Visually stunning, with iconic architecture and breathtaking vantage points literally around every corner, Alex Benasuli discovers that America’s compact capital positively hums with world class cultural offerings, beautiful green spaces and a burgeoning foodie and arts scene, making it one of the most delightful cities in the States to visit.
Revisiting the United States’ political nerve centre after more than two decades, during cherry blossom season no less (one of the best times of the year!), I am keen to both rediscover America’s capital and experience its more cultural side.
Founded in the 1790s on a swamp plain, with broiling hot summers and freezing cold winters, as the capital of the ragtag group of thirteen original American colonies that established themselves as a fledgling republic after winning the War of Independence against the British, the District of Columbia (as D.C. was then known), had humble beginnings and few prospects other than hope and dreams. Little did anyone know, that as the United States grew in population, size and stature to become the most powerful nation on earth, Washington, D.C. would take its place as one the world’s greatest cities.
In typical, American visionary can-do spirit, Washington was designed from the outset to become a great capital. Well-known French architect and city planner Charles L’Enfant was commissioned by President Washington himself to plan the nation’s new capital. Broad streets and magnificent avenues emanating from rectangular squares, interspersed with monuments, museums, embassies, federal buildings, parks and landscaping, were all set out in L’Enfant’s 1791 plan and still hold sway today. Even the city’s centrepiece – the grand avenue now known as National Mall – was envisioned from the start.
Washington’s elegantly planned layout and low-rise cityscape, together with a prevalence of neo-classical, Georgian, gothic and Empire architectural styles, all combine to give the city a decidedly European flair, which is not unlike Paris and Berlin.
Situated on the banks of the Potomac River and surrounded by pockets of forest and simply splendid countryside, Washington is also blessed with a plethora of beautiful natural settings. This makes the American capital something of a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, as well as providing many escapes from the heat and humidity of high summer.
Washington’s original location was chosen, in part, as a bridge between the northern and southern states of America’s East Coast. Today, the city’s graciousness and slightly slower pace – especially compared to the hustle and bustle of the country’s more industrial northern urban centres – often causes Washington to be referred to as the most northern of the southern cities, or as having a “Southern Flair”. Whilst the city overall has almost certainly moved figuratively northward in the past hundred or so years, Washington continues to reflect its Southern exposure in a number of ways, not least the magnolias, crape myrtles, dogwoods and cherry trees which soften its architectural contours.
The most dominant feature of Washington’s grand and confident skyline, remains the eleven-storey white marble obelisk that is the iconic Washington Monument. Built to commemorate the first president of the United States, it is the tallest stone structure and the largest obelisk in the world. Since completion in the 1880s, it has been decreed that no building in the capital should rise higher. It is this that gives Washington its more lateral and relaxed perspective.
Whilst elevator issues have shuttered the monument since August of last year, and a current US$2-3 million project will not be completed until the spring of 2019 when it is expected to re-open to visitors, I was lucky enough to gaze out from the top of the 555-foot structure a few years ago and can attest that the views are nothing short of breathtaking. On one axis, all of the National Mall up to the Capitol Building is clearly visible. Whilst on the other side, one can see way past the World War II Memorial and Reflecting Pool towards the Lincoln Memorial at the western end of the National Mall. The other axis takes in the White House and the Tidal Basin, home of the Jefferson Memorial and the throngs of cherry trees for which Washington has become famous.
Whilst getting a bird’s eye view of the city and its grand architecture from atop a monument or the seat of a helicopter tour is memorable, the National Mall and all its glories are really best enjoyed on ground level. For it is here, with your feet on terra firma, that you can get a proper feel for the stature of the imposing buildings which surround and dominate Washington’s center.
From one end of the Mall to the other is roughly two and a half miles, so don some comfy shoes and enjoy the walk. There’s nothing like strolling around Washington on a gloriously sunny day. However, if you’re on a whistle-stop visit, touring the area on two wheels can considerably shrink the distances, and allow you to cover much more ground in a shorter amount of time.
