WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA (the boundaries of the two are identical) can be unbearably hot and humid in summer, and bitterly cold in winter. It was chosen as the site of the capital of the newly independent United States of America because of a compromise between the northern and southern states and, basically, because George Washington wanted it there – sixteen miles upstream from his Mount Vernon estate. The other side of DC, with a majority black population, is run as a virtual colony of Congress, where residents have only non-voting representation and couldn’t vote in presidential elections until the 23rd amendment was passed in 1961 – the city’s official licence plate reads “Taxation Without Representation”.
The best times to come are during April’s National Cherry Blossom Festival and the more temperate months (May, June & Sept). The nation’s capital puts on quite a display for its guests, and, best of all, admission to all major attractions on the National Mall is always free; the most famous sites include the White House, memorials to four of the greatest presidents and the superb museums of the Smithsonian Institution. Between the Mall and the main spine of Pennsylvania Avenue – the route that connects Capitol Hill to the White House – the Neoclassical buildings of the Federal Triangle are home to agencies forming the hub of the national bureaucracy. In recent years, even the once-blighted area known as Old Downtown (north of the eastern side of the Mall), has had a dramatic uptick in visitors and nightlife around its Penn Quarter, centred around 7th and F streets. West of the White House, Foggy Bottom is another cornerstone of the federal bureaucracy.
Further northwest is the city’s oldest area, Georgetown, where popular bars and restaurants line M Street and Wisconsin Avenue above the Potomac River. Other neighbourhoods to check out – especially for hotels, restaurants and bars – are Dupont Circle at Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire avenues, and the gentrifying community of Adams Morgan, a favoured destination of the weekend party crowd. More gung-ho visitors may also want to follow the Red Line Metro out to the genteel precinct of Upper Northwest, which offers some interesting historical neighbourhoods, along with the National Zoo. Most tourists also walk or take the short Metro ride to Arlington in nearby Virginia to visit the National Cemetery, burial place of John F. Kennedy.
With the US Capitol as the centre of the street grid, the District is divided into four quadrants – northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest. Dozens of broad avenues, named after states, run diagonally across a standard grid of streets, meeting up at monumental traffic circles like Dupont Circle. Almost all the most famous sights are on Capitol Hill or, running two miles west, the broad, green National Mall.
Once the site of the national capital was chosen, Maryland and Virginia ceded sovereignty of a diamond-shaped tract to the federal government (though a half-century later, Virginia demanded its land back). Although George Washington’s baroque, radial plan of the city was laid out in 1791 by Pierre L’Enfant, few buildings were erected, apart from the actual houses of government, until well into the next century. Charles Dickens, visiting in 1842, found “spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere”. After the Civil War, thousands of Southern blacks arrived in search of a sanctuary from racial oppression; to some extent, they found one. By the 1870s African Americans made up more than a third of the population of 150,000, but as poverty and squalor became endemic, official segregation was reintroduced in 1920. After World War II, both the city’s economy and population boomed. Segregation of public facilities was declared illegal in the 1950s, and Martin Luther King, Jr gave a famous 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. When King was killed just five years later, large sections of the city’s ghettos burned, and are only now becoming gentrified, high-rent neighbourhoods. Indeed, the revitalized downtown, with its chic restaurants and cultural and sporting events, has begun to attract visitors once again to an area once considered an urban wasteland.
Washington DC is one of the most expensive places to stay in America outside of New York. Most DC hotels cater to business travellers and political lobbyists, and during the week are quite expensive. At weekends, however, many cut their rates by up to fifty percent. Alternatively, if you really want to save money, numerous chain hotels on the suburban outskirts have affordable rates and metro access. For a list of vacancies, call WDCAHotels (wdcahotels.com), which provides a hotel reservation and travel-planning service. Similarly, a number of B&B agencies offer comfortable doubles starting from $60 in the low season: try Capitol Reservations (Wcapitolreservations.com) or Bed & Breakfast Accommodations, Ltd (bedandbreakfastdc.com). Wherever you go, make sure the facility has air conditioning; DC can be unbearably stifling in summer.
Restaurants come and go more quickly in Washington DC than in similarly sized cities in the USA. Certain neighbourhoods – Connecticut Avenue around Dupont Circle, 18th Street and Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, M Street in Georgetown and downtown’s Seventh Street and Chinatown – always seem to hold a satisfying range of dining options. Otherwise, the cafés in the main museums are good for downtown lunch breaks. Likewise, you’ll find convenient food courts in Union Station and at the Old Post Office.
Although it is a mile from the nearest subway stop – taking the DC Circulator helps – Georgetown is the quintessential DC neighbourhood, enlivened by a main drag (M Street) where chic restaurants and boutiques are housed in 200-year-old buildings, and the historic C&O Canal runs parallel to the south (tour info at nps.gov/CHOH).
