Now is the best time to visit the Hillwood Estate and museum here in Washington, DC. And as a DC native, I’ve got some tips to help you spend the day feeling like you’re floating around Downton Abbey… but in a real American great house.
So let me use my posh Julia Child voice, “Now that the last breathy gasps of summer are upon us and Washington, DC has tempered a bit, some overcast weather and temperatures just slightly beneath 85 degrees make it possible to enjoy the many lovely and historical estate houses in the area.”
And none is more fabulous, even more magical, than the Hillwood Estate in northwest DC. Walk through a ‘theater of history’ of Hillwood and explore Russian and French furniture, even royal artifacts, stroll around the soothing gardens, have tea and sandwiches, enjoy the Spectacular jewelry exhibition, rare orchids in the greenhouse, and have fun perusing super-fancy kitsch in the gift shop.
What should you do at Hillwood?
I’m a DC native, and according to my mother, I first went to Hillwood in the 80s, when I was a baby (a very posh baby, apparently). As an adult (now, I’m more geek-chic), I’ve been to Hillwood three times since. So, I can tell you, confidently, that this is a very special place that will not leave you unsatisfied. Likely, you’ll leave sure that you need to come back to Hillwood and look at something you were dazzled with but couldn’t get around to because you were so busy being dazzled by everything else.
If you’re not a morning person, I recommend arriving around between 1 p.m.-noon. If you time things just right, you’ll be able to do things in the following order: the introductory film; a guided tour; tea and a walk around the gardens before you hit the gift shop. Ask when the guided tour and film begin at the Visitor’s Center when you arrive. And get ready to put that awesome little ‘fabulous!’ badge in just the right place on your shirt…
My mother and I saw the Hillwood introduction film that helps you place Marjorie Merriweather Post in recent history as the sole heiress to the Post fortune (think Grape Nuts cereal) who traveled around the world, was presented at the English court (yes, you read that right—just like Lady Rose on Downton Abbey), became a superior collector of rare French and Russian pieces and purchased the Hillwood Estate with the intention of cultivating it into a museum after her death. I can’t not say this—the effort and success she achieved is rather a lot like a pharaoh, like Cleopatra herself, building her pyramid her whole live through.
Our Guided Tour
The film and our tour guide (definitely get a guided tour if you can) helped impress upon us that Post was a great celebrity in the early 1900s, the richest woman in America during that time. So imagine a Kim Kardashian or Angelina Jolie type of celebrity, wandering all over the world collecting art, the paparazzi documenting her every move, every husband she marries, and all the best people coming to her home to see her desk once owned by a German princess, Marie Antoinette’s own brown leather swiveling dressing chair, a diamond-and-ruby-studded pocket watch belonging to Catherine the Great, czarina of Russia… And Post’s excellent taste in jewelry inspired styles later worn by other high society women, including Princess Diana herself. (This was a sparkling bracelet, part of the Spectacular! Exhibition of jewelry that’s been advertised all over DC this summer.) This is the legendary experience you do not want to miss at Hillwood.
Hillwood is the penultimate experience for anyone who likes shows like Downton Abbey or even wolfing down juicy historical articles on Wikipedia. I got into this funny habit lately of reading about the scandalous romantic lives of historical figures (you know, pull a name out the hat, like Mozart, and skip down to the ‘marriage’ or ‘life’ section of the Wikipedia article, and ontop of that, click on the names of all the people they have their affairs with—highly recommended), so I really enjoyed hearing about how strange Peter the Great was, and Catherine’s coup to throw him over when she was absolutely done with their ‘ghastly’ marriage… her lover helped, and then she went on to have, I think, eleven more lovers… and there a lot of great juicy stories inside of Hillwood, tied to the pieces Post chose to have in her collection. It is said to be a very feminine collection—furniture, dinner services—in that these are objects to enjoy close up and be adored for their details. Hillwood evokes a warm feeling, it is a home after all. It certainly does not have the feel of a cold museum.
The Big House
If you do decide to focus on the gardens primarily, at the very least, duck inside the house and walk through each level too. The glamourous staircase surrounded by portraits of Russian royalty, the Romanovs, and the chandelier with velvet-covered chain at the heart of it all is truly impressive. When the tour guide explained that giant chandelier was an anniversary present from one of Post’s husbands (she had four), I joked, “Honey, I didn’t know what to get you, so I just bought a chandelier…”
Hey, it worked out well.
“I just met you… and this is CRAZY, so here’s a big-ass chandelier. Call me maybe?” Okay, couldn’t resist, so gave you another one.
And another one, “Swish, swish, bish. Got a chandelier in my pocket. Can’t touch this. Hangs from the ceiling so you can’t knock it.” Sorry Katy Perry. I’ll stop now…
There is an avocado green 1950s kitchen that is really fun to walk through. (Post purchased the 25-acre estate in 1955, though a lot of the collection is from the early part of the century.) little museum signs about the role of the butler with pictures of him in his livery, actual dresses worn by Post, and lots and LOTS of plates, cups and other fine china from Russia and France. There is a beautiful collection of Russian Orthodox religious icons and chalices as well.