Flanking the eastern end of the Mall, the massive neo-classical United States Capitol remains one the world’s most ardent symbols of democracy. The sprawling building – which contains more than 500 rooms – is home to the United States Congress and is the seat of the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government.
This area of the Mall is also home to some the city’s most illustrious cultural venues, including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum (one of the country’s leading museums for contemporary art), and the museums of American History, Natural History, American Indian and so many more. Whilst it would take weeks to visit all the museums and exhibitions in this culturally-rich city, apart from private collections such as the Phillips (billed as America’s first museum of modern art), most of Washington’s museums are free to enter. (www.washington.org/find-dc-listings/museums)
The newest addition to Washington’s cultural offerings and one of its most emotionally powerful, is the much-acclaimed Museum of African American History and Culture. Designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, the striking bronze and rust-coloured tiered corona-shaped building offers a striking contrast to the more traditional stone and classical façades that permeate the Mall area.
Though big, bold and awe-inspiring is the dominant style of the architecture and vibe in and around the Mall, there are countless other spots in close proximity that offer a more-gentle energy in which to quietly absorb the splendour of Washington. Many of the museums have courtyard or sculpture gardens that offer more intimate experiences of the magnificent parade of the magnolia and cherry blossoms during spring, not to mention respites from the summer heat.
Around the Tidal Basin, the lower key Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King memorials are as moving as they are beautiful. However, for some, Washington’s many war memorials are the most powerful, not least, the arresting black granite Vietnam War Memorial, which bears the names of 58,000 men and women who gave their lives or remain missing.
Throughout the centre of Washington, ample park benches, picnic spots and vantage points offer incredible views and peaceful opportunities to digest everything around you in whatever way and pace suits. Night-time is a particularly special time to view the city’s monuments. Lit up spectacularly and surrounded by far fewer people, wandering around Washington by night is an otherworldly and serene experience.
Massachusetts Avenue is Washington’s impressive embassy row. Block after block of this elegant wide thoroughfare showcase some of the best architecture in the city. Georgetown, to the west of the city centre, is one of most historically intact neighbourhoods in the United States. Street after street of colonial and federalist-style buildings give Georgetown the feeling of the pre-war and post-revolutionary independent town that it once was. Today Georgetown boasts some of the most expensive residential streets in the city and is one of the most charming areas for shopping, dining and sipping a cocktail. Bordered by leafy Rock Creek Park on one side and illustrious Georgetown University on the other, and fronted by the Potomac River, it’s hard not to fall in love with Georgetown.
While Washington’s monuments, grand boulevards and corridors of power are as awe inspiring as ever, I soon discover that it is the leafy residential neighbourhoods – both well established and rapidly gentrifying – that are an unexpected source of delight as I become reacquainted with this truly exciting city. Strolling beyond the imposing edifices of Washington’s grand centre, lies a city rich with attractive and vibrant communities, and a foodie scene on a par with the best in the country.
The area between DuPont and Logan circles teems with late 19th and early 20th century houses with tidy front gardens, colourful window boxes and decorative iron gates and railings. This aesthetically pleasing area is a true joy to amble around without any particular agenda.
Washington’s 14th Street scene literally has something for everyone. A commercial district that connects the already gentrified streets on either side of Logan Circle towards the funkier neighbourhoods to the north, numerous bars, restaurants, galleries, boutiques, coffee shops, music venues and vintage stores fill this vibrant area with energy and excitement, catering to locals and visitors alike.
Up-and-coming D.C. lies to the east of the Capitol Building and Union Station. Decades ago, H Street was synonymous with race riots and urban blight. Today it is increasingly a thriving hub for D.C.’s progressive classes, and is brimming with artisanal bakeries, independent coffee shops and a lively music scene. The H Street Festival in the autumn is a highlight of D.C.’s annual cultural calendar (www.hstreetfestival.org). The weekly farmer’s market is also very popular (http://hstreet.org/live/farmers-market).
