Don’t be deterred by the politics. With its glossy galleries and soulful spirit, Washington has aces up its sleeve. Ellen Himelfarb feels the power in DC
Miami. New York. Chicago. Washington DC? It somehow seems a wallflower by comparison. But why? From the White House to the recently renovated Watergate Hotel, the capital’s not short on iconic sights, after all.
Perhaps it’s the blue-suited nature of the place: DC is the America of Fox News, presided over by a new cartoon Donald with a lot less touristic allure than Disney’s duck. It is also heavy with history, from John Hancock and his Declaration of Independence, to Martin Luther King Jr and his dashed ’60s Dream. In fact, it was that sublime legacy that I’d come for, and yet I soon realised I’d have to banish preconceptions of pomp and politics. Close up, I find, DC has a light, buzzy, contemporary spirit — and that includes the punchy craft ingredients in my cocktail. It’s as sassy as San Francisco, as hip as Manhattan, and politics seems tangential to ordinary lives — the flavour, but not the essence, of an evolving city.
Over the past 200 years (but mostly, I learn, the past 10), a soulful metropolis has grown up around the imposing white monuments of the grand National Mall — around it, but not in thrall to it. The city is rebuilding itself as a home for Washingtonians. Teachers, chefs and artists far outnumber the partisans pitching up for four-year terms. ‘DC’s got the best qualities of the folksy south, with the liberal politics of the north,’ says a diner I chat to in a restaurant. She’s right. By the Potomac River, the old Watergate Hotel thrums with slinky new social spaces. The stodgy Smithsonian galleries are getting ‘woke’ to diversity, from the ‘Blacksonian’ National Museum of African American History and Culture to the National Portrait Gallery, with Obama art. And I get a hearty ‘How y’all doin’?’ wherever I go. Take that as your welcome to DC. Here’s how to live it for real across its weekend…
Friday: American splendour
The red-brick mansion block outside my window is obscured by elms as I wake in the residential splendour of Logan Circle. People in civil-servant suits and yoga gear head along Rhode Island Avenue into town. Throwing on a few layers, I pick a bicycle from the Capital Bikeshare (CaBi) scheme — DC’s grid is an epic undertaking on foot, but numbered east to west and lettered south to north, it’s easily navigable on two wheels. Whirling down the wide expanse of 16th Street toward the White House, I’ve set aside my first day to ogle ‘classic DC’, and in 10 minutes I’m back by the thick lawn, close enough to tackle the officials with earpieces mingling with the visitors. Entry is free, but registering for the mandatory tour can take weeks. So I circle past to the National Mall, a sweep of green unfolding across three kilometres of downtown, anchored by the sort of monuments you see on banknotes. The Mall has ‘national park’ status, and I feel I’m on safari, ticking off the Big Five blockbuster sights. But the trails, where khaki servicemen push veterans in wheelchairs, tone down the urgency.
The reflecting pool encourages tapering perspectives, its symbolism no mistake. This is indeed a place for reflection, the stark white Washington Monument rising against the shimmering bronze tiers of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I round both en route to the Greek folly that is the Jefferson Memorial. In the intimacy of morning, the words etched into its walls transfix me: ‘Institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times,’ they say. ‘No man shall suffer on account of his religious opinions.’
A wooded path leads me to a scene of verdigris statues from Roosevelt’s day, marching toward war, waiting for bread. ‘Any oppression, any injustice, any hatred is a wedge designed to attack our civilisation,’ I read on the brick wall behind. I’m not alone. Pilgrims from India, Italy, Iran hold hands as I walk my bike alongside. By the chalky granite likeness of Martin Luther King Jr, the tears flow. ‘Right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.’ Is it? ‘We shall overcome.’ Shall we?
