Washington: The most powerful city on earth

Richard D North offers his pick of the best sights in Washington

Few people will make Washington DC their first choice of holiday destination in the US, but after New York, it should be everyone's second. After all, it is the capital of the greatest power on earth. It doesn't have the coiled energy of New York, instead it is relaxed and has a sense of its own dignity. It is also very cosmopolitan and easy to get around and enjoy.

Few people will make Washington DC their first choice of holiday destination in the US, but after New York, it should be everyone's second. After all, it is the capital of the greatest power on earth. It doesn't have the coiled energy of New York, instead it is relaxed and has a sense of its own dignity. It is also very cosmopolitan and easy to get around and enjoy.

WHY GO?

To experience the aura of power and history. Walk down The National Mall, a homage to the Parisian ideal of state boulevard grandeur. The Martin Luther King "I have a dream" speech and the Million Man and Mom marches were staged here, as are the annual Earth Day festivals.

Then there are the memorials to the dead of Vietnam and Korea. These are not the distant historical events that are the theme of more ancient capitals: Washington belongs to the history of the modern world in a more obvious way than do Paris or London.

And the Mall boasts every sort of museum, including the awesome Smithsonian Institution. Its National Air & Space Museum is the city's most popular attraction. The Corcoran Gallery, by the White House, is almost cosy and has some of the most important American paintings, by such luminaries as Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.

WHY NOW?

We have spent months rubber-necking the American political experience with the on-off election of George W Bush. Now he is in power and you can take voyeuristic pleasure from being around as hundreds of new knees get under the table.

A visit to the steps of the Supreme Court is doubly evocative after the recent election excitement. The current television programme The West Wing will take on new meaning when you have been to the real White House. Be prepared to queue at the visitor centre in Pennsylvania Avenue.

In Washington, politics, entrepreneurship and philanthropy are much more dynamically intertwined than in our old country. For a sense of that relationship, a visit to Hillwood Mansion Museum (see below for details) is a must.

Newly refurbished and re-opened with a visitor centre, this is a large 1920s mansion remodelled by the breakfast cereal heiress, Marjorie Merriweather Post, to be a smart residence (some of the upper floors), a venue for parties, and a public showcase for her extraordinary collection of furniture and porcelain, mostly French and Russian. Even the orchids in the greenhouse are worth an hour's detour, which is to say nothing of the dacha in the grounds - or the Adirondack "shack" (some shack, as you'll see).

THE MISSION

Whatever else you do here, surely it is the politics and the politicians whose history you want to poke your nose into. Try Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, 1318 Vermont Av, NW (tel: 673 2402), the home and offices of the first black woman to be in a American president's inner circle (FDR's).

Then visit Woodrow Wilson House, 2340S St, NW (tel: 387 4062), a Modernist 1900s mansion near "Embassy Row" and the president's last home. Impressive stylistically and moodily touching - given that the old boy's electric shock treatment machine is on display. The Textile Museum (see below) is a few doors away.

REMEMBER THIS

Not much advertised, but thoroughly memorable, are Washington's two celebrated political satire groups: Shear Madness is perhaps the better-known but I can also recommend Capitol Steps (tel: 703-683 8330; net: www.capsteps.com). They are an itinerant group of performers who have mostly been staffers on "the Hill" and whose style is informed and affectionate as well as witty and sharp. And be sure not to miss the magnificently restored and beautiful Union station.

Another favourite destination is Hillwood Museum and Gardens, at 4155 Linnean Av, NW - a $10 weekend cab ride from mid-town, though it is shut in February and on national holidays. A reservation is essential, so call before leaving the UK (tel: 001 202-686 5807; fax 001 202-966 7846; net: www.hillwood museum.org).

 

WHERE TO STAY

The grandest hostelry is the mighty Willard Inter-Continental, two blocks from the White House. This is where the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was written (as well as Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech). Every president since 1853 has slept or schmoozed here. The place is deep brown and panelled and murmurs with the gossip of the rich and powerful. The Willard, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave, NW (tel: 001 202-628 9100) costs from $200 per room per weekend night.

The Embassy Square Suites, 2000 N St, NW (tel: 001 202-659 9000; net www.summerfield suites.com) is cheaper. Each room is enormous and comes with a kitchen equipped with white goods on a scale that would not embarrass a medium-sized restaurant in Europe (the chambermaids expect to load and run the dishwasher).

WHAT TO BUY

All the usual Americana, but secondhand bookshops are particularly good. Second Story Books and Antiques at 2000 P St, NW (tel: 659 8884; net: www.secondstorybooks.com) is very good, but one of dozens. Call and they will surely tell you of similar shops.

The Textile Museum, 2320 S St, NW (tel: 667 0441; net: www.textilemuseum.org), is the last word in arty-crafty taste,with a tempting shop and big shows of exotic carpets.

EATING OUT

The Willard Room of the eponymous hotel (see above) is a quintessentially upscale American experience, and at around $150 for a couple is not cheap. The Nam-Viet, 3419 Connecticut Av, NW (tel: 237 1015) is in a neighbourhood dominated by middling to grand apartment buildings, and used by those seeking an affordable place worthy of a routine visit, say for a relaxed Saturday lunch. The food is good and cheap, the decor unfussy and the unfolding scene a decent opportunity for rubber-necking the locals.

McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, 1652 K St, NW (tel: 861 2233), is in the heart of the lobbyists' district. A huge menu, brisk service and good atmosphere. Strongly recommended and not extraordinary price-wise. Bookable.

At Union Station the food hall in the basement is the most heavenly multi-ethnic fast-food extravaganza, where the stroll past the delights of Italy, Vietnam, Greece, Germany puts the taste buds into hyper-spin. The Pizzeria Uno Chicago Bar and Grill (tel: 842 0438), in what looks like an original 1940s or 1950s restaurant area, is a cheap thrill.

GETTING ABOUT

The Metro is a special pleasure: it's all of a piece, each tunnel, hall and station deviating only slightly from the norm. It's mighty, gloomy, and eerie, but very fine. It also goes everywhere you need. Tickets are smartcards, bought and topped up at any station.

The Old Town Trolley (tel: 832 9800; net www.trolleytours.com) is an ideal guided, hop-on, hop-off service that isn't cheap but does deliver you to a solid percentage of the city's sights. Call the operator to be sure you understand where the nearest stop is for your hotel: at some halts the sign-posting is obscure. For wider tours and half-day and whole-day tours of the city, try Zohery Tours (tel: 554 4200; net: www.zohery.com) and All About Town (tel: 301-856 5556).

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies twice a day from Heathrow to Washington, Dulles. World Traveller Plus is being introduced (extra leg-room) and 6ft-long flat chair/beds are being installed in Club World. Book by the end of January, and return flights cost £199 on World Traveller and £3,150 on Club World.

FURTHER INFORMATION

There is a tourist office in London (tel: 020-8877 4521) and a few websites, too: one for local savvy (net: www.intowner.com) and the official city site (net: www.washington.org).

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