Washington DC is one of America’s surprising gems, with a character all of its own: a centre of global power with the monumental buildings and wide avenues to match; a national capital with a vast collection of world class museums and breathtaking memorials strung out along the banks of the Potomac; a compact and family-friendly city where green spaces are only ever a short stroll away. This intoxicating mix is served up under almost permanently blue skies with an unexpected twist of Southern charm.
With so much to see, catering to all ages and tastes, the question is not what to do, but how to fit it all in. Perhaps the best place to start is the National Mall. This two mile green strip stretching from the US Capitol to the iconic Lincoln Memorial is the city’s cultural heart and many of the nation’s finest museums line the Mall. All belong to the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex, and are free to enter. The National Gallery of Art houses an impressive collection of fine art and runs regular workshops and activities designed for families to experience art together. The National Air and Space Museum is an absolute must with its planetarium, V-2 rocket and Apollo II space craft. The Museum of Natural History boasts a Dinosaur Hall, the Hope Diamond and the recently-opened Ocean Hall. The Museum of American History exhibits an eclectic range of national artifacts including the original Star Spangled Banner and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. For older children the International Spy Museum is great fun (not part of the Smithsonian) and just a short walk from the Mall. Aside from the museums, the Mall is also home to some of the America’s most important monuments and memorials. Beginning at the marble obelisk of the Washington Monument, and sporting an essential pair of comfortable shoes, continue with the World War II Memorial overlooking the famous Reflecting Pool, the Lincoln, the Jefferson, FDR and Vietnam War Memorials. They are all awe-inspiring and moving in equal measure. If you plan ahead you can book free tickets at www.nps.gov to go up the Washington Monument to experience the panoramic views from the top.
The White House, unfortunately now closed to the public, is clearly visible from the Washington Monument. The famous view of the White House is from Lafayette Square to the north. If you want a fix of Washington political scene, you can visit the Capitol – home to the House of Representatives and the Senate – with an impressive new visitor centre that opened in 2009.
The National Zoo and Rock Creek Park are also of the Smithsonian’s extensive collection. Easily accessibly by public transport and also free, it is set on the steep slopes of Rock Creek park and surrounded by lush vegetation. Residents include a pair of giant pandas and daily events such as the orangutan crossings along the O-Line and the elephant baths are wonderful for children. From the bottom entrance to the zoo you can access Rock Creek Park, Washington’s main park which takes in almost 2,000 acres of river, forest and hiking trails.
Georgetown is a located in the Northwest quadrant of Washington along the Potomac River waterfront. It is the oldest part of Washington, having been a port before the rest of the city was laid out. Host to numerous high-end shops, bars and restaurants along M Street, it is a great place to spend an afternoon. To get the essence of Georgetown head uphill from M Street and wander around the grid of atmospheric streets lined with gorgeous red brick houses. This is where the Kennedys, amongst many other Washington worthies, have chosen to live. Beware that Georgetown is not on the Metro system so you will need to take a short taxi ride.
If you want a taste of the hipper side of Washington, head up to the U Street and Adams Morgan areas. There’s the iconic Ben’s Chilli Bowl on U Street that serves the best chilli-dogs in town – so good in fact that the restaurant was one of the only buildings in the area left untouched by the race riots in 1968. Adams Morgan is where the legions of Washington political staffers go to let their hair down, with a series of great Mexican and Ethiopian restaurants. If you are in Washington during the summer, think about going to watch the Nationals – Washington’s perennially-losing baseball team – play at their impressive new stadium. Baseball games are pure Americana and incredibly family-friendly, with the cheapest tickets starting from around $10.
Shopping in Washington is relatively limited. Georgetown has a good selection of the classic American high street clothing stores – such as Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch, J Crew – and there is a Macys department store downtown. If you want some proper consumerism head out to Tyson’s Corner, an enormous shopping mall ten miles out from the centre in northern Virginia.
Set on the coastal plain, Washington is within easy striking distance of both mountains and ocean. An hour inland will find you in the shadows of the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains with their excellent hiking. Then on into the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and the Allegheny Mountains. An hour east is the Chesapeake Bay, famed for its seafood and quaint seaside towns. You can stop off in Annapolis, the cute capital of Maryland where the US Naval Academy nestles among old streets and a pretty harbour. Baltimore, a major city in its own right but only 45 minutes away from Washington by car or train, has an excellent aquarium and a large Science Museum that the kids will love in the recently spruced up Inner Harbor area.
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