By: Jordan Simon
Nowhere on earth is the aura of power so tangible as it is strolling Washington, DC's broad boulevards. Washington was built on a grand scale to impress foreign powers and express the noblest democratic ideals. For many visitors to the US capital, the experience is akin to strolling through a living history textbook that eloquently resonates with revolutionary sentiments from "We the people" to "I have a dream."
The great French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant vowed in 1791 to design a city "on a dimension proportioned to the greatness which the capital of a powerful empire ought to manifest." His "pedestal waiting for a monument" took a century to crystallize, but Washington's memorials, monuments, and government buildings have achieved mythic, iconic status – and not just for Americans. Every turn downtown and along the Mall seemingly reveals another famous edifice; most, including the Smithsonian's many museums, in true democratic fashion, are free to the public.
Today Washington offers a marvelous combination of historic and hip, constantly morphing, adding exciting new attractions, daringly contrasting neoclassical with postmodern. The all-American town is also a quintessential melting pot with lively, colorful ethnic enclaves reenergized by immigrants from Cambodia to Colombia. Washington's multi-cultural neighborhoods truly express the American dream from the Civil War to civil rights. Passionate urban renaissance has also restored parts of downtown and Logan and Dupont Circles – magnificent Georgian, Italianate, Romanesque or Federal Revival, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco buildings teem with trendy boutiques, hotels, galleries, bars, and restaurants. And it's all wonderfully walkable (or reachable via cheap, efficient public transport), with plentiful cafés and peaceful green spaces to reflect or renew.
Washington demurely reveals more of itself with each visit, with delightfully quirky, culturally significant, and deeply poignant attractions. A three-day trip is sufficient to take in the main monuments and a few museums downtown and on the Mall, while a weeklong stay allows you to discover the vibrant diversity of the many neighborhoods, as well as venture into Virginia for more living history at Alexandria and Mount Vernon. Did we mention much of it is FREE? We did? Good, because that's one of the practical marvels in this city built on dreams.
Literary critic John Mason Brown once quipped, "How prophetic L'Enfant was when he laid Washington out as a city that goes around in circles!" Politics aside, that grid layout fortunately makes for easy touring on foot or by Metrorail (subway) and Metrobus. The 67-square-mile District of Columbia is divided into four quadrants – Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast – radiating from the U.S. Capitol. Numbered streets run north and south, lettered streets east and west. Avenues named for U.S. states run diagonally, often intersecting at traffic circles and squares.
Downtown (including the newly hip Penn Quarter/Seventh Street Corridor's shops, galleries, and clubs) extends northwest from the Capitol, filled with structures both historic (National Building Museum, U.S. Navy Memorial, Ford's Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre) and contemporary (International Spy Museum). Continuing northwest, the fun, funky Dupont Circle neighborhood embraces top museums, historic brick row homes, leading private art galleries, ethnic eateries, and sidewalk cafes. North of Dupont is Adams-Morgan, a vibrant multi-ethnic collage (don't miss the soulful, colorful Rivera-esque murals that adorn the buildings, here), with the storied African-American Shaw area around U and 10–15th Streets a hub for cutting-edge home décor and vintage-clothing stores, as well as hip-hopping-happening clubs. Massachusetts Avenue proudly promenades northwest through Dupont Circle into Georgetown; this stretch earned the moniker Embassy Row, its sumptuous Beaux-Arts mansions now housing nearly 150 embassies and consulates. To the northwest lies elite, elegant, exclusive Georgetown – a National Historic District of brick sidewalks, canals, Georgian mansions, Federal Revival houses, late Victorian Queen Anne, Neoclassical Revival, and Richardsonian Romanesque rowhouses, many now home to yup-scale restaurants, galleries, and shops.
Regardless of your stay's length, Washington is best experienced on foot: Washington Walks (April 1–Oct 31; 202/484-1565; $10–$15; www.washingtonwalks.com) offers daily, themed, two-hour, "insider" walking tours, including themed outings like "Moveable Feast" (drinking in culinary/cultural history while eating homegrown treats like ginger scones, bubble tea, shrimp crackers, and half-smokes). Bike the Sites (The Old Post Office Pavilion; 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/842-BIKE; www.bikethesites.com) is another refreshing way to explore DC architecturally and anecdotally; the company also rents bikes to those without. Washington is especially enjoyable from the water on sultry summer days (or evenings, when its grand structures are illuminated). Several places around Foggy Bottom/Tidal Basin rent pedal boats and kayaks – or let someone else steer while describing the attractions. Capitol River Cruises (31st & K Street, N.W., Washington Harbour; 301/460-7447 or 800/405-5511; www.capitolrivercruises.com) prowls the Potomac hourly from the Georgetown waterfront. Something more conventional? Old Town Trolley Tours (2640 Reed St. NE; 202/832-9800; www.historictours.com) offers two-hour narrated excursions with free re-boarding from 19 sites around the city (the same company also operates the family-friendly DC Ducks for land-and-water tours on restored WWII amphibious vessels).
Be aware that various leading attractions have closed indefinitely or altered schedules due to a combination of ongoing renovation/restoration (notably the Mall's monuments, FBI Building, and several Smithsonian-run museums such as the National Portrait Gallery) and Department of Homeland Security precautions (including the Pentagon and the Treasury Building). Most Smithsonian museums (www.si.edu) are open daily 10am-5.30pm (some extend hours during summer months). The National Parks Services website (www.nps.gov) also provides informative links to the many monuments (generally open until 5pm; some until midnight or even 24 hours; 202/426-6841), museums, and parks/gardens under its bailiwick.
