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.