Washington: City life

Power brokers and statesmen brush shoulders with tourists and curators in the heart of the USA's capital. But Washington's pervading sense of familiarity, from screen and politics, belies its lively, eclectic underbelly

By Kieran Meeke
Published 14 Jun 2012, 19:26 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 09:30 BST

From the White House's columned facade and the domed Capitol to the brooding Lincoln Memorial and vast Smithsonian, Washington DC has starred in so many films, TV shows and news broadcasts, that it feels instantly familiar.

The city is a showcase of self-consciously monumental buildings and memorials, planned by French architect and civil engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1791 to include Parisian-style boulevards and grand vistas. It's also the richest US metropolitan area — the average household income in 2011 was $84,523 (£53,325) — while being at the epicentre of US political life gives it a character all of its own.

Most visitors gravitate to a national park known officially as the National Mall — and popularly as 'America's Front Yard' — running from the Capitol, past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. The Reflecting Pool here is where 250,000 people saw Dr Martin Luther King deliver his 'I have a dream' speech — and where movie character Forrest Gump was reunited with Jenny.

Dr King's own memorial was unveiled last August 2011, joining others on the National Mall honouring, including Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as the fallen US veterans of WWII and the subsequent Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

Nearby is the White House and, running from the Washington Monument to the Capitol, the Smithsonian — a sprawling complex of museums as diverse as the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of the American Indian.

You could while away two weeks in Washington DC — on your own or as part of a guided tour on foot, bike, Segway or bus — and still miss enough to warrant a second visit. But It would be a shame to miss the historic Georgetown and Dupont Circle districts or culturally diverse Adams Morgan, as these places are home to lively restaurants, bars, markets, quirky shops and galleries.

The cheap, reliable subway and buses make it easy to discover a city that may at first seem grand and remote but which rewards closer inspection with a host of hidden haunts.

See & do

International Spy Museum: The murky world of espionage — from Ancient Rome to the Cold War — is revealed through exhibits, city tours and interactive experiences such as Operation Spy, where your mission — should you accept it — is to locate a missing nuclear trigger.

Ford's Theatre: The place where President Abraham Lincoln was shot dead has been restored to how it was on that fateful night. Tours start with an exhibition that tells the story of his presidency. 

National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: Exhibits include the Mobile Quarantine Unit used by Apollo 11's crew on return from the moon; the Lockheed SR-71 'Blackbird', the world's fastest jet; and Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the Hiroshima atom bomb. 

The Kennedy Center: The complex hosts theatre, dance, ballet, opera, classical, jazz and pop. Catch a free daily concert at 6pm at the Millennium Stage.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial: It's impossible not to be moved by artist Maya Lin's long black wall, in Constitution Gardens. Inscribed on its polished granite are the names of the 58,175 dead and missing. 

Arlington National Cemetery: Home to over 300,000 military graves, including President John F. Kennedy's and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

Mount Vernon: The former plantation home, and last resting place, of the first US president, George Washington (the man from whom the city takes its name) is 16 miles south of DC in Virginia. Lovingly restored, it shows how life was for a gentleman farmer and his slaves in the late 18th century. 

Old Town Alexandria: Just across the Potomac River, a few stops on the metro from the centre of DC, is Old Town Alexandria. Dating back to 1749, it was once an important colonial port. The well-preserved riverfront is today lined with quaint houses, cobbled streets, shops and restaurants. 

Like a local

For free: Many of the city's attractions are free, including the National Zoological Park — home to 2,000 animals, including giant pandas. Museums, galleries and the National Mall have regular free tours and talks. There are also many free music and street festivals throughout the year. 

Happy hour: Actually several hours, roughly between 4pm and 8pm, and something of an institution among DC's bars. Head to Capitol Hill to watch government employees and other city workers unwind and network over half-price beers and pub grub. You never know, you may end up eavesdropping on some juicy White House gossip. 

On your bike: Bike-friendly DC runs a public bike-sharing scheme, Capital Bikeshare (known as CaBi). A total of 1,200 red bikes can be picked up at 140 stations across the city for as little as $5 (£3.10) for 24 hours — with the first 30 minutes free. Several trails, such as the Capitol Crescent Trail and Rock Creek Trail, make for gentle sightseeing excursions. 


Pentagon City Mall: Accessed from the Pentagon City metro station, this shoppers' mecca unites big-name US retailers such as Macy's, Nordstrom, J. Crew and Banana Republic under one roof. 