Check the Washington, DC Convention & Tourism Corporation website (www.washington.org), for updates on what's open and when. Washingtonian Magazine offers the scuttlebutt on the hottest cultural, dining, shopping, and barhopping listings; you can check out the notoriously picky staff picks prior to your visit online (www.washingtonian.com).
The focal point of DC sightseeing is the National Mall, which unrolls like a green welcome carpet west from the Capitol for roughly two miles to the Potomac. It's lined with 200-year-old American elm trees, several memorials, the National Archives, National Gallery of Art, and several of the Smithsonian's great museums (which we've covered under museums and galleries, below).
Begin your walk through history at the west end, where the stately Lincoln Memorial (W. Potomac Park at 23rd St. NW; www.nps.gov/linc) presides with dignity over the Mall and Capitol beyond, the harmonious neoclassical symmetry somewhat interrupted by the latest postmodern architectural additions. The Memorial's design, fashioned after a Greek temple, contains 36 Doric columns (one for each state at his death). The Gettysburg Address is inscribed on the south wall, a glorious Jules Guerin mural depicts the angel of truth freeing a slave, and Lincoln himself sits stoically immortalized in marble by Daniel Chester French.
In stark contrast, the recently built Korean War Veterans' Memorial (Independence Ave. & French Dr. SW; www.nps.gov/kwvm), adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, features a forceful sculptured column of soldiers, sailors, and marines arrayed for combat facing a 164-foot black granite wall inscribed with the words, "Freedom Is Not Free" and etched with 2500 photographic images of nurses, chaplains, mechanics, and other support personnel.
The nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Constitution Ave. & Henry Bacon Dr. NW; 202/634-1568; www.nps.gov/vive) forms another powerfully poignant testament to the ravages of war and the importance of remembrance. Maya Ying Lin's initially controversial concept – V-shaped black granite walls, etched with the names of the 58,209 Americans killed or MIA during the Vietnam conflict – is brilliantly counterpointed by more orthodox sculptural tributes to servicemen and women. This troika of memorials honors the many personal sacrifices yet eloquently evokes all humankind's struggle toward freedom and understanding. Overcome? Take a break in the tranquil Constitution Gardens (900 Ohio Drive SW; www.nps.gov/coga), savoring the Tulip Library and antics of waterfowl in the lake.
Nearby, contemplate democracy's purest ideals at the Jefferson Memorial (15 St. SW at Tidal Basin South End; www.nps.gov/thje), a lovely neoclassical rotunda where the third president's imposing statue is surrounded by passages from the Declaration of Independence. The nearby FDR Memorial (1850 West Basin Dr. SW; 202/376-6704; www.nps.gov/fdrm) depicts Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inspirational legacy battling the Great Depression through such still topical socio-political reforms as Social Security, followed by World War II. Four outdoor gallery rooms hold statues commemorating Roosevelt, wife Eleanor, dog Fala, and key events; the sylvan setting features pools and waterfalls amid a serpentine wall of ruddy Dakota granite carved with FDR's inspirational words. Fittingly, it's the first DC memorial deliberately designed to be totally wheelchair-accessible.
Stroll north along 14th Street past the Building of Printing and Engraving to the Mall and the 555-foot Washington Monument (Constitution Ave. & 15th St. NW; www.nps.gov/wash). The National Park Service distributes free first-come first-served, day-of-visit tickets from the monument grounds kiosk at 15th and Jefferson Drive. Locals jokingly call this 1885 masonry obelisk the phallic symbol of national pride, but panoramas from the top floor are stirring.
Look north across the neat green expanse: it's the White House (1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; tours Tues–Sat 7.30am–12.30pm; www.whitehouse.gov), the classic American landmark and residence for every president since John Adams. Regrettably, only groups of ten or more may apply to visit; submit a request through your member of Congress at least two (and up to six) months in advance. The next best thing: terrific free virtual tours and displays at the White House Visitor Center in the Department of Commerce Building around the corner (1450 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; daily 7.30am-4pm; www.whitehouse.gov) to explore all things Oval and circular (like comparing first ladies' china patterns). Then ramble the surrounding Lafayette Square area, admiring the outstanding diverse examples of architectural styles (including the distinguished Greek Revival Treasury Building and majestic Beaux Arts Old Executive Office Building).
A few blocks east of downtown, the domed U.S. Capitol (Capitol Hill; 202/225-6827; www.house.gov, www.senate.gov, or www.aoc.gov) is almost as iconic and impressive as the White House. Though its new visitor center won't debut until fall 2006, free 45-minute guided tours leave every 15 minutes in the Rotunda (Mon–Sat 9am–4.30pm). They cover the highlights of the Capitol complex history and architecture including the Statuary Hall, Rotunda (superb paintings depict the signing of the Declaration and the Baptism of Pocohontas), the original Supreme Court chamber, and the Crypt, intended burial place of George and Martha Washington. Same-day, first-come first-served tickets are distributed at the Capitol Guide Service kiosk (First St & Independence Ave SW facing the Mall); arrive early to avoid fearsome lines.
America's second largest burial ground, the Arlington National Cemetery (Memorial Drive at Jefferson Davis Hwy, Arlington, VA; 703/607-8000; www.arlingtoncemetery.org), lies just across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial on Memorial Bridge (there's a metro stop here). It contains the gravesites of some 300,000 American servicemen and women, as well as those of President John F. Kennedy (with its eternal flame), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert Kennedy, the Challenger astronauts, and the sobering Tomb of the Unknowns. The 600-acre site once belonged to Robert E. Lee: you can visit his home, Arlington House (703/235-1530; www.nps.gov/arho), where he penned his fateful resignation letter from the Army before the Civil War. The cemetery also holds the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (Ceremonial Entrance; 800/222-2294; www.womensmemorial.org), with exhibits running from uniforms to the Comfort Quilt sewn aboard the USNS Comfort in Iraq.
