Scratch the surface of this seemingly austere seat of power and you will discover oodles of personality, says Paul Oswell
About: The nation’s stately capital has a reputation as being somewhat reserved. Beneath the surface, though, you’ll find a wealth of culture, a thriving foodie scene and fashionable spots that belie its buttoned-down personality. The museums are among the best in the country, and monumental displays of history abound, but hidden away are hip boutiques and cocktail bars where locals loosen their ties.
Hotel: A recent addition to the city’s high-end accommodation is the Capella Washington, located in fashionable Georgetown. It’s an intimate affair, with just 49 rooms, but there’s a sense of European elegance, the polished woods and fabrics in the public spaces reminiscent of an aristocratic home. The Grill Room and Rye Bar are plush options, but the rooftop bar steals the show and presents a fine panorama of the city.
Attraction: The best way for visitors to orient themselves is at the newly expanded and renovated Capitol Visitor’s Center, which has added an exhibition gallery and two orientation cinemas. A selection of skylights offer views of the Capitol Dome, and six history-focused exhibits with documents and artifacts tell the capital’s story. Take a cinematic tour of DC before heading out to see the real thing.
Building: There are numerous monuments spread across the city. The newest one, across from the US Botanic Gardens, covers 2.4 acres and pays public tribute to the three million living disabled veterans, as well as those who died in service. The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial reflects strength and vulnerability, with a reflecting pool, striking laminated glass walls and bronze sculptures telling the story of the call to arms.
Shop: The CityCenter complex opened last year, bringing new luxury shopping options to the downtown area. Situated in Penn Quarter, it houses 40 individual boutiques selling designer names that will appeal to the city’s movers and shakers. It’s a sort of DC version of Madison Avenue, and even if the prices are a little out of your reach, it’s a great place to wander around for an hour’s window shopping.
Restaurant: Urbana isn’t a brand new restaurant, but thanks to a recent $500,000 refurbishment, it feels like one. Its capacity has doubled, enabling even more diners to enjoy the refreshing art deco surroundings. The menus reflect a modern approach to Italian cuisine, with a strong seafood offering. The pasta and pizza selections are simple but alluring, and they cater for all dietary preferences.
Bar: If you like a sense of adventure with your drink, it’s well worth heading out to the suburb of Alexandria, where — above a British-style chip shop on King Street — is a secret speakeasy called PX. Look for the blue light and hope the 25 seats aren’t already taken (book ahead via the website). Inside, it’s a suitably refined affair, and the bartenders will fix you up magical aperitifs.
View: Thanks to movies and TV, the DC skyline is familiar, even to first-time visitors. One way to get an unexpected but sure to please view is to ride the new Capitol Observation Ferris Wheel at the National Harbor. Peaking at 180 feet in the air, it shows off many of the capital’s most iconic sights, including the White House, US Capitol Building and Arlington National Cemetery.
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