There was a time, not so long ago, when Washington, DC, capital of the US and a centre of global political power, was treated by leisure travellers as it was by senators, members of congress and diplomats: get in and out as fast as you can. No longer. This charming, vibrant American city affords many great reasons to linger. 

As our plane glides into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, we first get an aerial view of the tree-lined suburbs of Virginia and Maryland, then the city’s gleaming monuments to American democracy and finally the city itself. It is striking how classically Hausmannian it appears from the air. Although this isn’t always evident when on the ground and walking along the streets, Washington, DC’s L’Enfant Plan is a beautifully complex system of public squares, open spaces and a star-like street pattern. At first, navigation can be a challenge, but walking is a great way to discover the city, from its bustling downtown centre to quieter neighbourhoods with charming townhouses that seem a world away from the corridors of power. This mixed urbanism, where culture, business and government are part of one energised community, is as American as you can get.  


THE NATIONAL GALLERY’S RECENTLY EXPANDED EAST BUILDING. © DENNIS BRACK/BLACK STAR.  

As our base for the weekend, we choose Georgetown, one of the more pedestrian-friendly and historic neighbourhoods. Although a number of well-appointed hotels have cropped up around town recently – Mason & Rook, Glover Park and The Carlyle Dupont Circle among others – on this trip, we return to a classic: The Four Seasons. The comfort, luxury and service are hard to match, as is the location near great shopping and the lush trails of Rock Creek Park. If you prefer to be in the thick of it, however, The Hay-Adams, located across the street from the White House, is a DC institution. The classic, columned architecture outside and understated luxurious interiors make for a consistently pleasurable stay. Another draw is Off the Record, the hotel’s famous bar, which offers a lovely pear martini amidst an old-school atmosphere. (About the White House: tours of the residence of the leader of the free world must be booked well in advance, regardless of who might be living at this symbolic address.)


A DISH AT BIDWELL IN UNION MARKET. 

The plan for our first full day is a walking tour of the National Mall, but we don’t mind going a bit out of our way for breakfast at Union Market, a former warehouse that is now home to a bustling collection of restaurants and vendors. Southern biscuits at the Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. may be indulgent, but we’re on vacation. A great lunchtime option  at the market is Bidwell, whose gin and tonic salmon is an inventive take on a classic dish.  

Fortified, we head to the National Mall, determined to walk its 1.9-mile length from the US Capitol building at the east end to the Lincoln Memorial at the west, at the edge of the Potomac River, taking in some of the numerous museums and monuments along the way. The newest addition to the Mall and to the roster of institutions run by the venerable Smithsonian is the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which occupies a prime five-acre site not far from the Washington Monument. Designed by the British architect David Adjaye, the metal-clad building stands in striking, deliberate contrast to  the gleaming white-stone monuments around it. Inside,  the African-American experience is documented from the Colonial period to the present day. Among numerous powerful artefacts are a slave cabin from a South Carolina plantation and the bible that belonged to Nat Turner. There are photographs, letters and documents, pop-culture objects such as Chuck Berry’s bright red Cadillac and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gear. The collection is all the more remarkable as it was amassed over the past decade and includes objects that were donated by the public.  


THE SMITHSONIAN’S STRIKING NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE, DESIGNED BY DAVID ADJAYE. PHOTO: ALAMY.  

The NMAAHC bolsters the city’s reputation as an important and ever-evolving destination for art. Also of great interest this season is the newly expanded East Building of the National Gallery of Art. The IM Pei-designed wing is dedicated to the museum’s collection of modern and contemporary art and is hosting a retrospective of Barbara Kruger’s bold text-over-photograph works (through 22 January). Kruger’s titles, such as Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, still resonate with as much fierce power as they did at the height of US culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s. The afternoon is rounded off with tea and sandwiches at the Pavilion Café, in the museum’s sculpture garden.

When evening arrives, we seek greater sustenance and head to dinner. Washington’s reputation for old-fashioned, wonderfully overstuffed steakhouses means you’ll find plenty of dimly lit steakhouses where you can observe the city’s power brokers in action. But locals know the city’s dining and drinking scene has exploded in recent years – Bon Appétit magazine just named DC its Restaurant City of the Year. The list of hot spots is dizzying. Tables are in demand at Rose’s Luxury and The Dabney, and the ramen is so good at Toki Underground that we don’t mind waiting a bit at this raucous eatery in the Atlas District. The very opposite of stuffy, Toki offers a delectable evening of authentically Taiwanese-style ramen and dumplings with not an ounce of pretence. 


A STILL FROM RAGNAR KJARTANSSON’S 2007 VIDEO INSTALLATION GOD, PART OF HIS EXHIBITION AT THE HIRSHHORN. PHOTO RAFAEL PINHO, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, LUHRING AUGUSTINE, NEW  YORK AND i8 GALLERY, REYKJAVIK.  

We begin our second day with a return to the National Mall to visit the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Its headlining show is the first major US survey of Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson (14 October through 8 January 2017), whose immersive work has made him a rising international star. His 64-minute, nine-screen video piece The Visitors, 2012, which shows him and assorted friends making music in a rambling, upstate New York farm house is especially captivating. 

After a large dose of culture, there are few places more revitalising – and surprising – than the United States Botanic Garden on Maryland Avenue, next to the National Museum of the American Indian, another fascinating place. Inside this breathtaking series of glass pavilions, the languid, humid environment that supports what seems to be an entire ecosystem’s worth of American flora delights the senses.   


ORCHIDS IN THE SUBLIME BOTANIC GARDEN.  

We stop for dinner at Le Diplomate, a little slice of  Paris in the Logan Circle neighbourhood. As if transported brick by brick from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, this classic bistro serves a satisfying bavette de boeuf à l’échalotte, among other classics. After dinner, as we make our way back to Georgetown’s cobblestoned lanes and stately period architecture, we encounter aspects of the charming dualities that make Washington, DC so unique: urban and suburban, natural beauty and striking buildings, art and science. Given the capital’s abundant cultural offerings and culinary delights, a weekend visit proved too brief after all.


Jake Townsend has written for Condé Nast Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and other publications. 


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