There’s so much capital, so little time…but with a weekend to spare you can wander the National Mall, see the best museums and monuments, snap a photo of the White House and even spend an evening in U St, Shaw, Georgetown or Columbia Heights to see how the city ticks. This itinerary demands a fast pace but rewards you with sensory explosions and a peek into the political heart of America.
- The National Mall: The Mall is often called ‘America’s front yard,’ and thousands of visitors take their time off here to wander the 1.9 mile green heart of the nation. Most museums have free admission and open 10am to 5:30pm daily. Our museum and monument picks for day one are:
- Lincoln Memorial: In a city of icons, the inspiration for the back of the penny stands out in the crowd. It’s the classicism evoked by the Greek temple design, or the way the memorial so perfectly anchors the Mall’s west end, or maybe just the stony dignity of Lincoln’s gaze and the power of his speeches engraved in the walls. Whatever; a visit here while gazing over the reflecting pool is a defining DC moment.
- Washington Monument: Oldest joke in DC: ‘So, what part of Washington is his monument modeled on?’ Just peaking at 555ft (and 5in), the tallest building in the district took two phases of construction to complete; note the different hues of the stone. Tickets are free but must be reserved from the kiosk on 15th St between Madison and Jefferson Drs SW (8:30am to 4:30pm), or order in advance for $1.50.
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial: A low-sloping black ‘V’ that cuts into the Mall and the American psyche, ‘the Wall’, inscribed with the names of some 58,000 casualties of the Vietnam War, is one of the most moving pieces of architecture in America.
- National Museum of Natural History: Every kids’ (and quite a few adults’) favorite museum usually contains one or more of the following: mummies, stuffed animals from every continent, an insect room and an elephant in the lobby. This one also comes with Javanese shadow puppets and the supposedly cursed Hope Diamond.
The Capitol: The geographic center of the city is easily one of its most recognizable icons. That 288ft dome wraps around every memory you have of DC, even if you’ve never been here, because like the New York skyline and the White House, it’s an image owned by all Americans. The grand building fairly sweats history. Free tours are available from the visitor center, where staff lead you into the ornate halls and whispery chambers (and around the construction zones as the dome gets buffed until 2017). Be on the lookout for statues of two famous residents per state, plus some of the most stunning, baroque/neoclassical architecture in the nation.
Library of Congress: Other sites might be more iconic, but this is our favorite place to bring new visitors to DC. It’s both the look of the building, with it neoclassical architecture and embellishments that mix the intellectual heritage of the Old World with the optimism of the New, and its scope: amassing all the world’s knowledge into this, its largest library.
White House: It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it on TV – the first time you spot the White House with your own eyes, it’s gasp-worthy. The president’s home screams dignity, pomp and circumstance, and on cold nights, shimmers with ghostly luminescence. For all that, this is a home and every occupant has added their little touch, from Jackie Kennedy’s interior revamp to Grant’s zoo to Clinton’s jogging track. Getting inside can be tough but the spiffed up White House visitor center gives you a good taste of what’s on offer inside.
Mitsitam Café (National Mall): Located in the National Museum of the American Indian, this café offers the best museum food on the Mall. Mitsitam introduces visitors to the palette of regional American Indian cuisines, from the blue corn tortillas and slow-smoked barbecue of the Southwest to the wild-rice-and-maple-brined turkey of the Northern woodlands.
Founding Farmers (White House Area): The look – marked by a frosty decor of pickled goods in jars – is a combination of rustic-cool and modern art that reflects the New American fare. Buttermilk fried chicken and waffles and zesty pork and lentil stew are a few of the favorites that hit the buzzy wood tables
Ben’s Chili Bowl (U St): Ben’s is a DC landmark. The main stock in trade is half smokes, DC’s meatier, smokier (duh) version of the hot dog, usually slathered in mustard and the namesake chili. For nearly 60 years presidents, movie stars and Supreme Court justices have come in to indulge in the humble diner, but only Bill Cosby and the Obamas have ever eaten for free.
Right Proper Brewing Co (Shaw): As if the artwork – a chalked mural of the National Zoo's giant pandas with laser eyes destroying downtown DC – wasn't enough, Right Proper makes sublime ales in a building where Duke Ellington used to play pool. It's the burgeoning Shaw district's happy place
Black Cat (U St): Still one of the best places in town for rock or indie, the Cat also always keeps something good going on the back stage, from soul funk nights to heavy metal dance-offs to big band-era bashes.
Bohemian Caverns (U St): Miles, Coltrane, Ellington and Ella and many other greats played here back in the day. Today the timeless jazz club stages a mix of youthful renegades and soulful legends. Monday night's swingin' house band draws all ages.
Dusting the top end of the scale are some of the city's classic accommodations, while hip boutique-sleeps can be found in the mid-range bracket. Quality picks include the Jefferson Hotel (Dupont), Hotel Helix (Downtown), Kalorama Guest House (Upper Northwest DC) and American Guest House (Adams Morgan).
Reynolds Center for American Art & Portraiture: The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery join forces in one mighty building, and it should not be missed. Inside is the largest collection of American art in the world, ranging from the fine to the modern to the folk, displayed in an engaging space peppered with innovative special exhibitions.
National Archives: Housed in an imposing neo-classical temple, the archives are another must: there may be no more electric surge between the American citizen and their country than the shock that occurs as one reads the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence – the originals – under pale ambient light.
Arlington Cemetery: Simple white headstones spread over 624 hilly acres mark the graves of veterans of every US war from the Revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan. Look for the eternal flame atop JFK's grave, and for the Tomb of the Unknowns, where rifle-toting sentinels maintain a round-the-clock vigil and stage an elaborate changing of the guard each hour. The cemetery is still in active use, so it's not uncommon to see families gathered around flag-draped caskets or hear a bugle's lingering notes drift through the air.
Le Diplomate (Downtown): This is one of the hottest tables in town. Loads of DC celebrities cozy up in the leather banquettes and at the sidewalk tables. They come for an authentic slice of Paris, from the coq au vin and aromatic baguettes to the vintage curios and nudie photos decorating the bathrooms.
Martin’s Tavern (Georgetown): Forget the fact JFK popped the question to Jackie in booth number three, or the power lunches that have haunted this dark-wood wonder – all of the above is great context, but only window dressing to a cold beer and the best cheeseburger in town.
Atlas Room (Capitol Hill): Set in a snug, candle-shimmering room, Atlas is a neighborhood favorite on edgy H Street NE. The bistro takes cues from classic French and Italian gastronomy, but blends them in approachable American ways using seasonal ingredients. The funky nightlife array a few blocks east is your after-dinner treat.
Kennedy Center: A swirl of ball gowns and slow marches of tuxedo-clad concert goers walks through Washington’s most elegant performance hall, which overlooks a bend of the Potomac. The on-site terrace is a supremely romantic place for a drink, or you can take a free tour and catch free concerts on the Millennium Stage every night at 6pm. The National Symphony Orchestra and National Opera are both based here.
Raven (Columbia Heights): The best jukebox in Washington, a dark interior crammed with locals and lovers, that neon lighting that casts you under a glow Edward Hopper should rightly paint and a tough but friendly bar staff are the ingredients in this shot, which, when slammed, hits you as DC’s best dive by a mile.
U Street Music Hall (U St): This is the spot to get your groove on sans the VIP/bottle-service crowd. Two local DJs own and operate the basement club. It looks like a no-frills rock bar, but it has a pro sound system, cork-cushioned dance floor and other accoutrements of a serious dance club. Alternative bands thrash a couple of nights a week to keep it fresh.