to a mostly corporate and government clientele, Cambria – the higher end choice of the Choice Hotel Group – is transitioning of late from a limited to full service lodging. This Cambria, opened in May 2015, is just two blocks from the Rockville Metro Stop. Staying here is a great alternative to more expensive options in Washington DC, a 25 minute metro-ride away. Plus, overnight parking here is relatively cheap – just $15 per 24 hours. The stylish lobby – in hues of brownstone and sand – serves as a popular gathering place, with plenty of seating and outlets for laptops. Sunlight, pouring through floor to ceiling windows, reflects off a curved separation wall of sparkly quartz.
The ground floor also features a café that offers “Fun, Fresh, and Familiar” fare – a $15 all you can eat buffet breakfast, and later in the day, upscale pub food like sliders and mac & cheese with local craft beer and wine. There’s a Get Cetra “grab and go” section offering yogurt, granola, salads, and other healthy options in case you don’t want a whole meal, which you can bring back to your room to store in the refrigerator or heat up in the available microwave.
The smallest guestrooms, in neutral woodsy colors, are a spacious 320 sq feet, and though not opulent, are upscale in the ways that count: black out shades, lots of drawer space, Keurig coffee makers, and electrical outlets on bedside tables. Floating platform beds are dressed in ultra-comfy sheets and duvets. Bathrooms are sleek and large, with ample lighting, counter space – and double glass rain shower. All guestrooms were installed on only one side of each corridor– designed that way to minimize noise. Ice, soda, and snacks are available on every one of eight floors. And for all of those explorers who land here after a few days on the road, you’ll be happy to find complementary washer/dryers (purchase soap downstairs) – a nice perk.
Add to all this an indoor pool, extensively furnished fitness room, and multi-plex cinema right outside the front door, and you’ll be surprised to find that room rates start at $109 per night – through $399 per night in season for the largest 450 square feet Tower Rooms.
COMING SOON: Canopy Hotel, Pike & Rose, N. Bethesda. In Canopy Hotel vernacular, employees are “Enthusiasts” in their respective posts: ergo, the Director of Food and Beverage is the “Food Enthusiast,” Marketing and Sales is “Sales Enthusiast,” and so on. And, it appears there’s a lot to be enthusiastic about. The spiffy section of Rockville/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 clean-lined rooms. The Canopy brand debuted in Iceland, but its first US hotel is just a few miles away in Washington DC. This, its third location, will open in early Spring ’18 with 177 large rooms and 99 larger condo residential units.
There are all the bells and whistles the modern traveler has come to expect: complimentary nightly local wine and beer tastings, artisanal breakfasts at communal tables, relaxed common areas, shared plates for dining, brick oven pizza, lots of green living walls, filtered water to fill your water bottles, digital check in, and neutral colored sunlit rooms with industrial floor to ceiling windows, subway tile bathrooms, and a design-forward aesthetic. Stay tuned for opening date and rates.