The Mall is home to 11 Smithsonian museums dedicated to American art, history, space — free of charge, but absorbing of time. I do manage the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art, where, at high noon, the shade of a six-legged red statue by Alexander Calder is the ideal spot to sit and scoff a takeaway hot dog. DC’s most imposing pillared facades are along the diagonal of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the perimeter of the Mall. They call it the Federal Triangle, and you can download a walking tour of the hotspots (culturaltourismdc.org/portal/822), including the FBI building and the Old Post Office, now a blingy Trump hotel with a view toward its founder’s temporary home.
I reach the National Archives in time for the last entry at 5pm. As teachers hustle out school groups, I’m nearly alone with the Declaration of Independence, so faded I barely make out John Hancock’s cocky signature. The last half-hour of the day is just enough to swot up on the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, as fervently debated today as then.
Back up towards the White House, a garrulous mob in Oxford shirts is already forming by the lifts at the W Hotel. Together we sweep up to the 11th-floor rooftop bar. Squeezed onto the terrace, we watch planes landing into the domestic airport pass scarily close to the Washington Monument, and even the locals join me in collective gasps at the sight.
Saturday: Hipster heartland
My taxi drops me at Sidamo, an Ethiopian café amid the alluring grit of H Street. Washington has the largest Ethiopian diaspora outside Africa and they know coffee. Roasted on a stove in the corner, here it’s served to anti-bureaucrats — the growing population of Washingtonians that lives here for parties of the social, not political, kind.
Outside, commuters hustle in Nikes to Union Station, or maybe the Capitol Building, the domed wedding cake where harried lawmakers debate bills. I’d considered going myself, to join one of the free tours. But in the dry heat I put it off in favour of exploring the Capitol Hill neighbourhood, which unfurls over high ground southeast of its namesake. Turning down 4th Street, a boulevard of pretty bay-windowed homes, I’m there before I’ve finished my takeaway latte.
Two decades ago, this was frontierland. The townhouses around Seward Square were run down, the streets chaotic. Now they’re attractively twee, painted with autumnal hues, Labradoodles lolling behind French windows. I’m told the Eastern Market was downtrodden once, its low red-brick facade stained and sad. Today parents push designer buggies past the threshold to the hand-stuffed-pasta counter.
As I pass Market Lunch, I can hear a cashier call sing-song orders to cooks in hairnets. At a communal table, residents of all walks gab over plates of fried-green tomatoes, eggs sunny-side-up, and thick, moist southern biscuits to mop it all up. Soon, so do I. ‘Do you want iced tea with that?’ hollers the cashier. Hell, yeah.
I’d come to DC expecting a city seized by politics. But most Capitol Hill residents have lived here for decades, and the young newcomers have plenty else cluttering their Twitter feeds. Loiter long enough in Peregrine Espresso, next to the market, and a freelancer behind a MacBook will bend your ear about a new Maryland vineyard or the Nationals, the Major League Baseball team with a stadium nearby.
Georgetown University sophomores jog paths under the cherry-tree canopies. As college campuses go, you could hardly find a more pristine setting
I’ve also been tipped off about the chanting Congressional Cemetery, a permanent residence not only for congressmen, but also activists and veterans of every US war. A wander along oak-shaded G and E Streets lands me at the gate. Stepping through dewy grass to the first stone — a gaudy accordion-shaped tribute to a wartime musician — triggers a chatty audio tour (bit.ly/2Ivi53l). As I wade deeper, I see stones mocked up as library cards, benches dedicated to lovers, and obelisks to deadly fireworks explosions.
I appreciate the living characters of Capitol Hill, too, ranting around the metro or outside District Taco. Otherwise, it’s pure Pleasantville. In a former military neighbourhood of red-brick walk-ups and pastel Victorians, hedges are as clipped as a marine’s haircut.
They bring me to a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue lined with small restaurants serving smaller plates, where I chat with a clued-up Washingtonian called Jessica. Over my late lunch of charcuterie at the brick-walled ‘saloon’ Beucharts, she gives me neighbourhood crib notes. The Navy and Marine Corps shaped the area over two centuries, stationed down toward the Anacostia River. Industry later made it undesirable — then rough when it departed.
