Best for political intrigue: The Hay-Adams
This neo-renaissance remnant of 1928 idles on the north edge of Lafayette Square, so close to the White House the Obama family stayed here in 2009 ahead of the inauguration. The 165 rooms and suites were refurbished in 2010, with a roof terrace being added in 2011. Its heartbeat, though, is the Off The Record bar with its splendid wine list.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $411 (£257). hayadams.com
Best for local sights: Hotel George
A good base for visits to the National Mall, the Hotel George is a change of pace. A four-star retreat of 139 rooms and suites, it revels in clever decor, with Pop Art prints of George Washington adorning the walls throughout. This informal vibe is given a boost every day between 5-6pm, with complimentary wine in the lobby.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $159 (£99). hotelgeorge.com
We recommend: W Washington DC
The Hotel Washington knows its place on the map. A Beaux Arts dame, it has occupied the corner of 15th Street NW and F Street NW — two blocks east of the White House — since 1918. Marilyn Monroe stayed here, and Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio were seen talking over tea last year. It popped up in The Godfather Part II.
It was even added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 — a tribute to the high magnificence of its architecture.
The hotel was relaunched in 2009 under the W brand. Step into its lobby and you might think you’ve wandered into an event at Paris Fashion Week, with discreet beats skittering through speakers and projected images swirling on the walls. The rooftop bar POV (Point Of View) is a joy, while each of the 317 rooms proffers a view of either the White House or the Washington Monument. Or — from the corner suites — both.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $251 (£157). wwashingtondc.com
It makes its point by harking back to the colonial era, its boutique stores and attractive eateries slotted into red-brick houses on cobbled streets. Many of its hotels play the same card, masquerading as coaching inns,
but there are also flourishes of 21st century luxury amid the echoes of the 18th.
We recommend: The Graham
This relative newcomer to the district (it opened in 2013) does not so much rebel against Georgetown’s olde worlde schtick as crush the template with a killer heel. A glamourous cousin of the louche retreats you find in the more sophisticated parts of Ibiza, it exudes a stylish confidence with rooms alive with white linen, pale walls and plenty of natural light.
The hotel’s prime attraction, however, is The Observatory, the only rooftop bar in Georgetown that’s open to the public. Large enough to frame the evening fun of 140 people — with 80 seated on provocatively turquoise sofas — the cocktail list is inventive, dispensing tipples such as the Fuzzy Freddie, which blends pisco, lemon juice, pineapple and cucumber for $13 (£8).
Then there’s the view. This is a different take on the standard Washington vista, gazing east to the notorious bulk of the Watergate complex and below at the Old Stone House of 1765 — the only colonial building in the city that rests on its original foundations. It’s not difficult to imagine that The Graham loves looking down on the history that surrounds it.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $195 (£122). thegrahamgeorgetown.com
Best for gourmets: The Four Seasons
Georgetown’s priciest hotel is reassuringly high-cost in a city where the expense account is king. There are 220 rooms, each fitted with a covetable piece of art, along with a spa of reliable expertise. But the emphasis is on the food.
The Bourbon Steak restaurant prepares cuts of beef however you prefer it — a 10oz Hanger Steak is $32 (£20) — while Eno, an attached wine shop outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, serves up
lovely reds and whites by the glass.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $647 (£404). fourseasons.com/washington
Best for shopaholics: The Georgetown Inn
Proudly placed on Wisconsin Avenue, the area’s main commercial drag, the 96-room Georgetown Inn is the sort of hotel that squints at the future through one suspicious eye, then returns to its traditions. It keeps in step with the Georgetown ethos of red-brick facade, thick-framed paintings and solidly American, Daily Grill restaurant. Amble outside and you have retail choices galore, including M Street NW and Cady’s Alley.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $183 (£114). georgetowninn.com
We recommend: The Dupont Circle Hotel
Impossible to miss on the north side of the Circle, this inviting retreat has been a fixture in this location, in various guises, since 1951. But it has traded under its current identity since 2009 and has both feet set squarely in the 21st century.
Its 327 rooms are arranged across nine floors, and come with a range of modern touches — sharply striped carpets, a wealth of dark wood and heated marble floors. The walls are also noise-insulated — a wise move in a lively part of town where the sounds of the street can filter up to sleeping ears.
The hotel revolves around its ground-floor coupling of Cafe and Bar Dupont. The former does sturdy dishes such as the house burger with applewood smoked bacon for $13 (£8). The latter is all about cocktails, such as the Corpse Reviver #2 — gin, Cointreau, cranberry and lemon juice for $10 (£6) — and long windows which look out onto the lunchtime day-dreamers and elderly chess players who haunt the Circle. There are winning ideas too — the ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ deal warms winter guests with gingerbread and mulled wine.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $174 (£108). doylecollection.com
Best for couples: Hotel Palomar
This alluring four-star hotel has plenty of trump cards for those visiting Washington à deux. There’s an outdoor pool with loungers for seasonal splashing, and complimentary bikes — 100 miles of cycle lanes make two-wheeled exploration feasible. In-room spa treatments are also available — massages start at $150 (£94) for 50 minutes. Then there’s bar-restaurant Urbana, where cocktails such as the Sophia — gin, grappa, lemon, $12 (£7.50) — should kick-start any night.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $174 (£109). hotelpalomar-dc.com
Best for families: Carlyle Suites
Any claim that DC is purely for grown-ups is undermined by this three-star hideaway — and the fact the city’s full of family attractions. The hotel’s art deco appearance belies a child-friendly property where 170 rooms come with self-catering, while the ‘Kids Camp Out’ service sees pop-up tents pitched in a family room, Currently closed for refurbishment, The Carlyle reopens in the spring.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $239 (£149), family suites from $291 (£182). carlylesuites.com
U Street Corridor
We recommend: American Guest House
It would be tough to argue that this is anything but a cosy place to stay. Its 12 rooms are shared between three townhouses which were once attached to the French consulate. The interiors still encourage a studious atmosphere — wood panelling, rich velvet curtains, a library stacked with books, a lounge with an open fireplace, rooms with four-poster beds and writing desks.
Breakfast is included — with a house chef conjuring up morning specials, such as sautéed shrimp with honey rosemary polenta, and lemon ricotta pancakes with orange butter sauce.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $222 (£139). americanguesthouse.com
Best for night owls: Washington Hilton
The Washington Hilton was the site of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr in March 1981. Three decades on, it’s more notable as a plausible base for adventures on U Street. It lurks in walking range of hotspots like the U Street Music Hall and the 9:30 Club. Its TDL Bar is a good starting point for an evening, while the 1,070 rooms and suites gives you big-hotel anonymity if you roll in at 4am.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $205 (£128). thewashingtonhilton.com
Best for affordability: Meridian Manor
Huddled at the meeting of 16th Street NW and U Street, Meridian Manor can claim to be in one of the hippest locations in the city. However, this is an unfussy sanctuary in an 1890 townhouse. There are seven rooms and suites in all, each decorated without unnecessary showmanship — the Yellow, Grey and Slate Rooms are painted exactly as their names hint. This straight-talking style makes Meridian Manor a popular option.
■ Rooms: Doubles from $126 (£79). meridianmanordc.com
Published in the March 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)