Washington used to be considered staid and boring. Whilst the city still oozes power and stature, times have definitely changed. 21st century Washington is more dynamic than ever before and has a heart and soul away from its status as the capital of the most powerful country on earth. No doubt, the city universally inspires and humbles with its striking architecture and towering monuments. But it is in the city centre’s surrounding neighbourhoods that a more intimate and emotional connection to Washington is made. And it is here, when one scratches below the surface of Washington’s gleam, that visitors really strike hospitality gold.
THE ST. REGIS WASHINGTON, D.C.
Washington, D.C. is a capital steeped in tradition and prominence, and there is no better address to experience these qualities than the St. Regis, which almost certainly enjoys one of the city’s finest locations. Staying here – just across from leafy Lafayette Square and two blocks from The White House – really puts you in the centre of everything and close to the action.
Built in the style of a Florentine palazzo, Washington’s 172-room St. Regis (formerly the Carlton) opened in 1926 and exudes old world class and luxury, while setting a high bar for slick service and attention to detail. During the ’30s, the property was a surrogate venue for the State Department when Secretary of State Cordell Hull took up residence. Since then, numerous presidents and celebrities, from pop stars and actresses, including Cher and Audrey Hepburn, have all stayed here. It is rumoured that President Truman and his First Lady would slip into the building through a French window to cut down on protocol, and apparently the hotel has hosted every American president since Coolidge. Today, St. Regis is frequented by foreign leaders and dignitaries as well as the most discerning business and leisure travellers.
The Beaux-Arts and Neo-Renaissance interiors of the St. Regis truly dazzle. The cavernous open-air ground floor is a symphony of red, gold, polished woods and crystal chandeliers. The timber-beamed ceilings were hand painted by expert craftsmen and are particularly a site to behold. The sprawling lobby area and adjoining St. Regis Bar are reminiscent of a private English members’ club and abound with rich Chesterfield sofas and classic wood panelling. The intimate atmosphere in the bar makes it the perfect place to start or end an evening with a cocktail. Try the hotel’s take on a classic Bloody Mary: Inspired by the commercial and cultural heritage of Chesapeake Bay nearby, the base of a “Capitol Mary” is gin (the spirit of choice of D.C.’s social set, particularly when summering around the Bay), and the cocktail incorporates signature spices used in preparing a classic Chesapeake Bay crab feast.
Designed by renowned architect David Rockwell to highlight many of the spectacular room’s original features, including the stunning ceiling, the hotel’s Alhambra restaurant features an innovative Mediterranean-inspired menu courtesy of executive chef Javier Cuesta, and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Alhambra also hosts the hotel’s much lauded afternoon tea ritual, every day from 2pm ‘til 5pm.
Upstairs, guest rooms combine modern creature comforts with timeless luxury inspired by a bygone era. Outfitted in a variety of muted colour schemes, large Palladian windows and high ceilings hung with crystal chandeliers and damask curtains create a sense of regal theatricality. The furniture is carved and gilded. All rooms boast plush and superlatively comfortable pillow-top Sealy beds, bedecked in Pratesi linens and laden with soft furnishings. Bathrooms feature walk-in showers and deluxe Laboratoire Remède amenities.
Guest relations is an area in which St. Regis always excels and the brand’s Washington property is no exception. In many ways, staying here is akin to lodging at a dear friend’s lavish mansion. Throughout the hotel service is discreet, attentive and warm. And if you’re lucky enough to be staying in a suite, you will enjoy St. Regis’ renowned butler service which is truly first class. After all, in a city as highly-charged and fast-moving at Washington, D.C., where there are so many people to see, who has time to unpack and re-pack their luggage?
MANDARIN ORIENTAL, WASHINGTON D.C.
