You might have seen this post before – I accidentally pressed the “publish” button last night!
After the buzz and excitement of New York, the next leg of my trip was to visit Washington DC. The train was, by far, the easiest way to get between these two great cities. We’d pitched up early at the station, but it seems you don’t need to be there more than 15 minutes ahead of time. Any earlier, and you’ll find yourself hanging about on the concourse, desperately looking for a source of free WiFi. Lesson learned!
The trip itself took in Philadelphia, Baltimore and coast of Chesapeake Bay. Travelling through the landscape, the evidence of the recent storm was still clear to see – felled trees, fallen power lines and damaged buildings. However, there were also elegant bridges, beautiful forests and lakes whizzing past. Far nicer than the plane for such a short trip!
DC was a new city for me, and I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I have seen it for years on TV, but I wondered what the place was like, the feel, the pulse of the place. Living in London, you’ve got a combination of the fun, exciting city alongside the grand buildings, monuments and institutions of state in one place, somewhere where things are chaotic and unplanned. In contrast, DC was planned to serve as a national capital, with streets based on a neat grid system and wide avenues.
That’s the theory, but there is, quite frankly, nothing that can prepare you for the moment that you first see the Washington Monument by night, or the glistening white dome of the Capitol above the city. This place was intended to impress and I was wowed.
We were staying at Donovan House on Thomas Circle, which is a boutique hotel with a great futuristic feel in the rooms. A padded dark leather band around the middle of the room lent a 2001 feeling (minus the crazy robot) and the bathroom has a spiral shower. It also has a fantastic roof terrace with good views, but sadly it was too chilly to enjoy this other than by sneaking a peek early one morning. Next time…
A great thing about our location was that it was a few minutes to walk to the White House. To the White House. So, of course, that just had to be the first stop. I like to think of myself as being reasonably well-travelled and sufficiently cool not to get giggle like a schoolchild, but I was genuinely excited to be standing at the railing looking at this iconic building. There were even a few protests outside to make it clear that you’re in a place where politics is the life blood of the city.
For that first evening, we had a dinner booked, but enough time to sneak up to the bar on top of the W Hotel opposite the White House, and enjoy cocktails while trying to spot snipers on the roof. A French 75 and a Negroni made us less than efficient at spotting said snipers, but again, it was just so thrilling to be sitting there, drink in hand, taking in the spectacular view. I really want to go back there in summer when the whole terrace is open on a warm evening.
For afterwards, in a rare moment of organisation, I’d booked dinner at a restaurant in the Dupont Circle area called Nora. If I told you this was America’s first certified organic restaurant, you’d think it was a terribly worthy place, but it about as far from the lentils-and-nut loaf brigade as you can imagine. The cocktails were great, and the food superb. As a bonus, they offered a tempting vegetarian tasting menu, but we stuck to the a la carte. I also loved that whereas London folk tend to be loud and raucous, these DC folk were chatting enthusiastically but intimately in the dimmed lighting. Maybe it’s because everyone is discussion political intrigue?
The next day, it was time for some serious sightseeing. In NYC you feel like you’re seeing what the city is about by just walking the streets and looking up from time to time, but in DC, there are monuments galore that you must go to see. I had booked to go to the US Capitol, so it was a quick ride in the surreal DC subway system. I say “surreal” as the system is clean, modern and very retro (the future as imagined in the 1970s), but what was rather strange was the way each station looks the same, and each of them is very dim. It’s like the people running this system want you to feel like you’re deep underground. If they’re replacing the lights, I suggest a higher wattage would not go amiss. But don’t lose that retro look.
Emerging from the darkness back into the light, you get what must be one of the great views in the world, the US Capitol against a perfect blue sky. The air was crisp, and the leaves on the nearby trees added a little extra brightness to the scene. But we were not just there to look at the outside, we were going to do the full tour. And the Americans know how to do a good tour. They start with a film that explains the national motto e pluribus unum (out of one, many) and even I, as one of those Brits who had earlier burned down the original Capitol, found this all very rousing. It was then time to go and see the rotunda, the sculpture gallery (each state can place two statues in the Capitol, made either from marble or bronze), the original chamber of the US Supreme Court and experience a vote in the US House of Representatives. All big, all grand, all impressive. With all of this celebration of the good ole US of A, we felt it was only fitting to have burgers and fries in the Capitol cafeteria. As you’d expect, their burgers and fries were pretty darn good.
