The new National Museum of African American History and Culture and an ascendant dining scene are just two compelling reasons to take an in-depth look at the US capital
A luxury guide to Washington DC
Why Washington DC?
The US capital may fall lower on the priority list than New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, but what it lacks in immediate visual appeal it makes up for in substance. If you’re interested in history and culture, it can’t be missed: it’s here that the nation’s cultural heft is grandly exhibited (there are 19 outposts of the Smithsonian Institution alone) and nowhere is this global nexus of power showcased so transparently. No one with more than a passing interest in world affairs, or indeed, fans of US political dramas, could fail to be intrigued.
The White House, the United States Capitol, the Pentagon and hundreds of other monuments are all here. It’s worth remembering, too, that this is no whitewash: through observation, visitors are encouraged to challenge history, values and their presentation – why, for example, did the nation’s motto “In God we trust” replace “Out of many, one?” Why didn’t the “all men are created equal” section of the Declaration of Independence apply to slaves, and how relevant is the “right to keep and bear arms” written in the Second Amendment to today’s gun laws?
It would take years to tour everything properly, so pick a few sites and use the rest of your time to enjoy the city’s other attractions, such as the Potomac River, DC’s rising dining scene and its nascent hipster hubs. Most rewarding of all is to complement your tour with exchanges with inhabitants who, for the most part, are smart, well-informed and down-to-earth: a far cry from the shrill, bombastic image you might get from TV.
A comfortable bed
Political junkies can check into The Watergate Hotel, which has recently had a full, multimillion-dollar refurbishment. The 1960s structure, part of the Watergate Complex, was the centre of the 1972 Watergate scandal, and guests can even book the “Scandal Room” from where the burglary that eventually brought down President Nixon was orchestrated. Even if you aren’t so interested in political history, the hotel makes a relaxing base with its great, surprisingly peaceful location on the river overlooking Georgetown. Rooms cost from US$257 (Dh944) per night, including taxes.
If you want to be more in the centre of things, the historic Hay-Adams, in the Downtown area next to Lafayette Square opposite The White House, places you within pleasant walking distance of all the major sites. Rooms cost from $332 (Dh1,219) per night including taxes.
Find your feet
The planned, spread-out nature of the capital makes planning your sightseeing essential, but a pleasant full-day option would be to start at The White House Visitor Centre on Pennsylvania Avenue, before heading south to Constitution Avenue and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is next to the Washington Monument and needs at least two hours if you’re going inside.
From there, head east along the National Mall, admiring hulking Smithsonians left and right. They are famously free to enter, but if you have to choose one or two because of time, the National Gallery of Art, spreading across two wings, historic and modern, and/or the National Archives, next to it, are probably most worthy of a couple of hours of your time. The National Archives exhibits the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, but also thousands of other fascinating historical documents including maps, journals and other records. Farther east still is the United States Capitol, which is relatively easy to visit, though you need to book ahead. Finish up at the Library of Congress, the world’s biggest library, sitting next to the Supreme Court.
If you prefer a guided tour, Context Travel offers a variety of specialised tours, including the three-hour Gov Works: A Politics Primer – which includes the National Archives and Willard Hotel, where Martin Luther King wrote his “I have a Dream speech” – from $85 (Dh312) in a group of up to six, or $360 (Dh1,322) for a private tour. Guides, who they call docents, have at least a master’s in a relevant subject, and don’t use scripts.
Meet the locals
As well as taking a guided tour with people who are doing serious, scholarly research in a given field, you can also take advantage of the many free guides available at the various sites and museums. The Capitol has free tours that can be booked online. They are given by people who live and breathe politics, and are open to questions: getting such an intimate tour of these ultimate corridors of power is unique.
Outside of politics, a relaxing weekend morning in Georgetown is time well spent. Baked & Wired on Thomas Jefferson Street NW serves brilliant coffee – Intelligentsia from Chicago and Stumptown from Portland, Oregon – and is pleasantly full at weekends.
Hipsters will want to check out the Blagden Alley area of Shaw, with industrial-chic restaurant-bars such as Calico, as well as the warehouse-like Union Market, in a semi-industrial area in the north-east of the city that’s rapidly becoming gentrified.
Concerts and other events at the Kennedy Centre are well-attended, and you can rub shoulders with a broad spectrum of DC residents.
Book a table
While it hasn’t yet reached the culinary heights of most of the world’s global cities, this year, Washington got its own Michelin guide, with the best restaurants including the two-star Minibar by Jose Andres and Pineapple and Pearls; a table at the latter, where a tasting menu cost from $300 (Dh1,102) per person, is hard to get. Of the 11 one-Michelin-star restaurants listed, my picks are the Blue Duck Tavern at the Hyatt hotel, Fiola (three-course lunch from $28 [Dh103]), Plume ($102 [Dh375] per person for a fixed tasting menu) and Rose’s Luxury (dishes from $9 [Dh33]).
For greater value and less hassle, restaurants under the Bib Gourmand label in the guide are worth investigating. Zaytinya, part of the Jose Andres brand, offers delicious, good-value “eastern Mediterranean” food in slick surrounds. A tasting menu costs from $55 (Dh202) per person, and Middle Eastern guests will feel at home with the huge variety of mezze, pilafs, seafood and grilled meats. For those seeking an Asian fix, it’s worth a raid on Maketto for its steamed bao, dumplings, lo mein and noodle salads, with plenty of vegetarian options; dishes cost from $4 (Dh15). For those who prefer Italian, head to The Red Hen for its decadent crostini, pasta, meat, seafood and seasonal vegetables. Dishes cost from $6 (Dh22). Bidwell at Union Market also ticks all the boxes for good value, sophisticated dining with local ingredients in a hip atmosphere – the wood-fired pizza with a choice of four doughs is a favourite and costs from $12 (Dh44).
Outside of the Michelin guide, Mi Vida, a high-end Mexican brand at the newly opened District Wharf, is worth diving into for its mouthwatering queso fundido, oysters, tacos and ceviche (dishes cost from $4 [Dh15]). For a good steak alongside a broad range of reasonably priced Latin American classics, try ToroToro – dishes cost from $7 (Dh26), with a prime rib-eye $41 (Dh151).
CityCenter DC, a four-hectare new-build shopping, residential and dining complex in the centre of the city, offers luxury names such as Bulgari, Burberry, Dior, Gucci, Hermes and Louis Vuitton, and more niche brands. While Georgetown is home to several dozen independent designer boutiques, vintage clothing stores and upmarket beauty product shops.
What to avoid
Because most of the city’s museums are free, they are much busier on weekends, public holidays and when marches are taking place. Try to plan your trip around these days – and be aware that July and August can be extremely hot.
Like many of the museums in DC, the entire contents of the National
Museum of African American History and Culture is a lot for most visitors
to get their head around, especially because it’s quite crowded, but work through all the galleries to be reminded of the outrageousness of slavery, the
self-defeating nature of segregation (“Love is progress, hate is expensive”) and find points of collective and individual inspiration, such as profiles on Madam C J Walker, an entrepreneur who was America’s first female self-made millionaire. The Contemplation Court offers a powerful visual representation of Dr Martin Luther King’s determination to “fight until justice rolls down like water”.
Art enthusiasts should include The Phillips Collection, the US’s first museum of modern art. While its special exhibitions and weekend entry are charged at $12 (Dh44), it’s worth it to be away from the crowds and in a manageable space. There are impressive stocks of the works of Paul Klee, Mark Rothko and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Visit washington.org for a detailed guide to events, neighbourhoods, accommodation, free things to do and nightlife in the city.