It’s the capital of the world’s most powerful nation but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the top of Capitol Hill. Despite its proximity to Washington D.C’s fabled corridors of power, with its quaint brownstone homes and chintzy china shops, it feels more like small town America – albeit of the very nicest sort. But that’s Washington for you: On one hand, a city of marble monuments and frenzied political debate. On the other, a sleepy southern city with food to rival New York and super-friendly natives, even if they do like reminding British visitors like me of my country’s less than delicate approach to foreign relations past. The hardest thing, as I was to discover, was which part I liked best.
Founded in 1790 as a ‘neutral’ capital straddling the (at the time) hotly contested dividing line between north and south, Washington D.C combines southern charm and cuisine with northern pragmatism and cultural inclusivity. From the north, it takes its patrician architecture and icy winters, while from the south comes the bonhomie that lifts Washington nights out as well as scorching summers. Nowhere is that more apparent than atop Capitol Hill – the city’s go-to spot for a slap up supper. Mixed in with a series of old brownstone buildings are restaurants galore, serving up everything from Anglo-Indian (mulligatawny soup anyone?) to Greek and Italian.
But while the architecture and hospitality screams of the south, the huddled clusters of politicos and well-heeled families quietly tucking into their suppers speak more of the north. Either way, a wander around Capitol Hill is guaranteed to fill you up whether you’re after food, boutique buys or – in my case – an encounter with a friendly (and very handsome) marine standing guard outside the old Navy Yard. Fun though keeping up international relations was, the real highlight on Capitol Hill was Cava Mezze on 8th Street SE: a wonderful little Greek restaurant with a neat line in flaming halloumi and some of the best hummus outside of Greece.
Suitably fortified, I was ready to see the other side of Washington – its mind-blowing array of monuments. From presidents to (in one case) pets, there are few great Americans who don’t have a monument in D.C and the quickest way to see them is on one of the Trolleybus Tours that run from outside the neo-Palladian Grand Central Station. Helpfully, the tour also includes a potted history of D.C’s 200 years in existence, complete with relished re-tellings of shady British deeds in years gone by – among them the burning of the city in 1814 by Major General Robert Ross and an irate regiment of redcoats. Despite his best efforts, however, the city survived and now thrives with barely a scar to show for it.
Brutal British deeds notwithstanding, much of what’s on offer is British-inspired, whether the neo-Gothic National Cathedral or the imperial colonnade of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. One of the most impressive of the city’s many monuments, it is also arguably the most familiar courtesy of starring roles in films such as Forest Gump and as the scene of Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech. More touching is the Iwo Jima memorial: a bronze sculpture modelled on an action shot of U.S troops raising the American flag on the Japanese Island. Less lovely was the ridiculously ugly contraption sent by a grateful Netherlands following the end of World War II. Sometimes a box of chocolates really is better.
But it’s not all monuments in Washington. The city is also home to some of the best museums in the US, not least the Smithsonian which houses a vast range of items among them a shrapnel-ridden American flag (nefarious Brits again) and the glittery slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. It’s a fascinating insight into the national psyche, typifying the mix of independent-mindedness and jolly frivolity common to most Americans. But there’s a darker side too, made plain in a section dealing with the long and inglorious years of slavery with a heartbreakingly tiny neck shackle among the treasure trove of items on display. Less touching but more entertaining – for fashion fans at least – was the First Lady exhibition, which contained dresses worn by every presidential consort since Martha Washington. Michelle Obama’s glamorous Alexander McQueen frock was especially chic.
From the Smithsonian, the two biggest sights in D.C – the White House and the Washington Monument – are within striking distance, although you currently can’t go inside either. Nevertheless, there’s never any shortage of visitors peeping through the latticed fence towards the U.S president’s home in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Barack Obama or perhaps Joe Biden. Since we didn’t see either, the fabulous International Spy Museum with its cases of bizarre contraptions and show-reel spies proved considerably more exciting. It was here too that the Brits were shown a bit of love in the shape of a huge James Bond exhibition in which the suave British secret agent took top billing.
Then, it was over to the Crime Museum where nefarious Americans took centre stage, among them Bonnie and Clyde, whose bullet-ridden car is one of the star exhibits. I loved the police line-up and could barely stop giggling long enough to have my photo taken – I bet most criminals enduring the infamous perp walk don’t feel so sanguine.
Perp walks notwithstanding, Washington D.C is a fascinating city – particularly if you love leafing through the remains of the past. It doesn’t have the throbbing energy of New York or the laid-back cool of LA but what it does have is charm in spades. Better yet, it’s within striking distance of gorgeous Virginia with its sleepy little towns and Civil War sites, as well as being close enough to the Chesapeake Bay to benefit from some of the best oysters on the planet. Whether you’re in the market for monuments, a close encounter with a handsome Marine or some of the best food in the U.S, Washington D.C is guaranteed to please – even if you don’t get to meet President Obama.
NEED TO KNOW…
RIH stayed at the Mandarin Oriental DC. Rooms start at $395 (£232) per night. Virgin Atlantic flies daily from London Heathrow to Washington Dulles Airport. Prices start from £600 return. See www.virginatlantic.com for more information and to book. For more information on the Capital Region USA, visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk.