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, Adam’s Morgan, 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 Sts SW (8am 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: dinosaurs, 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 285ft 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. In 2008 work was finally completed on a visitor center, which showcases the exhaustive background of a building that fairly sweats history, and also provides tours of the building – 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 free 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 wild-rice-and-cranberry-stuffed turkey in the Eastern woodlands.
Georgia Brown’s (White House area): One of our favorite restaurants in DC is also one of the city’s standards, a flag bearer for New Southern classics cooked in low-country style in a warm, autumnal interior: shrimp on grits like silk, chicken fried into ethereal crispiness and a Sunday brunch Bill Clinton swore by.
Ben’s Chili Bowl (U St): Ben’s is to DC dining what the White House is to sightseeing. Opened and operated by Ben Ali and Family (to the point it’s adjacent to Ben Ali lane), the Bowl’s 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. Until recently, Bill Cosby used to be the only person who ate for free here, but now Barack Obama apparently gets the comp nod too.
Marvin (U St): Named for native son Marvin Gaye, this is one of our favorite watering holes. The roof deck is great for rubbing shoulders and sparking conversation on summer nights or in the midst of winter, when folks huddle under roaring heat lamps and enjoy imported Belgian beer.
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): One of Washington’s most pedigreed grand dames re-opened in 2000 and an increasing crop of names are headlining to re-establish this icon of American jazz. Miles, Coltrane, Ellington and Ella and many other greats played here back in the day.
Dusting the top end if the scale are some of the city's classic accommodations, while hip boutique sleeps can be found in the mid-range bracket. Our author picks include the Jefferson Hotel, Hotel Helix, Kalorama Guest House and Adam's Inn.
Smithsonian American Art Museum & National Portrait Gallery: These two connected institutions should not be missed. Together, they constitute 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.
C&O Canal & Towpath: There are all kinds of green escapes from Washington’s urban jungle, but the C&O is one of the more pleasant, if only because of the unexpected way it leaps out at you. There you are, wandering through Georgetown on a sunny day, and all of a sudden: wooden water wheels, a green canal, shaggy horses, flat-bed barges and a cobbled path running alongside, all so bucolic you expect hobbits to emerge from the bushes with fiddles and ale.
The canal, one of the civil engineering feats of the 19th century, runs 185 miles from here to Cumberland, MD, and once brought goods and passengers from the capital to the then-beginning of the American West. Today the canal’s towpath (boats were once hauled by horse) marks the start of a fabulous hiking-biking trail. Rangers and costumed interpreters are on-hand at the visitor center and rides in old-time boats are also available.
Argonaut (Capitol Hill): You can get locally sourced organic goodness all around this town, but the setting is often some intimidating chic-spot straight from the Matrix. Not the ‘Naut. It looks and feels like a corner spot where folks repair for a beer after work, and in truth, people still do so here.
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.
1789 (Georgetown): This is one of the first high-end geniuses of the ‘rustic New American’ genre, so if you’re going to try local ingredients sexed up with provincial flair (think Virginia rabbit in seasonal sauce) indulge yourself here. Formal wear (jacket) is required for dinner.
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, National Ballet and Washington Chamber Symphony are all 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.
Madam’s Organ (Adam’s Morgan): The ol’ Organ is a standard, a wood-and-dust-and-shots-of-’Schlager kind of place where the music is American – jazz, blues and bluegrass – and when the shows get going, the ambience just shy of (and occasionally nudging into) sheer apocalyptic chaos.
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