The visually stunning National Gallery of Art is one of the most important museums in the USA, though not part of the Smithsonian per se. The original Neoclassical gallery, opened in 1941, is now called the West Building and holds the bulk of the permanent collection. Galleries to the west on the main floor display major works by early- and high-Renaissance and Baroque masters, arranged by nationality: half a dozen Rembrandts fill the Dutch gallery, including a glowing, mad portrait of Lucretia; Van Eyck and Rubens dominate the Flemish; and El Greco, Goya and Velázquez face off in the Spanish. In the voluminous Italian galleries, there’s the only da Vinci in the Americas, the 1474 Ginevra de’ Benci, painted in oil on wood; Titian’s vivid image of Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos and Venus with a Mirror; and Raphael’s renowned Alba Madonna (1510). The other half of the West Building holds an exceptional collection of nineteenth-century paintings – a couple of Van Goghs, some Monet studies of Rouen Cathedral and water lilies, Cézanne still lifes and the like. For British art, you can find genteel portraits by Gainsborough and Reynolds, and even more evocative hazy land- and waterscapes by J.M.W. Turner. Augustus St Gaudens’ magisterial battle sculpture Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment takes up a whole room to itself.
The National Gallery’s East Building (same hours and admission) was opened in 1978 with an audaciously modern I.M. Pei design, dominated by a huge atrium. European highlights of the permanent collection include Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period pieces The Tragedy and Family of Saltimbanques, along with his Cubist Nude Woman, and Henri Matisse’s exuberant Pianist and Checker Players. Andy Warhol’s works are as familiar as they come, with classic serial pieces 32 Soup Cans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Green Marilyn. Notable Abstract Expressionist works include large, hovering slabs of blurry colour by Mark Rothko, The Stations of the Cross by Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock’s Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). There’s also Robert Rauschenberg’s splattered, stuffed-bird sculpture known as Canyon, and Jasper Johns’s Targets, which is among his most influential works.
One of the prime repositories of US cultural artefacts is the National Museum of American History, which was imaginatively renovated in 2008. A wide common area off the lobby is lined with “artefact walls” that show off some of the items that the museum previously had to keep in storage – from 200-year-old tavern signs and toy chests, to the John Bull, the nation’s oldest functioning steam locomotive, dating from 1831. Elsewhere in the museum, you’re apt to find anything from George Washington’s wooden teeth to Jackie Kennedy’s designer dresses to Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. You could easily spend a full day poking around the displays, but three to four hours would be a reasonable compromise – and to stick to this time frame, you’ll have to be selective. The museum’s biggest draw is the battered red, white and blue flag that inspired the US national anthem – the Star-Spangled Banner itself, which survived the British bombardment of Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. Until the new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the Mall (due in 2015; nmaahc.si.edu) exhibits from its collection are on display here.
Peak times for drinking in DC tend to be during rush hour, but for solid late-night imbibing, the well-worn haunts of collegiate Georgetown, yuppified Dupont Circle and boisterous Adams Morgan will do nicely – and in the suit-and-tie spots on Capitol Hill, you can even spy a politician or two. For clubs, expect to pay a cover of $5 to $25 (highest on weekends); ticket prices for most gigs run to the same amount, unless you’re seeing a major name. Check the free weekly CityPaper (washingtoncitypaper.com) for up-to-date listings of music, theatre and other events, in addition to alternative features and reporting. Gay and lesbian life is centred on Dupont Circle.
The US Capitol is the most prominent sight in Washington DC and an essential stop for anyone with a political bent.
George Washington laid the building’s cornerstone in 1793 in a ceremony rich with Masonic symbolism, and though the Capitol was torched by the British during the War of 1812, it was rebuilt and repeatedly expanded over the ensuing centuries. Ten presidents – most recently Gerald Ford – have lain in state in the impressive Rotunda, which, capped by a massive cast-iron dome 180ft high and 96ft across, links the two halves of Congress – the Senate in the north wing, the House of Representatives in the south. When the “Tholos” lantern above the dome is lit, Congress is in session. The Rotunda is decorated with massive frescoes and paintings of national heroes, and other highlights include the esteemed casts of famous personages in National Statuary Hall; the historic chambers for the US Senate and Supreme Court; and the Crypt where George Washington was supposed to be buried, but which now serves as an exhibition hall.
The National Mall’s most prominent feature, the Washington Monument, is an unadorned marble obelisk built in memory of George Washington. At 555ft, it’s the tallest all-masonry structure in the world, towering over the city from its hilltop perch. To visit the monument pick up a ticket from the 15th Street kiosk, just south of Constitution Avenue on Madison Drive (8am–4.30pm), which allows you to turn up at a fixed time later in the day. The kiosk is first-come, first-served; tickets run out early during the peak season. You can also book a ticket in advance with the National Park Service (877 444 6777). Once you gain access, a seventy-second elevator ride whisks you past the honorary stones in the (closed) stairwell and deposits you at a level where the views are, of course, tremendous (though the windows could use some cleaning).