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Why go now?
In a city dominated by politics, there is eager anticipation about the changes that the Obama era might bring: not just economic or political, but social, too. New districts will become fashionable, restaurants and bars frequented by the old regime will be deserted in favour of new choices. So if you want to get ahead of the curve, this is the time to be in DC.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; virgin-atlantic.com) fly from Heathrow to Washington's Dulles airport, 25 miles west of the US capital. The cheapest route to the centre is the Washington Flyer Coach ( washfly.com) to West Falls Church Metro station; this is on the orange line of the city's excellent Metro, which stops at several stations on its way through the downtown area. The one-way coach fare costs $10 (£7). Alternatively, the Supershuttle shared van service ( supershuttle.com) makes drop-offs at requested hotels for $29 (£20); a taxi into the city will cost about $55 (£38).
Get your bearings
Many of Washington's visitor attractions are concentrated in a small area in the north-west quadrant of the District of Columbia, which is why "NW" is added at the end of many addresses. The quadrant stretches from the Capitol Building (1) on top of Capitol Hill in the east as far as the Potomac river to the west and south. Pennsylvania Avenue cuts through this area, from the Capitol Building to Georgetown; it passes the White House (2) on the way. The main visitor information centre (3) is at number 1300 (001 202 289 8317; dcchamber.org), on the ground floor of the Ronald Reagan building. In winter it opens 9am-4.30pm Monday to Friday; from mid-March until early September it opens 8.30am-5.30pm Monday to Friday, 9am-4pm on Saturday. The easiest way to get around the city is on the Metro, which has five lines. Fares vary according to distance and time of day; the cheapest journeys cost $1.35 (£0.95). All-day tickets are available for $7.80 (£5.40).
Business travellers to DC push hotel rates up during the week; visit at the weekend for the best deals. Of course, on dates around 20 January everywhere for miles around is fully booked with inauguration guests. The Hotel Palomar (4) at 2121 P Street (001 202 448 1800; hotelpalomar-dc.com) is a chic and sophisticated boutique establishment. Rooms are available from $160 (£110); breakfast is extra.
On a smaller scale, the Chester Arthur House (5) on Logan Circle at 13th and T Street (001 413 582 9888; chesterarthurhouse.com) is a Victorian house with three rooms to let; these start at $143 (£99) for a double, including breakfast.
The Windsor Inn (6) at 1842 16th Street (001 202 667 0300; windsor-inn-dc.com) has small but well-appointed rooms with ensuite facilities from $136 (£94) including continental breakfast.
Take a view
From the observation tower of the Old Post Office (7) – the first modern skyscraper in the capital – there is an excellent view of central Washington. Immediately below is Pennsylvania Avenue, down which many incoming presidents, following the lead of Thomas Jefferson in 1805, have travelled on the way from their inauguration in the Capitol Building (1) to the White House (2) 16 blocks further west. The tower opens 9am-4.45pm Monday to Saturday, 10am-5.45pm on Sunday, admission free.
Take a hike
Explore Washington's main avenue from ground level, starting at the White House, the spiritual, if not the actual, heart of the city. Tours of the house itself are almost impossible for foreign visitors to arrange: "they don't exactly welcome you with open arms", one official told me. But the White House Visitor Centre (8) at the junction of Pennsylania Avenue and 15th Street (001 202 208 1631) is an interesting second best, with a series of exhibits on presidential themes. It opens 7.30am-4pm daily.
Along the Avenue on the other side are the FBI building (9) and the Navy Memorial (10); opposite, the area between Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues is known as the Federal Triangle, location for many government buildings built during the 1930s as a job-creation scheme. The most interesting is the National Archives (11), whose entrance is round the back on Constitution Avenue (001 202 357 5000; archives.gov). The highlight is the Rotunda, which contains the so-called "Charters of Freedom" – the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the American Constitution. In a room at the side is our own Magna Carta, one of only four original copies. The National Archives open 10am-5.30pm daily, until 7pm from mid-March until early September, admission free.
