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.
4. Cruise with DC's aristocracy
Georgetown is the name of both one of the premier universities in the world and a neighbourhood that has long been the seat of Washingtonian royalty: a brick-and-old-stone tangle of leafy avenues, cobbled alleyways, diplomats walking their kids to prep school and professors deconstructing experimental theatre over glasses of merlot. But come Thursday night, this neighbourhood sublimates all of the above and becomes, basically, a big river of boiling hormones.
There is a distinctly upper-class crust to the Georgetown scene that sets it apart. Of course there is a reason the moneyed classes love this 'hood, although the appeal extends to anyone who hikes here. Dining is romantic and ethnically diverse, and sometimes, surprisingly affordable. Georgetown is the Sigmund Freud of DC's retail therapy, so shopaholics rejoice. And the historic veneer of the neighbourhood is well preserved, making it a magical place for a stroll in the early evening, as long as you avoid the traffic-clogged main drag of M St.
5. The neighbourly side of politics
What makes Capitol Hill appealing is its well-executed blend of DC neighbourliness and the city's political class. Washington is jokingly called "Hollywood for Ugly People" thanks to the high concentration of political types here, and many of these "stars" (who are hardly all unattractive, thank you very much) can be seen here walking their dogs weekday evenings on Mass Ave NE.
They are strolling by some of the city's most attractive old row houses, which are largely inhabited by families that are several generations-deep steeped in DC. And come the weekend, everyone, from the neighbourhood watch to presidential chiefs of staff, goes to Eastern Market to buy flowers, produce, paintings and the best oyster sandwiches in town. The most political address in the city is proof that a sense of community remains strong in a capital whose population tends to shift with elections every four years.
The article 'Lonely Planet's top five ways to capitalise your time in DC' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.