Update, 5/27/2016: This Arlington Walkabout seems to have been updated since we last visited. Yay! Maybe now it will make more sense. We will plan to give it a try again this summer.
Like many areas of Arlington, Crystal City is scheduled to undergo a comprehensive rehaul. This may be necessary as the urban neighborhood faces some serious challenges now that a large portion of its working population is being moved elsewhere, thanks to the latest BRAC (Base Re-alignment and Closure).
Designed by Charles E. Smith, Crystal City has lost some of its more unique attributes in recent years. The whole “Crystal” theme and name started with Crystal House, a residence tower whose lobby boasted (and apparently still boasts) a large crystal chandelier. Soon afterwards, what was previously a “wasteland” by some accounts was transformed into a very urban strip of hotel and residential towers. More building complexes appeared with names like Crystal Mall, Crystal Plaza, Crystal Square, and so on. In 1976, a series of connecting walkways beneath the street formed both the Crystal City Underground shopping mall and a convenient way for residents to get around without ever being exposed to the outdoors.
In 2004, the “Crystal” building names were mostly removed and many places received new addresses. The reason why is beyond me. Despite this change, some of the old addresses are still used in conversation or even on maps (such as the Walkabout one!). This is really confusing for people who don’t visit CC that often, or at all, including yours truly. (You can see a chart of old vs. new Crystal City addresses here.)
The Crystal City Underground has become the less creatively-named Crystal City Shops. I don’t get the point of this any more than I do the address changes. While the previous name might have enticed out-of-towners, the new name makes it sound like any other old shopping mall. (And of course, locals still refer to it as the Underground.)
There are a few signs around Crystal City that still list the old “Crystal”-themed building names. Talk about confusing. Our Walkabout map listed all of these old building names too, but they weren’t present on any of the buildings themselves – although they did appear on at least one or two old signs! We wound up wandering all over creation guessing at what complex we were standing in the middle of, based on the map’s shapes and off-scale route. In another area, the map mentioned “Crystal Palace” but I think it meant “Crystal Place” (a residential complex) as that’s what the old sign we passed called it. Eric finally got fed up and we just stopped using the map. It was a strange walk.
Crystal City Walkabout Landmarks
Here are the “stops” the map listed.
1.) Crystal City Water Park. This is a great little park for taking a few minutes to stop and relax, with beautiful fountains, places to sit, an ice cream/snack stand, and an overlook that you can walk up to. I bet it gets crowded at lunch hour. This was definitely my favorite place on the tour, especially since I found most of the rest kinda … unimaginative.
2.) Virginia Railway Express Station. This VRE station is right next to the water park.
3.) Crystal City Shops at 1750. This underground mall is easy to maneuver with various boutique stores and a food court. At this point in the Walkabout, you’re supposed to enter the mall and then note the various stores which appear next on the list.
4.) The Commuter Store. As Eric had practically rioted against the map by this point, we did not go in here, but I can tell you that you can find many free Metro maps here (which is more than the map tells you).
5.) Puppet Heaven. Well, it sells puppets, fancy that. It sounds like a unique store so hopefully it is still open. I could find precious little information about it online although it does still appear listed in the Crystal City Shops directory.
6.) King Street Blues. A small Southern food restaurant chain with two additional locations in Alexandria – I’ve never tried it but would love to.
7.) Crystal City Watchmaker. Now closed.
8.) The Ship’s Hull. “Washington’s Nautical Store” … Web site here.
9.) Sushi Garden. This is a tiny little eatery with few seats; never eaten there but I hear it’s more of a “to-go” place.
10.) Crystal City Metro.
11.) The Long Hall. When I saw this listed I at first thought it must be some other business, but no, they’re really just referring to … a long hall.
12.) The Atrium. It’s a little covered courtyard off part of the Crystal City Underground that lets you get some sunlight if you’ve been cooped up in there for too long. There’s also a restaurant called The Atrium in Crystal City, but that isn’t what the map is referring to.
Other Notable Spots
While I’m sure this map’s stopping points are good for people who truly don’t know their way around Crystal City, I thought there was a lot more that was left off. For example …
Skydome Lounge at the DoubleTree Crystal City (shown here). Not just for tourists, this awesome rotating restaurant boasts a unique dining spot, a fantastic weekly karaoke night, and some of the best views you’ll find of DC and the Potomac in this area!
Although a couple of the stops on this Walkabout were random restaurants, Crystal City’s well-loved Restaurant Row on 23rd Street was completely left out. Drop in on the quiet, roomy Athena Pallas (one row back on 22nd Street) for some great Greek food and a quieter atmosphere. Or, if you would rather hang out at the bar, head to Tortoise & Hare or Crystal City Sports Pub. Or you can always pull a notorious prank on newcomers to these parts by suggesting they eat at Crystal City Restaurant (which reportedly serves a great steak special but is also a gentleman’s club with a deceiving name). If you head further into Crystal City (in the “proper” area amid the hotels and parking garages on Crystal Drive) you’ll find more expensive eateries like Jaleo (delicious tapas), Komi (new Italian restaurant) and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
The original Crystal House chandelier was also absent from the map! (This Google Maps page seems to show a picture of that chandelier; no clue if it’s the original one or not. You can click directly on the “From the owner” (now Archstone) label to enlarge it.)
If you’re curious about this area and its future, you can view the Crystal City Sector Plan here.
We will have to revisit this one … some other time.