Lonely Planet's top five ways to capitalise your time in DC
The majestic dome of the Capitol Building: a symbol of America. (Lee Foster/LPI)
One version of Washington DC comprises marble, monuments and museums in the shadow of the Capitol dome. The other describes great restaurants, wild clubs, and more culture than a city this size deserves, plus a National Mall that is the front yard and public podium of the American people. Here are the top 5 things you should do when you get here.
1. Meander on the mall
We love Washington DC for what lies beneath her majestic facade, but if beauty is skin deep, the District is still pretty hot thanks to her most recognisable landmarks. Whatever else DC is, she is a capital first, and as such is dotted with the most potent symbols of the American narrative. Gleaming buildings, memorials and sculptures are scattered throughout town, but reach their greatest concentration here.
These icons combine with museums that house the country's knowledge, monuments to heroes and a 1.9-mile scabby lawn to form the great public green of the American consciousness: the National Mall, heart of not just Washington, but perhaps the USA as well.
Whether you are a sceptic or fervent believer in the American dream, that story informs the nation's vision of itself, and you can not find more concrete symbols of this abstract ideal than the towering structures that frame the Mall. Wandering from the Capitol dome to the Lincoln Memorial is like entering a cathedral: simultaneously humbling and inspiring.
2. Avoid the crowds while still soaking up culture
Washington, DC has one of the world's great concentrations of museums, most of them free. Unfortunately, many of them are also crowded, especially on weekends when, thanks to armies of small children, spots such as the National Air & Space Museum transform into the Zoo of Chaos.
But there are so many museums here, you are bound to find something that tickles your cultural fancy that is also sheltered from the heaving masses.
The National Museum of African Art contains an excellent, if West Africa-heavy, collection of both traditional and modern art from the continent. The latter is a nice reminder that the creativity of Africa is not limited to masks and drums, often a limitation of similar institutions.
Almost adjacent are the Freer and Sackler Galleries. These quiet, contemplative chambers house reams of elegant Asian art; it is the sort of place where a Tibetan demon stares angrily across the room at the serene smile of a Gandharan Buddha, who meditates in the shadow of Hindu temple lintels that are arranged opposite Chinese silk scroll paintings and Japanese screens.
Surprisingly few visitors to the Mall discover the peace of the sculpture garden outside of the Hirshhorn Museum. If you have been wearing yourself out with long trudges across and through the nation's front yard, consider taking a break here among works by Rodin, Jean Arp and others. The Corcoran Gallery is the largest nonfederal museum in Washington, DC, an excellent repository of American art and a beautiful building besides.
3. Walk the line between two Washingtons on the U Street corridor
In 1968, U and 14th St NW was the epicentre of riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr's assassination and tore the capital apart. These days, the same intersection has evolved into an epicentre of gentrification that is centrally located amidst some of the city's best restaurants and bars. For the city's young professionals, U St is a godsend, a neighbourhood that offers what many call "affordable lifestyle" (you know: yoga, ethnic food, wine, Pilates, vintage shopping), which was once largely restricted to the District's deep and/or connected pockets. Here, all of the above is affordable and hip.
A local tells us the biggest change to U St over the past two decades is this: "Well, white people jog there now." But to be fair, white people - and brown and black - are doing a lot more than running through the heart of what was once DC's version of Harlem. They are also shopping in its high-end boutiques, boozing in cool bars, browsing the galleries in artist co-ops, and eating everything from upscale chicken and waffles at Crème to mustard-and-chili-drenched half smokes.