Mandarin Oriental is synonymous with providing the highest standards of service and luxury, coupled with an Asian sense of refinement and attention to detail. The brand’s Washington property delivers exactly this and more, deftly reflecting Mandarin Oriental’s Hong Kong heritage.
Although the Washington Mandarin is not situated as centrally as the city’s other high-end hotel offerings, its location on the edge of the Tidal Basin makes it the best address from which to appreciate the city’s famed cherry blossom season. And, whilst most of Washington’s attractions are centred around the National Mall and to its North and West, the Mandarin’s south city positioning offers a different yet equally rewarding perspective from which to appreciate the capital’s monuments. The Smithsonian museums as well as the Capitol Building and Lincoln Memorial are all within easy walking distance. A pedestrian bridge takes guests straight to the buzzing Southwest Waterfront, with its plethora of restaurants, shops and music venues. And one of Washington’s newer and increasingly popular leisure and entertainment neighbourhoods, District Wharf, where there are plenty of al fresco dining options in warmer months, is but a short stroll from the Mandarin.
Being a resident at Washington’s Mandarin is to experience luxury, comfort and style from the moment you enter the hotel’s grand marble lobby, with its elegant domed ceiling and Asian artwork, and the hotel’s 373 guest rooms and suites are no less well-appointed. All skilfully blend Oriental chic and traditional American design, curated to create a classy East-meets-West aesthetic.
Even entry-level rooms are over-sized and enjoy city or waterfront views. Guests in rooms higher up and looking towards the city enjoy the Washington Monument as part of their vistas. Throughout the guest accommodations, décor is bright yet at the same time soft and elegant. All were recently renovated to provide a more comfortable residential feel. Massive beds and mountains of pillows invite deep sleep and extended periods of relaxation. Most rooms have some seating as well as a round mahogany table which serves as a desk. Marble-lined bathrooms are elegant and spa-like, with glass-enclosed showers and separate deep soaking tubs, not to mention a plentiful supply of luxury Atelier Cologne products. Rooms which overlook the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin boast the greatest views of the city’s blossoming Japanese cherry trees in the spring.
What sets the Mandarin apart from its five-star peers are the hotel’s extensive facilities, not least arguably the best spa in Washington. The only Forbes four-star reviewed spa in the city features a Zen-like relaxation room, a 50ft heated indoor swimming pool and a multitude of treatment rooms. Therapies draw upon the millennia long traditions of Asian wellness, including traditional Chinese medicine and aromatherapy. Whilst treatments are a little on the pricey side, the surroundings, quality and service makes them worth every cent. Meanwhile, fitness junkies will love the huge state-of-the-art gym, which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, so you can gaze at the Washington Monument while working-out.
Coupled with some excellent food and beverage offerings which serve very palatable modern American cuisine with an Asian twist, Mandarin’s impressive leisure facilities, together with the chic yet relaxed atmosphere throughout, make it one of the most desirable hotels from which to be based when exploring the American capital as a tourist.
THE WESTIN GEORGETOWN
The Westin Georgetown is incredibly well positioned for business and leisure pursuits across the capital. Located in the heart of Washington’s West End, the hotel is close to Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, DuPont Circle and embassy row on Massachusetts Avenue. Even the 14th Street entertainment corridor north of Logan Circle is walkable. Traffic in DC can be terrible at times, making the Westin’s central location an excellent choice for those short of time who plan to cover a lot!
Away from the monuments and main corridors of power, Washington is an exceedingly handsome city. From the Westin’s Georgetown location this cane appreciated all the more, in every direction. The West End is equivalent to Washington’s midtown, and is an attractive and affluent part of the city, filled with upscale coffee shops and hip restaurants, the overall feel being that of a well-established neighbourhood. This, of course, adds a touch of “living” the city when visiting Washington as a tourist. Founded in 1890, 1,754-acre tree and stream-filled Rock Creek Park is a refreshing gem in the nation’s capital, and just a few minutes-walk from the Westin.