Museums & Galleries
Washington once wrote, "To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country." Nowhere is that truth more self-evident than DC, where intriguing institutions celebrate everything from the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) to the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). The Smithsonian museums (14 in DC – all with free entry!) are undoubtedly the most renowned; the 19th-century red-stone Smithsonian Institution Building (1000 Jefferson Drive, SW; 202/633-1000; www.si.edu) known as The Castle, is the place to plot your assault on the Institution's many enthralling entities, from African Art to American Indian museums. It would be next-to-impossible to visit them all on one single trip, so we've covered our favorites along the Mall (between the Washington Monument and the Capitol) here, as well as a couple of non-Smithsonian musts that will round out your visit. If you have time, look for a few suggestions under Other Attractions, below.
Start back at the Mall, where the glorious neoclassic National Archives (Constitution Ave. between Seventh and Ninth St NW; daily fall/winter 10am–5.30pm; spring 10am-7pm; summer 10am-9pm; www.archives.gov) showcases rare original handwritten documents and presidential speeches: piddling items like the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, and Emancipation Proclamation.
The largest Smithsonian entity (and the world's biggest of its type) is the National Museum of Natural History (Tenth St. & Constitution Ave. NW; daily 10am–5.30pm; 7.30pm in summer; www.mnh.si.edu). It features exhaustive collections in anthropology, zoology, botany, mineral sciences, paleontology, and entomology (kids adore the Insect Zoo), and more. The mammal display – showcased in a recently renovated hall – is almost double the size of any other in the world. There's an IMAX theater, an electron microscope lab, and plenty of cool exhibits to explore.
The National Museum of American History (14th St. & Constitution Ave. NW; www.americanhistory.si.edu; daily 10am–5.30pm, 6.30pm in summer) delights with pop cultural memorabilia (Mr. Rogers's sweater, Fonzie's leather jacket, Judy Garland's ruby slippers, Archie Bunker's chair). Yet it also movingly documents turning points in American history from the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision overturning segregation to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Free summer concerts range from bluegrass to salsa to protest songs.
Further east still, the National Gallery of Art (Fourth St. & Constitution Ave. NW; Mon–Sat 10am–5pm, Sun 11am–6pm; www.nga.gov) displays a sublime collection of global masterpieces from the 13th to the early-20th centuries (including the only da Vinci portrait in North America) in its elegant West Wing, while the abstract, I.M. Pei-designed East Wing houses 20th-century art masterworks. Bright, vivid works dot the outdoor sculpture garden (the scene for free Friday concerts in summer and ice skating in winter).
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Seventh St. SW & Independence Ave. SW; daily 10am–5.30pm; www.hirshhorn.si.edu) is DC's answer to MOMA, with more recent groundbreaking acquisitions augmenting Joe Hirshhorn's seminal collection of works in various media by Warhol, Hopper, Lichtenstein, Dubuffet, Brancusi, Oldenburg, Pollock, Picasso, and more. The curators constantly shift the exhibition, grouping masterpieces in different contexts and themes. Special exhibits always fascinate, such as "Visual Music," which provocatively explored the connections between the two arts.
The Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. SW & Jefferson Drive at 12th St. SW; daily 10am–5.30pm; www.asia.si.edu), connected by an underground exhibit hall, combine to form one of the world's most comprehensive holdings of Asian and Middle Eastern art, dating back more than 6000 years. Chinese silk paintings, Egyptian amulets, Iranian ceramics, illuminated Biblical manuscripts, and Japanese folding screens are among the more than 3000 objects on display at any given time. Make sure to visit the sumptuous Peacock Room, an ornate dining room transported from London, complete with deep-teal walls ornamented with gold feathers and colorful peacocks painted by James McNeill Whistler.
The National Air and Space Museum (Fourth St. SW & Independence Ave.; daily 10am–5.30pm; www.nasm.si.edu), the world's most visited museum, goes where few wo/men have gone before. Touch a real moon rock, explore the space station living quarters, gawk at the Apollo 11 command module, ride in a flight simulator, or learn about GPS systems. The first successful airplane, the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer, shows how far science has progressed in a century. There's a shuttle ($12 a person) to the museum's 10-story hangar-like annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, VA – if you're really nuts about aeronautics.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. SW; daily 10am-5.30pm; www.ushmm.org) is an incredibly moving Mall must. Passes are distributed first-come first-served to view the permanent collection, which crams four floors with uniforms, original Auschwitz barracks, children's drawings from a concentration camp, and photographs documenting the Nazi goal to create a master race. Each visitor is given the background of someone persecuted during the Holocaust; at the tour's end, you discover that person's fate.
Parks & Gardens
Washington blooms with dozens of glorious green spaces that rival New York's Central or London's Hyde Parks. Of course, the National Mall is an ideal place to contemplate the monuments in pleasant weather and watch volunteers pass out leaflets for various causes. What's more, the U.S. Botanic Garden (100 Maryland Ave. SW; 202/225-8333; daily 10am-5pm; www.usbg.gov) sits right on the Mall, occupying a recently renovated Conservatory that seems almost overgrown with an incredible selection of plants and flowers grouped in numerous ecosystems, like the Jungle Room, which uncannily duplicates a tropical rainforest (only monsoons and predators are missing) and the exotic Orchid Room, which blossoms with fragrant, vividly hued rarities. It makes a good family outing.
