Washington DC, USA – Travel Review
Politics may be its lifeblood but there is more to Washington DC, as David Leck discovers…
I admit to having a slight obsession with the U.S. capital after (twice) consuming all seven series and 156 episodes of The West Wing.
I had long wanted to walk the streets of Capitol Hill where Leo McGarry and Josh Lyman struck clandestine deals, peak through railings at the manicured lawns walked by President Bartlett (so much better than any of the real ones) and imagine the closed room in which the marvellous C.J. Cregg marshalled the White House press corps.
Washington DC is one of those cities where you instantly feel a familiar embrace. You’ve seen its buildings and iconic sights in countless films, television series and news footage. And these are the streets that are part of the pages of history. From the fight against slavery to the funeral of JFK and the Watergate scandal.
It is an easy city in which to spend a few days. Many of the key sights are in walking distance. In fact, “walking the city” really is one of the best ways to savour its character. The metro system is easy and cheap (a day pass for US$9) while taxis are certainly not budget busting.
There can be a slightly haughty, indifferent feel to DC. As one local told me: “This is a transient city. By its nature, it’s a place where your currency is often measured in your usefulness to others, how ‘connected’ you are and what you can bring to the table.”
“Feel the power and marvel at the pace”
It’s a comment that is hardly surprising when talking about the most powerful city in what is still the world’s most powerful nation. Of course, none of this need bother the visitor. Just soak up the atmosphere, ‘feel’ the power and marvel at the pace at which history and events propel this young country.
Washington is a world-class city when it comes to museums. Central to this is the Smithsonian – renowned globally and the world’s largest. Actually, it is 19 different museums taking in natural history, African art, American Indian history, an impressive air and space collection, and the Hirshhorn, which is all about contemporary and modern art.
The newest addition is Newseum. This is an imposing glass-front building occupying 250,000 sq ft across a prime piece of Pennsylvania Avenue real estate. It opened in 2008 and tells the history of news across five centuries. The museum analyses the way in which journalists cover iconic events, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.
It’s firmly a museum of the 21st century. There are computer booths in which you can call up key events by decade. Plus, there’s a highly impressive 4-D movie theatre and an opportunity to deliver the news by getting in front of the camera and recording a piece. You can then download this from the museum’s website. It’s also worth stepping out onto the roof terrace (level six) for an impressive view of the US Capitol building.
“Bursting with 18th century treasures”
DC is different from cities such as New York. As the capital, it’s very much a working town. There are areas firmly dedicated to commerce and there is a nine to five culture. So it’s worth doing some research when selecting a hotel. Dupont Circle is a good choice. Centrally located and with a good smattering of bars and restaurants, it is an area that is buzzy but also pretty chilled. If time allows, there is much to enjoy outside the city. Thirty minutes on the metro will take you to Old Town Alexandria and it’s certainly worth the effort.
The main drag – King Street – intersects a succession of roads full of character and architectural charm. It’s a place where today’s mega brands have been firmly relegated. Instead there are interesting, quirky shops, artisan producers, artists and craftsmen to rule the roost. And many tourists take to the Potomac River for the short journey south to Mount Vernon.
The home of George and Martha Washington from 1759 until his death in 1799, the plantation grew to 8,000 acres under his stewardship. Today, it draws visitors to its mansion, bursting with 18th century treasures, the extensive historic gardens and the tomb of American’s first president.
Back in the city there are a number of things you should tick-off the list, depending on your interests and schedule. Tours of the U.S. Capitol are offered daily and are free, and it’s worth making the easy journey across the Potomac (take the Metro) to Arlington National Cemetery. The 600-acre site is the resting place of a quarter of a million US servicemen as well as John and Robert Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
“A real feel for America’s political, historical and cultural fabric”
But to get a real feel for America’s political, historical and cultural fabric, spend a morning or afternoon walking the National Mall. You will be well rewarded for, aside from the U.S. Capital at the east end, the two-mile stretch takes in the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool (photo opportunity) and the memorials to the fallen of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
And if, like me, a love affair with a certain iconic television series remains a lifelong one, then you can just imagine the locations at which CJ, Josh, Leo and company greased the wheels of power.
BA, Virgin Atlantic and United all operate daily non-stop services from Heathrow. The excellent Palomar Hotel at Dupont Circle (hotelpalomar-dc.com) has rates from around £200 per room per night plus taxes but better deals may be available if you book as part of a package through operators such as Trailfinders (trailfinders.com) or Expedia (expedia.co.uk).
The best time to visit Washington DC is in the spring (great in late March/early April for cherry blossom) or autumn. The summer months can be oppressive with high humidity.