What Westin does very well indeed, is provide the best elements of America’s upscale chain hotel experiences in each city centre location, the brand’s Georgetown property being no exception. Rooms are spacious, well-proportioned and strike the perfect balance between practicality and comfort. You will be hard pushed to have a better sleep in a hotel bed than you will at a Westin, which prides itself on its trademarked Heavenly Bed. Designed with a supportive pillowtop mattress, this superb bed provides a deeply revitalizing sleep.
Most rooms come with some seating and a place to work. Desk chairs are ergonomically supportive. Floor-to-ceiling windows flood rooms with light. SPG members are routinely upgraded to one-bedroom suites, subject to availability. These are very spacious and well lit, encompassing two separate rooms as well as the usual bathroom and guest cloakroom.
Being a full-service property, The Westin Georgetown offers a range of leisure facilities and business services, the latter being of utmost importance in Washington. A large fitness studio is well equipped, and the hotel hires out (inexpensively) brand new New Balance athletic gear just in case you don’t want to pack exercise clothes. There is a seasonal outdoor pool. The Westin Kids Club gives parents the option to have a night on the town without their children. Flexible, small group workspaces are readily available. And there are two pretty decent restaurants in-house. The Caucus Room is an American interpretation of a French brasserie and is open all day from breakfast through to dinner time. Meanwhile, fun and funky Boveda is a lively Latin-inspired cocktail bar and restaurant, designed in a warm style which is not dissimilar to a speakeasy, and serving hearty moreish food.
Whilst not as swish as some of the city’s more fancy five-star offerings, The Westin Georgetown ticks every box for leisure and business travellers alike and offers better value for money than many other hotels in the centre of Washington.
Part of West Potomac Park, the Tidal Basin is a man-made reservoir that lies to the south of the National Mall. Every spring, the Tidal Basin erupts in a spectacular array of candy pink-coloured blossom, on cherry trees gifted to D.C. from Tokyo many years ago. This event that has become Washington’s signature annual moment. The paths that ring the Tidal Basin also offer countless staging points from which to marvel at the city’s monuments. The views over the water towards the Washington Monument are alone worthy of a visit. Thomas Jefferson was the nation’s third president, one of its founding fathers and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. The Jefferson Memorial is appropriately grand and inspiring. Also, on the banks of the Tidal Basin, is the lower key but equally inspiring memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who’s presidency spanned the Great Depression and of course World War II. For many the FDR Memorial is one of the most intimate and the cherry blossoms are best experienced from here. An early morning or moon-lit night-time stroll around the Tidal Basin, when there are less people, is particularly memorable.
The image of an oversized President Lincoln enshrined within his own temple is one of the most enduring symbols of both Washington, D.C. and American democracy. And like Abraham Lincoln himself, his memorial is an enduring symbol of the country’s strength, wisdom and unity. Lincoln was the country’s sixteenth president, was responsible for abolishing slavery and presided over the defeat of the Confederates during America’s Civil War. Anchoring the western end of the National Mall with views over the Reflecting Pool – the National World War II Memorial and the Washington Monument beyond – the Lincoln Memorial is a must see in a city quite literally filled with must-sees. Try visiting the memorial at night for a different yet still powerful experience.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE
Washington is a city of culture and museums. One of the newest and most impressive is this acclaimed museum designed by celebrated British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, which offers a moving and encyclopaedic retrospective of the African American experience in the United States. Occupying a prime spot on the National Mall near the Washington Monument, this museum chronicles the origins and history of the horrors of slavery from the late 16th century, as well as the injustices of the post-Civil War era, segregation moving towards the civil rights era of the 1960s, through to the present day. The cultural sections are lighter-hearted and recount the significant contributions of African Americans to the country’s music, entertainment and sporting worlds. Though entry is free, and a limited number of same-day tickets are available daily, advance booking is recommended.
THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION
Founded in 1921 by great American industrialist Duncan Phillips, the nation’s first museum of modern art is an excellent set of intimate exhibition spaces, located within a distinctive building in D.C.’s vibrant Dupont Circle neighbourhood. Amongst others, works by Renoir, Rothko, Bonnard, O’Keeffe and Diebenkorn make up the museum’s impressive permanent collection. Renoir’s sublime Luncheon of the Boating Party is probably the most well-known painting in the building. Regular Sunday concerts, “Phillips After Five” events and family-orientated jazz happenings provide additional options to visit a museum that is invariably one of the most intimate in the city.
Discreetly tucked away in a residential section of Georgetown, Dumbarton Oaks is a stately home that houses a fine collection of Byzantine and Pre-Colombian art. However, it is the extensive gardens and woods that are really Dumbarton’s claim to fame. Designed in the 1920s by acclaimed landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand, under the patronage of the estate’s industrialist cum philanthropist owners Robert and Mildred Bliss, the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks consist of 53 acres of lush lawns, terraced gardens, Italianate courtyard gardens, a rose garden and woodland. This is a beautiful place in the heart of D.C. which offers a respite from hectic city life. While the throngs of magnolia and cherry trees blossoming in the spring are indeed a sight to behold, the well-planned programme of flowering from early spring through to autumn always makes a visit to Dumbarton Oaks worthwhile.
The recently refreshed signature restaurant of Washington’s plush St. Regis hotel is very much worthy of a special visit. The dining room epitomises modern-day elegance. The décor is literally breathtaking, with shades of silver, white and pearl lending a contemporary edge to the room’s soaring, renaissance-style ceilings. Beautifully laid tables in the middle of the restaurant are complimented by private banquettes on the periphery, to allow Washington’s power brokers to dine more discreetly. Executive chef Sebastien Giannini’s team expertly produces exquisite modern Mediterranean cuisine. Tuna tartare accented with date purée, citrus pepper condiments and Marcona almonds is a standout dish, and indicative of Giannini’s flavour and texture combinations that inject new life into Mediterranean classics.
This 125-seat Georgetown favourite serves sophisticated Italian seafood in a modern luxurious setting, complete with stunning Potomac River views. Fiola Mare also has two bars, an outside patio and four private dining rooms, including the Aston Martin Room which contains the restaurant’s exclusive chef’s table. Though much of the menu changes regularly – preferring to focus only on the freshest ingredients – the star of the show is freshly-caught seafood simply and expertly cooked. Elegant and contemporary décor provides the backdrop for this superior dining experience. A hit since it opened in 2014, Fiola Mare is as ideal for lunch or dinner as it is for special occasions, and the beautiful waterfront vistas are only outdone by the sublime seafood.
Whilst no passport is required, a visit to this popular venue will make you feel like you are in Paris. Located on the corner of 14th Street and Q – north of Logan Circle in the heart of the bustling 14th Street corridor – Le Diplomate is a pitch-perfect rendition of a classic Rive Gauche bistro. If you fancy dining on classic French dishes like onion soup, beef tartare and steak frites, served in a buzzy yet relaxed atmosphere, then you’re going to love Le Diplomate. The extensive wine list is comprehensive. Classic baguettes are baked in house. During the warmer months, the restaurant’s outdoor street-side terrace is the perfect place to people watch. Every city benefits from a little French café culture – in Washington you’ll find it in spades at Le Diplomate.
Japanese food aficionados, and those seeking a more intimate dining experience amongst Washington’s busy eateries, will love Izakaya Seki. Located on V Street, in the up-and-coming U Street corridor (in between Shaw and Cardozo) this tiny restaurant and sake bar run by a father-daughter team, serves small Japanese plates, a good selection of rice-wines and a variety of Japanese microbrews. The sushi and sashimi are incredibly fresh. Grilled meats and seafood on skewers, plus various noodle dishes, also feature prominently on the menu. Unadorned tables, wooden banquettes and a total lack of clutter places the focus squarely on the excellent food. Don’t miss Seki’s delicious circular (rather than triangular) rice balls, which come stuffed with pickled veggies or crunchy little balls of salt-cod roe. Unless you are a group of 5-8 people, arrive early or be prepared to wait.
