Washington D.C. steps it up.
Despite the fact that Washington, D.C. holds the world’s power center, when I went to graduate school there in the 1990s, the place still felt somewhat provincial. I cherished the beautiful, broad boulevards and the indie bookshops and coffeehouses in stately/bohemian Dupont Circle. But seemingly, D.C. was a company town where virtually everyone seemed to work regular hours, where too many neighborhoods were devoid of pedestrians.
What a difference a few decades make. Of course, the fine museums and monuments always made a visit worthwhile, but now visitors will discern more local flavor, revitalized hoods and a creative energy about the area. The nation’s capitol is not just for tourists now-it’s for tourists who want to feel like locals.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
The March opening of the manly, ironically rustic Gryphon suddenly means that Dupont Circle has a sports bar, or in today’s cuisine parlance, a gastropub (www.thegryphondc.com). The venue, complete with antlers, tin walls, and lots of wood, serves up executive chef Joseph Evan’s wings and fries, Korean braised short rib tacos, and mussels with lamb sausage. The 31 TVs offer more than enough screens to watch Redskins, Nationals, Wizards and Capitals games.
Meanwhile, the newly reopened Capitol Hill fave, Hawk ‘n’ Dove, overseen by executive chef Jeremy Magnanelli, features a decidedly upscale experience. Menu standouts include modern reinventions of regional delights such as Maryland crab cakes with red quinoa and charred scallion aioli, as well as bold Italian dishes like Sicilian eggplant ragout with creamed polenta, creminis, pine nuts, and charred tomato (www.hawkndovedc.com).
More intimate dining can be found at the locally beloved Tabard Inn (weather permitting, book a table on the romantic patio), located a mere five blocks from the White House. Count on chef Paul Pelt to work his magic with a house favorite, the striped bass with Brussels sprouts, and the intricate Yellowfoot mushroom and kabocha squash risotto with sheep’s milk brie, walnut pesto, and fried celery leaf (www.tabardinn.com).
D.C. has its own share of farm-to-table experiences as well. At 2100 Prime, you can bet that offerings on the seasonal bill of fare are made with fresh ingredients sourced from local vendors. Some of executive chef Chris Ferrier’s specialties have included pistachio-crusted Virginia spring lamb, venison chop served with homemade sausages, and braised veal. Wine pairings are also available, and the upscale establishment also sources its wines from top local wineries (www.2100prime.com).
WHAT TO SEE
In a city where so much of the news happens, it’s fitting to spend some time in the five-year-old Newseum. No other museum in the country pays such tribute to current events and their publication, in such exhaustive detail, as this seven-story, 14-gallery interactive collection. The 15 movie theaters contain a treasure trove of footage, and the Pulitzer Prize Photo Gallery, which showcases a series of award-winning images, is comprehensive and riveting (www.newseum.org).
And, no doubt, some of those current events immortalized in the Newseum have come from the sporting world. D.C. is home to professional teams in all of the major sports. So, depending on the season, you can catch a Nationals game at Nationals Park, the Washington Redskins the FedEx Field, D.C. United at RFK Stadium and either the Washington Wizards or Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center. The city even has a professional tennis team-the Washington Kastles-whose lineup includes Venus Williams, Leander Paes and Martina Hingis.
The Smithsonian Institution, by many accounts the largest museum in the world, is actually comprised of 19 museums, plus nine research centers-and a zoo. I’d advise visitors to be strategic with their time, choosing two or three attractions, enough for one day, and leave time to happily wander the National Mall (eleven of the museums are adjacent to it). Together they hold 137 million items. The oldest building in the complex dates from 1837; newer additions include the National Air and Space Museum (1976) and the popular National Portrait Gallery (1968). Note that tickets to the Air and Space Museums’ IMAX Theaters and Planetarium sell out early (www.si.edu).
To feel like a local, hoof it in the cool neighborhoods of lovely Dupont Circle, funky Adams Morgan, cutting-edge U Street and traditional Georgetown. Dupont Circle’s focal point is a circular park, which offers great people-watching and sunbathing, and easy access to Kramerbooks, one of my favorite indie bookstores in the world; grab a coffee and snack in its Afterwords Cafe & Grill. The sidewalk seating section is the place to be on weekends, and you can enjoy live music on Wednesday through Saturday nights (www.kramers.com). The stately architecture and storefronts on Connecticut Avenue will keep you in the neighborhood for most of the day.
Keep walking north to find the colorful 19th- and 20th-century buildings of culturally diverse Adams Morgan. International shops and eateries thrive here, particularly on 18th Street. Get a big taste of the area’s countercultural vibe by browsing the chinos and vast array of footwear at Commonwealth (www.cmonwealth.com).
The most apparent evidence of D.C.’s gentrification can be discovered on the U Street corridor, which is convenient to both Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan. In fact, in 2011, in honor of its rehabilitation, the formerly seedy U Street was named a Great Street among Great Places in America by the American Planning Association. The area is an epicenter of great live music; Bohemian Caverns, once a venue where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis held court, still draws top blues and jazz artists (www.bohemiancaverns.com).
Upscale travelers should not miss the cobblestoned, leafy lanes of Georgetown. These 18th- and 19th-century townhouses are where Washington society folks play, gossip and deal-make. It’s also a shopping mecca, rife with accessories boutiques such as Jack Spade (www.jackspade.com), See (www.seeeyewear.com), Tumi (www.tumi.com) and Sterling & Burke, Ltd. (www.sterlingandburke.com).
WHERE TO STAY
The luxurious 49-room Capella Georgetown, the chain’s first U.S. property, is the new kid on the block. Opened in March, 2013 by former Ritz-Carlton CEO Horst Schultz, this distinctive property offers state-of-the-art amenities such a rooftop infinity pool, a bar dedicated to the appreciation of rye, and an ornately cozy “living room” exclusively for guests. Guest rooms are outfitted with glassed-enclosed rain showers and soaking tubs, and check-in and check-out times are flexible (www.capellahotels.com).
With only 86 rooms and suites, the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown counts as one of the chain’s most boutique-y properties. Set within a Historic Landmark that once housed an…incinerator (!), the hotel picks up the “hot” theme with Degrees Bistro (open for breakfast, light fare, lunch, and dinner) and Fahrenheit Ballroom. Cool down on the beds’ 400-thread Egyptian cotton linens (www.ritzcarlton.com).
The Willard, an iconic city hotel now managed by InterContinental, is located just one block from the White House. For many, staying in one its 375 ultra-plush rooms and suites are the way to do D.C. Its Round Robin and Scotch Bar dates from 1850, and caters to the city’s movers and shakers (www.washington.intercontinental.com).
If you’re a first-time visitor to D.C., note that the stylish 400-room Mandarin Oriental offers great proximity to the city’s top attractions, such as Capitol Hill, Washington Monument, Smithsonian Institute, and the Jefferson Memorial. The 10,500-square-foot spa is one of the city’s best, featuring an amethyst steam room, sauna, a vitality pool, ice fountain, and cold plunge pool. The hotel also boasts a 50-foot indoor swimming pool (www.mandarinoriental.com).