Rock Creek Park (3545 Williamsburg Lane NW; 202/895-6000; www.nps.gov/rocr) is a peaceful verdant valley dividing Dupont Circle and Georgetown, along with Dumbarton Oaks, Kalorama, and Montrose Parks. Its 1800 acres provide a shady respite for bikers, joggers, and picnickers. You'll also find playgrounds, tennis courts, ball fields, and an equestrian center. History buffs can explore the 18th-century Old Stone House or Peirce Mill and Barn; culture vultures enjoy free outdoor concerts and Shakespeare at its Carter Barron Amphitheatre. The Rock Creek Park Nature Center (5200 Glover Rd.; Wed–Sun 9am–5pm; www.nps.gov/rocr/naturecenter) contains a planetarium, live and mounted animal displays, and environmental exhibits; park rangers also lead enthralling nature walks for budding botanists.
Just north of the Mall is DC's oldest art museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art (500 17th St. NW; Wed-Sun 10am-5pm, Thurs until 9pm; closed Mon & Tues; $8; www.corcoran.org). It's particularly strong in pre-WWII American art (Stuart, Church, Cassatt, Benton, Hopper), but also features important European works by Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Corot, Rodin, et al. Despite its appearance, the Corcoran isn't staid; there's a fantastic Sunday Gospel Brunch in its atrium Café des Artistes.
Near Dupont Circle, off Embassy Row, is one of Washington's many remarkable mansions-turned-museum, the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St. NW; Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8.30pm, Sun 12am-7pm; $12; www.phillipscollection.org). This Georgian Revival beauty (currently being expanded), was opened in 1921 as America's first museum dedicated to modern art, and today sparkles with Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and Cubist masterpieces, augmented by leading 20th-century American works from O'Keeffe to Rothko to Diebenkorn. Artful Evenings (most Thursdays) enchant with lectures and demonstrations (such as origami or Japanese tea ritual).
Further northwest, the Phillip Johnson-designed Kreeger Museum (2401 Foxhall Rd. NW; tours Tues-Fri by reservation at 10.30am & 1.30pm; non-guided visits Sat 10am–4pm; closed Aug; $8; www.kreegermuseum.org) is a locals' secret gem. Carmen and David Kreeger's collection dates to the mid-1800s and includes dazzling works from Monet to Mondrian to Miró, Corot to Chagall – and a collection of African tribal masks and woodcarvings almost rivaling the National Museum of African Art – in refined surroundings perfect for reflection (and the occasional chamber music concert).
While sleuthing back downtown, investigate the International Spy Museum (800 F St. NW; hours vary seasonally, between 9am–8pm; $15; www.spymuseum.org). Yes, DC has a sense of humor: You can play undercover operative cracking Cold War ciphers (among other interactive fun) as you follow the history of espionage. Artifacts range from Enigma (the German WWII coding device) to a KGB lipstick pistol.
Several thousand animals of nearly 400 species call the 163-acre National Zoological Park (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW; daily Apr–Oct 6am-8pm, Nov–Mar 6am–6pm; free; www.natzoo.si.edu) home. The giant pandas (Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, on loan from the China Wildlife Conservation Association) are, along with their new baby Tai Shan, the scene-stealers (or rather chewers), but other celebrities in painstakingly recreated natural habitats – African Savanna to Amazonia to Asia Trail – include the zoo's first litter of cheetahs and recently bred male and female Borneo orangutans (rare in captivity). The zoo's informative displays are superlative, as are keeper talks ranging from birds to beavers, Thursday summer sunset concerts, and feeding demonstrations.
The Zoo is close to the dramatic neo-Gothic Washington National Cathedral (Massachusetts and Wisconsin Aves. NW; Mon–Fri 10am–5.30pm, Sat 10am–4.30pm, Sun 8am–6.30pm; free; www.nationalcathedral.org), aka the Cathedral of St. Peter & Paul, founded in 1907, and the world's sixth-largest church. Every US president has attended services here since Teddy Roosevelt; Martin Luther King Jr. preached his final Sunday sermon at its pulpit. The scale alone inspires awe (the 301-foot-tall central tower offers sensational views of downtown) and it's an architectural marvel of flying buttresses, arches, stained glass, sky-piercing spires, gargoyles, and grotesques. Be sure to wander the grounds, including the gorgeous Bishop's Garden and attend an organ recital (organists give short talks about the massive instrument Mondays and Wednesdays at 12.30pm). The free summer music festival, showcasing everything from gospel choirs to chamber orchestras to jazz vocalists, is another reason the Cathedral is a local treasure, no matter what your denomination.
The seat of the third legislative branch (the only one not positioned on the Mall), the magnificent, neoclassical Supreme Court Building (Mon-Fri 9.30am-4.30pm; 1st St. & Maryland Ave. NE; 202/479-3211; www.supremecourtus.gov) is guarded by two towering statues of Lady Justice and invites visitors to take in lectures (every hour on the half hour when court is adjourned, no reservations required), view exhibits and videos, and tour the building year-round free; arrive early at the Front Plaza to attend a court session (usually October through mid-June). Extensive remodeling continues through 2008.
One of Jefferson's enduring contributions, the three buildings that comprise the Library of Congress (101 Independence Ave SE; Mon-Sat hours vary; free; www.loc.gov) contain more than 130 million artifacts, documents, recordings, photos, and tomes in nearly 500 languages: the world's largest such repository. Some of the priceless artifacts on view range from one of the earliest baseball cards to the first copyrighted motion picture, Alexander Graham Bell's lab notebook to Gershwin's full orchestral score from Porgy and Bess – and of course, rare documents by the founding fathers.
