One version of Washington, DC comprises marble, monuments and museums in the shadow of the Capitol dome. The other describes great restaurants, wild clubs, and more culture than a city this size deserves, plus a National Mall that’s the front yard and public podium of the American people. Here are the top 5 things you should do when you get here.
1. Meander on the Mall
We love Washington, DC for what lies beneath its majestic facade, but if beauty is skin deep, the District is still pretty hot thanks to these most recognisable landmarks. Whatever else DC is, she’s a capital first, and as such is dotted with the most potent symbols of the American narrative. Gleaming buildings, memorials and sculptures are scattered throughout town, but reach their greatest concentration here.
These icons combine with museums that house the country’s knowledge, monuments to heroes and a 1.9-mile scabby lawn to form the great public green of the American consciousness: the National Mall, heart of not just Washington, but perhaps the USA as well.
Whether you’re a sceptic or fervent believer in the American dream, that story informs the nation’s vision of itself, and you can’t find more concrete symbols of this abstract ideal than the towering structures that frame the Mall. Wandering from the Capitol dome to the Lincoln Memorial is like entering a cathedral: simultaneously humbling and inspiring.
2. Avoid the crowds while still soaking up culture
Washington, DC has one of the world’s great concentrations of museums, most of them free. Unfortunately, many of them are also crowded, especially on weekends when, thanks to armies of small children, spots such as the National Air & Space Museum transform into the Zoo of Chaos.
But there are so many museums here, you’re bound to find something that tickles your cultural fancy that’s also sheltered from the heaving masses.
The National Museum of African Art contains an excellent, if West Africa-heavy, collection of both traditional and modern art from the continent. The latter is a nice reminder that the creativity of Africa isn’t limited to masks and drums, often a limitation of similar institutions.
Almost adjacent are the Freer and Sackler museums. These quiet, contemplative chambers house reams of elegant Asian art; it’s the sort of place where a Tibetan demon stares angrily across the room at the serene smile of a Gandharan Buddha, who meditates in the shadow of Hindu temple lintels that are arranged opposite Chinese silk scroll paintings and Japanese screens.
Surprisingly few visitors to the Mall discover the peace of the sculpture garden outside of the Hirshhorn Museum. If you’ve been wearing yourself out with long trudges across and through the nation’s front yard, consider taking a break here among works by Rodin, Jean Arp and others. Or check out the Phillips Collection and its famous pieces by Renoir, Gauguin and other modern icons. The intimate galleries, set in a restored Dupont Circle mansion, put you unusually close to the artworks
3. Walk the line between two Washingtons on the U Street corridor
In 1968, U and 14th St NW was the epicenter of riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and tore the capital apart. These days, the same intersection is at the heart of an area of gentrification where you can find some of the city’s best restaurants and bars. For the city’s young professionals, U Street is a godsend, a neighborhood that offers what many call 'affordable lifestyle' (you know: yoga, ethnic food, wine, Pilates, vintage shopping), which was once largely restricted to the District’s deep and/or connected pockets. Here, all of the above is affordable and hip.
It's a prime area to wander both for its history – U Street was DC's version of Harlem back in the day, a center of black culture where Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald jazzed up the clubs – and for its colorful murals. It's also the place to mix with a multicultural local crowd for shopping in high-end boutiques, boozing in cool bars, browsing the galleries in artist co-ops, and eating everything from upscale chicken and waffles to mustard-drenched half-smokes.
4. Cruise with DC’s aristocracy
Georgetown is the name of both one of the premier universities in the world and a neighborhood that has long been the seat of Washingtonian royalty: a brick-and-old-stone tangle of leafy avenues, cobbled alleyways, diplomats walking their kids to prep school and professors deconstructing experimental theater over glasses of merlot. But come Thursday night, this neighborhood sublimates all of the above and becomes, basically, a big river of boiling hormones.
There’s a distinctly upper-class crust to the Georgetown scene that sets it apart. Of course there’s a reason the moneyed classes love this ’hood, although the appeal extends to anyone who hikes here. Dining is romantic and ethnically diverse, and sometimes, surprisingly affordable. Georgetown is the Sigmund Freud of DC’s retail therapy, so shopaholics rejoice. And the historic veneer of the neighborhood is well preserved, making it a magical place for a stroll in the early evening, as long as you avoid the traffic-clogged main drag of M St.
5. The neighborly side of politics
What makes Capitol Hill appealing is its well-executed blend of DC neighborliness and the city’s political class. Washington is jokingly called 'Hollywood for Ugly People' thanks to the high concentration of political types here, and many of these 'stars' (who are hardly all unattractive, thank you very much) can be seen here walking their dogs weekday evenings on Mass Ave NE.
They’re strolling by some of the city’s most attractive old row houses, which are largely inhabited by families that are several generations-deep steeped in DC. And come the weekend, everyone, from the neighborhood watch to presidential chiefs of staff, goes to Eastern Market to buy flowers, produce, paintings and the best oyster sandwiches in town. The most political address in the city is proof that a sense of community remains strong in a capital whose population tends to shift with elections every four years.
This article was first published in July 2010 and updated by Karla Zimmerman in September 2014.