Capital games

Simon Calder gets on the tourist circuit in Washington DC
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The Independent Travel
A salvo of Arctic wind blasts through the city, prompting the people to set their collars a notch or two higher against the cold - and their fellow citizens.

"Don't rush me!" pleads the homeless man, clutching a plastic cup on one of the grubbier street corners. "One donation at a time, please." In the capital of the world's sole superpower, even the down-and-outs possess a politician's slick patter.

The best time to visit Washington DC is highly specific: October, in years that are divisible by four. The year is crucial because the pulse in this most competitive of cities races when presidential and congressional elections take place in the same year; the month is critical because everything is auspicious for the tourist, political or not.

This month, a swathe of Cool Canadian (as the TV forecasters call it) swept into town early, bringing the first frosts. So the last few casual visitors of the summer have shivered back to Illinois and Iowa, leaving a city beautifully exposed beneath sharp, clear skies. And the chill has tripped the magical maple mechanism that inflames the woodland benignly fringing Washington DC.

Those initials hint at the thorough artificiality of the American capital. The District of Columbia is bounded by an arbitrary diamond inscribed half way down the US east coast, punched out of the map where Maryland and Virginia meet. It began life as a messy compromise, perched on a swampy piece of land on the cusp of North and South spheres of influence.

Geometrically and politically, its centre is a large white house. The lower left-hand corner of DC has been ripped away, a result of the state of Virginia clawing back its territory in the middle of the last century. Into this crazy diamond has been decanted all the machinery of government, but not much else that you would associate with a real city.

If you're not a politician, or homeless, about the only role to play in DC is to be a tourist. It is a giant governmental theme park. Three things apply to almost everything in the city that is relevant to your stay: it is probably a tourist attraction; it should be free; and it is almost certainly on the left-hand half of the diamond. This western side is full of bright and tidy young things with perfect teeth; sex, drugs and rock-'n'-roll are kept behind firmly closed doors. But the east is an urban battleground that keeps Washington a leading contender for the title of murder capital USA. So with your self-preservation compass correctly aligned, off you go.

First, arrive in style - the largest railway station in the world will do nicely. If you fly into Baltimore-Washington airport, the connecting train ejects you beneath a vast, gloomy canopy. But this is a mere vestibule for the grand hall of heroic proportions, a Beaux Arts bonanza in marble and terracotta. A nation built largely on the railroad needed to accord the lines of steel with proper respect, to terminate them in a temple to the train. This foundation has largely crumbled with the decline of the railway in America - to the extent that trains provide the flimsiest of justifications for the continued existence of Union Station. So the shopkeepers have moved in. The list of specialty shops is much longer these days than the train timetable.

If you need to buy a rail ticket, mind, you face a challenge to locate the booking office amidst all the retail opportunities. To add to the confusion, this month the station hosted an Oktoberfest - the chance for the German community boozily to celebrate its roots.

Almost everyone in Washington is from somewhere else, and most - from presidents to panhandlers - are planning to return there sometime. So in a bid to establish a sense of permanence, the city has built a series of monumental structures, of which Union Station is merely the opening bid. Next door is the former Post Office). No parcel-despatching activity echoes these days around the cathedral-like hall. But down in the vaults, a new Postal Museum traces the fall of the US Mail from the communication network for a maturing nation to a second-rate alternative to e-mails and fax. You can ponder the impermanence, and get a machine to print out all the neatly addressed postcards you need, for free. That's because the museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

If you have "been there, seen that" in Washington DC, you will already refer to the Smithsonian whenever polite conversation allows. If you have not, you may be puzzled about what precisely it is. The Institution was founded in 1826 by James Smithson, a British scientist who was the worst kind of tourist - he didn't visit Washington until he was dead. Smithson was an illegitimate child, and despised the way that the British upper classes treated him. So he decided to bestow financial favour on the intellectual health of the young United States. He established an Institution for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men".

The upshot, these days, is 14 different museums, each providing a distinct insight into the creation of a nation. Most are located on either side of the Mall, an audacious urban open space. Pierre L'Enfant was the French architect whose grand design for the new city prescribed a broad green stripe running right through the middle of Washington, finally dissolving into the dark waters of the Potomac River. For a time, it was disrupted by a busy railway station plonked right in the middle of the lawn. Union Station solved that problem in breathtaking fashion, and the grass grew back over the tracks. Decked along it are some of the finest museums in the world.

The Air & Space Museum is almost too embracing for its own good. Every milestone, from Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis to Apollo lunar modules, is dangled or draped around this outsized hangar. In the equation between war (symbolised by fighters and bombers) and peace (civil aircraft, plus the celebrated link-up in space between Soviet cosmonauts and American astronauts), conflict wins easily. Enola Gay, the aircraft responsible for more deaths than any other warplane, has a resting place in the museum, amid an exhibition on the Hiroshima atomic bomb that comprised its deadly cargo.