Washington makes a superb base for exploring nearby historic sites, from the Founding Fathers' birthplaces to bloody Civil War battlefields. Old Town Alexandria (reachable via metro or driving routes 1 or 395) and George & Martha Washington's home, Mount Vernon, can be combined in a delightful day trip if you're driving. If you don't have your own wheels, Alexandria can be reached by metro (King Street on the blue and yellow lines) while Mount Vernon is accessible either by a 90-minute Spirit of Washington II Potomac River cruise (Pier 4 near Tidal Basin; mid-March–early Sept Tue-Sun; early Sept–late Oct Sat & Sun; $38; www.cruisetomountvernon.com) or Tourmobile Sightseeing, which offers a fine four-hour bus tour daily in summer (202/554-5100; $25; www.tourmobile.com).
Prior to moving downriver to Mount Vernon, George Washington lived in Alexandria, just south of DC across the Potomac (15-20 minutes by car or metro), a port once rivaling Philadelphia and New York in importance. The town encompasses an amazing array of wetlands, mansions, forts, African-American cultural centers, and a cool library whose vast collection embraces Native American historical works and Civil War soldiers' correspondence.
Stroll Old Town's streets, its Colonial townhouses housing art galleries, antique shops, and even restored apothecaries. You can almost hear the cries for ale and the innkeeper jangling room keys at the 18th-century Gadsby's Tavern Museum (134 N. Royal St.; hours vary by season; closed Mon & Tues Nov-March; www.gadsbystavern.org; $4), replete with period furnishings, dinnerware, and costumes.
Carlyle House Museum and Historic Park (121 N. Fairfax St.; Tues–Sat 10am–4pm, Sun 12pm–4pm; $4; www.carlylehouse.org), a splendiferous 1753 Palladian mansion, provides a fascinating glimpse into a wealthy Colonial merchant's life. Check for free hands-on historical activities (quill-and-ink writing stations, donning period dress, and playing 18th-century games).
Then head full steam ahead to the waterfront Torpedo Factory Arts Center (105 N. Union St.; daily 10am–5pm; free; www.torpedofactory.org), a former World War I naval munitions plant converted into ateliers where nearly 200 artists and artisans display paintings, sculpture, photos, collages, ceramics, jewelry, and musical instruments.
Capital cognoscenti anoint Alexandria as a burgeoning fine dining destination. Savor Susan Lindeborg's fresh seasonal fare with a Southern accent at Majestic Café (911 King St.; 703/837-9117), or lunch at the casual bistro section of Restaurant Eve (110 S. Pitt St.; 703/706-0450; www.restauranteve.com), whose creative chef, Cathal Armstrong won the coveted 2005 Rammy (the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington annual awards) for Rising Culinary Star of the Year (witness specialties such as lobster crème brûlée on the dinner tasting menu).
Mount Vernon, Virginia
Traveling south toward Mount Vernon, no Washingtonian pilgrimage is complete without a stop at Woodlawn Plantation & Gardens (9000 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria; March–Dec Tues–Sun 10am-5pm; $3-$7.50; www.nationaltrust.org). Washington commissioned William Thornton, architect of the Capitol, to design this 1805 mansion overlooking the Potomac. He presented it to Martha Washington's granddaughter Eleanor "Nelly" Custis (who was raised at Mt. Vernon) and her husband, Major Lawrence Lewis (also George Washington's nephew).
Seven generations of Washingtons dwelled at Mount Vernon Estate & Garden (3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Pkwy; hours vary seasonally; $6– $13; www.mountvernon.org), 16 miles south of DC (8 miles from Alexandria), via the George Washington Parkway (renamed Washington Street in Alexandria). The imposing, idyllic estate (500 total acres, 45 of which are open to the public) has been painstakingly restored to its authentic period splendor. You can tour the mansion (with many of Washington's original furnishings), shoemaker's shop, stables, spinning room, coach house, and even stop by George and Martha Washington's graves. Four gardens, emulating the capital's own landscape design, showcase heirloom plants that would have grown onsite in the late 1700s; some of the trees he planted (no cherries!) still stand. Families adore the George Washington: Pioneer Farmer exhibition, a four-acre demonstration farm that recreates Washington's 16-sided treading barn, as well as special, seasonal "Hands-on History Exhibits."
As the nation's capital, DC hosts hordes of tourists, businesspeople, lobbyists, lawyers, and international transients. The city and surrounding suburbs (easily accessible via Metro) boast an array of lodging options for nearly every budget. Still, hotel tariffs are stratospheric (all those expense accounts!), especially in the city center, and parking – when available – is limited and expensive. Choose from reliable chains, historic grandes dames, delightful inns, suite hotels, and stylish boutique properties: classic, contemporary – or both happily wed. Moderate options abound, though acceptable budget accommodations are few unless you stay in outlying Virginia and Maryland bedroom communities. To help you choose the right overnight address convenient to most attractions, we've outlined our central DC favorites in each category. For a full list of our preferred Washington hotels (and current deals), see our Washington hotel deals. For ultimate luxury, we recommend two fabled historic hotels within two blocks of the White House, and one new luxe spot behind Capitol Hill. Of the former, the distinguished Hay-Adams (1 Lafayette Square at 16th & H St. NW; 202/638-6600 or 800/853-6807; www.hayadams.com) features 145 exquisite rooms blending Old World feel with new-fangled gadgetry, business center, superb restaurant, and the Off the Record Bar (a favored haunt for politicos and press). More political cred is on offer at the legendary 334-unit Willard InterContinental (1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/628-9100; www.washington.intercontinental.com); not only did Abraham Lincoln stay here before his 1861 inauguration, but it's said that President Grant coined the term "lobbyist" here as well, after all the favor-seekers that waylaid him in the lobby. The rooms themselves are elegantly appointed; there's also a glorious fin de siècle dining room, and another hallowed power spot, the Round Robin Bar (dubbed "the other oval office"). Otherwise, the new, state-of-the-art Mandarin Oriental (1330 Maryland Ave. SW; 202/554-8588 or 888/888-1778; www.mandarinoriental.com/washington), located behind Capitol Hill on the waterfront, offers 400 sumptuous, Japanese-inspired digs with sweeping views of either the city monuments and/or the yacht-studded marina and Tidal Basin; its two restaurants, CityZen and Café MoZU, are already reckoned among Washington's finest.
