No stranger to the world’s gaze, Washington, DC is a proud and complicated city (politics makes it so) of grand boulevards, iconic monuments and idyllic vistas over the Potomac. Its museums and historic sites bear tribute to both the beauty and the horror of years past, and on even a short visit, you can delve into the world of Americana – from moving artworks by Native American painters to memorable moonwalks from the likes of both Neil Armstrong and Michael Jackson.
Of course, DC is much more than mere museum piece or marble backdrop to nightly news reports. It’s a city of tree-lined neighbourhoods and a vibrant theatre scene, with ethnically diverse restaurants and a dynamism percolating just beneath the surface. It has a growing number of markets, historic cobblestone streets and a rich African-American heritage that makes up over 50% of the city’s population.
Washington was laid out on a grand scheme by the Frenchman Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a confidant of George Washington, who in 1790 was given carte blanche to design the city from scratch. Wide avenues, majestic buildings and leafy squares were all part of L’Enfant’s grand plan, but his centerpiece was the ‘public walk’, a vast plaza open to all, that embodied the fledgling nation’s egalitarian ideals. Known today as the National Mall, this wide strip of grass and trees, flanked by museums and anchored by monuments, stretches nearly two miles from Capitol Hill to the Potomac. The city’s heart makes a great entry into DC.
Rise early for a stroll along the mall, starting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. From here, take in the mesmerising view across the reflecting pool to the Capitol, then pay a visit to Maya Lin’s moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Stroll east through the peaceful Constitution Gardens, past the Washington monument, DC’s highest structure, before arriving at one of the Smithsonian’s icons.
‘America’s attic’, as the National Museum of American History (14th St & Constitution Ave, NW) is sometimes called, houses a staggering collection of some 3 million items, with great artifacts and ephemera alike from American lore, including the original American flag (the massive ‘Star-Spangled Banner’) and Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from the The Wizard of Oz.
Take in the highlights and move on to the National Gallery of Art (4th St & Constitution Ave, NW), another magnificent Smithsonian museum, with one of America’s finest art collections (including the continent’s only Da Vinci). It’s housed in two buildings – one Neoclassical, the other a modernist IM Pei design – and you could easily spend days wandering the galleries (stay focussed!).
Cross the mall to the south end is where you’ll find the marvellous golden limestone building housing the National Museum of the American Indian (4th St & Independence Ave, SW). Before visiting the exhibitions, stop for lunch at the museum’s Mitsitam Cafe, which features indigenous cuisines of the Americas – wild rice and cranberry stuffed turkey, corn totopas and buffalo burgers. After lunch, explore the collection, which focuses more on living indigenous cultures – costumes, songs, current traditions – rather than on the distant past.
In the afternoon, head over to historic Georgetown. Here you’ll find tree-lined streets sprinkled with boutiques, galleries and cafes. Take in some window shopping, visiting venerable bookstores like Bartleby’s Books (1132 29th St, NW) and stop at the Ching Ching Cha House (1063 Wisconsin Ave, NW), a wood-panelled teahouse that makes an atmospheric setting for a pick-me-up.
In the evening, dine at Minibar in the Cafe Atlantico (405 8th St, NW, Downtown). This tiny restaurant-within-a restaurant seats just six (you remembered to book a month ahead, right?) and is equal parts performance art and culinary pyrotechnics with 30 imaginative bite-size morsels created for diners – from cotton-candy foie gras to beetroot meringue with pistachio sauce.
After dinner, skip the frat-boy fray of Adams-Morgan, and head to Marvin (2007 14th St, NW, U-Street area), named after one of DC’s favourite native sons, Marvin Gaye. Here you’ll find a rooftop beer garden (open year-round) with over 30 different Belgian brews (Gaye himself spent two years in Belgium).