My favorite two rooms were the pink room for Post’s daughters—it’s like something out of a fairytale, and—ohmygosh! That pink bathroom is unbelievably posh and comfortable… every woman on our tour who saw it wanted to steal it.
Alright, that was already two rooms, so guess I actually have three favorites. Third for me was the large hall, a dancehall-theater-sitting-room downstairs. I know that when I first walked into the silver, gray and velvet hall with giant Russian paintings on either side and its silver balcony, I gasped. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I just gasped at a room! For real!’
Oh, and I tell a lie… there’s a fourth favorite room. The vibrantly sunny breakfast room filled with bright green plants and mirrors… I swear, it looked a lot like my soul.
I don’t want to spoil everything for you if you want to go (there’s so very much more I didn’t mention), so feel free to check out my photo gallery and ogle as much or as little as you want. The pictures could never do the big house justice, though. Daaaarling, you must visit.
As proof that you can go to Hillwood a few times and still feel like you haven’t seen it all—I’ve walked part of the gardens before, but this time when my mother and I visited, we weren’t able to squeeze in a walk around the gardens. My favorite is the Japanese garden. That style, with the glistening little waterfall, just transports me to another place.
We did get to take a quick trip into the greenhouse to see the amazing orchids. By the way, I noticed a sign saying that nearly all of the flower arrangements in the bathrooms, on the side tables, on the veranda tables, inside the visitor center and inside the tea house, come from the estate gardens. I smiled at clever floral arrangements I had never before seen in life. And that would be the case when you aren’t dealing with the types of popular flowers florists pull together for commercial reasons. These are blooms selected by Post and her predecessors to flatter the estate itself. All stunning.
If the weather is good, try to get a seat by the edge of the marquee they have set up. That will give you a nice view of the Cutting Garden in its vibrant greens, purples and pinks. I recommend the chicken salad sandwich (it’s posh jerk chicken if you can imagine that), cool cantaloupe soup, definitely the tea, and the smoked salmon plate that I got. We also loved the raspberry cheesecake. Those dishes, on the full menu, end at 3:30 p.m. After, you can select from another menu of sandwiches and treats. All of Hillwood closes at 5 p.m. Some years ago, I got an impressive plate of fancy tea cookies that made it into every avatar I needed online ever, it was so good-looking. Bonified food porn. I’m not sure if they still have it. If anyone finds it again, you must tell meh!
I don’t drive. How should I get there?
Most museums in Washington, D.C. are easily Metro accessible. Hillwood… really isn’t. The closest Metro stop is UDC and there are great, detailed walking instructions on the Hillwood website. Keep in mind, though, on a hot day in DC, this is a long, punishing walk in the DC heat. Note that the sidewalk disappears after a while.
Looking back, a taxi or a handy Uber ride would have been a good way to manage it from the Metro station. If you are driving, there is a parking lot right at Hillwood. Tickets are an $18 suggested donation for adults, similar to the museums in New York City, and there are discounts for teachers and children. By the way, from what I could tell, the estate was handicap accessible. Convenient ramps and elevators abound.
Who should go?
Not really a Downton Abbey fan and still trying to figure out if Hillwood is for you? Well, I went with my mother, and it is a great place to take your parents when they’re in town. (I know, people usually ask about their kids!) I did see families with children there, too. The kids seemed to enjoy playing in the garden. I think I can imagine myself as a kid, pretending I was running around in a fancy kingdom, hiding behind the pretty bushes, petting the white lion statue with a crown, and so on… This place is also excellent for people who enjoy history, and nature lovers and gardeners will feel romanced by the many gardens and collection of orchids. And then, honestly, anyone who needs a retreat from the noisy city will find it at Hillwood. Hillwood Estate is also the perfect place to wander through alone, a set of tour headphones on, and just let everything else in your life melt away.
I promise you, after a few engrossing, soothing hours at Hillwood, you won’t want to go back home.
Also promised, here is the big photo album of all the pictures I took.
Bonus Challenge: The Fresh Prince of Hillwood
The whole way through this, I felt like there should be at least one Fresh Prince of Bel Air reference… you know, coming from the inner city and going off to enjoy to the fancy high life… Oh well.
But then, oh my! I came up with this. I have a funny sense that the Hillwood people would not be interested in using this to advertise their museum. So my bonus challenge is… Can you make a meme out of this? If someone ever makes a meme or even a YouTube video out of this, that would be hilarious.
The Fresh Prince of Hillwood
Iiiiiin… northwest DC, born and raised,
On the Metro is where I spend most of my days,
Stressin out, grittin my teeth, really losing my cool and all,
Runnin’ to miss my train to work and or school
When a couple of buses go by, advertisin’ something good,
Some Spectacular exhibit goin’ on in my neighborhood,
I got one quick Uber ride,
And I was finally there,
On the Hillwood estate,
Enjoying swag, bling, and fresh air.
Geek-chick. That’s me. Boyeeeeee….