A unique boutique hotel from San Francisco's Kimpton Group is among our favorite moderate options, including the ultra-groovy 99-room Topaz Hotel (1733 N St. NW; 202/775-1202 or 800/424-2950; www.topazhotel.com), where you literally go with the flow and Zen and zone out in the hot Dupont Circle neighborhood. The historic hotels of the Classic Hospitality Group, all known for their elite bar scenes and great restaurants, offer more old-fashioned ambience (with modern amenities): we particularly love the inn-sider feel at Morrison-Clark (1101 Eleventh St., NW; 202/898-1200; www.morrisonclark.com), whose 54 accommodations occupy beautifully restored twin 1864 brick townhouses filled with original woodwork, marble floors and fireplaces, and 19th-century art; it's north of downtown, just south of the newly hip, regentrified Logan Circle area.
Central budget accommodations are harder to find, but you can't go wrong with the Hotel Harrington (436 11th St. NW; 202/628-8140 or 800/424-8532; www.hotel-harrington.com), right downtown (barely a quarter mile east of the White House and north of the Mall). The longest continuously operated hotel in DC (and owned by the same family) appeals to school groups and backpacking Europeans who appreciate the location, facilities, 214 faded but clean rooms, and friendly longtime staffers. Roughly a mile south of the Mall, Channel Inn (650 Water St. SW; 202/554-2400 or 800/368-5668; www.channelinn.com) offers 100 appealing if slightly dilapidated accommodations; the real appeal is its waterfront location, featuring marvelous views from the restaurant and many guest rooms of Washington Channel, the marina, and the Potomac River.
Washington has become a sizzling food town where CIA is just as likely to stand for Culinary Institute of America grads turning out top-secret recipes. In this town of personal to political transactions, it's no surprise Washingtonians spend more money and time per capita dining out than any other U.S. citizenry. Every new hotel, even museum, boasts a designer-chic restaurant, while the clubby power haunts still impress those who like it haute. Patio dining is wildly popular spring through fall, luring a sea of pinstripes and pastel Polo shirts. You'll also find authentic ethnic cuisine from emigrés: Belgian to Burmese to Brazilian, Thai to Turkish, Portuguese to Peruvian. Here's just a small taste of centrally located eateries.
Washington is the quintessential expense account/splurge town. Georgetown's Michel Richard Citronelle (3000 M St. NW; 202/625-2150; www.citronelledc.com) remains a perennial powerhouse. Richard's imaginative, playful French cuisine appeals to the eye and palate, sensuously juxtaposing colors and textures. You can also taste the vibe and vibrancy on the intimate red-brick patio, where a lounge menu offers lighter delights like mushroom cigars (fried duxelles in ginger sauce). A few blocks away, 1789 Restaurant (1126 36th St. NW; 202/965-1789; www.1789restaurant.com) is the perfect spot to propose (or let someone down easily). Each room in the antique- and art-filled Federal townhouse recreates a different era, though the food remains distinctly modern, adapting classic dishes with various ethnic culinary influences. Nearby, the Blackberry and Black AmEx crowd frequents Café Milano (3251 Prospect St.; 202/333-6183; www.cafemilano.net), Rammy-winner for Power Spot of the Year, with sightings from Clintons to Clooney, real to reel royalty, all savoring the excellent Northern Italian fare. On the Hill, Charlie Palmer Steakhouse (101 Constitution Ave. NW; 202/547-8100; www.charliepalmer.com) may have supplanted the venerable Palm for carnivores of the gustatory and political kind. It forgoes the usual macho steakhouse décor with huge picture windows overlooking the Capitol and a "moat" wine cellar (stellar selection). Chef Bryan Voltaggio elevates the superlative meat-and-potatoes menu with gourmet touches like chili mayonnaise, bouillabaisse jelly, and endive "marmalade."
José Andrés, a recent James Beard Award winner for best Mid-Atlantic region chef and Bon Appétit's Chef of the Year, oversees four superlative mid-range downtown eateries that specialize in artfully prepared and presented Mediterranean fare. Two occupy the same cool contemporary space: Café Atlántico and its newer, second-floor six-stool Minibar (405 Eighth St., NW; 202-393-0812; www.cafeatlantico.com). Expect experimental, unorthodox, exciting tapas-style nibbles like cotton candy-wrapped foie gras, caramelized pork rinds with maple syrup, or tomato water with tapioca pearls and orange-trout roe. Southeast of Capitol Hill, the Dutch ambassador's former chef, Bart Vandaele, infuses the airy, clean-lined Belga Café (514 Eighth St. SE; 202-544-0100; www.belgacafe.com) with lowland flair, from encyclopedic brew selection to Asian-tinged Belgian fare (classic beer-braised beef, DC's best mussels and frites). In the newly fashionable Penn Quarter, Poste Moderne Brasserie (Hotel Monaco; 555 8th St., NW; 202/783-6060; www.postebrasserie.com) serves bistro favorites (croque monsieur to beef bourguignon) in an exquisite historic courtyard outside the 1841 General Post Office and sleek modernist interior with exhibition kitchen.
