The power, politics and protest rallies are a given; but the personality comes as a surprise. It's all too easy to regard the US capital as a giant geeky ticklist of Smithsonian Museums, Obama-spotting and earnestly grand memorials. Indeed, for the nerdily-inclined, Washington is the ultimate modern history treasure chest. The Watergate Building! The White House! The original US Constitution and Declaration of Independence! The theatre in which Abraham Lincoln was shot! It's a list that takes days to recite, let alone visit.
Delve beyond the monuments, memorials and museums, however, and a surprisingly complex city opens up. The gap between the haves and have-nots is huge, and the city gets most interesting in the parts where they brush alongside each other. The Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights and U Street areas are far from stuffy and ceremonious. Washington's ubiquitous statues may be old and respectfully conservative, but her people are as young and liberal as you'll find in the US.
A comfortable bed
The spacious Fairmont (www.fairmont.com/washington; 00 1 202 429 2400) pulls in more than its fair share of high-ranking politicians and heads of state, but maintains a calm, relaxed feel - partly due to its beautifully leafy inner courtyard. From US$342.36 (Dh1,257) a night including tax.
The recently refurbished Topaz (www.topazhotel.com; 00 1 202 393 3000) has a perky, youthful vibe - think animal print bathrobes, high tech amenities and amiably informal staff with good local knowledge. From US$251.90 (Dh924) per night including tax.
One Washington Circle (www.thecirclehotel.com; 00 1 202 872 1680) has an excellent location in the Foggy Bottom area - a short stroll to the Lincoln Monument, Dupont Circle and Georgetown's restaurants. Rooms are solid if unspectacular, but come with full kitchens. Starting from US$147.47 (Dh541) including tax per night, it's the city's best hotel bargain.
Find your feet
The traditional view of the US Capitol building (www.visitthecapitol.gov; 00 1 202 226 8000) from the National Mall is actually the back - the entrance is on the east side. The tours (walk-up tickets are usually available) are fascinating - the functionality of the House of Representatives contrasts wonderfully with the grandiose art-packed Rotunda and halls full of statues.
From there, head to the other side and stroll along the patchy, often rather grotty grass of the National Mall. The 169-metre Washington Monument is the obvious target. But on the way there, the Mall is lined with a blitz of world-class museums. Most are part of the Smithsonian Institution - which is headquartered in the marvellously bizarre red stone castle. If picking one, make it the National Air and Space Museum (airandspace.si.edu; 00 1 202 633 1000), which contains the original Wright Brothers plane, Apollo moon landing modules and much more.
Swing a right at the Washington Monument, and you can peer through the gates of the White House.
Meet the locals
Washington can be a city of outsiders, coming to work or study for a few years before settling down elsewhere. But sport tends to pull the city's disparate strands together, and people seem more than happy to switch between sports to support the relevant local team. A ticket for the Capitals (ice hockey), Redskins (American football), Nationals (baseball) or Wizards (basketball) is also a ticket to a rare cross-community gathering.
Book a table
In a city hardly short on power-dining steak-and-seafood restaurants, the Occidental (www.occidentaldc.com; 00 1 202 456 7041) is the most atmospheric. It's where the secret meeting that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis took place, and the walls are plastered with signed photos of distinguished previous diners - including Martin Luther King and numerous US presidents. Mains cost between US$29 and US$52 (Dh106 to Dh191) including tax.
But multicultural Washington is arguably more interesting than suit-and-tie Washington. Dukem (www.dukemrestaurant.com; 00 1 202 667 8735) is the best of the city's surprising wealth of Ethiopian restaurants, with tapas-esque multi-dish combos costing between US$15 and US$33 (Dh55 to Dh121) including tax.
Georgetown is where the major credit-card hammering takes place, with Wisconsin Avenue NW and M Street taking the lion's share of the upper-midmarket chains and high-end designers. There are a few independent boutiques thrown in to keep things interesting, however.
The U Street corridor - between 9th Street NW and 18th Street NW - is a better bet for dedicated foragers. Congregating there are retro fashion, one-off homewares, obscurist record shops and the odd admirably weird store that entirely defies categorisation.
What to avoid
Washington does have some of the best museums in the world, but trying to cram too many of them into one trip will lead to glazed eyes and a trudging sense of doing what's dutifully worthy rather than what's enjoyable. Unless you want to feel like you're on a torturously dreary school trip, don't overpack your schedule.
The numerous monuments and memorials around the National Mall, including the sturdily classical Lincoln Memorial and the nightmarish struggling soldiers at the Korean War Memorial, are spread surprisingly far apart. They're best tackled by bicycle and at night when they're lit up to lend even greater majesty. Bike The Sites (www.bikethesites.com; 00 1 202 842 2453) runs excellent evening Mall cycling tours for US$45 (Dh165).
Etihad (www.etihadairways.com; 02 599 0000) flies direct to Washington-Dulles from Abu Dhabi. Economy class returns start at Dh3,615. From Dubai, Emirates (www.emirates.com; 600 55 55 55) offers direct economy class returns from Dh4,805. The flight takes 14 hours.
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