Delve into the District

I have developed a bit of an obsession with Washington, D.C. OK, actually that’s not quite true. What I actually have is a HUGE obsession with the award-winning and utterly fabulous TV show The West Wing, and consequently when I’m in D.C. I live in secret hope that I’m going to bump into Bradley Whitford jogging along the Potomac. But, aside from this, D.C. is a great city to visit, and I could go back again and again and still not grow tired of it. Having been once on business and once on pleasure it’s now very near the top of my list, and has the rare distinction of being a city in which both my husband and I enjoyed staying.

I like D.C. for many of the same reasons I like Canberra. It’s not, comparatively, a huge city (i.e. it’s not New York.) There is an element to which it’s a planned city rather than one that’s grown organically, and as a result you have wide streets and plenty of green. As the national capital it has, like Canberra, the national museums and monuments, and as the home of the political elite it’s over-provided with excellent restaurants and drinking spots.

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Unlike other major American cities such as New York it’s also remarkably friendly. New York, for me, ranks alongside London and Hong Kong (you might disagree) where the locals are always in a hurry and are somewhat resentful of any idiot in their city that doesn’t know where they’re going and has the audacity to slow down or come to a halt to look at a map or show any sort of weakness at all – I consider myself a very friendly person, yet I have heard myself tut loudly behind the person on the London tube who waits until they are standing by the exit gates to then dig around and find their Oyster card. D.C. lies on the cusp between the north and the south. It incorporates southern friendliness with east coast confidence and sophistication. By the time we got off the metro on the day we arrived in the city we had been adopted by not one but two solicitous locals keen to ensure we made it safely to our destination, while telling us everything about themselves (the one who had adopted me was from St Louis and had visited London ten years ago for a period of study abroad, the one who had adopted my classically British, reserved husband probably had a less interactive experience and so sadly I know nothing about him). While they argued with one another about which crossing we should use we skulked off with Googlemaps and found our own way.

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The Lincoln Memorial

There is of course a plethora of hotels ranging from the positively primitive to the gloriously opulent. We chose the Watergate Hotel, wonderful for Georgetown and convenient for all the major sites, which are walkable if you’re keen. It overlooks the Potomac, with Arlington Cemetery on the opposite side, and, of course, you have the added joy of being able to tell your friends you stayed at the Watergate. It remains one of the smartest and friendliest hotels I’ve stayed at, with a huge pool and fitness centre, rooftop bar and fabulous rooms, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Sunset from our room in the Watergate Hotel

There is more to do in D.C. than one can write in a blog post. In two trips we have done just a fraction, and I am planning a third trip as soon as I can cobble the money together. I’m yet to visit Newseum or the Library of Congress, which both appear in many “top 10s” of the city. I would however recommend the following:

The National Museum of American History

This is the museum that tells you how the Second World War was a war between the US and Evil that the US ultimately won. There was so little mention of the UK that it caused me to raise my eyebrows. However, it’s an excellent introduction into US history from the country that unashamedly considers itself to be the best in the world.

 

The National Mall

Photo opportunities abound, but you have to admit that the Americans are very good at monuments. Be warned – it’s a far longer walk than it looks on the map. However it’s really worth it for those sites you’ve seen so often on TV.

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National Zoo

Having been to New York and found all the museums there eye-wateringly expensive it seemed bizarre yet delightful that everything in Washington, the zoo included, seemed to be free. You can see pandas here. Go on, go and see the pandas.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Washington is a city of memorials and it’s impossible to pick the best one. However, I think if I had to then it would be this one. The controversy of the Vietnam War still hasn’t faded all these years later, and many soldiers who came back found themselves the target of abuse and even hatred. The memorial, winner of a national competition that was opposed by many at the time for what was considered its brutal lack of ornamentation, brings home with its painful simplicity the sheer scale of the toll on American lives – more than 58,000 young Americans lost to a war that many now agree was at best futile, and at worst a national shame.

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The scale of war in the simplest of formats

Arlington National Cemetery

Technically in Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac, this continues to remind us just how well the US does memorials. I’ve blogged about this in another post, but want to stress again how glad I was to have visited.

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The permanently-guarded tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The National Cathedral

Again, any West Wing fan will tell you, whether you care to listen or not, of the importance of this building in that show, and the episode Two Cathedrals¬†rightly won multiple awards. But it’s also a stunning building, and one that many tourists don’t visit on account of its being slightly outside the city centre. We were lucky enough to go there after hours with friends who were bell-ringers there and watched the sun setting from its bell tower. I’d highly recommend a visit – it’s grand, elegant and everything a great cathedral should be, separation of church and state aside!

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The National Cathedral at night, flanked by cherry blossom

So, if you’re looking for a long weekend somewhere, or a week somewhere, I cannot recommend D.C. enough.

And if you’re looking to get into West Wing, it’s better late than never! Hey, why not combine the two? My recommendation for some great images of Washington, and possibly the finest episode they ever made (it rightly won several awards) see¬†In Excelsis Deo.