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When you hear the words Washington, D.C., what comes to mind? I bet your list includes some of the following: Cherry blossoms. Washington Monument. Hearings. Arlington Cemetery. Interviews. Smithsonian. Investigations. Tourists. U.S. Capitol. Stars and Stripes. White House. Hail to the chief. Scandal. Oval Office. No comment.
Like me, you may have a carpetbag of notions about the nation's capital. I arrived in Washington, D.C nearly 40 years ago, and today, I still sort through my views of the city. But some of my feelings for the nation's capital haven't changed since I first stepped foot on the National Mall. I still get a thrill every time I enter a Smithsonian museum, stroll through Georgetown, glimpse the Capitol dome, catch a free concert downtown, or wave as the President's motorcade whizzes by.
Washington has it all: A wealth of free attractions bunched together on the National Mall, historic and glitzy hotels in all price categories, restaurants of every ethnic persuasion, wide-ranging cultural offerings, and easy accessibility on foot and via Metrorail, the city's subway system. (See the helpful map in this chapter for more on the layout of the city.) In many respects, Washington is Anywhere, U.S.A. home to citizens of all ages, races, and backgrounds, and prey to the vagaries of weather, mass transportation foul-ups, traffic, and local politics. Washington, D.C. is just another place on the map. And yet it's like nowhere else on the planet. So buckle your red-white-and-blue seatbelts and get ready for an exciting ride.
The Land of the Free (Attractions)
Washington, D.C. is the only city in the world where most of the attractions including the really cool ones are free. You can visit all the Smithsonian museums, the National Zoological Park, and many private museums and galleries and never whip out your wallet.
Just a few of the better freebies include
- The Smithsonian Institution. This world-famous collection of museums keeps you busy for days without costing you a dime. Watch a group of weavers restore the original Star Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History or let your kids swarm the Museum of Natural History's Insect Zoo to watch a tarantula chow down. You have 14 museums to choose from, so you're bound to find something that interests you.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigations. Kids love touring the house that Hoover built. Here you can find the Ten Most Wanted List, explore the FBI's renowned criminal investigation labs, see Mulder and Scully in the basement (OK, I'm kidding on that one), and witness a bang-up weapons demonstration.
- Congress. Thanks to C-SPAN, some people call the action on the floors of the House and Senate the longest running comedy (or drama, depending on the day) in the United States. Watching lawmakers debate a bill can be either fascinating or a yawner, but the setting is definitely inspiring, the price is right, and better yet -- no commercials!
And aside from the various attractions, you find numerous priceless but not pricey -- experiences waiting to be savored in Washington. You don't pay a cent to stroll the Tidal Basin, ogle the cherry blossoms, get a bird's-eye view from the Old Post Office Pavilion, fly a kite on the Mall, take a hike on Theodore Roosevelt Island, or watch the President's helicopter touch down on the White House lawn.
When the Lincoln Bedroom Is Booked
You won't be left out in the cold if the postal service loses your invitation to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom, but you definitely need to plan ahead. Because lobbyists, media types, tour groups, and conventioneers sometimes fill D.C.'s 24,000 hotel rooms to near capacity, advance reservations are a must (but more about that in Chapters 6, 7, and 8). Exercise your right and vote for your favorite accommodation. Stay near the White House in a deluxe presidential suite (Secret Service agents extra), in a double room with your kids (at no additional cost for them), a suite with a kitchen, a gracious historic inn, a bed-and-breakfast, or in a dorm-style hostel. Or head for the hills of suburban Maryland or Virginia and save bucks. (For whatever it's worth, my Deep Throats tell me the mattress in the Lincoln Bedroom is as lumpy as an overfed lobbyist.)
Here are a few great hotels that will accommodate special needs or interests:
- Business. If you're expensing the trip, the Jefferson offers a wealth of business-friendly amenities, including in-room fax machines, 24-hour concierge service, meeting rooms, and a business center. Swissotel Washington: The Watergate is another good choice; it features writing desks and fax machines in every room, plus a full range of business services. If you have business on the Hill, stay at the hip Hotel George and do your patriotic duty by paying homage to G. W.'s likeness while plugged into a high-speed data port.
- Family. This hotel is exceptionally pricey, but those traveling with tots will appreciate the Four Seasons, which offers children's programs, baby-sitting, games, a special children's menu in the restaurant, and evening turndown service that includes milk and cookies for the kids.
- Romantic. Experience a touch of Paris in the heart of Washington at the elegant Hotel Sofitel, which offers evening turndown service that includes chocolates and a single rose. Romantic Weekend packages are available and include a room, champagne, roses, and breakfast in bed.
- Location. The J. W. Marriott is within walking distance of most of the major attractions and only a block away from Metro Center. Loews L'Enfant Plaza is just a few blocks from the Mall, but if you feel really lazy, you can walk down to the basement and take the Metro.
With more than 1,700 restaurants to choose from, your stomach will have no reason to growl when you arrive in Washington, and prices compare favorably with other major tourist meccas. Whatever type of cuisine you prefer, you're bound to find several restaurants that cater to your tastes. Menus here feature everything from grits to gnocchi, crab cakes to chateaubriand, rice pudding to rice noodles.
If you want a romantic evening out, try dining at the genteel Morrison Clark Inn, where the menu features regional American fare with a southern accent. Or take in a meal at 701, where you dine on excellent American cuisine as piano music plays softly in the background. If you like a view with your meal, head for Le Rivage, which serves up a scenic view of the city's waterfront and superb fish dishes.
Some of the area's other best bets include:
- Italian cuisine. No restaurant in D.C. does northern Italian better than Obelisk.
- Seafood. Even New Englanders don't find fault with Kinkead's clam chowder or fried clams and the rest of the menu is superb too.
- Southern cooking. If you can't go without pecan pie, try the mouthwatering dishes at Georgia Brown's or B. Smith's.
D.C. after Dark
Washington has never had a reputation as an exciting late-night town -- except behind closed doors. But, rest assured, the sidewalks don't roll up when the lights go off in the Capitol. When it comes to the performing arts, the city more than holds its own when compared to other capitals of culture. And if you prefer bar-hopping and clubbing to Bach and Chekhov, you'll find a number of excellent places to go.
Some cool ways to spend your after-dark time include:
- An Evening of Theater. Broadway-caliber performances take center stage at the Kennedy Center and the Arena, National, Warner, Ford's, and Shakespeare theaters. You also find more avant-garde offerings at venues all over the city.
- A Little Night Music. The National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Opera, and the Washington Ballet perform most of the year-- sometimes for free. And free outdoor concerts take place throughout the summer.
- A Twilight Tour. If the play's not your thing, take an after-dark city tour. Washington shines when the sun goes down and visiting the monuments when they are illuminated can be a far more moving experience.
- Drinking and Dancing. Kick back with a cocktail in a sophisticated supper club, shake your booty in Adams-Morgan, or sing your heart out in an Irish pub.