Bustling ethnic neighborhoods like Adams-Morgan and Shaw abound in yummy budget choices. Café Saint-Ex (1847 14th St., NW; 202/265-7839; www.saint-ex.com) is the prototypical hip neighborhood hangout, a vintage aviation-themed (think The Little Prince aviator/author) bar with great happy hour specials, fun funky music selection, and affordable (especially at lunch) seasonal American fare. Little has changed at Ben's Chili Bowl (1213 U St. NW; 202/667-0909; www.benschilibowl.com) since its 1958 founding, when U Street was nicknamed "Black Broadway" (photos of the greats – Ellington, Fitzgerald, Cole – who were regulars adorn the walls); Ben and wife Virginia (who still wo/man the counter with their sons) were inducted into the DC Hall of Fame and won a prestigious James Beard "America's Classics" Award, but honchos check their 'tude at the door. Order Bill Cosby's favorite, the Chili Half-Smoke with cheese fries and a sinfully rich milkshake. Washington boasts a venerable Chinatown (not far from the Mall and Capitol) and the no-frills Full Kee (509 H St. NW; 202/371-2233) remains a bastion of classic Cantonese cuisine, attracting many top toques after their shifts for definitive roast pork, Hong Kong dumpling soup, and Chao-Zhou marinated duck.
If you weren't invited to the latest embassy parties, don't worry. Every major hotel lounge, conservative or modish, sets the scene for affairs, business and otherwise. The nation's, indeed the world's lifeblood, arguably courses through the Washington bar scene.
For traditional views, you can't beat Sky Terrace aka The Rooftop, which sits atop the 11-story Hotel Washington (515 15th St., NW; 202/638-5900; www.hotelwashington.com): the place to admire the White House, Mall, and monuments over a sunset mojito or martini (eat and stay elsewhere though and expect lines). For up-close-and-personal views, Hotel George's Bistro Bis (15 E St. N.W.; 202/347-4200; www.hotelgeorge.com) is the see-and-be-scene, around the corner from the Capitol: a second congress for politicians, media, and celebrities (Dick Gephardt, Ted Kennedy, Michael J. Fox, Alanis Morrissette, Chris Matthews); check the traffic in the cleverly placed mirrors behind the zinc bar. The Hotel Madison's PostScript Bar (15th and M Sts. NW; 202/862-1600; www.themadisondc.com) defines masculine and clubby: navy damask walls, chenille upholstered barstools, leather club chairs, mahogany furnishings, and President Madison's letters on the walls. Right across from the Washington Post, it toasted regulars Woodward, Bernstein, and Bradlee with the new Deep Throat (a dirty martini with two olives).
Politicos practice one-upmanship over single malts and cigars at the refined Beaux Arts Jefferson Hotel Lounge (1200 16th St. NW; 202/347-2200), its maroon walls lined with presidential portraits. At Helix Lounge (1430 Rhode Island Ave., NW; 202-462-9001; www.hotelhelix.com) in the trendy Logan circle area, the décor is as sleek and sexy as the supermodel staff and clientele. Chameleon-esque colored lights and techno pulse over a whimsical, multi-textured space wittily informed by a bold, bright Pop Art/Surrealist/Hanna Barbera sensibility.
A slim-hipper-than-thou straight and gay crowd decked in Dolce and Diesel slithers through the narrow lilac-walled Bar Rouge (1315 16th St.; 202/232-8000; www.rougehotel.com), perching on plush mohair sofas or aluminum barstools with white leather seats. Trance, acid jazz, occasional art shows, and streaming visuals (camp to classic movies, soothing nature scenes) projected from a plasma screen form background buzz as preening pretties dish over small dishes playing off the meaning and origin of "rouge" (like chicken wings Cordon Bleu with roasted red pepper sauce) and delish cocktails. Dance clubs come and go yet after a decade, Eighteenth Street Lounge (1212 18th St. NW; 202/466-3922; www.eslmusic.com) remains hot and effortlessly cool: a gold-doored, candlelit indie hideaway gone Studio 54 circa 1979. Good looks and/or connections (this is Washington) ensure entrance, but the music whether spun or live really does rock.
Washington boasts several venues showcasing world-famous homegrown and international celebrities and companies, as well as more experimental works. Tickets generally run $25-$90. Smack downtown, Ticketplace (407 Seventh St. NW; Tue-Fri 11am–6pm, Sat 10am–5pm; www.ticketplace.org), offers same-day and some advance half-price tickets to performances at leading theaters and concert halls. Check the Washington Post's Entertainment Guide on Thursdays (online at www.washingtonpost.com), as well as Washingtonian Magazine, listed above, for the hottest events including nightlife venues and free performances (such as the National Symphony Orchestra's concerts at Meridian Hill Park).
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2700 F St. NW; 202/467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org), designed by Edward Durrell Stone, groups several theaters and auditoriums à la Lincoln Center, dramatically overseeing the Potomac in Foggy Bottom. It's home to the Washington Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Washington Ballet, as well as touring and tryout Broadway shows and renowned international artists (Kirov Ballet, Royal Shakespeare Company, et al). Free Millennium Stage concerts (up-and-coming musicians, comics) are given every night of at 6pm in the Grand Foyer.
A National Historic Site, Ford's Theatre (511 Tenth St. NW; 202/638-2941 or 202/426-6924; www.fordstheatre.org) staged an unintentional, fateful drama April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. You can replay the scene at the theater's downstairs Lincoln Museum during the day before returning for an evening performance of an exciting new play or musical revival (like Shenandoah).
Downtown's landmark National Theatre (1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/628-6161; www.nationaltheatre.org) provides a stunning setting for splashy musicals like Mamma Mia! The Shakespeare Theatre (450 Seventh St. NW, Washington 202/547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org), in yet another historic edifice, attracts name actors for revivals of the Bard and other maestros. Arena Stage (1101 Sixth St. SW; 202/488-3300; www.arenastage.org), one of the nation's foremost not-for-profit regional theaters, offers scintillating revivals of American classics and thought-provoking new plays in its three spaces.
