48 Hours In Washington

The American capital is abuzz with election fever. Sarah Barrell votes the city a winner at any time of year


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Because there is never a better time to visit the American capital than during the frenzy of a presidential election. At any time of year this city is the hub of the political world but right now everywhere from Washington's restaurants and museums to hotels and concert halls are alive with election fever. You can eat lunch next to bright young things as they compose drafts of speeches on café counter-tops, and watch lobbyists make frantic political predictions over happy-hour cocktails. Just watch out for those motorcades whizzing up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

TOUCH DOWN

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), United Airlines (0845 844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly non-stop to Washington Dulles from Heathrow. BMI (0870 607 0555; www.flybmi.com) flies from Manchester. The best fares, around £250 return for travel between now and mid-December, are likely to be through discount agents. In January and February, they will fall even lower - so you could get a cut-price flight to the presidential inauguration. To reach downtown from Dulles airport (30 miles west), SuperShuttle (001 202 296 6662; www.supershuttle.com) operates a van service like a shared taxi (around $40/£25 return, per person). Otherwise, catch the Flyer bus to the nearest metro station, West Falls Church ($8/£5 one-way); from here, the 20-minute ride to the centre of town costs $2.60 (£1.40) at rush-hour, $1.85 (£1.10) at other times.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Washington's main sights are located within walking distance of Capitol Hill, where Congress is located. To the north of this central area lies Dupont Circle - the hub of an arty neighbourhood, home to second-hand bookshops and smart boutiques. North still is the upcoming area of Adams-Morgan, the best place for cheap eats. Across the Potomac river is leafy, affluent Georgetown, the oldest area of the city, a "blue" (Democrat-supporting) neighbourhood and one-time home to John Kerry and Thomas Jefferson.

CHECK IN

I stayed at Hotel George at 15 E Street, NW (001 202 347 4200; www.hotelgeorge.com), which was Washington's first boutique hotel. Doubles from $197 (£123) room only, including taxes). The Tabard Inn at 1739 N Street, NW (001 202 785 1277; www.tabardinn.com) looks more like a curiosity shop than a hotel - three turn-of-the-century townhouses stuffed with antique furniture. Doubles from $158 (£99) including breakfast and taxes. The Monticello at 1075 Thomas Jefferson Street, NW (001 202 337 0900; www.monticellohotel.com) has a great location on a leafy Georgetown side street. Doubles from $128 (£80) room only including taxes.

TAKE A VIEW

Ride the free glass elevator to the 12th floor of the grand Old Post Office Tower, at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. From here there are 360-degree views of the city taking in the Capitol, the Mall and even the roof of the White House peaking through the trees on the Ellipse. The venue opens 9am-4.45pm from Monday to Saturday, 10am-5.45pm on Sundays.

TAKE A HIKE

Start at the White House Visitor Centre located at the south-east corner of 15th and E Streets. Since September 11, tours of the White House are extremely limited and difficult to arrange for international visitors, but you can get a good photo vantage point on E Street between 15th and 17th Streets. Follow Pennsylvania Avenue east towards the old town area, turning left on 10th street for Ford's Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot (daily 9am-5pm except during performances, free). Follow the morbid crowds across the street to see the House Where Lincoln Died, complete with the bed on which he breathed his last; admission free, 9am-5pm daily. The Spy Museum at 800 F Street, NW (001 202 393 7798; www.spymuseum.org) offers a Hollywood-style history of America's intelligence services; open daily 10am-6pm (last admission 4pm), admission $13 (£8).

Walk back down 8th Street towards The Mall and stroll through the National Gallery of Art's sculpture park (free, open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 11am-6pm) and eastwards to finish up at the US Capitol crowning the top of The Mall.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Grab a bite with Warren Brown, a former federal government lawyer who now runs his own bakery and café, Love Café, at 1501 U Street, NW. Along with celestial cakes and pastries, the café serves hearty sandwiches (from $4.50/£2.80).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Most of Washington's museums are free. The main problem is that there are also more of them than you could hope to cram into a weekend. The Smithsonian Information Centre (001 202 357 2700; www.si.ed) was the first of the 15 national museums that now line the Smithsonian Mall. Open daily 8.30am-5.30pm.

