FROM SOME OF THE world’s most-visited monuments to a plethora of hidden gems, Washington DC offers up an astounding array of sites and sensory experiences. Explore the area like a local by eating at historic restaurants, kayaking down the Potomac River and wandering through magnificent museums. Whatever your travel preferences, be sure to venture forth. DC does not disappoint.
If you are a first-time visitor to The United States of America, my suggestion would be to arrive in Washington DC and then set out to explore the country. DC is a district capital, which may sound a bit frosty, but the vibe of the people is such that you’ll feel warmly welcomed in no time.
With a skyline that is defined by the iconic Washington Monument, accompanied by the majestic Capitol Building, The White House and The Lincoln Memorial, the architecture alone underlines the fact that this is the country’s seat of power. Yet, beyond the stately landscape, lies a DC that the locals know and love — a place of vibrant culture, thriving neighbourhoods and delectable food.
For travellers fond of exploring cities on foot, the terrain is just right. DC is built on flat land, spread across 177 square kilometres, which makes it equivalent to a neighbourhood in any big city in India. While I opted to take the metro to reduce my travel time, tourists can also rent bicycles for the whole day. It is also easy to manoeuvre your way around the city in a wheelchair, if need be.
I opted to fly Etihad from Mumbai to Dulles Airport, as Etihad completes immigration procedures for The United States in Abu Dhabi, which makes it easy for tourists on arrival in The United States. However, there are several carriers from various Indian cities to DC, including Lufthansa, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL DC
You may opt to stay close to the action, as I did — by checking into the Trump International Hotel DC, on Pennsylvania Avenue. Just minutes away from The White House, it makes taking in the sights that much easier. I visited in October, when the autumn breeze made it a pleasure to walk around. Not surprisingly, my first stop was The White House, and it was awe-inspiring. Standing on what they call ‘The Protests Lane,’ you may well witness a peaceful protest yourself, because these happen fairly often. A symbol of the second largest democracy in the world (after India), one does feel inspired by this powerhouse monument, where many of the world’s big decisions are taken.
THE NATIONAL MALL
Most of DC’s monuments and memorials are located on The National Mall. It is termed as a ‘mall’ because the iconic spots are available for tourists to view at their leisure, at any time of the day. While here, be sure to visit the towering obelisk that is The Washington Monument. Built to honour George Washington, the first president of The United States, it was once the tallest building in the world — at just over 555 feet. It still holds the title of the world’s tallest stone structure and obelisk.
Packed with places to see and things to do, DC welcomes travellers of all sorts. Even those on a shoestring budget will never run out of things to do here, because many of the main attractions are free for locals and tourists alike. To begin with, the 19 Smithsonian museums have no entry charge!
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
My first Smithsonian visit was to the National Museum of Natural History and it was an easy pick, given my love for dinosaurs. The massive museum is about the size of 18 football fields, so you are likely to feel microscopic as you move from one fascinating room to another. Don’t miss the Fossil Hall and don’t fret if you aren’t a T-Rex fan — there are plenty of other interesting collections and one-of-its-kind specimens here, from the Hope Diamond in the Hall of Geology, to understanding evolution in the Hall of Human Origins. Whether you take in tarantula feedings in the Insect Hall, the live butterfly pavilion or opt to discover the underwater world and Egyptian mummies, this museum does not fail to fascinate.
I spent three hours here and could easily have stayed longer!
Museum meanderings done with, I headed over to DC’s newest and most thriving neighbourhood — The Wharf. I was surprised to discover that I wasn’t starved for choice as a vegetarian; there are several restaurants that offer vegetarian food in the area. I finally chose to dine at Mi Vida that serves Mexican cuisine and overlooks the Potomac River. The experience was exceptional! The Wharf was busy and buzzing with people — the place is a destination in itself, with hotels, eateries, recreational activities, shopping areas and quaint corners to picnic in. After a hearty lunch, take a while to enjoy the scene — the laughter of children on swings, a pleasant breeze and a good cup of takeaway coffee will do the trick! You may also opt to rent a stand-up paddle boat or kayak, catch an outdoor movie at 8 pm, or take a dinner cruise along the Potomac. Give yourself the flexibility to play it by ear and take the time to enjoy everything that’s on offer.
INTERNATIONAL SPY MUSEUM
My next stop — and perhaps the most awaited attraction on my agenda — was The International Spy Museum. If you have grown up reading Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason, you will understand the level of excitement I’m talking about! This striking glass and steel building stands out literally and is unmissable. Tracing the history of espionage over the years in world history, the museum adds a twist. You can discover the museum as an undercover agent, like I did, taking on your own spy identity. From interactive games and quizzes to high-tech exhibits, I was completely engaged by the experience. The artefacts on display include an intriguing Soviet camera hidden in a glasses case, an East German microdot message in a hollow tooth, a KGB lipstick pistol and, of course, the Enigma machine — among many other strangely common yet sinister objects. There’s even a Spy Shop, where you can purchase some spy gadgets to trick your friends!