SALLY’S MIDDLE NAME
Hipster D.C. is positively thriving in the eastern realms of the city. H Street particularly is bustling with cafés, petite restaurants and vibey music venues. Sally’s Middle Name (so called for an inside joke between owner-chef Sam Adkins and his sister Sally) is a husband and wife-run establishment serving simple yet innovative primarily American farm-to-table cooking. Whilst the menu features an occasional Asian or Mediterranean influence, most dishes are uncomplicated and free of frills. The interior is as unfussy and cheerful as the food. Staff are friendly and knowledgeable. Daily specials are scribbled on a white wall. The wide-open kitchen is visible to all. A charming outdoor patio – open when the weather allows – augments the bijou dining room. Eat at Sally’s Middle Name to feel part of Washington’s young, creative and funky set.
This rooftop bar and lounge at Washington’s W Hotel is one of the hippest hangouts in town, and boasts unparalleled views of the cityscape, including the Washington Monument and White House. On warmer nights, the vistas of D.C.’s skyline from the terrace are simply spectacular. Throughout POV the vibe is smart, sophisticated and most of all, fun. Guys in suits is not an uncommon sight, since the city’s slickest lobbyists and coolest lawyers are often on prowl here. Drinks are good – especially the snazzy hand-crafted cocktails – but a touch on the pricey side. Seating ranges from communal high-tops to VIP banquettes perfect for schmoozing. Note that the music goes up more than a few notches after 9pm, when the sounds become funkier and the mood moves to partying.
THE GRAHAM GEORGETOWN ROOFTOP
Originally built in 1962 and known as the Monticello, the historic 57-room boutique Graham Georgetown Hotel is tucked into a quiet side street between the Potomac and bustling M Street shopping district. Almost hidden behind a red brick façade yet situated just three blocks from the White House, the Graham adds a dash of Art Deco flair to sometimes staid Washington. Nowhere is this flair more evident than the hotel’s hot rooftop, which wraps around three sides providing incredible views of Georgetown University, the Washington Monument and Memorial Bridge. Aviation geeks will enjoy watching planes follow the Potomac before landing at Reagan National Airport. Reserve one of the cushy couches for bottle service or sidle up to the bar for a shot of house bourbon from Kentucky’s Louisville Distilling Company, which is aged in port barrels for a fruity finish.
Paying homage to founding father Thomas Jefferson with more than a few nods to the former U.S. president, the historic Jefferson boutique hotel is situated within a 1920s building, and charms guests with its an elegantly formal atmosphere, Michelin-starred restaurant, decadent library lounge and upscale cocktail bar, Quill. Smart yet a soothing place to network or to unwind, the bar’s traditional design (inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello parlour) is softened by moody lighting and amber tones. Quill excels at serving signature hand-crafted cocktails, such as the “Route One Ricky” (Jim Beam rye, caramelized key lime shrub, and homemade cream soda). An extensive beverage list is complemented by quality American fare including Chesapeake Orchard Point oysters, Maryland crab cakes and bison sliders, and a talented pianist plays live jazz most nights.
OFF THE RECORD
The hint is in the name. Off The Record has been the preferred watering hole for Washington’s movers and shakers for decades. Located below ground in The Hay-Adams Hotel – one of Washington’s most classic and prestigious lodging addresses, just across the street from the White House – Off The Record is in many ways quintessential D.C. The somewhat darky lit space, the gentleman’s club-meets-speakeasy vibe (replete with red velvet upholstery and wood panelling), and widespread hushed tones all conspire to create a rather unique and somewhat mysterious bar and lounge. Order a Manhattan or Old Fashioned and just imagine the backroom deals and political pacts being made with the devil, as you slowly sip your cocktail and eavesdrop on the hush-hush conversations happening close-by.