Next, it was a slow wander from the Capitol down to the National Mall. As this time, there was a lot of work underway at the front of the Capitol to erect the stage for the second inauguration of President Obama, and the grassy areas were being re-turfed as part of a renovation project. Great work, but spoiled my ability to get some great pics…grrr… but in the fantastic weather, the Washington Monument looks sensational on the horizon and the various buildings the form part of the Smithsonian lined the Mall like grand old dames of the city. Sadly, when reaching the Monument, it turns out it is closed for renovations until 2014 due to damage caused during a recent earthquake (!), but pressing on, the Lincoln Memorial beckoned in the distance. The reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial offers a spectacular vista of the Washington Monument, but I found the ambiance around the Memorial rather surprising. I had expected a spot of contemplation and reflection on the life of a great man, but there were a lot of loud tourists, people sliding down the banisters, shouting, playing music from iPhones. Perhaps its a sign of my age, but I would have thought people would have treated the Lincoln Memorial differently. But I guess it is better that people are visiting than not.
Walking back through the park, we passed the very moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The style is incredibly simple, and knowing that all of the names on this wall were people who were either killed or were missing in action is overwhelming. I found it hard to comprehend just how many names were engraved in this place. Here, things felt calm and respected, and the presence of flowers showed that these are names which still mean a lot to people today.
From the National Mall, we headed back to get another view of the White House from the front, including something that was attracting a lot of attention – Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden. I loved the fact that it looked like the sort of garden that any family could have – in the corner of the lawn, growing what looked like a decent selection of vegetables, and with a couple of kids asking their parents if they could have a garden like the First Lady. There’s an impact being made right there. Afterwards, it was over to Georgetown to get a slightly different take on the city, and enjoy the pretty old houses and leafy streets, which looked prefect in the hazy late afternoon autumn sunshine.
The next day was dedicated to checking out everything that had been missed the day before, namely the wonderful museums of DC. So often when I’m in a new city, I find myself comparing the one or two museums with what we have back in London, and thinking “yeah, it’s nice, but London has more”. Not the case here, however, as DC has some amazing collections. Truly inspirational to have access to so much in such a concentrated area.
The first port of call was the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. This was an old (apparently crumbling) government building until it was taken over, the courtyard given a dramatic makeover with a glass canopy and converted into a gallery. A beautiful space, and I loved the exhibit on great 20th century American personalities. From there, we passed the National Building Museum. While we did not have time to go round, it was topped as a fascinating place to pop into given the huge columns inside the structure supporting a vast atrium.
The next place I wanted to go, and where I was keen to spend as long as I could, was the National Museum of the American Indian. The story of the American Indian population is one that I was not too familiar with, but I found this place both informative and deeply moving. There was some wonderful content showing both the richness of what has been lost across the Americas as well the work that still goes on to protect this cultural heritage today.
The final stop was the National Museum of American History. Here was the chance to see some of the history behind some great American icons – most importantly the Stars and Stripes – as well as the way in which the media has played a fundamental role on shaping the role of presidents and the way they are portrayed. As a favour for a friend who was keen to have some pictures, I passed the exhibition of First Lady fashion. Yes, I saw that Nancy Reagan red china service as well as that Michelle Obama inauguration ball gown. Pictures of her Jimmy Choos are below if you’re into that sort of things…
That evening, there was just time for a stroll around the Mall by night to enjoy the illuminated monuments, before dinner in the Asian restaurant Zentan in our hotel. It turns out, this was the place to be for dinner, going by the number of sexy interns who were hanging around the bar. We’d already had a tip that Zentan is famed for “some salad with like a zillion things in it” and, indeed, there is was on the menu, the Singapore Slaw with 19 ingredients. It was, quite simply, amazing. Crisp fried noodles, tender julienne vegetables, carved carrot shapes, squash, peas, toasted peanuts, plum sauce, daikon…I would struggle to name all 19 ingredients, but I loved it.
The next day, there was just enough time to explore the up-and-coming 14th Street area, before heading off via Ronald Reagan International Airport. We could have flown out of Dulles airport, but come on – you know you want to fly from Ronald Reagan. And with that, the chilly autumnal days of the North-East were behind us and it was next stop Miami!