BEN'S CHILLI BOWL
At sunset, indulge in an evening of cocktails, but not before lining your stomach! I headed to U Street for a quick bite at the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl — a DC landmark that has served icons including Martin Luther King and President Obama, ever since founders Ben and Virginia Ali set up shop in 1958. While DJ Khalid and Bruno Mars are recent patrons, the eatery has historically served the leading lights of the civil rights movement. Order a half-smoke as many of the locals do — they make it in soy for Vegans and top it liberally with their secret chili mix; a family recipe that is handed down from generation to generation.
HAWTHORNE ROOFTOP TAVERN
I took a half-smoke to go and headed straight to Hawthorne Rooftop Tavern; a four-storey bar on U Street that is the talk of the town for its cocktails. I was lucky to bump into a group of locals from Georgetown University who very kindly offered to change my itinerary around for the next few days —nothing beats exploring a city like a local would!
Heading back to The Wharf the next morning, it was time to try some water sports. This was my first brush with kayaking and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. Boating In DC allows guests from ages 8 and above to rent a kayak for an hour or two, starting at $16 per person . The winds were favourable and the river was gentle, allowing me to explore some of the memorials from the Potomac, while I tried not to bump into any neighbouring kayaks! I did manage to catch a glimpse of the Jefferson Memorial and the Titanic Memorial.
THE CAPITOL BUILDING
On the behest of my new friends from Georgetown, I booked the last spot on the Georgetown Foodie Tour by Mangia Food Tours, to get a taste of the local flavours of DC, as well as a unique insight into the neighbourhood. But before my food tour began, I had to tick off one more monument visit: The Capitol Building. The stately white structure carves out the history of The United States in its architecture, art and sculptures. You don’t need identification to enter the building or enjoy a tour, but it is advisable to book in advance and skip the line. For me, the highlight of the tour was the Rotunda — the inside of the dome and undoubtedly the most iconic aspect of The Capitol Building.
The guide explained the pieces of art painted within, that depict important figures and events in American history. From the arrival of Columbus to the birth of aviation, you’ll find it all highlighted here. The tour also takes visitors across the Emancipation Old Supreme Court, the Statuary Hall and the Crypt. While the crypt was built for the first President to be put to rest, George Washington preferred to be buried close to his home in Mount Vermont. A tunnel connects The Capitol Building to The Library of Congress for easy access but, much to my dismay, I did not get the chance to visit, because I had to join the food tour of Georgetown.
GEORGETOWN FOODIE TOUR
One of the oldest and most charming neighbourhoods of DC, Georgetown has cobblestone streets lined with upmarket local and global stores, and is home to some of the city’s most notable residents. The tour shared an insight into the significant political and cultural history of its famous inhabitants, including the Kennedys and world-renowned cook Julia Child. Expectedly, it wasn’t all talk and sightseeing — we did plenty of eating on this tour, visiting four varied venues for exceptional tastings.
Walking tours are a great way for vacationers to explore a city, but one should also pack in local experiences. Book a ticket to a basketball game at Capital One Arena, even if you aren’t an NBA addict. The atmosphere is electric and the experience will be memorable; what with jaw-dropping cheerleading acts and lucky contests for the audience. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch legend Stephen Curry play, even though I may have been the only Golden State Warriors fan in the arena — with most folks supporting the Washington Wizards.
THE LINCOLN MEMORIAL
After that adrenaline boost, I headed to The Lincoln Memorial. Movie buffs and Netflix binge-watchers will feel a familiar rush here. Illuminated to perfection and gleaming gloriously, this marble structure takes you back to scenes from Scandal, Designated Survivor, Bones and — how can one forget — House of Cards. Take a moment to note the inscriptions on the walls and settle into a spot on the steps of the memorial to admire this breath-taking view of The Washington Monument reflecting in the pond, with The Capitol Building in the backdrop.
The image stayed with me as I boarded the Amtrak to New York City the next morning. Given that I had only two days in DC, I packed in as much as I could. In hindsight, I would certainly recommend staying longer. Knowing now that there is so much more to explore, I look forward to visiting again at the first chance.
QUICK TAKES: Hotels
* The Trump International Hotel Washington DC
Address: 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004,
Call: +1 866 660 9426
* The Hay Adams
Address: 800 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20006
Call: (202) 638-6600
* The Watergate Hotel
Address: 2650 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037
Call: +1 (844) 617-1972
* The Inter-continental Washington DC
Address: 801 Wharf St. SW, Washington, DC 20024
Call: (202) 800-0844
* The Eaton
Address: 1201 K St NW, Washington, DC
Call: +1 (202) 289-7600
Direct flights via Air India from New Delhi to Washington, DC. Etihad and Emirates prove to be good options for the ease of immigration in UAE