Named for its location beneath sister restaurant Ghibellina, this moody subterranean haunt takes its cues from D.C. history, thanks to its former incarnation as home of the HR-57 jazz club. Opened just over three years ago by Ari and Stacy Gejdenson, Sotto delivers great live music, hearty fare and classic cocktails to the hip 14th Street crowd. Nightly music is anything from jazz and blues to neo-soul, while cocktails concocted by bartender Daniel Barnes are inspired by the Jazz Age heyday and the corresponding scene in Washington. “The Groover”, for example, mixes gin, pineapple juice, Dolin Blanc vermouth and Cocchi Americano, whilst a “Trolley Car” combines spiced rum, blood orange and bitters. All are so good it’s unlikely you’ll stop at one.
The polar opposite of a stereotypical American fashion boutique, with an austere interior and a focus on edgy, monochrome clothing in mostly black and neutral tones, Redeem is an independent store specialising in up-and-coming talent and showcasing collections by less commercial designers, including Just Female, Collina Strada, Le Specs and Won Hundred. Preferring to keep things fresh, the owners regularly change the line-up of what is showcased. Geared towards both men and women, stores like Redeem dispel the notion that Washingtonians don’t embrace innovative fashion. On the contrary, the city’s fashionistas are very much on trend when it comes to the hippest designer to wear and the current looks to sport.
AMALGAMATED CLASSIC CLOTHING AND DRY GOODS
Those of you who thrill at the prospect of uncovering a gently used designer find will fall in love with Amalgamated, where plenty of second-hand treasures await in this vintage mecca which retails men’s and women’s clothing and accessories. Operated by Shelley White and partner Gene Elm who’ve have been dealing in vintage for decades, their well-organised emporium holds everything from swing dresses and vintage denim to fine men’s suits and costume pieces. Everything for sale here is high-quality and well-made in wearable condition and new items are added weekly. So, whether you’re looking for a ’20s drop-waist dress or a ’60s duster coat, you’re likely to find it here.
RED BARN MERCANTILE
Located just across the Potomac River on King Street in picturesque Old Town Alexandria, and having recently celebrated 10 years in business, Red Barn Mercantile works with local designers to offer something for everyone, and is a veritable one-stop shop if you’re visiting Washington and need to find multiple novel gifts quickly! Retailing everything from handmade furniture and divine linens to scented soaps and candles, cocktail mixers and cookbooks, Red Barn Mercantile also has one of the best stationery selections in the entire D.C. area (including greeting cards, art prints, notebooks, notepads and planners) not to mention a fantastic range of kids’ stuff.
SALT & SUNDRY
This gorgeous urban bohemian home furnishing store is the perfect place to browse for gifts and sells everything from small-batch tonic and barrel-aged maple syrup to handcrafted dining room tables, rugs and textiles. Think candles that smell of blue spruce and spearmint, and bendy stainless-steel straws. With a special focus on tableware, barware, linens and pantry goods, Salt & Sundry has two very well merchandised retail outlets in the capital – in Union Market and Logan Circle – plus an easy-to-navigate online store if you prefer to shop online and have your goodies delivered to your hotel.
Nestled in the historic heart of rapidly gentrifying Capitol Hill to the east of the city, Eastern Market is the place to visit to experience Washington’s foodie and craft sights, smells, tastes and sounds all in one place. From farm-fresh produce to handmade crafts and live music, Eastern Market is a must for lovers of fresh, locally-sourced food and drink, arts and crafts. Designed to serve as the neighbourhood’s town center, this popular community hub has attracted an eclectic group of shoppers since 1873, when it was originally designed by Adolf Cluss. Though open daily, the market particularly comes alive on the weekends when a farmers’ market and arty pop-up stalls add to the diverse mix.