Step Into The Museums And Monuments Of Washington DC
There are cities that feel grand or historic, some small and quaint or romantic; others are buzzing and vibrant — full of culture and food — and then there are those that feel powerful. Their purpose is to impress and intimidate.
Arriving at Union Station, Washington DC one sunny winter afternoon made me realise quite how much deliberation goes into building a capital city that is the centre of the brave new world, a flexing of muscle that is in equal parts architecture and awe. A mere three-and-a-half hours from New York City, the train rushed through urban sprawl, graffiti, suburbs, woodland to stop at the beautiful Union Station, the first surprise of many. I had always thought of Washington as a collection of landmarks and monuments bound together by administrative necessity and political manoeuvring. Instead, what I discover is an absolutely stunning city that is deliberate, thoughtfully planned, architecturally marvellous and an homage to the guts, pride and lofty ideals of the people who helped shape this young nation a couple of centuries ago.
Union Station, designated as a historic landmark (opening in 1907, it was built by the famous architect Daniel Burham), directly overlooks Capitol Hill that stands grand and glorious on the eastern end of The National Mall, that tree-lined boulevard which stretches impressively across the middle of downtown DC all the way west to the Lincoln Memorial. The Mall, as it is fondly referred to, is actually a national park spanning almost 150 acres between Constitution and Independence Avenues and within and around it sit most of the museums, monuments and grand symbols of DC.
However, before embarking on a walking tour of all these sights and structures, I ensconce myself in another Washington DC institution, the gorgeous and storied The Hay-Adams hotel. I would not be exaggerating if I said that while I have been in many hotels with many views around the world, there is no better view than the one out the window of my suite facing the White House. That seat of power, the building that is the star of countless photos, films, my favourite TV show (The West Wing), should in real life feel smaller than its grand portrayal — just as at times film stars turn out to be more diminutive in actuality. But instead, this giant stands taller than I imagined, more impressive, if possible, in the golden setting sun, this symbol (for this immigrant) of all that is hopeful, aspirational and promised. And there it was, unobstructed, with seemingly nothing between my nose pressed against the window of my room and its gates.
The historic and luxurious Hay-Adams sits on the former site of the homes of John Hay and Henry Adams at Lafayette Square, mere steps from the gates of the White House. The original homes were razed to the ground after being bought by local developer Harry Wardman and soon replaced (in 1927) by a magnificent Renaissance structure with beautiful column work (Corinthian, Doric, Ionic), impressive ceilings with Tudor motifs and walnut panelling and wainscoting salvaged from the former residences and incorporated into the present. So much of history is preserved within these walls and yet the intimate gathering place of all of Washington’s old guard and new entrants feels the opposite of stuffy. Their famous bar (cheekily named Off the Record) takes a step back in time, with tufted sofas, nooks hidden in shadows and white-jacketed barmen who know every senator, lobbyist, staffer, hustler, politico, escort, hunter and sleazebag who has ever stepped in for a drink. It’s the perfect insider Washington bar (you couldn’t make up the cast of characters) and being within a stone’s throw of the White House makes it even more thrilling.
Grandeur and views aside, the charm of the hotel lies in its staff members, who greet you like old friends, and immediately set the tone for the next few days. From the doorman who extends the warmest of welcomes, to Paul the lobby manager who lights up as soon as you walk in, to Armando the bellman (a repository of stories) — each and every person is warmth and grace personified. This in a city of celebrities and powerhouses is an impressive thing. I wind my way down the wallpapered corridors and small vestibules with old-fashioned phones. Archival prints of the city as it was being built line the walls and when I finally arrive at our room, I find it a study in elegance and calm. Luxe at its finest, with dove-grey walls, a toile canopy bed, plush sofas, intricate floral mouldings, sunlight streaming in…and the pièce de résistance — the White House, Washington Monument and Thomas Jefferson Memorial laid out in front of me.
This proves to be the perfect spot from which to venture forth into the city, where its museums are waiting to be explored and monuments are eager to be admired. I set off directly past the White House, towards the Washington Monument located directly behind. Completed in 1888, it is the world’s tallest obelisk…and visible for miles. It sits directly east of the Lincoln Memorial, between it and the Capitol Building. It is possible to go all the way up for an eagle’s-eye view…but with such little time and so much to cover I admire it from below and move instead towards the Smithsonian collection of museums. Including the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian museums are the jewels of this city. First stop, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden…built in the early ’70s by Gordon Bunshaft (which he apparently visualised as a large piece of functional sculpture), it is Washington’s finest contemporary art museum, a beautiful brutalist structure shaped like a hollow-centred cylinder (which serves as a gallery for the paintings) rising up above almost four acres of gardens and grounds within which the sculptures sit. Right next to it, the National Air and Space Museum, is an absolute must-see. A vast museum with triple-height ceilings, it traces the evolution of modern flight, starting from the first fight to the moon landing and beyond…it houses the largest collection of historic aircrafts in the world. Old airplanes hang from the ceilings, scattered among hundreds of artefacts including the original 1903 Wright Flyer, Spirit of St. Louis, and the Apollo 11 command module. A massive planetarium, a flight simulation centre (that almost gave me a heart attack when I decided to try to simulate flying a fighter jet) and 22 galleries of exhibitions…. Days could be spent exploring this grand museum, and it is worth a trip to Washington just to see it.
