No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, it’s hard to deny that excitement has gripped Washington, D.C. As the locals well know, a changeover of administration always brings a new electricity to what is, after all a “company town,” and the city always seems to puts on its best face to welcome the newcomers and to send off the old guard. Visitors to the city these days will find more choices than ever, from iconic buildings, monuments and museums to world-class restaurants, shops and historic neighborhoods, not to mention nature walks along the leafy banks of the Potomac River. So politics aside, there has never been a better time to take in the nation’s capital.
Author Neal Learner Photography United Airlines
DAY ONE / Washington has experienced something of a renaissance during the last few years, with an array of restaurants and nightclubs sprouting up around town, as well as boutique hotels like the chic 1 Hotel Monaco, housed in the historic General Post Office building, and located in the heart of D.C.’s bustling Penn Quarter. An eclectic mix of 19th-century grandeur and 21st-century postmodernism, the hotel offers guests a warm welcome and a dash of whimsy. Wake up under the serene gaze of Thomas Jefferson (a bust of the third president has been placed in each room) and wish your personal goldfish a good morning—another amenity that comes standard in each room. Fortify yourself with coffee, fresh fruit, croissants and muffins in the hotel’s sleek Poste Moderne Brasserie, and get ready to hit 2 The National Mall.
Grab a taxi and head to the 3 Lincoln Memorial. Be sure to arrive before 9 a.m. to beat the crowds. In the quiet of early morning, take an opportunity for some quiet reflection in front of the epic statute of the sixteenth U.S. president. Then turn around and take in the inspiring view across the Reflecting Pool toward the 4 Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol in the distance. Also take time to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address etched in the wall of the adjacent chamber.
As the sun creeps higher into the sky, make your way to the south side of the Reflecting Pool, where you will pass by the Korean War Veterans Memorial, a stainless-steel monument depicting a squad of larger-than-life G.I.s on patrol. Take a path through the grove of trees to the nearby domed D.C. War Memorial, which commemorates World War I veterans, and head to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
If you’re lucky, the cherry blossoms will be in full bloom. Peaking in late March and early April, the trees are so beautiful that you’ll have no choice but to pause among them and enjoy the fragrant scene. Then it’s on to the sprawling Roosevelt Memorial, which tells a narrative story of the president’s four terms in office, including the seminal events that shaped his presidency, namely the Great Depression and World War II. (It’s also the only memorial that celebrates a First Pet, the president’s beloved Scottish terrier, Fala, who sits obediently next to the bronze statue of Roosevelt in the center of the memorial.)
With midmorning in full swing, wind back along the Tidal Basin under the cherry trees and cross over Independence Avenue to the Mall’s center attraction, the Washington Monument. You will pass the World War II Memorial, the latest addition to the Mall’s growing collection. Approach the Washington Monument from the sweeping expanse of grass on its west side, stand near the base of the obelisk, and enjoy unobstructed views of the White House and the Jefferson Memorial to the south, as well as kids flying kites, young adults tossing Frisbees and families setting out picnics.
Now it’s time to hit some museums. With all the options (many of which are free), it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But rather than speedwalking through all the offerings, select two or three along the way that pique your curiosity. Start by heading in the direction of the Capitol building and moving to the south edge of the Mall. After passing the Department of Agriculture building, you’ll come across the 5 Freer Gallery of Art, which showcases Asian masterworks. Be sure to pop into the famous Peacock Room, an elaborate interior created by a wealthy ship owner in 1876. From the Freer, it’s a quick jog to both the Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art, two of the area’s most fascinating (if somewhat overlooked) institutions. Next up is the Hirshhorn Museum, which contains a fantastic collection of thought-provoking works of modern art and sculpture. Venture downstairs to the recently opened exhibit Strange Bodies, which features Ron Mueck’s unforgettable sculpture, “Untitled (Big Man),” along with other work from the museum’s permanent collection. From here, head next door to the massively popular National Air and Space Museum, where you can’t help but marvel at how quickly aviation progressed from the Wright brothers’ cloth-covered flying contraption to the Apollo command module. Check out the Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles that were once the stuff of Cold War nightmares, and be sure to grab a package of freeze-dried ice cream, ready for liftoff.
