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Like a local: Washington DC

There are few US cities as fascinating as the capital, and with 2016 an election year, it’s the ideal time to soak up the politically-charged atmosphere of its basement bars and backstreet restaurants. But make sure you remember to sample a little culture and history between meals

Like a local: Washington DC
Cherry blossom at Tidal Basin. Image: Jeff Mauritzen

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In tourism terms, it’s tempting to think of Washington DC as always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Let’s be honest: first trip to the States? You’re going to do New York. Second trip? Probably LA or Miami. But for everyone who thinks this way, I’ve got two words: big mistake.

A wit once said, “Washington DC is Hollywood for ugly people.” But if power is sexy, then you won’t find anywhere hotter in US than its capital. And as tourism goes, DC is hot, hot, hot — and not just on a sultry August afternoon; it has history in spades. This is where the US grew up and it’s still where the nation gathers to make its voice heard. Civil war, civil rights, Vietnam, equal marriage… it happens here.

Thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, DC also has one of the world’s finest collection of (free) museums. And it’s great for meandering. Come to admire the cherry blossoms and national monuments, throw a frisbee on the National Mall, gawp through townhouse windows or wander along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in upmarket Georgetown. Or gaze at the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress and take your photo with the White House in the background.

What to look out for? Later this year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will open (the bronze-clad building near the Washington Monument has already set architectural antennae twitching). Plus the Renwick Gallery (US art), on Pennsylvania Avenue, has just reopened after a revamp. Elsewhere, a blend of the old, the new and the political is set to be revealed when the Old Post Office Pavillion (DC’s second highest building) reopens later this year as a new luxury hotel — owned by a certain Donald J Trump.

Talking of which, if you need one more reason to visit this political powerhouse in 2016, there’s a little thing called a presidential election coming up in November. Goodbye Barack, hello…? If you think politics is hot, this year in DC it’s going to be a scorcher.

Library of Congress. Image: Jeff Mauritzen

Library of Congress. Image: Jeff Mauritzen

Where to eat

It’s easy to eat well in Washington DC, and it doesn’t have to break the bank — just remember a tip of at least 18% is the norm.

Ben’s Chili Bowl is a local institution: the original opened on U Street in 1958 and there are several newer locations, including one that opened last summer on H Street. Go for the beef-smoked sausage with chilli, fries and a chocolate milkshake; your taste buds will thank you, your arteries, perhaps not.

Hill Country Barbecue Market, in the Penn Quarter, is a kid-friendly lunch stop. Come between 5-10pm for an all-you-can-eat deal from $27 (£19) per person, with under-12s eating for free. Lauriol Plaza, near Dupont Circle, is good for Mexican food, with a roof terrace and an array of frozen margaritas. There’s no menu at Little Serow, in Dupont Circle, just a set meal, and no sign out front: look for the Thai scooter and a queue. If you come around 5.45pm, staff will take your number and call when a table is free (pop round the corner and wait with a drink at the Fox & Hounds or Hank’s Oyster Bar).

Lincoln is a seasonal small-plates restaurant that’s buzzy in the evening and takes its name from the Lincoln pennies embedded in the floor. Standout dishes include yam gnocchi, Cape May scallops and roasted beetroot salad.

And if you want to live like the local A-listers, take brunch in the Blue Duck Tavern, at the Park Hyatt Washington. If you want to follow Michelle Obama’s healthy lead, make the omelette egg-white only, but if you’re feeling less virtuous, choose the Belgian waffle with chestnut purée, spiced apples and candied ginger.

Eastern Market. Image: Jeff Mauritzen

Eastern Market. Image: Jeff Mauritzen


If you want Vegas-style clubbing till three in the morning, you’re in the wrong town, but that’s not to say DC doesn’t do nightlife. It’s admittedly rather subdued, but often packed with history and atmosphere. Take, for instance, the Round Robin bar at the The Willard InterContinental; dating back to the 1850s, this is where Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain enjoyed a tipple or two. Try a cool mint julep on a warm summer evening.