Across The Mall lies the National Gallery of Art, which boasts another sculpture garden, an east and a west wing, an impressive collection of paintings, sculpture, photography, drawings and manuscripts stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages. For the first time in its 77-year history, the National Gallery has finally appointed a woman to lead it — not the norm in an institution of this scale. I walk through a stunning photographic exhibition of the work of Gordon Parks (1940-’50 was the time period of the photos on display). This proves to be the perfect reminder in this city, with its establishment and power play, of what the country has also experienced through the eyes of its minorities. Moving and powerful, it brought home the reason that the arts and our support for it are so very important…we experience a deeper truth when we are faced with realities that are separate from ours.
Wandering out into the daylight after being cocooned in the galleries, it is time for lunch and for the classic tavern, Old Ebbitt Grill. The oldest saloon in Washington stands quite close to the White House. With aged leather banquettes, muted lighting, oil paintings covering every surface of the walls, and a wood-panelled bar, it is an institution. Famous for its oysters, classic menu and fantastic drinks, it proves to be a joy to sit and watch the clientele buzz about in its warm and cozy atmosphere. Intending to have a quick lunch, I stay instead for three hours, relishing this moment of indulgence in the bustling city, devouring one of the best burgers I have ever had…and a dozen oysters to start with. A perfect interlude between bouts of sightseeing! The food and drink scene in the city has been having a bit of a renaissance moment over the past few years and there is a wealth of great restaurants that range from the classic traditional to the inventive Asian, excellent local chili, delicious Mid-Eastern and everything in between.
The great advantage of visiting for only a concentrated amount of time is that one starts to prioritise. Having always wanted to visit the Lincoln Memorial at dusk, I decide to walk past all the government buildings that line Pennsylvania Avenue en route to the memorial. The highlight on this stroll is the Treasury Building (the third-oldest, federally-occupied building in DC) with its massive Georgian columns built in the 1800s in classical style; it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the structure. (Fact: a picture of the Treasury Building graces the back of the 10-dollar bill.) Next to it is the US Department of Justice, the US Department of Commerce, the J. Edgar Hoover Building and, ironically, the International Spy Museum. There is so much to see; most of the government buildings have tours on certain days and I promise myself to revisit them the next time around.
The walk takes us past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also called The Wall after the two walls that commemorate every single armed forces member killed during the Vietnam War. Each name is engraved on one of the two walls that stretch to almost 300 feet each (with more than 58,000 names). It is a poignant reminder, and a beautiful one.
Our final destination is the stunning Lincoln Memorial, sitting at the far (western) end of The Mall, casting its grand shadow onto the reflecting pool that lies directly in front of it. Modelled after the Parthenon in Athens, it is the site of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and features 36 Doric columns (the number of states in the Union at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s death). An awe-inspiring piece of architecture which holds a massive statue of a seated Lincoln, with the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural address engraved on the walls. The moment of standing in front of the Gettysburg Address, reading those famous words, which begin with the unforgettable phrase ‘Four score and seven years ago….’ and including the lines that send shivers down my spine (‘….conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’), is the moment of understanding how much strife, struggle and hope this country was built on. It is one of the most moving monuments I have ever visited. Walking down the steps, and seeing Washington spread out before me in the setting sun as the twilight fills the sky, is a lovely way to end the day.
The next day would bring a visit to the Wharf (which is the country’s longest continually operating fish market), to Georgetown University, to the JFK Center for the Performing Arts with its famous rooftop bar and to Union Market, which is one of the best food markets in the country. However, for now, this moment of solemn calm after taking in the great beauty of the memorial feels like perfection.
A quick peek into the exploding restaurant scene that is fast making the captial city a must visit for foodies…
Washington DC’s flourishing restaurant scene means that not only is there something for everyone, there is also too little time to explore every culinary delight it has to offer. Here’s a brief list to whet the appetite:
Rare Steakhouse A traditional steakhouse that feels like it’s been around for decades but is actually a recent addition to the ‘power dining scene’ that is quintessentially Washington. Crisp white tablecloths, red leather booths, oil paintings in gilded frames and the pièce de résistance — the steak that is aged in-house and served nightly to the tinkling of the grand piano. White-jacketed waiters prepare your tartare and Caeser salads tableside and the whole place feels like a step back in time.
Maydan Insanely beautiful Hearth, delicious North-African and Middle-Eastern fare. The charred lamb shoulder with the fried haloumi, the mint and cabbage salad and the signature dips…worth a visit to DC just for these.
Ben’s Chili Bowl A DC institution, 60 years old, known for its sausages smothered in chili; buzzy, loved by hipsters and old schoolers alike, a favourite of Obama (when he was prez) — a must-visit.
SEI Cool Japanese with a fusion twist, a stylish white room, great lighting and delicious food. Award-winning sushi chef Noriaki Yasutake runs the show with precision and finesse. Unusual combinations of wasabi guacamole, Korean tacos and sashimi pizza are what keep the foodies lining up for a table.
Le Diplomate Paris in DC. Cosy, warm, buzzy brasserie with the perfect name (for this city). Classic, timeless
Rasika The best Indian restaurant in DC. Inventive, fresh, with a seemingly endless menu of delights from all over India. Great room, great light…and some of the best Indian food I’ve had.
Espita Mezcaleria Inventive Mexican in a cool industrial space, with a focus on Mezcal and southern Mexican food. Tiny plates are the order of the day, along with tastings of mezcal (aided by master mezcalliers).