Despite the Smithsonian being home to some of the world's most coveted art collections, the most popular of the Mall's attractions is the Air and Space Museum (001 202 633 1000; www.nasm.si.edu). Exhibits range from early Wright Brothers planes to space-age displays and a piece of the moon; 10am-5.30pm daily, free.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The colonial buildings on Georgetown's M and Wisconsin Streets house names such as Diesel and Urban Outfitters alongside more upmarket boutiques. Georgetown's pretty residential side streets and canal path make for great ambling between bursts of consumerism.

For a taste of old-fashioned, small-town America, head to Eastern Market at 7th and C Streets, SE. This red-brick building houses an art gallery and food market, and at weekends is surrounded by antique stalls and craft shops and a farmer's market; it opens daily except Monday.

AN APERITIF

Some of DC's finest lobbyists ply their trade at McCormick & Schmick's at 1652 K Street, NW. Order a happy-hour cocktail (5-7pm) and watch TV crews scouring the bar to get quotes from lobbyists, fresh from the White House two blocks away.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The Monocle, at 107 D Street, NE (001 202 546 4488), no longer serves the smoked-meat sandwiches that made JFK a regular here but this old Southern-style clapboard restaurant still attracts Capitol Hill's big wigs. Presidential quotes are painted on the cornicing, and pictures of the former leaders and patrons adorn the walls. An iced tea and plate of Maryland crab cakes costs $25 (£16). Clyde's, at 3236 M Street, NW (001 202 333 9180), is an atmospheric Georgetown institution, serving classic American dishes and southern-style seafood. Two courses for around $30 (£22).

Georgetown's Mendocino Grill at 2917 M Street, NW (001 202 333 2912; www.mendocinodc.com) has Californian-inspired cuisine with dishes made from local, seasonal ingredients.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The preferred place of worship for most Americans is the National Archives, home to the three original texts on which the USA was founded: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Next month, the archives (001 202 501 5000; www.archives.gov) will open the Public Vaults, to display such previously unexhibited documents as Washington's letters, Lincoln's telegrams, along with UFO reports and the Nixon "Watergate" tapes. Admission free, open 10am-5.30pm daily.

OUT TO BRUNCH

The Corcoran Museum of Art at 500 17th Street, NW (001 202 639 1700; www.corcoran.org) is one of the oldest and most respected art galleries in the US. It is also the venue for a riotous Sunday Gospel Brunch (10.30am-2pm). The $23.95 (£15) menu includes same-day admission to the museum's permanent collection of American art.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Of Washington's many green spaces, the southern end of the Mall is the prettiest place for a stroll. On the banks of the Potomac river, these lawns are home to the Lincoln, Vietnam and Jefferson memorials, plus the towering Washington Monument.

TAKE A RIDE

To Virginia, on the metro (Yellow Line) to King Street. The tiny harbour town of Alexandria is home to old-fashioned ice-cream parlours, antique stores and home-style restaurants. Don't miss the old Torpedo factory on the waterfront, converted into an artists' warehouse (001 703 838 4565; www.torpedofactory.org); admission free, 10am-5pm daily.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Pick up a card of one of the American presidents (40 cents) from Political Americana at 1331 Pennsylvania Avenue. Cross the road to Freedom Plaza - an inspirational spot to write in, with a view of the US Capitol to the east.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Designed, staffed and constructed by native Americans, the Museum of the American Indian (001 202 633 1000; www.nmai.si.edu) is the newest of the Mall's tourist sights. The building, an organic, mountainous edifice surrounded by water, is designed to recall the natural landmarks worshiped by native American cultures. Exhibits offer a wealth of information about the Indian cultures of the Americas, from the tip of Chile to the top of Alaska. It opens 10am-5.30pm daily, admission free.

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