At the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue is the Capitol Building (1), the nation's legislative hub. Underneath it, with the entrance at the back of the building, is the new Capitol Visitor Centre (001 202 226 8000; visitthecapitol.gov), which opens 8.30am-4.30pm daily except Sunday. Visitors can watch a film and tour the exhibition hall, containing artefacts that include the silver trowel used by George Washington to lay the Capitol's cornerstone; then, queues permitting, there is a 25-minute guided tour that takes in the Old Senate and House of Representatives' chambers.
Lunch on the run
A few blocks north of the Capitol is Union Station (12), still the city's rail terminus – but its elegantly-proportioned Beaux Arts hall is now full of shops, cafes and restaurants. Order soup or a salad from B Smith's on the mezzanine level overlooking the main concourse.
Stay at Union Station to explore the stores, which include a large bookstore and a good craft shop, Appalachian Spring. Alternatively head to Georgetown, where a variety of boutiques and shops line both sides of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. There is also an indoor mall, Georgetown Park (13), at the junction of these two streets; it opens 10am-9pm daily (noon-6pm on Sundays).
The Old Ebbitt Grill (14) at 675 15th Street (001 202 347 4800; ebbitt.com) is a well-established political watering hole, where deals are made and careers ruined. It has four bars, all with a great atmosphere. Order the cocktail of your choice at the most celebrated of them all, the Oyster Bar.
Dinner with the locals
Everyone wants to be seen dining where the president dines; according to hotel concierge Philip Biggerstaff, "wherever he goes, it will certainly create a buzz". He thinks it is a safe bet that Barack Obama will frequent the award-winning CityZen, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (15) at 1330 Maryland Avenue (001 202 787 6006; mandarinoriental.com); try the tasting menu at the bar for $50 (£34.50). If he chooses to move downmarket because of the economic crisis, one destination could be Hook (16), an excellent fish restaurant at 3241 M Street in Georgetown (001 202 625 4488; hookdc.com).
Sunday morning: go to church
The National Cathedral (17) at 3101 Wisconsin Avenue (001 202 537 6200; nationalcathedral.org) is a vast Gothic structure, intended by the city's designer, Pierre l'Enfant, to be suitable for "national purposes". It has many presidential connections: the foundation stone was laid by Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson is buried here, and President Obama is expected to attend a prayer service here the day after his inauguration. The building opens 10am-5.30pm Monday to Friday, 10am-4.30pm on Saturday, 8am-6.30pm on Sunday.
Take a ride
Bike the Sites (001 202 842 2453; bikethesites.com) is based at the back of the Old Post Office (7). It operates March to mid-December from 9am, 9.30am on Sundays, and bikes are available from $10 (£7) for two hours. Hire one and head out of the city centre, to explore Arlington National Cemetery (18), where many national heroes are buried, or Rock Creek Park (19) with its shady cycle trails.
Out to brunch
Choose some weekend reading matter at the excellent Kramerbooks (20) at 1517 Connecticut Avenue (001 202 387 3825; kramers.com), then take it to Afterwords cafe at the back of the store for brunch. If you order a main course – starting at $13.75 (£9.50) for a mushroom omelette – muffins, potatoes, fresh fruit, coffee and a bloody Mary or mimosa are included in the price.
Write a postcard
Political memorabilia shops like Americana (21) on 14th Street are stocked with cards showing the 44th president in front of the White House. If you prefer a more historical take on presidential Washington, the same store is also selling postcards of Hope, Arkansas, home town of the 42nd president, Bill Clinton.
The Newseum (22) at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue (001 202 292 6100; newseum.org) is one of the newest and liveliest attractions in the capital, seven floors of interactive exhibits, film shows and changing displays that explore every aspect of news and how it is reported. Each day the front pages of regional and national newspapers are put on display. Newseum opens 9am-5pm daily, and admission costs $20 (£13.80). On 20 January it will be opening 10am-10pm, so that visitors can watch the inauguration on its giant screens.
Icing on the cake
Almost every interest, from medieval painting to space travel, is catered for at the museums along the Mall. All of them are free, and most open 10am-5.30pm daily. At the National Museum of American History (23), the diverse exhibits range from the Star-Spangled Banner to the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; (001 202 633 1000; americanhistory.si.edu)