Travel: Short break in... Washington DC

Jennifer Turnbull discovers there is more to the US capital than the White House, and is torn between the museums and the malls
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
Last year, the American Tourist Board could not have got more publicity for DC if it had tried. Washington was the world's hot spot in 1998, with the Monica Lewinsky affair and the impeachment trial. Pictures of the White House, The Mall and Capitol Hill were splashed across television networks around the globe.

Sleaze aside, there are more compelling reasons to visit Washington DC. The nation's capital and one of the oldest cities in the US has a unique combination of history, ethnic diversity and social life to satisfy the most eclectic tastes.

When to go

Early summer and autumn are the best times to go, rather than, say, August which is hot and muggy with 95 per cent humidity. Flights are also the most expensive at that time. September, on the other hand, is a good choice with pleasant temperatures and the start of the glorious display of leaf-colour characteristic of Fall in the States.

Getting there

Several airlines go direct into Dulles International Airport, the main international airport for Washington. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) does a return fare from pounds 460 (plus pounds 52 tax); Virgin (tel: 01293 747747) currently has returns from pounds 388 (plus pounds 52 tax); and United (tel: 0845 8444777) has them from pounds 575. All have several daily flights and from September, fares will drop below pounds 300, sometimes as low as pounds 200.

Where to stay

The Holiday Inn on K Street (tel: 001 202 6820111) is a well-located though not particularly cheap hotel, unless it is a Friday or Saturday night - most hotels in the city offer a discounted rate at the weekend. Prices during the week are around $250 (pounds 175) a night for a double, but on Friday and Saturday, the price drops to $119 (pounds 75) plus tax.

The Embassy Suites on 22nd Street (tel: 001 202 8573388) offers a four- day stay at $179 per night or seven days at $169 per night. The hotel has an indoor pool, a fitness centre including a sauna, and an arcade of shops and services. All prices include breakfast, and complimentary drinks - including alcoholic ones - are offered between 5.30pm and 7.30pm.

The Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue (tel: 001 202 6289100) is the oldest hotel in the city and for 150 years has been an integral part of Washington society. Its central location, two blocks from the White House, means it is surrounded by Washington's most fashionable shops and restaurants, and The Mall (see below) and museums are just a short walk away. Room rates at the weekend, including a Sunday night, are $219 for a double, rising to $289 during the week (subject to availability).

The Adams Inn on Lanier Place (tel: 001 202 7453600) offers coffee and doughnuts around the clock and cheap, cosy rooms from $55.

What to see and do

There is a multitude of monuments to see, museums to visit and places to go around DC. The key to going to any city in the US is to know what is available and plan ahead, leaving some time for additional activities that take your fancy. Washington is essentially made up of two parts, the Federal Washington and downtown DC. The Federal part is The Mall with all the monuments and the museums. Downtown DC includes such areas as Adams-Morgan, a multi-ethnic community with an amazing selection of restaurants, and Georgetown, the upmarket, chic neighbourhood and shopping mall.

Within the city limits, transport is by subway and there are also several companies offering tours around the different parts of the city. These cover all the monuments, with options to get off at any point. There is also a bus that shuttles between the museums on The Mall.

For something a little different in the way of tours, DC Ducks provides an entertaining land and water tour-bus that transforms from a van into a boat. Also interesting are the famous Scandal Tours which take tourists past Gary Hart's town-house, the Watergate complex, The Vista Hotel where Mayor Barry was caught smoking crack, and, of course, everywhere associated with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Alternatively, you can pick up the blue-and-white Tourmobile Sightseeing Bus which runs round the mainstream tourist sights (Capitol, Lincoln Memorial etc) from 9am to 6.30pm and, on the standard 18-sight loop, get on and off at any location. Tickets can be bought on the bus, adults $12, children $6.

No trip to Washington would be complete without a visit to the Smithsonian Institution. In reality you could spend a week there and not see everything. Unless you want to spend a week buried in a museum, it is best to be selective and see exhibits not found elsewhere. The National Archives, with the original Declaration of Independence, along with the US Constitution and The Bill of Rights, all preserved in individual humidity-controlled helium cases, are unique.

Across The Mall is the Air and Space Museum which records the history of flight. The Wright brothers' biplane is there, and the space atrium has a piece of moonrock worn smooth by the thousands of visitors who pass through each year. There is also the Apollo XI command module and a full- scale lunar lander. For the less technically minded there is the Museum of Natural History which boasts the famously cursed Hope Diamond, the National History Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (modern and contemporary art). Entrance to all museums is free.

Like anywhere in the US, Washington is a bargain for British shoppers. Everything, from jeans to CDs, is a half to a third cheaper than in the UK. Start in Georgetown, which resembles a British high street with a difference. The local mall sells everything from fine art and jewellery to clothes, books and children's clothes.

Food and drink

Places to eat range from the inexpensive ethnic restaurants in the Adams- Morgan area to the more established ones in Georgetown. Although all the museums on The Mall have cheap eats, they are not particularly good.

