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Secret Washington: Where to go to get away from the crowds

Who knew Washington has more than monuments and steakhouses? Among our top-secret spots: a grotto, a terrace with a view, and a gargoyle carved in the shape of Darth Vader.

By Staff writer / May 22, 2010

President Barack Obama shown in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Friday.

Jim Young/Reuters

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You’re planning a trip to Washington this summer. Is there nothing we can do to dissuade you? The traffic here is bad enough as it is.

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No, you’re coming for certain, and you want some tips on what to see. OK then. Here is Decoder’s clip-and-save guide to secret D.C.: The places we used to go before we had kids.

THE SUMMER HOUSE ON THE CAPITOL LAWN. This is a great place to rest after you’ve exhausted yourself trying to find out where the heck the entrance is to the Capitol tour. It’s a shady, brick hexagon on the West Lawn, designed by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and completed in the late 1880s. There’s a bubbling fountain and even a grotto.

THE PEACOCK ROOM. This is a great place to get away from the Smithsonian’s tourist crowds. It’s a sumptuous green and gold dining room created in the 1870s by the American artist James McNeill Whistler. Very Oriental and Arts-and-Crafts-like. It’s in the Freer Gallery, which is east of the Smithsonian castle, on the Mall.

THE HOTEL WASHINGTON ROOF. This is where you go to recover from standing in line to visit the White House. It’s a terrace restaurant at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue that has a legendary view out across the Treasury and the Mall.

BERNARD BARUCH’S BENCH. Bernard Baruch was the Warren Buffett of his day, a financier and stock market investor who advised a string of presidents from Wilson to Truman. He often sat on a particular bench that was located in the northwest corner of the central square of Lafayette Park, and thought about things. In 1960, the Boy Scouts dedicated it as “Bernard Baruch’s Bench of Inspiration” and installed a plaque. This is a great place to relax and watch people wave protest signs at the White House fence.

THE CATHEDRAL GARDEN. The National Cathedral is in northwest D.C. at the corner of Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues. The garden on the west side is the finest such space in the city. And if you walk over to the northwest tower of the cathedral itself and look way up (you’ll need binoculars), you can see a gargoyle carved in the shape of Darth Vader.

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