Speaking of eating, it’s time for lunch. You could grab a hotdog from one of the many street vendors, with their vividly painted vans. But for a meal more in the spirit of exploration, go to the Mitsitam Native Foods Café in the recently opened National Museum of the American Indian, which offers entrees based on Native American culinary traditions. Try a meat pie, filled with venison, black barley and dried fruits layered in flakey pastry shell. Or go for the “campfire buffalo burger” served with green chilies and a side of fry bread with cinnamon and honey.
Your next destination is the 6 United States Botanic Garden, located just next door. Enter the facility’s outdoor garden and follow the meandering trail through regional plantings and past a babbling brook. Then step into horticultural heaven with a visit to the Jungle Room, where towering palm trees with enormous leaves reach up to the glass ceiling.
Head across the Mall to the 7 National Gallery of Art and start your tour in the dramatic East Building, until March 22, you can catch Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples, which displays 150 works of sculpture, painting, mosaic and luxury arts, much of it preserved by the famed eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Then make your way downstairs, past the museum café and into the bookstore, a great place to pick up souvenirs for art-loving family members and friends. After emerging in the museum’s original West Building, visit the galleries on the second floor, hung with priceless masterworks by Monet, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Cassatt, Picasso and more.
Just outside, you’ll encounter the Sculpture Garden, where you can dip your toes in the large circular fountain as you rest up for your next stop: the National Museum of Natural History, featuring an ocean exhibit with a life-sized display of a North Atlantic Right Whale. If you’re up for some serious window shopping, take a gander at the Hope Diamond—that is if you can see past the crowds who tend to congregate there.
Wrap up your Smithsonian tour with a visit to the recently renovated 8 National Museum of American History. The centerpiece of the two-year overhaul is a state-of-the-art display of the Star Spangled Banner, the giant flag that flew over Baltimore during the War of 1812 and inspired the national anthem. You might also swing by the exhibit of gowns worn by First Ladies, and have a look at Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
About this time, you might be dreaming of clicking your own heels three times and muttering, “There’s no place like the hotel room.”
Hang in there. Just few blocks further you’ll reach 9 The White House. With some luck you might catch a glimpse of the promised First Pet romping on the grounds facing the Mall. Continue west around the White House compound, past the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to Lafayette Park. From here, you’ll have a much closer view of the White House itself, along with the ever-present protesters who gravitate to this global center of power.
After offering a “hail to the chief,” hail a cab back to the hotel, where you can huddle with your advisors—namely Thomas Jefferson and the goldfish—to make an executive decision on dinner.
Consider 10 The Monocle, a longtime D.C. institution located near the Senate office buildings on Capitol. In the old days, young senators John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon may have sought common ground over a good cut of meat and a cigar. Today, the cigars are verboten, but you can still feel powerful devouring a 14-ounce grilled New York sirloin in the dining room. Don’t be surprised if you bump elbows with a well-known politico, like Republican senator Olympia Snowe, a recent patron.
Once you’ve caught your second wind, grab a taxi to the ultra-trendy 11 U Street Corridor, lately the center of D.C. nightlife. Renowned as the birthplace of Duke Ellington and former host of such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, the neighborhood today boasts an ever-increasing number of hot clubs and restaurants, not to mention boutiques and art galleries. Grab a cocktail at the sophisticated Utopia Bar & Grill, which offers live blues and jazz Tuesday through Sunday. Or for a gorgeous view, climb to the glassed in-rooftop dining room of Tabaq Bistro. Finally, stroll over to 18th Street and north to Adams Morgan for a visit to the famed Madam’s Organ Blues Bar, a beloved local venue.