It’s as sassy as San Francisco, as hip as Manhattan, and politics seems tangential to ordinary lives
Heritage status has led to gentrification. The dog park is as diverse as a model UN, but with better specs and more facial hair. While it’s still light, we stroll 8th Street, its restaurant terraces echoing with laughter. Under the flyover, a beer garden, the Brig, has popped up to serve the new community. Where there was ‘literally nothing’, says Jessica, painted terraces and river-view condos have risen. At one end of the old Navy Yards, rust-red warehouses now have a museum and river walk.
Turning toward Yards Park, I hear the hum of picnicking families and folk guitars before we glimpse them. Old smokestacks herald buzzy brasseries; food trucks pull up to the lawns. Beyond a vast fountain where kids splash fully clothed is a mass of tail lights from confused drivers. The road running between here and the Nationals baseball stadium isn’t even marked on the map yet. But I know it will be.
Sunday: Genteel living and folksy food
Uptown, on 14th Street, night drifts seamlessly into day. With the opening, at 7am, of Ted’s Bulletin café, there’s a brief overlap between wide-eyed revellers from the jazz clubs along U Street and bleary-eyed families from Dupont Circle, hungry for cinnamon rolls and ‘adult milkshakes’ spiked with banana rum. To skip down to the ‘healthy’ options would be un-American, so I submit to toast and fried eggs (they come in threes).
Up here, the streets are tighter and more walkable than down around the Mall. I spot a signpost heralding Logan Circle, an elegant quarter of tall Victorians converging on an oak-fringed roundabout. More posts around the tree-lined circle tell the story of a neighbourhood that began like any other in DC: the Civil War had effectively levelled Washington, and swiftly rebuilding was the only way to keep the federal government in town.
Just far enough from the industrial waterfront, Logan got the grandest homes: mansard roofs and turrets of greater proportions than elsewhere, the oaks more mature. Exceptionally, they belonged to decommissioned black soldiers, who prospered in their freedom after the Civil War. The area declined last century, and a local, vocal heritage movement took root. Which is how the area kept its original lustre, like a sepia print.
Old smokestacks herald buzzy brasseries; food trucks pull up to the lawns
Logan and its jollier, blingier neighbour Dupont Circle attract some of the top restaurants, too. The Tabard Inn is the 18th-century townhouse where I devour Maryland lobster tail. Across the street, behind a gaslit foyer, is the equally august Iron Gate. You could idle all day at the long zinc bar, quaffing drinks garnished with pansies.
But if you’re old money, you’re out west in Georgetown. After bottomless coffees at the Tabard Inn, I hop onto the G2 Metrobus on P Street, joining day-trippers. Forget keeping yourself to yourself on board — G2 banter reaches beer-hall levels, and by journey’s end, I’m sharing my seatmate’s crisps. As we cross Rock Creek, two silver-haired passengers clutch my shoulders maternally and point up Embassy Row to the mock Tudor where the Obamas now live. I see brick archways flanked by forest — part of the appeal, certainly.
They urge me off at 30th Street, to see Dumbarton Oaks Gardens — a stately sprawl amid green acres where, in 1944, a diplomatic summit paved the way for the UN. Georgetown University sophomores jog paths under the cherry-tree canopies. As college campuses go, you could hardly find a more pristine setting.
And finally, I reach Camelot. At Wisconsin Avenue, I cut through shoppers eyeing bedazzled trainers to Kennedy Country, an idyll of flowering trees and antique brick. JFK lived in two federal-style homes on N Street, and I wander over to admire their well-kept topiaries — not a racer-green shutter out of place since Jackie sold up. Just two blocks away, diners at the M Street brasseries let their hair down over wine and seafood, looking more Jackie ‘O’ than ‘K’ in oversized shades and trendy denim.
At the white clapboard cottage housing Luke’s Lobster, students squat on the pavement with lobster rolls seeping melted butter. They, too, look less Kennedy-esque — more urbane residents of a thriving city up for anything. That bodes well for visitors, whatever their politics.
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Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Syndication