While exploring the Mall area however, it's worthwhile walking up to the subterranean food court in the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue for lunch and entertainment. Very often there are choirs or bands that play during the lunch period and it is a good place to relax and savour the multicultural atmosphere of the city, with food ranging from Mexican to Vietnamese, and meals for under $10.

While shopping in Georgetown, Dean & DeLuca, the original Italian deli, has a fantastic range of designer salads and sandwiches. The bread is certainly different, with raisin and pumpernickel the most recent to hit the shelves. Around $10 for lunch.

For dinner in a more traditional setting, the Old Ebbitt Grill (tel: 202 347 4800) on 15th street is good, old-fashioned dining, with seating in individual booths and gas-lighting. Booking in advance is essential to avoid a long wait. Dinner from $25.

Alternatively, dine with a Congress clientele at The Monocle (tel: 202 546 4488) near Union Station and Capitol Hill. Great crabcakes and steaks from $15.

Nightlife

If you don't mind a young crowd, squeeze into a local rock and roll show. To see what's up with the local bands and shows, check City Paper, distributed free throughout the city. For a more balanced age group, the Crow Bar on 20th Street accommodates everyone from bikers to businessmen. The Bayou on K Street features bands on their way up and on their way down. Everything from Metal to Jazz. Capitol Ballroom on 1015 Half Street is one of DC's newest live-music ventures, presenting an impressive line- up of big-name alternative bands. Otherwise, try the bars of Georgetown - there are more than enough with a flexible closing-time policy.

Out of town

One of the nearest out-of-town trips is to Old Town Alexandria. Just a Metro-ride away, Old Town has well preserved neighbourhoods, particularly in the area of King Street near the Potomac river. Visit the old Torpedo Factory, now one of the nation's first working centres for the arts. The centre houses 200 professional artists in 80 studios and galleries and is a wonderful place to buy unique arts and crafts. Close by is the riverside restaurant Chartwells which serves superb seafood and views overlooking the river.

Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, is a stone's- throw from Alexandria and can be reached by the tour bus or by Metro and the Fairfax connector bus. The back of the house, where George Washington used to sit, has splendid views of the Potomac river and the surrounding countryside. Interesting relics in the house include Martha Washington's wedding slippers and George Washington's toothbrush. The latter must have been of great concern to George as he had several of his teeth taken out and was fitted with wooden dentures. It is the reason, allegedly, why he struck such a sombre pose for many of his portraits. George and Martha's tombs can be found in the grounds away from the house.

Harpers Ferry is about a two-hour drive out of DC. For this you might need to hire a car, and as with the hotels, weekend rates are much cheaper. Enterprise Cars (tel: 202 393 0900) does a weekend rate of $9.99 per day. Insurance is extra. Well worth the visit, this tiny town in West Virginia was the scene of John Brown's attempt to start a great slave revolution in Virginia. The town is caught up in its past history, with the armoury and the scene of the attack well preserved and many of the traditional shops restored to their former state, particularly the grocer's store where the assistants are dressed in period costume. One of the best reasons to visit Harpers Ferry, apart from the historical significance, is the sheer beauty of the place. Situated on the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, the panoramic views are breathtaking.

Annapolis, the capital of Maryland and the one-time capital of America during the Civil War period, is about an hour's drive out of Washington. It is also where George Washington resigned his commission from the army. A beautiful little town set on the Chesapeake, with many delightful restaurants and craft shops, it is also the home of the Naval Academy.

Restaurants are a little more expensive here and so a good alternative is the deli market on the waterfront. Another gourmet stop is the brick- fronted Baskin Robbins ice-cream shop with over 30 different flavours. Walk down to the river and take a tour around the harbour of Annapolis. Bay cruises are available every hour, for one or two hours, prices range from $5-$15.

Deals and packages

Premier Holidays (tel: 01223 516 688) offers flights and hotels separately, with a stay in the three-star State Plaza Hotel at pounds 67 per room per night from Friday to Sunday, pounds 73 during the week, and return flights with BA from pounds 355 plus tax.

Virgin (tel: 01293 617 181) offers the best all-inclusive deal, with seven night's accommodation in the four-star Double Tree Arlington, plus return flights, transfers and hotel at pounds 629 until the end of June (pounds 729 in July and pounds 759 in August). Transfers can be exchanged for a week's car hire.

Kuoni (tel: 01306 742 888) offers a competitive deal in the four-star Omnishoreham in Georgetown with flights and transfers included (but there is no option to exchange for car hire) at pounds 638 per person.

Further information

Contact the Washington DC Convention and Visitors Association (WCVA) at 1212 New York Avenue, Suite 600, NW Washington DC (tel: 001 202 789 7000) for copies of The DC Visitor's Guide and the Visitor's Map and a calendar of events.

Here in the UK, most travel agents offer a wide variety of city-breaks to Washington DC.

Comments