As with so many American cities, I’d seen Washington DC on TV and film so many times that I almost thought I knew it. But the reality far exceeded my expectations and it now ranks as a favourite city that I’ll definitely go back to.
There’s so much to see and do in Washington DC it’s impossible to fit it in when you have just a few days, but that’s ok too as there’s a lot of ground to cover and it can get tiring and like me you might feel it’s better to save some of it for next time. So in no particular order, here’s just 10 of the highlights I did fit in and that explain why I was wowed by Washington DC.
1. The White House – although disappointed to learn that foreign nationals are not currently allowed to tour the White House, I was surprised at how close you can get to the outside. The north side by Lafayette Park is the closer of the two, but as the building is not far behind the iron railings there’s an exclusion zone and photos include the railings. But on the south side the building is further away so you can put your nose and camera through the railings and with a good zoom lens you can get the perfect shot.
Also surprisingly good is the White House Visitor Center. It includes a short film featuring the Obamas and a few other past Presidents and First Ladies, as well as lots of interesting and informative displays with great photos. It’s obviously not the same as going inside the White House but it gives a pretty good feel for what it’s like to live and work there.
2. U.S. Capitol – the Capitol surprised us on a number of counts. First the famous white dome wasn’t looking too white as it was covered in scaffolding! Though it looked pretty impressive nonetheless. Second we’d totally missed that its best to book a tour in advance as numbers are limited, but third we managed to walk straight into one as rocked up at a good time in mid afternoon on a sunny Saturday.
This building is much bigger than the White House and like that its also a working one, so after an introductory film in a lecture theatre the tour only takes you to a few key rooms. That includes the Rotunda which is directly under the dome and the National Statuary Hall which houses statues from each State chosen to honor notable citizens. If you don’t get on a tour you can just check out the Capitol Visitor Center and there’s also a pretty good self service restaurant that makes an inexpensive pit stop. You can also walk through a tunnel from the Capitol to the impressive Library of Congress.
3. The Mall – the Capitol is at one end of the Mall, a 2.5 mile long expanse of green space lined with monuments and museums. When I was there work was underway to replace some of the lawns which mean some pretty big mounds of earth and temporary fencing sometimes broke up the view, but it was still a very nice green space to meander along in the centre of the city.
4. National Museum of American History – there are stacks of museums and galleries to see in Washington DC, not least the 16 that are part the Smithsonian Institution (all free entry), so a few are now on the list for my next visit, but the National Museum of American History was one we made time for as it has lots of interesting things to see. First stop for us was Julia Child’s kitchen which was moved here from the home where her famous cooking show was filmed. Julia is credited with bringing French cooking to the US along with drinking wine with meals. Anyone responsible for that gets my vote and as my friend is a huge fan of the movie Julie & Julia, which tells Julia’s story, she was extremely keen to see the kitchen in the flesh.
Other highlights in the museum are the transport section which features everything from steam locomotives to the famous Chicago L train and a Presidents and First Ladies section with the former including displays about the presidential assassinations and the latter showcasing the dresses and accessories worn by First Ladies at the inaugural balls. There’s also a Star-Spangled Banner exhibition where the enormous original flag that inspired the national anthem is displayed.
5. National Portrait Gallery – on a similar theme, the portrait gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian and a little way off the Mall, includes portraits of all the American presidents apart from the current one. It also has a section on US sports stars and is a great gallery that we probably wouldn’t have gone to as doesn’t feature heavily in the Washington DC guide books, but we met a guy on the metro who recommended it.
6. National Archives – if you want to see the originals of the most important documents in U.S. history then this is the place. In a cool, dark room the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are all available to view up close, albeit inside glass cabinets. The Declaration is pretty faded having been originally kept somewhere that the sun could get to it, but the Constitution is quite easy to read and well worth seeing for a glimpse into what shaped a nation.
7. Lincoln Memorial – at the other end of the Mall to the Capitol is the Lincoln Memorial, a tribute to one of America’s most famous and significant presidents. The photo only really works in portrait so take a look at it in the gallery at the end of the post – it probably doesn’t quite get across the size of the memorial but believe me when I say its absolutely huge and very impressive. Not far from here is the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial which is in a very different style (names of those who died are carved on a black granite wall) having been designed by a 21 year old architecture student.
8. Georgetown – in complete contrast to the areas around the Mall and the White House, Georgetown is a stylish and rather fab area of Washington DC for brunch or lunch and pottering around the shops and canal. Georgetown University means it’s well populated with students but the shops are a mix of upscale neighbourhood boutiques and bigger chains like Anthropologie and Gap.
9. Brunch – as with any American city, weekend brunch is a must do in Washington DC and we found two great places to enjoy it. One was my dream combination to own – a book shop with a cafe – as Afterwords in Dupont Circle is at the back of Kramer Books. It extends across the block and has a large conservatory and outside seating on the next street. There was lots of choice, some very nice complimentary house breads to start and the omelettes were delicious.
On Sunday we brunched in Georgetown at Martin’s Tavern, famous because of the Presidents that have eaten there, particularly JFK who was a regular when he was a senator and lived nearby. He also popped the question to Jackie in one of the booths which you can request to sit in if you fancy recreating the experience! It was a great place to experience a slice of history and the food was excellent, as were the Bloody Mary’s and Mimosas – well it was Sunday…
10. Dupont circle bars and restaurants – there are lots of hotels to choose from in Washington DC but we decided to stay at the Churchill in Dupont Circle because we like to walk to our food and drink destinations in the evenings and there looked to be plenty in the area. The Churchill was really good and Dupont Circle was a great choice as its a nice relaxed area to walk around by day or night with a big selection of venues from bars with screens to watch sports and cool cocktail lounges to pizza places and upscale restaurants.
To eat I’d recommend Pizza Paradiso on Avenue P and Bistrot du Coin on Connecticut. For drinks, Bar Dupont is a cool bar with huge windows overlooking Dupont Circle; McClellans Retreat is a small cellar bar that specialises in whisky but has everything else too; Darlington House has seats outside and $5 wine in happy hour from 5-7 on weekdays; and Maddy’s has a long bar where you can sit and watch sport on one of the multiple screens above it – these last three are all on Connecticut Avenue. Also along here is Bethesda Bagels that has the best selection of bagels I’ve seen but it can be busy at breakfast time. Finally if you want a drink while relaxing in your hotel, there is the most amazing off licence on Avenue P – a brilliant selection and we were amazed to find our favourite Languedoc wine Picpoul waiting for us there.
Wow, this is probably one of the longest posts I’ve written but there is so much to see and experience in Washington DC that I haven’t even covered it all. For example we spent one night at a Washington Nationals baseball game eating veggie dogs and drinking beer. It wasn’t a great game but a fun experience and we realised there was also an ice hockey game on in another city centre stadium that night.
We also managed to get security clearance for a tour of the Pentagon and while on that side of the Potomac river we visited the famous Arlington National Cemetery. You can read about those on a post that’s coming soon. And if after all of that you’re still not convinced to visit Washington DC then come and talk to me!
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery.