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 River. Its museums and historic sites bear tribute to both the beauty and the horror of years past, and even on 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 a mere museum piece or marble backdrop to nightly news reports. It’s a city of tree-lined neighborhoods and a vibrant theater 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 as well.
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 three 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. Parts of the building are being renovated through 2017, so the top displays tend to move around.
Take in the highlights and move on to the National Gallery of Art (4th St & Constitution Ave, NW), another magnificent 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 – though the latter is closed for a revamp for the next few years. Don't be deterred: you could still spend days wandering the west building's galleries of European masters and impressionist works.
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 maple-brined turkey, squash tostadas 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 and stop at Ching Ching Cha (1063 Wisconsin Ave, NW), a wood-panelled teahouse that makes an atmospheric setting for a pick-me-up.
In the evening, dine at Central Michel Richard (centralmichelrichard.com). Richard has several high-end eating establishments around the District, but Central wins for its comfort food. Loosen the belt for old-school favorites with a twist, such as lobster burgers, a sinfully complex meatloaf and fried chicken that redefines what fried chicken can be.
After dinner, take the metro to DC's happening U Street area and head to Marvin (2007 14th St, NW), named after one of DC’s favorite native sons, Marvin Gaye. Here you’ll find a rooftop beer garden (open year-round) with several Belgian brews (Gaye himself spent two years in Belgium).
This article was originally published in July 2010 and was updated by Karla Zimmerman in September 2014.