When To Go
Spring displays Washington at its finest. Special events particularly bloom, including the National Cherry Blossom Festival (www.washington.org), White House Easter Egg Roll (www.whitehouse.gov/history/tours/easter), and Taste of DC (www.tasteofdc.org). Early summer serves up the National Capital Barbecue Battle (www.barbecuebattle.com), DC Caribbean Carnival (www.dccaribbeancarnival.com), and the colorful global cornucopia of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (www.folklife.si.edu). Autumn's climate is also generally comfortable.
Otherwise, Washington weather is as capricious as a seasoned politician, with hot humid summers and often frigid winters. Still, families aplenty visit in summer, especially for the famed July Fourth celebrations. Your best shot at avoiding crowds and the highest prices is during the dog days of August and the periods between Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's and Presidents' Day. You'll generally get the best bang for your buck and most manageable off-season weather between late-February and late-March or early-November and mid-December; spring hits DC early, when the trademark Japanese cherry trees blossom along the Potomac banks, luring even pasty-faced pencil-pushing policy wonks to al fresco lunch breaks. Also given DC's status as the power town, weekend hotel rates often drop.
April–June & September–October
January–mid-February & July 5–Labor Day
Best bang for your buck
Late-February (after Presidents' Day weekend)–late-March (pre-Easter); early-November–mid-December; & non-special event/holiday weekends
Washington is quite accessible, served by multiple daily flights from virtually every prominent foreign and domestic airlines, including Delta (www.delta.com) and U.S. Airways (www.usairways.com) on their shuttle routes via NYC and discount airlines like AirTran (www.airtran.com), America West (www.americanwest.com), Frontier (www.frontierairlines.com), Independence Air (www.flyi.com), Southwest (www.southwest.com), Spirit (www.spiritair.com), and United subsidiary Ted Airlines (www.flyted.com).
The capital is also served by three major airports - Ronald Reagan National (www.metwashairports.com/National), Washington Dulles International (www.metwashairports.com/Dulles), and Baltimore-Washington International (www.bwiairport.com). Of these, many prefer National's convenience (including the latest techno-renovations and proximity to downtown DC) and its amazing public arts – you'll find archaeological remains of Abingdon, a colonial plantation, and contemporary works from 30 artists, including Frank Stella, incorporated into the terminals – rating tours by Smithsonian docents!. Dulles is less convenient but it's updating and expanding exponentially, flights are more varied and numerous, and the feeder road from DC is less congested. BWI serves many discount airlines, including Southwest.
Amtrak (800/USA-RAIL; www.amtrak.com) offers daily service from New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and several major southern cities. Metroliners linking NYC and DC are roomier and faster but pricier, except on weekends when prices are lower. Super high-speed Acela trains patrol the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington. All trains arrive at historic, centrally located Union Station (50 Massachusetts Ave. NE; 202/371-9441; www.unionstationdc.com), a majestic turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts masterpiece modeled after Rome's Arch of Constantine and Baths of Caracalla, with an upscale three-level marketplace of shops, restaurants, even a nine-screen multiplex.
The Washington, DC Convention & Tourism Corporation (www.washington.org) is a fine source for hotel/land packages, often tied to special events. Airlines such as Southwest (www.southwest.com) and USAirways (www.usairways.com) offer excellent air/land deals, as do Amtrak (www.amtrak.com, 800/321-8684) and such discounters as Orbitz (www.orbitz.com), Expedia (www.expedia.com), and Travelocity (www.travelocity.com).
Getting Into & Around DC
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (just call it "National") lies just over the Potomac River in Virginia, a short car-ride away in non-rush-hour traffic, or 15-20 minutes by direct Metro, the cheapest ($2.60) and most comfortable way to get downtown. Washington Dulles International Airport sits 26 miles outside the capital, in Chantilly, Virginia, roughly a 40-minute, non-rush-hour ride to downtown; MetroBus service (5-A from curb 2-E; $3; www.wmata.com) to the nearest MetroRail station takes about 45 minutes. Baltimore-Washington International Airport is located 30 miles and 45 minutes' drive from downtown. Super Shuttle (www.supershuttle.com; 800/BLUE-VAN or 703/416-7873; fares up to $31/person) also services all three airports. Taxis are prohibitively expensive, save from National (which often sees traffic snarls).
As for getting around DC and immediate suburbs, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's MetroRail and MetroBus (www.wmata.com) are exemplary. Lines are color-coded and user-friendly (fares vary according to distance). Consider purchasing a regional one-day bus pass ($3), MetroRail unlimited day pass ($6.50), or a 7-day MetroRail pass ($22 for shorter trips, $32.50 for unlimited rides); they're available at most stations and some tourist attractions.
Taxis operate on a zone rather than a meter system. These are numbered and lettered (1 is the Capitol Hill area, the next zone is 2A-E, followed by 3A-H, and so on). Cabs must post all rates by law (additional passengers or luggage usually incur surcharges). This can be more confusing than it sounds and we've heard disturbing reports of unscrupulous cabbies charging more, giving cryptic explanations. The DC Taxicab Commission (202/645-6005; www.dctaxi.dc.gov) website posts zone maps and will compute fares.
Stop by the DC Visitor Information Center (Reagan Building and International Trade Center; 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/DC-VISIT or 866/DCISFUN; www.dcvisit.com) for the latest scoop on attractions and events, as well as sightseeing tour tickets and Metro day passes on sale.