Don’t get stuck buying a George Washington bobblehead for your friends back home.
As you stroll the streets around the National Mall and White House, you can’t miss the overabundance of kitschy tokens being purveyed from carts, stalls, and souvenir shops. That’s great if you’re in the market for an FBI hoodie, Washington Monument keychain, or “Future President” onesie. But if you’re looking for something a little more, ahem, refined, you’re in luck. From handcrafted housewares to niche historical books to tangy-sweet dipping sauce, the District has plenty of original souvenirs worth bringing home to family and friends. And if you decide to keep one or two of your finds for yourself, we won’t tell.
A Water Lilies Scarf and Other Unique Museum Gifts
One thing the District has in abundance is spectacular museums—and with museums, of course, come museum gift shops. These are some of the most underrated places for a shopping spree, with meticulously-curated wares including designer clothes, hangable art, coffee-table books, weird technology, and more. A few singular museum shops to check out are: the Renwick Gallery (complete with contemporary American craft items including pottery, clothing, and jewelry), National Gallery of Art (complete with books, clothes, and housewares featuring the works of famous artists), National Air and Space Museum (complete with astronaut ice cream, a crowd favorite), and the International Spy Museum (complete with supercool espionage stuff like decoder rings, a truth serum decanter, and a pen camcorder).
Capital City Mumbo Sauce and Other Food Specialties
It may surprise you that an urban hub like D.C. has a food culture based on fresh ingredients, but local producers absolutely make delicious honey, jam, granola, beer, and more. Shop Made in D.C. at Dupont Circle has a fabulous selection of items (as well as art, clothing, and other locally made items); its signature gift boxes—especially the one with cocktail mixes, syrups, and shrubs—are primo. Union Market in the NoMa neighborhood is another option. Here, stop by Salt & Sundry, which has foodie gifts as well as jewelry, knits, and other works by local artists. And everywhere you go, keep an eye out for D.C.’s most iconic condiment, the sweet and tangy Capital City Mumbo Sauce—try it as a marinade, glaze, or with wings.
A Real-Life Cherry Tree
Crowds flock to D.C. to view the ephemeral cherry blossoms, a traditional spring pilgrimage since the Japanese presented 3,000 of them as a gift to the capital city in 1912. So why not bring home your own? You can order one through the DC Gift Shop; they’ll spare you the trouble of having to shuffle it aboard the plane by sending it straight to your house. If a standard size cherry tree just isn’t practical, what about a gemstone cherry blossom bonsai instead? These miniature versions are the perfect drishti (view or gaze) for meditation and yoga. The DC Gift Shop sells those, too.
Local Designer Clothing
Once upon a time (and not that long ago), the District was mostly about three-piece suits, with beach-sand tan being the most audacious color. Thankfully, times have changed. Fashion designers have quietly blossomed, creating and selling a variety of stunningly unique fashions that you won’t find anywhere else. Mimi Miller, Amanda Casarez, and Maven Women by Rebecca Ballard are great places to start. Check out each website to see where to shop, whether it’s on consignment, online, out of the designer’s own home, or elsewhere; most don’t have their own storefronts—yet.
Books, Books, and More Books on Every U.S. Historical Era and Personage
In a city with such integral ties to American history, you can bet your tricorn hat that you’ll find a cornucopia of books covering every aspect of Americana. The burning of the White House? Check. All the presidents’ gardens? Check. The Civil War in 3-D? Check. You’ll find them in the shops of every museum and attraction—the shops at the Library of Congress, the National Building Museum, and the National Museum of American History are especially good. And while you’re at it, there are several beloved independent bookstores with a local bent that are worth a peek as well, including Kramerbooks & Afterwords café and the legendary Politics and Prose.
Handcrafted Sundries at Local Markets
The District has a burgeoning artistic side with artisans, makers, and designers creating unique items to bring home. Eastern Market on Capitol Hill has been a buzzing local market since 1873. It’s still a viable food market, but these days, there’s more. On weekends, artists and crafters take over the surrounding streets and the plaza, purveying colorful ceramic pitchers, aromatherapy soaps, funky fashion jewelry, cloth dolls, batik wall hangings, and a long list of other beautifully-crafted items. Shop Made in D.C. and Union Market are other places you’ll find the work of local makers.
An Official White House Christmas Ornament
The White House has created a collectible Christmas ornament since 1981, with each one celebrating some aspect of presidential history. In 1981, it was simply a gold angel in flight. The one from 1990 depicts the Blue Room. The 2006 ornament celebrates Tiffany glass in the White House. And 2018 honors President Harry S. Truman and the changes he made to the White House and the Presidential Seal. You can buy this year’s—or any one that suits your fancy—at the White House Visitor Center Flagship Store and the White House History Shop (you can also order them online). All proceeds benefit the historical preservation of the White House art and artifacts. And, by the way, these shops sell other great souvenirs, from Jackie Kennedy-inspired jewelry to a LEGO White House set.
An Adorable, Plush Panda Bear
Perhaps there’s no animal more beloved at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo than the giant pandas—Mei Xiang, Tian Tian, and their son, Bei Bei. For an animal that’s relatively hostile and reclusive, why are we so gaga over them? Some say it’s their big, black-encircled eyes, their pudgy faces, the way they tumble like a child—so cute! It’s a common reaction to want to take one home with you. And you can. The zoo’s gift shop sells plush pandas, plush panda backpacks, a plush panda children’s chair, panda-adorned T-shirts, panda slippers, panda dessert plates—you get the idea. The good news? Stuffed pandas don’t scratch or bite.
A Nats Cap and Other Sportswear
D.C. has some serious sports teams, including the Nationals (baseball), Wizards (basketball), Capitals (ice hockey), D.C. United (soccer), and a professional football team. And each one offers a plethora of gear to outfit the biggest sports fan. You can find good selections of caps, jerseys, T-shirts, and more at the stadiums themselves (if you’re there for a game), or stop by any DICK’s Sporting Goods, MODELL’s Sporting Goods, even and/or Target in the District.
A D.C. Tea Towel and Other Cool House Stuff
You’ll find one-of-a-kind boutiques selling superoriginal items for your home, including artsy tea towels with D.C. motifs, D.C.-shaped cutting boards, and printed hand-drawn maps of D.C. neighborhoods. You can even find cookie cutters in the shape of the District. Check out Cherry Blossom Creative Workshop, HomeRule, and Hill’s Kitchen for starters.