5 Secretly Peaceful Places in Washington

Spring has sprung here in DC, and one of my favorite ways to relax and turn off my worries about everyday life is to find a quiet and beautiful place to explore.  Washington, DC is full of majestic memorials and green parks but they can often be so swarming with tourists that visiting becomes aggravating rather than peaceful.  So beyond the standard monuments, presidents’ homes and national parks in the area, here are a few peaceful places around the city that feel miles away from the stress of everyday life.  They may not exactly be a secret, but they are a bit off the beaten path.  

#1. The Hillwood Museum

Hillwood is an estate located near Rock Creek Park in Northwest DC that once belonged to Marjorie Merriweather Post (think the Honey Bunches of Oats fortune) and is truly a gem right smack in the middle of the city.  The mansion displays her collection of rare art and furniture from around the world.  But the real joy of Hillwood is exploring the surrounding estate.  There is a proper English garden, traditional Japanese water garden with waterfalls and stepping stones, a bright flower garden, and a chalet used to house rotating displays of art.  At $18 per adult ticket, it’s expensive compared to the free Smithsonian museums, but well worth the money. 


Learn more about Hillwood


#2. Glen Echo Park

Glen Echo is just a few miles outside of Washington in Montgomery County, MD.  At the turn of the 20th century, it was an amusement park with everything from bumper cars to an outdoor pool.  Glen Echo is now run by the National Park Service and currently serves as an arts community.  Walking through the park is a throwback to art deco architecture and you can take dance classes in the Spanish Ballroom, or pop in to a free art show featuring prominent and amateur artists.  It is a wonderful place to spend some time if photography is your hobby.  Plus, the historic carousel still runs from May-September for just $1.25 a ride.

Learn more about Glen Echo


#3. Franciscan Monastery

Did you even realize that Washington had a Franciscan Monestary?  We’re talking monks in belted brown robes, and all.  I only recently discovered it myself, and it’s beautiful.  Regardless of your religious inclination, this is a wonderful place to visit for some cultural and architectural enrichment.  On Mondays-Saturdays you can take a free tour of the monastery (the church interior) as well as the gardens as a walk-in or part of a guided tour.

Learn more about the Monastery


#4. U.S. Botanic Garden

The National Mall and its museums are often overcrowded with tourists, but right next the the Capitol building is the lesser-known U.S. Botanic Garden, a beautiful greenhouse and surrounding outdoor gardens filled with a plethora of plant species, exotic flowers, trees, etc.  The Botanic Garden is open everyday from 10am-5pm and admission is free. 

 Learn more about the U.S. Botanic Garden 


#5. National Park Seminary at Forest Glen

This place imparts the feeling of being in a fairy tale.  The National Park Seminary (near Silver Spring, MD) was a girls’ boarding school in the early 20th century and later became an annex to Walter Reed army hospital.  The seminary is unique because of the unique structures that were once part of the school campus including a Japanese pagoda, Swiss chalet, Dutch windmill, formal ballroom, and beautiful walking paths framed by greenery.  Many of the structures have been converted into private homes, but you can still take a guided walking tour around the grounds and enter some of the buildings.  Tours are the fourth Saturday each month for $5 per person.

Learn more about National Park Seminary 


(Images for this post are a combination of my own and Google images.  Visit these cool places and snap some pics of your own!)

Culture Shock & Awe

I just recently returned from an incredible trip to Africa with one of my best friends.  I would love to share every single detail of the camel-riding, souks-shopping, safari-camping experience, but alas I know this is not a travel blog.  However, I did observe something that relates to non-toxic living that I wanted to share: lots and lots of trash.

Our travels took us through Morocco, Tanzania, and Zanzibar and it’s difficult to share just one aspect of the trip, especially one like trash which is such a downer compared to every other amazing thing we experienced: flavorful foods, breathtaking landscapes, and fascinating people.  But perhaps it is because of all the wonders I saw that I was so shocked and saddened by the endless litter scattered around streets and homes in the places we visited.

Now, America is by no means litter-free, especially in cities like DC.  But visiting countries that are still developing is really eye-opening to just how much an organized trash collection system makes a difference in people’s lives.  And going from the U.S. to Morocco and then onto Tanzania was very interesting because it allowed us to see various levels of development in the world.  

The Moroccan cities we visited had buildings, paved roads, and lots of restaurants and stores.  Garbage was noticeable on many of the busier city streets, and in the medinas (old, walled parts of the cities).  We saw some dumpsters in alleyways as a means of trash collection but they were often overflowing and crawling with dozens of stray cats.  


Then on our first day in Tanzania, we drove through the small city of Arusha.  It was the middle of the day and there were people crowding the streets on foot, on motorbikes, and with wagons full of goods to sell.  One of the many sights that struck me as we drove through the city was how much trash there was ALL over the place.  Plastic, metal, glass.  It was on the streets, and in the bushes, and floating in shallow streams. People of all ages were walking around in it barefoot.  I saw people eat food and then just toss the wrapper right on the ground in front of them.  There was no trash disposal system, at least not on the outskirts of town and out in the countryside.  No public garbage cans let alone recycling bins.  It was mind-blowing to see that kind of poverty and so much trash, especially because just a few miles away were the most beautiful and pristine national parks, full of lush grasslands and exotic wildlife.


At the end of our visit to Tanzania, we had a very heartening experience when we visited Shanga, an open-air workshop in Arusha that employs people with physical disabilities to create beautiful products out of recycled material.  I was incredibly humbled to see such a positive and productive operation.  People who are deaf, or missing limbs from childhood polio would otherwise have no means to make a living for themselves in Arusha.  But here they were part of a supportive community where they could create beautiful art, things like blown glass vases, woven blankets, and beaded jewelry.  To add to the wonder of this place, most of the materials were recycled, like old wine bottles melted to created new glass pieces, and my favorite — a rock tumbler made from a salvaged bicycle tire and an old motor.

My culture-shock coming back to the U.S. was almost as deep as it was arriving in Africa.  I struggled internally with meshing the beauty and luxury I had seen with the destitution and pollution.  I could donate all of my material goods and do volunteer trash collection for the rest of my life and even that wouldn’t make a dent.  What I’m starting to realize is that there are things I can realistically do in my everyday life back here in the U.S. to be impactful.  The first is to continue to cut back on material items that I really don’t need like plastic bags from pharmacies to hold a pack of gum or plastic utensils with a carry-out meal.  Just because I’m lucky enough to live in a place with regular trash pick-up, doesn’t mean I should try to make more trash!  Secondly, I can make a more concerted effort to reuse bottles, boxes, wrapping — anything that can be upcycled (thanks Shanga for the inspiration!).  And thirdly, I can support great organizations like Shanga that make a difference for humanity and for the planet.  If you are interested to learn more or donate, here’s their foundation’s website: www.shanga.org/shangafoundation.  You can also order their beautiful products online!

If ever you have the opportunity to travel abroad, I hope you take it.  It puts so much into perspective.  And the more I see of this world, the more I want to care for it so that future generations can see it too.

Non-Toxic Happiness

When I was in high school, I saw an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show where she recommended to her audience keeping a gratitude journal and each day writing in it three things for which you are grateful, and three things you want to improve about yourself.  Back then I did this for a week or so, and then got bored with the idea and stopped.  But a few years ago I was going through a rough patch in my life and picked the habit back up so that I didn’t drown in self-pity and negativity.  I began to feel a small change in how I viewed myself and the world — I was kinder to both.  I really focused more on the many wonderful opportunities, experiences and people in my life, instead of thinking about what I didn’t have or hadn’t accomplished.  And as for others, a very large person jogging while wearing a very teeny outfit, for example — instead of ogling and wondering why she would do that as I might have in the past, I began to think, “Good for her for getting out there and exercising.”  I retrained my brain to look for the positive, kind thoughts in a given situation.

Again, I eventually stopped writing down my thoughts, but each night as I lay in bed thinking over my day, I mentally noted grateful1what made me feel grateful.  Soon, I began to also tack on well-wishes for friends and family, and for people in need I saw on the street on in the news.  One night, it suddenly dawned on me that what I was doing was essentially praying.  Though I never really directed the thoughts to God, Jesus, Mother Earth, or the cosmic powers of the universe, I was focusing my thoughts on positivism and it was changing the way I felt.  I’m certainly no saint and I’m not here to preach any kind of religion, but I am definitely a convert to the idea of optimism and gratitude changing the way we view ourselves and the world around us.  Staying positive is one way I try to keep my life toxic-free.  Because what’s the point of seeking out organic apples only to poison my mood with negativity?  Scientific research show that people who are optimistic live longer and avoid more illness, so it’s clearly as important for our bodies as for our minds.

So if you’re going through a hard time, I encourage you to come up with three things every day that make you thankful.  Sometimes it’s as obvious as a work promotion or successful relationship, and sometimes as inconspicuous as the warm weather or the smell of baking cookies.  But if you start to actively recognize these gems in life, it may become habit and it will absolutely help you to see the silver lining on even the darkest cloud.