x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Forget politics, just have fun

My kind of place Washington, DC is a cosmopolitan city that offers national institutions and curiosities.

John Metcalfe, a newspaper reporter born near the US capital, strikes a pose in the Sculpture Garden of the Hirshhorn Museum.
John Metcalfe, a newspaper reporter born near the US capital, strikes a pose in the Sculpture Garden of the Hirshhorn Museum.

Drive 20 minutes outside the city and you can pick apples in a sunny pasture; turn around and there's whitewater rafting on the Potomac River. You can find any kind of food somewhere, thanks to a multi-cultural population with communities of Vietnamese, Salvadorans, African Americans, rednecks (white folk who love stockcar racing) and the largest concentration of Ethiopians in the country. Music runs the gamut from fiddle-spiked bluegrass to hardcore punk to go-go, a funk offshoot unique to DC with a beat that goes "bump-dump-a-dinka-dump".

DC's cultural institutions guard some of America's national treasures, such as a narcotrafficker's diamond-encrusted Colt .45 at the Drug Enforcement Agency Museum or the stomach-shaped hairball removed from some hapless girl at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Oh, and if you must, there's art and "stuff" at the Smithsonian Institution's museums and at private galleries, which, very nicely, mostly offer free admission.

There will be a business convention taking place whenever you visit, so book ahead. Mandarin Oriental is the high-end choice (www.mandarinoriental.com/washington; 001 202 787 6140). It's located near the monument-strewn National Mall and has the city's best-rated restaurant, CityZen. Double rooms cost from US$269 (Dh983). The Washington Marriott Wardman Park stocks super-soft beds and is where many diplomats camp out (www.marriotthotels.com/wasdt; 001 202 328 2000). It's a short walk from the National Zoo; double rooms cost from $251 (Dh917) on weekdays and $273 (Dh998) on weekends. Hotel Rouge (www.rougehotel.com; 001 800 738 1202) is a sleek, modish establishment near Woodley Park with double rooms costing from $171 (Dh 625), while slightly west is the Mansion on O Street (www.omansion.com; 001 202 496 2020). Imagine having a grandmother with a hoarding complex and an bottomless bank account. This is her house, with a dizzying galaxy of knick-knacks in each room and more than 30 secret doors. Depending on the room, you can plan to spend between $350 to $2,000 per night (Dh1279 to Dh7,308), breakfast included. All the prices listed include taxes.

The city is divided into four quadrants; most of the tourist-friendly stuff is in Northwest and Southwest. You could use taxis, but the Metro costs just over US$1 (Dh4) for a train or bus ride. Hit up Georgetown, a historic neighbourhood with cobblestone streets and multi-million-dollar townhouses. Expensive shopping and eating options abound, as well as the C & O Canal, which you can tour in a mule-drawn boat with park rangers dressed in olden garb (try to keep a straight face). The Washington National Cathedral is beautiful, with a hedge maze and winding subterranean passages. A tour comes with an English-style tea served in the cathedral's tower (look for the head of Darth Vader among the resident gargoyles). The National Mall has the highest concentration of Kodak-worthy monuments and museums. I hate monuments (after spending hours in the open sun on the Mall, you might, too) but love the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn, the latter possessing modern art including tiny bird skeletons made from fingernails. Children will enjoy the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (airplanes!), National Museum of Natural History (3-D nature movies!) and the International Spy Museum (er, rectal stash kits?). The centre of town is full of dark grey office buildings and lobbyists with souls to match.

OpenCity in Woodley Park is a sleek city version of a greasy-spoon diner that everybody seems to like; head there for breakfasts of grits, bacon and eggs. Its coffee-house partner in Adams Morgan, Tryst, is a meeting ground for bloggers, screenplay writers and other couch potatoes. City workers flock to Oohs and Aahs, a lunch counter on U Street NW with excellent short ribs and fried-catfish sandwiches. Any self-respecting dive-bar fan should throw some business at Recession's on L Street NW. The basement lounge attracts crowds with pool, hip-hop karaoke and "King Kong" beers that are actually three beers in one. Several new spots on H Street NE are popular among younger residents, such as the gastropub Granville Moore's (Belgian beer and bowls of mussels) and H Street Country Club (the upstairs mini-golf course features zombie presidents).

Food unique to DC is weird - think half-smoked sausages and giant, wavy sheets of pizza. Go eat a burger, because DC has two of the best. The first is found in the front cafe of Palena in Cleveland Park, an American bistro run by a former White House chef. The burger is enriched with truffle mayonnaise and a caramelized bun; on the side come fried lemons and fried mashed potatoes. You have to travel into Arlington in Virginia to get to Ray's Hell Burger, but it's worth it; President Barack Obama even paid homage to the place. Owned by a guy with a reputation for having the best under-the-radar steakhouse in DC, Hell Burger uses toppings such as seared foie gras, roasted bone marrow and double-cream brie. Tasty chops and the best oysters in town can be found at Old Ebbit Grill near the White House, otherwise try some of the city's international cuisine, starting with Thai X-ing on Florida Avenue NW. The wiry artist who runs this three-table joint has an army of volunteers who work for food (I was one) and makes incredible salmon curry. A few blocks away on 9th Street NW is Little Ethiopia. Etete is the choice here, with a wonderfully buttery kitfo (chopped raw steak).

Adams Morgan is where you'll find quirky vintage-clothing shops such as Meeps on 18th Street and boutique cupcakeries including Cakelove on U Street; south in Dupont Circle are bookshops, antique stores, art vendors and Propper Topper, a shop for hat enthusiasts. Georgetown with its Coach, Benetton and H&M should appease the 14-year-old girl in you, plus there's a large flea market on Sundays up Wisconsin Avenue. Antique shops abound here, as well as Bartleby's Books on 29th Street, with local histories of pirates on the Chesapeake Bay and ghosts in Virginia (one was named Sucky). The seafood wharf in Southwest sells spicy and spiky blue crabs that you can eat at the waterside. Prepare for puncture wounds to the hand.

Chinatown is smaller and crummier than you'd imagine and has been invaded by corporate America. The Chinese writing you're looking at probably translates as "Starbucks." Also, DC is full of quirky forms of transportation such as paddleboats, amphibious vehicles and Segways. Rent any of these and you will dishonour your own country by looking preposterous.

Please visit DC's zoo before all the animals die. (Some history: a bald eagle was slaughtered, probably by a fox, and the red pandas ate rat poison.) Still alive and cute are Asian river otters and baby monkeys. Seeing the non-caged wildness of DC is best accomplished via kayak; rent one at Fletcher's Boat House and spend an afternoon tracking ducklings on the Potomac. Unusual museums are well worth your time. The Drug Enforcement Agency has one in Arlington with great exhibits including voice changers, snakeskin platform shoes and a spiked wooden booby trap from a Thai marijuana field. The guards are ex-field agents with stories of tearing down the iron doors of crack houses with tow trucks. Way up in Northwest is the National Museum of Health and Medicine. You have to pass through security at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to access this bizarre collection of Civil War surgical tools, touchable plasticized organs and gruesome models of disease. Look for the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln. Just a few blocks to the east is Takoma Station Tavern, ground zero for some conga-beating go-go bands. And for the polar opposite, hit up Madam's Organ in Adams Morgan for bluegrass Wednesdays. The American roots tunes go well with beer served in mason jars and a veritable pet cemetery of taxidermy.