Chevy Chase: This rich area in northwest DC is where you'll find high-end fashion brands such as Jimmy Choo and Max Mara. A huge Bloomingdale's at Wisconsin Place is the centrepiece, while Friendship Heights offers budget options. Independent bookshop Politics & Prose, meanwhile, is a local institution. 

Dupont Circle: This buzzy, gay-friendly neighbourhood is the place for trendy galleries, secondhand bookshops and quirky shopping. On Sundays, a farmers' market brings the country into town.

Museum gifts: DC's museums are worth visiting not just for their historic treasures but for gifts, from books such as The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale in the National Gallery of Art to astronaut ice cream in the National Air and Space Museum. www.si.edu


With the business of government bringing a massive influx of visitors every day, Washington offers hotels for all budgets.

£  The Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Alexandria, in the quiet setting of central Alexandria, is a great base for exploring the Old Town and Washington DC (the latter is a short metro ride away), with excellent restaurants and bars on its doorstep.

££ The ultra-modern and smoke-free Westin Georgetown is a short walk from Georgetown's main attractions. 

£££  A recent revamp has improved The Madison's rooms, public areas and already excellent The Federalist restaurant. A pet-friendly hotel, it's a short stroll from the White House, monuments and the Smithsonian museums. 


If there's one thing politicians like to do more than talk, it's eat (while talking, no doubt). Washington gives them lots of options.

£  DC institution Ben's Chili Bowl treats its famous patrons well. A sign declaring that only comedian Bill Cosby eats for free was altered in 2008 to include 'the Obama family'. On the menu are chili dogs, chili burgers and chili-smothered fries. 

££  Ted's Bulletin serves the perfect breakfast: pancakes oozing syrup, bacon, hash browns, eggs over easy and bottomless coffee. Evening visitors (try the Buttermilk Country Fried Steak) can enjoy 'adult milkshakes' such as Nutty Professor (with hazelnut liqueur). 

£££   Central Michel Richard offers a French twist on US classics such as burgers and corned beef, Gallic-inspired desserts like Michel's Napoleon, plus plenty of 'Old World Wine', in a spot between The White House and The Capitol in Penn Quarter. 

After hours

Never mind the Democratic and Republican Parties, Washington is a city that puts on its own parties — every night, starting with Happy Hour.

Iron Horse Taproom: A fun, two-level bar where you can partake in shuffleboard and other vintage games, or just get serious about the 20 beers on tap. 

Eighteenth Street Lounge: The warren of rooms in this townhouse mansion are kitted out in the rococo salon style (chandeliers, ornate mirrors and chaise longues) — only with added neon, rooftop deck and different floors offering DJs or jazz bands. 

Madam's Organ: A 'blues bar and soul food restaurant' offering live music every night. With its slogan, 'Where the beautiful people go to get ugly', expect a raucous affair. 

Did you know?

The National Gallery of Art is home to a portrait of 14-year-old Ginevra de' Benci — the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas. Painted in 1474, it's the centrepiece of a collection of Italian Renaissance art that includes works by Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Bellini, Titian and Raphael.


Getting there
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and United all fly non-stop from Heathrow to Washington Dulles International, with four or five departures a day.

Average flight time: 8h30m.

Getting around
Parking is a nightmare in this security-conscious city, but the metro is clean, quick and safe. One-day passes are $7.80 (£5); weekly passes start at $26.40 (£17). DC Circulator buses connect Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Union Station, the Capitol Riverfront, Adams Morgan, U Street and more for $1 (60p) per trip. Buy a SmarTrip card for more savings on all public transport. 

When to go
Autumn is usually the best time to visit, as winters can be bitterly cold and snowy and summers hot and steamy. Spring is famous for its cherry blossoms, attracting hoards of visitors and school groups.

Need to know
Visas: For visits under 90 days, British citizens should apply online for a $14 (£9) ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).

Currency: Dollar ($). £1 = $1.56.

International dial code: 00 1 202.

Time difference: GMT -5.

How to do it
Virgin Holidays offers seven nights at Kimpton's 137-room Hotel Rouge in the Dupont Circle area of the city from £983 per person on a room-only basis. Includes flights from Heathrow.

More info
The Rough Guide to Washington DC. RRP: £12.99.
Time Out Washington, DC. RRP: £12.99.


Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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