Death, like government and tourism, is a way of life in Washington. The sorrowful story of American violence runs through the city like a severed artery. If there is no public performance at Ford's Theater, a boy scout- like ranger of the National Park Service will show you the box where Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865, then take you over the street to the house where he died the next morning. Across the Potomac River at Arlington Cemetery, a flame burns eternally above the tomb of another assassinated president, John F Kennedy. Meanwhile, at the Vietnam Monument, inscribed slabs of granite, commemorates all the young men sent to their deaths in an unwinnable war in Indochina waged by JFK's successors.

The most sombre memorial of all is the Holocaust Museum, where the story of the rise of fascism and the death of millions of Jews is told in an unblinkingly straightforward manner. Since opening two years ago, it has reduced three million visitors to tears.

Every tourist in Washington witnesses a continuum of experiences from inhumanity to showbiz. Firmly at the entertainment end of this spectrum, you find institutions of state such as the Pentagon and the FBI. Each runs a tour that is as theatrical as it is glib. The FBI sheds any semblance of sensible analysis of crime by the end of its tour, when visitors are treated to a demonstration of live firing with automatic weapons.

If you have been keeping up so far, you will have enjoyed several days of wonderment without even touching the political core of Washington. You can take the presidential trinity at a fair canter. The Washington monument - at 555ft easily the tallest point in a low-rise city - pierces the profoundly blue sky and acts as a pinion around which the city can revolve. This plain stone needle also provides a pretty good view of the ensemble, with a lift that zips you to the top. If you want to descend on foot through the interior, and see the stone presented by each state to be set into the austere walls, turn up at 10am on a Saturday and ask for the "Walk-down tour".

Want to see Bill Clinton's front room (at least for a couple more months)? A century ago, it was traditional for the president personally to receive visitors and shake the hand of each one. Nowadays, the White House tour involves hours of queuing for the modest privilege of trotting around some of the public areas.

You may be better off gliding across to the vast Lincoln Memorial (above). A gaunt, moody statue of the murdered president keeps a distant eye on Capitol Hill. America's parliament is strangely quiet this month because one-third of the Senators and all the Representatives are back home politicking for re-election.

Most of the bureaucrats who remain beat a hasty retreat from the government offices in the city centre after 6pm - and so should you, but not too far. To hear New Yorkers disparage nightlife in Washington, you would imagine that the city becomes a power vacuum after dark. But plonk yourself at the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown (a semi-suburb a mile from the White House), and you will find the sidewalks bustle well beyond midnight. Or to meet the homeless man with a good line in panhandling, aim north on 18th Street to the area known as Adams-Morgan. This is where every wave of new immigrants seems to settle and set up restaurants, providing a choice between Peruvian and Vietnamese, Salvadorean and Ethiopian. I was pleased to find the Meskerem, where I ate an Ethiopian feast four Octobers ago, is still serving deliciously simple dishes with panache. Prices around pounds 15 with drinks - well below the DC average - allow you some spare change to give to the people left out in the cold.

New Yorkers reckon they have the city that never sleeps but I have proof that they are not alone. On my last night I finished work at 5am, and an hour later found myself sitting in a bookshop trying to decide between a pint of Old Dominion or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. After the shop assistant/barman, wearing the wooliest of liberal sweaters, pointed out that we were in the middle of the twilight zone betwixt 3am and 9.30am when beer cannot be served, I chose a coffee - and a book to browse through. It turned out to be a Washington DC Vehicle License Decoder, a curious publication that enables you to work out the nationality and status of anyone driving a car with diplomatic plates. The book even gives the FBI hotline for reporting suspected spies.

A most peculiar city, and one whose spiritual heart I have signally failed to locate. I suspect that the reason is that the body politic of America has never possessed a soul. Like any theme park, Washington DC offers a perversion of humankind. Don't expect inspiration. But you do get unlimited free thrills.

DC: the essentials

Getting there: Simon Calder paid pounds 286 (including tax) to Major Travel (0171-485 7017) for a round-trip on British Airways from Gatwick to Baltimore- Washington airport, 30 miles north of the city. A bus/rail connection to Union Station in Washington costs $5 each way ($12 at weekends). BA, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic fly from Heathrow to Dulles airport, 20 miles west. The best-placed airport, National, is three miles south and on the Metro system; unfortunately, it is not served by international services.

Staying there: see Hamish McRae's story, A room around Washington, on page 12.

Getting around: most places of interest to tourists are walkable (central Georgetown to the Smithsonian takes around 40 minutes). The futuristic Metro system is fast and relatively safe. A ticket allowing unlimited travel all day (after 9.30am on weekdays) costs $5.

Getting information:with no US tourist office in the UK, it is tricky to get advice. The best city-specific guidebook is Access Washington DC (distributed by Harper Collins, pounds 9.99).