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 TWO / For breakfast, try the hotel’s brioche french toast with berry compote. Then get ready for a day of exploration. Start by walking out the front door of the hotel and poking around Penn Quarter. Nearby is the colorful and ornate Chinese gate that marks the heart of D.C.’s small but vibrant Chinatown. Swing back around to the 1 Smithsonian American Art Museum and The National Portrait Gallery. Each of these institutions is worth a visit, but the amazing atrium connecting the two is a must-see. Designed by Norman Foster and opened in November 2007, the former outdoor courtyard is now covered by a wavy glass-and-steel canopy floating high overhead. A unique water scrim covers large rectangular swatches of the floor in a moving veneer, like miniature reflecting pools.
At the nearby Gallery Place–Chinatown Metro station, take the Red Line to 2 Union Station, and make your way to the 3U.S. Capitol. If it’s a weekday, consider touring the majestic building. And if you’re feeling civic-minded, ignore German Chancellor von Bismarck’s famous line about how laws and sausage are two things one doesn’t want to see being made, and take in a committee hearing at one of the congressional office buildings flanking the Capitol. (Check out house.gov or senate.gov for schedules.) If you find yourself on Capitol Hill on a weekend, walk several blocks southeast on Pennsylvania Ave. to the famed 4 Eastern Market, where in-the-know locals gather to enjoy bustling food, arts and flea markets.
A stroll under the green canopy alongside the historic Eastern Market building will take you past stalls filled with books, furniture and bins of fruits, organic vegetables and beautiful cut flowers on the weekend. Ready for lunch? Head inside the tented market building (the original structure, damaged by fire in 2007, is under renovation) for tangy crab cakes and hearty sandwiches at Market Lunch diner. Or if you prefer something more sophisticated, head back down Pennsylvania Avenue for lunch at 5 Central, the latest creation of famed chef Michel Richard. A favorite Democratic haunt, this contemporary bistro has been widely acclaimed as one of the finest new restaurants in D.C. If your political persuasions swing Republican, consider the conservatively tasteful 6 Capital Grill, which offers its wide array of dry-aged steaks and seafood dishes in a rich, club-like atmosphere.
After lunch, you’re ready to tackle Georgetown. Unfortunately, since the tony neighborhood doesn’t have a Metro stop, catch a Metrobus to Georgetown, or grab a taxi for the 15 minute ride.
Tell your driver to drop you off at 7 Dumbarton Oaks, an 1801 Federal-style mansion that now houses a private art museum and formal gardens (these open for the season on March 15). Meander through the tree-lined streets of Georgetown, downhill past some of the most beautiful and historic homes in the world, including the former residences of John and Jackie Kennedy, Averell Harriman and Henry Kissinger. Movie fans will enjoy descending the so-called “Exorcist Steps,” a steep and spooky staircase on Prospect Street that was featured in the 1973 horror movie. At their foot, take a left and discover Georgetown’s primary shopping district, which offers everything from high-end boutiques selling the latest designer wear to budget-conscious shops catering to the fashion whims of students.
A few blocks beyond M Street, you’ll come upon a well-preserved section of the historic 8 Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Starting in early April, you can catch a ride on an 1870s-vintage barge pulled by mules up the stone-lined waterway. Or you can take a stroll along the canal’s towpath past historic brick buildings and up the Potomac River into a forested nature preserve, where you may see Georgetown University crew rowing their shells along the glassy waterway.
Then turn around and head for dinner. Since you’re already on the canal, consider dining at the Sea Catch Restaurant and Raw Bar, with its well-stocked supply of oysters. In warm weather, ask to be seated outdoors on the patio tucked among the leafy foliage of the canal’s towpath. After dinner, stroll over to the nearby the Sequoia restaurant overlooking the Potomac, and finish your day with a drink on its deck, where the thousands of tiny white string lights decorating the trees lend the evening a romantic glow.