Going purely by pop culture references, I always found the New York of ‘Friends’ and ‘Sex and the City’ cooler and more fun than the politically charged Washington DC as shown in ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Homeland’. Of course, TV shows are not an accurate yardstick; still, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed my maiden trip to Washington DC last month.
Over three days, I walked up and down the National Mall taking in its many monuments and museums, traipsed through historic Georgetown, and savoured some fantastic meals.
After having watched the White House countless times on screen, I was keen to get an in-person look. Sadly, entry for international visitors includes a months-long convoluted procedure that requires you to apply through your embassy, and even then, entry is not guaranteed. What you can do instead is drop by at the visitor centre, which has a small exhibition of videos and artefacts. Later, walk along the grounds to get a shot of the White House through barred fencing—a little anti-climactic to be honest. On the other hand, I thoroughly loved the free guided tour of the hallowed interiors of U.S. Capitol, including the Rotunda with its historical paintings, relief sculptures, and a frescoed frieze that traces America’s history.
Nearby, the Library of Congress is also worth a visit to gaze upon its elaborately frescoed hallway, stunning reading room, and one of the three remaining copies of the Gutenberg Bible. The towering Washington Monument stands at the heart of the National Mall, a 555-feet obelisk that offers panoramic city views from its observation deck. The best photo of the monument is from across the Reflecting Pool at the steps of Lincoln Memorial—this majestic structure housing a seated statue of Abraham Lincoln is also unmissable. Another great way to see the monuments and other DC attractions is from the Potomac River—hop aboard City Experiences’ (cityexperiences.com) bright yellow water taxis to get a different perspective on the city as you cruise from the recently refurbished District Wharf to Georgetown and back.
Apart from the monuments, the National Mall is home to several Smithsonian museums and depending upon your interests, you can easily spend hours (or days) here. From art to aviation and history, there’s something for everyone. One of the highlights for me was the National Museum of African American History & Culture, which documents African American life through more than 40,000 artefacts and cultural expressions of food, music, and sports. The Brutalist cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum exhibits 20th century art while its sculpture garden features Rodin, Moore, and Yayoi Kusama’s iconic Yellow Pumpkin.
Aviation geeks should check out the National Air & Space Museum to gaze upon missiles, aircrafts, and space stations. Don’t miss the moon rock station, where you can touch a lunar sample acquired on the 1972 Apollo 17 mission. Other museums include the family-favourite National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of Asian Art (which houses the recently restored Peacock Room), and the National Museum of the American Indian (which has a cool, curved design). All museums are free to enter although some may require timed tickets to be booked online in advance.
While I enjoyed the cultural offerings of the National Mall, my favourite area of Washington DC was Georgetown, a historic neighbourhood that was established as a port town in the 18th century. Walk down its cobblestoned roads lined with well-preserved colonial architecture; my visit coincided with Halloween, and I got a chance to admire elaborate porch décor of carved pumpkins, giant spiders crawling on walls, and spooky installations—all framed by glorious autumn colours.
A couple of historic houses are open for guided tours, like Dumbarton Oaks and Tudor Place, both of which also feature beautifully landscaped gardens. The C&O Canal was once a vital transportation route but now offers picturesque bankside strolls and leisurely boat rides. Georgetown is also a shopper’s paradise and has an eclectic collection of shops and boutiques, both indie and international brands—I particularly recommend Shop Made in DC, which sells products from local artists and creators (shopmadeindc.com, 7 locations).
Food & drink
Dining out in Washington DC is a real treat, whether you’re in the mood for all-American breakfast at Ted’s Bulletin, Michelin-starred modern French fare at Bresca, d’Leña’s convivial Mexican cocina, or elevated international street food at Compass Rose.
For a taste of home, book a table at the Michelin guide Rasika (two locations) for modern Indian dining or try Rasa (two locations) for fast-casual bowls. For inventive riffs on classic cocktails paired with smashing Indian food, head to Daru on Maryland Avenue. Speaking of cocktails, DC’s bar scene ranges from classy rooftop spots like Moonraker (atop Pendry hotel) and VUE (atop Hotel Washington with stunning views of the Washington Monument) to eclectic ones like José Andrés’ cocktail lab Barmini, craft beer hotspot ChurchKey, and the Middle Eastern craft cocktail bar The Green Zone. For a radically different experience, head to Artechouse (artechouse.com) for immersive art experiences paired with XR-enabled cocktails.
While Washington’s hotel offerings include all the big brands and chains, it’s the smaller boutique hotels that give you the real DC vibe. Viceroy Washington DC at Logan Circle is a quirky space done up in deep colours and plush fabrics. Rooms are incredibly spacious by DC standards and come with walk-in showers and luxe amenities. There’s an outdoor patio area with firepits and a rooftop pool plus bar—not to mention a gallery that highlights the work of local artists. For a younger, trendier vibe, try its sister property a few blocks away—Hotel Zena puts the focus on provocative art and is dotted with original works by DC’s women artists. Rooms are minimalist chic with stylish touches and high-quality amenities.