Keep your eyes and ears open at the Off The Record bar; your chances of bumping into someone important are high — after all, it’s only a quick dash across Lafayette Square to the White House. Enter through the lobby of The Hay-Adams hotel, then head down some steps to the basement. It’s perfect for a discrete chat over a dirty martini.

But DC isn’t all back-room deals over single-malt scotches. For something hipper, head to the Wicked Bloom Social Club, a bar in the up-and-coming North Capitol Street neighbourhood. Come for the cocktails but don’t neglect the snacks: waffles made from mac ’n’ cheese and topped with pulled pork and brisket chilli certainly beat bags of salt and vinegar crisps.

And just a three-minute walk away is The Pub & The People, a solid neighbourhood joint where you can stick to a range of chilled beers or go fancier with cocktails. Get the timing right and you can get lucky with happy hour or enjoy a themed day such as Moscow Mule Monday. There’s good food there, too.

National Air and Space Museum. Image: Jeff Mauritzen

National Air and Space Museum. Image: Jeff Mauritzen

What to see & do

If you’ve only got limited time in DC, plan ahead: are you more into museums, galleries, politics or history? The good news is that the city has all bases covered.

Firstly, give thanks to the Smithsonian Institution — established in 1846 — and more specifically to British scientist James Smithson who bequeathed his substantial estate to DC to ‘increase the diffusion of knowledge among men’.

His original museum has since spawned a further 18. Arguably the most crowd-pleasing are the National Museum of American History — where the wow-factor artifacts range from George Washington’s uniform to the ruby-red slippers worn by Judy Garland in the The Wizard of Oz — and the National Air and Space Museum, home to the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 Command Module. Its sister museum near Washington Dulles International Airport is also worth a trip; among the exhibits are the Space Shuttle Discovery, Concorde, and Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.

Political wonks can go on a free tour of the US Capitol Building, the seat of government, although sadly the White House is currently off-limits to all but US citizens.

If the weather plays ball, plan a walk around the National Mall, which is actually a national park, or hire a bike to explore the impressive array of monuments to illustrious national figures such as Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson — it’s worth bearing in mind that many of them look more spectacular at night when they’re lit up. Aim too for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, as well as memorials commemorating the soldiers who served in Korea and World War Two. You can survey the scene from the 554ft-tall Washington Monument, which reopened in 2014 after repairs to earthquake damage. It’s free to go up, but it’s advisable to book online in advance and visit first thing in the morning to avoid the inevitable lengthy queues.

Top 10 local tips

01 The city is divided into four quadrants (Northwest, Northeast, Southeast and Southwest). Northwest is the equivalent of downtown and home to many of the ‘must sees’.

02 Numbered streets run from north to south, lettered streets run east to west.

03 Tickets are cheaper on the Metro if you ride between 9.30am and 3pm.

04 If you’re in town in May, look out for Passport DC when many of the city’s international embassies throw open their doors to the public.

05 Want to shop? Hop on the Red Line of the Metro and head to Friendship Heights.

06 There’s complimentary wi-fi in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery, which doubles up as a great resting spot between museum visits.

07 Visit Eastern Market, at 225 Seventh St SE, on weekends to put together a brunchy picnic. On Sundays, it hosts a flea market from 10am-5pm.

08 There’s a free performance every night on the Millennium Stage of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

09 The DC Circulator bus only costs a dollar a ride; the ‘National Mall route’ is the most visitor-friendly.

10 Uber is cheaper than taxis plus the latter expect a hefty tip on top of the fare. Both Uber and Lyft now
pick up at Dulles and the National airport.

More info

Books: Washington DC. RRP: £14.99 (Lonely Planet)
Washington DC 2016. RRP: £13.99 (Fodor’s Travel Publications)
Online: washington.org
(for dates when the city’s famous cherry trees are likely to blossom, between late March and early April).

How to do it
Bon Voyage has five nights’ room-only at the Omni Shoreham Hotel flying Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow from £1,095 per person.

Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)