Washington D.C. Vacations
No matter your politics, it's hard not to fall for the nation's capital. Iconic monuments, vast (and free) museums and venerable restaurants serving cuisine from around the globe: this is just the beginning of the great DC experience.
There's much to discover in DC: leafy cobblestoned neighborhoods, sprawling markets, heady multicultural nightspots and verdant parks - not to mention the corridors of power where visionaries and demagogues still roam.
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What To Do
Washingtonians don't exert themselves far beyond jogging and golfing. But residents do make ample use of the city's official 'recreation zones', woodsy nature strips that shadow meandering brooks between suburbs.
What To See
Most centres of power have an open-door policy.
Sightseeing in DC is a steady diet of museums and monuments. History, ethnography, flora, fauna, antiques and ancestral bones - anything you can display in a glass case, commemorate on a plaque, or stick in a cage - is available free of charge to the visitor.
The White House has survived both fire and insults (Jefferson groused that it was 'big enough for two emperors, one Pope and the grand Lama'). Although its facade has changed little since 1924, its interior has seen frequent renovations. Franklin Roosevelt added a pool; Truman gutted the whole place (and simply discarded many of its historical features – today's rooms are thus historical replicas); Jacqueline Kennedy brought back antique furnishings and historic details; Nixon added a bowling alley; Carter installed solar roof panels, which Reagan then removed; Clinton added a jogging track; and George W Bush included a T-ball field. Cars can no longer pass the White House on Pennsylvania Ave, clearing the area for posing school groups and round-the-clock peace activists.
A self-guided tour will lead you through the ground and 1st floors, but the 2nd and 3rd floors are off-limits. These tours must be arranged (up to six months) in advance. Americans must apply via one of their state's members of Congress, and non-Americans must apply through either the US consulate in their home country or their country's consulate in DC. If that sounds like too much work, pop into the White House visitor center; it's not the real deal, but hey, there's executive paraphernalia scattered about.
Anchoring the Mall's west end is the hallowed shrine to Abraham Lincoln, who gazes peacefully across the reflecting pool beneath his neoclassical Doric-columned abode. To the left of Lincoln you can read the words of the Gettysburg Address, and the hall below highlights other great Lincoln-isms; on the steps, Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famed 'I Have a Dream' speech.
Since 1800, this is where the legislative branch of American government – ie Congress – has met to write the country's laws. The lower House of Representatives (435 members) and upper Senate (100) meet respectively in the south and north wings of the building. A visitor center showcases the exhaustive background of a building that fairly sweats history. If you book in advance you can go on a free tour of the building, which is as daunting as the exterior, if a little cluttered with the busts, statues and personal mementos of generations of Congress members. To watch Congress in action, US citizens can request visitor passes from their representatives or senators; foreign visitors show passports at the House gallery. Congressional committee hearings are actually more interesting (and substantive) if you care about what's being debated; check for a schedule, locations and to see if they're open to the public.
National Air & Space Museum
The Air & Space Museum is the most popular Smithsonian museum; everyone flocks to see the Wright brothers' flyer, Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis and the Apollo 11 command module. An IMAX theater, planetarium and ride simulator are all here. More avionic pieces reside in Virginia at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex to hold this museum's leftovers.
Daughters of the American Revolution
The DAR’s neoclassical behemoth, also known as Constitution Hall, is supposedly the largest complex of buildings in the world owned exclusively by women. They own the entire city block! Enter from D St to reach the museum, where’ll you find a sweet spread of silver teapots, quilts, portrait paintings, crystal decanters and folk art.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
If you only visit one art museum in Washington, DC, make it this one, technically composed of two institutions. There is, simply put, no better collection of American art in the world. Collectively, these museums are known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The National Portrait Gallery is, in its way, a portrait of America, seizing and interpreting the nation’s visage by displaying her multiple faces throughout the ages. The Museum of American Art, on the other hand, exhibits the beauty and vision of those figures, the external aesthetic of the humanity so eloquently captured in the Portrait Gallery. Both occupy three floors in the 19th-century US Patent Office building, a neoclassical quadrangle that hosted Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and a Civil War hospital.
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
For a deep understanding of the Holocaust – its victims, perpetrators and bystanders – this harrowing museum is a must-see. The main exhibit (not recommended for under-11s, who can go to a separate on-site exhibit that's also free) gives visitors the identity card of a single Holocaust victim, whom visitors can ponder while taking a winding route into a hellish past amid footage of ghettos, rail cars and death camps where so many were murdered. Only a limit-ed number of visitors are admitted each day, so go early.
The best bookstore in this area is dedicated almost exclusively to literary fiction; it has one of the liveliest reading calendars in town and an active book club that meets monthly. Blocks from the White House, it is a favorite of white-collars as well as tourists.
Meeps Vintage Fashionette
There's this girl you know: extremely stylish and never seems to have a brand name on her body. Now, picture her wardrobe. Mod dresses, cowboy shirts, suede jackets, beaded purses, leather boots, Jackie O sunglasses and denim jumpsuits: there's Meeps mapped out for you. The store also carries a selection of clever, locally designed T-shirts.
One of the best places to browse in the neighborhood, Miss Pixie’s is piled high with relics from the past, from stuffed leather armchairs to 1960s lawn ornaments. You’ll find dishes, ashtrays, rocking chairs, black-and-white photos and plenty of other curiosities. There’s a cafe upstairs.
Calling the Alley an establishment is like calling the Lincoln Memorial a landmark. If you grew up around the way, your parents likely went on dates here to watch greats like Dizzy Gillespie back in the day. The talent today is just as sterling for the most part, and the setting just as sophisticated. If big names are playing, you’ll want to reserve a ticket in advance. Enter through the alley just off M, south of Wisconsin.
Established in 1835 and renovated in 1984, the National is Washington’s oldest continually operating theater. This is where you would catch Les Misérables and Wicked. Students and seniors can check at the box office for half-price tickets for Tuesday and Wednesday shows. Saturday mornings feature free performances for children at 9:30am and 11am. Grown-ups get their free show Monday evenings September through May.
Nanny O’Brien’s Irish Pub
Washington’s most authentic Irish pub, Nanny O’Brien’s has been a favorite with real and wannabe Irish people for decades. You won’t find any cheesy shamrock schlock or shameless promotions here; no, this bar would rather concentrate on serving stiff drinks along with fantastic music. The place is packed and gets pretty rowdy most nights.
Washington is a world stage, with international media poised for an 'event' any time the president dons his jogging shoes. But besides these spontaneous little excitements, Washington also hosts big-scale, half-crazy, half-democratic events that reel in everyone from Texan brigades to teachers' unions, pro-lifers, priests and peaceniks, cult and world leaders. And some of these events have changed the nation's history.
Regular features on the DC calender include the beloved Cherry Blossom Festival in March/April and the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival in June. Independence Day is a grand event, including a troops parade, the reading of the Declaration of Independence, concerts and fireworks over the Potomac. Other highlights include Martin Luther King Jr Day on the third Monday in January, when orators recite King's 'I have a dream' speech at the Lincoln Memorial; the Blossom Kite Festival (late March-early April), when kite designers, flyers and competitors gather on the Mall for this rite of spring; April's White House Easter Egg Roll, which the First Lady hosts for children aged between three and six; and the Festival of American Folk Life, hosted by the Smithsonian on the last weekend in June.
In September, Adams-Morgan Day is a raging international block party with global music, food and crafts along and around 18th St NW and Columbia Rd. This is also the month for the National Frisbee Festival (watch your head when wandering the Mall) and the DC Blues Festival (free concerts around town). On the second Thursday in December, the president illuminates the national Christmas tree and lights a menorah on the Ellipse. There's outdoor partying on New Year's Eve at the Old Post Office.
Food and Drink
On first thought, Arabic arguilehs (hookahs) and Andean food don't seem a felicitous combination, but Chi-Cha makes it work. Curl into velvet settees, nibble Ecuadorian tapas and order a pipe of Bahrainian fruit-and-honey-cured tobacco. A sort of double dose of swarthy clientele pays its respects as a result: Middle Eastern and South American accents are in evidence. Hookahs are available weekdays only.
Citronelle regularly lurks near the very top of every Washington best restaurant list ever compiled. Big name Michel Richard started this show, a split-level study in the most creative twists tweakable on the American palate, yet grounded in French classicism. Part of what makes dining here so special is the emphasis on fun over formality. Jackets preferred; ties optional
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Ben’s is to DC dining what the White House and Capitol are to sightseeing: a must-visit. To take that analogy a little further, while the White House and Capitol are the most recognizably important symbols of DC as capital, Ben’s holds the same status as regards DC, the place where people live. Opened and operated by Ben and Virginia Ali and family (Ben died in 2009; the alley adjacent is named in his honor), the diner-style Bowl has been around since 1958. It’s one of the only businesses on U St to have survived the 1968 riots and the disruption that accompanied construction of the U Street Metro stop. The main stock in trade are half-smokes, DC’s meatier, smokier version of the hot dog, usually slathered in mustard and the namesake chili.
A gem in the midst of an uninspiring stretch of Petworth, W Domku spreads a broad mix of Polish, Russian and Scandinavian fare – from goulash, fish stew and gravlax to house-infused aquavit. Retro furnishings (one fan referred to it as ‘Ikea on good drugs’) and an easy-going vibe add to the appeal. You’ll get here easiest if you have wheels; otherwise it’s about a half-mile northeast of the Metro stop (take Georgia Ave north to 9th St, go right and continue to Upshur).
Bar Pilar is a laid-back option for those prowling the U St Corridor, although ‘laid-back’ is a relative term in these parts. The narrow drinking area doesn’t accommodate too many guests, but those who can squeeze in are treated to a dark, intimate drinking space that is simultaneously buzzy come busy weekend nights. A good spot for those who want to have fun on U St minus the meat-market atmosphere you get in some spots.
Maine Avenue Fish Market
In case you didn’t know, Washington, DC, is basically in Maryland, and Maryland does the best seafood in America. You get it fresh as hell – still flopping – here, where locals will kill, strip, shell, gut, fry, broil or whatever your fish, crabs, oysters etc in front of your eyes. Have a seat and a beer on the nearby benches and bliss out. If you haven’t had steamed hard crabs with Old Bay seasoning, or a fried soft-shell crab sandwich, have some, now, now for God’s sake. Over a dozen vendors line the wharf selling the smelly goods.