Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008


I am not going to argue that Washington, D.C., is a fun place. It is not, at least not by design. It is a city people visit to lodge a complaint, to learn something or to stare at monuments to power and loss. It is most of all an earnest place.

But of all the places I have lived, none has the accidental loveliness of D.C. This is a city you can walk across, with wide-open avenues, front porches, old neighborhoods and river views. It was designed by a Parisian, Pierre L'Enfant, and it still feels that way. Because buildings cannot by law be higher than the width of the street they front, you can always see the sky. There are more than two dozen free museums, so you can absorb culture the way it was meant to be experienced — in short encounters in the midst of everyday life.

That said, there are also a lot of red-faced, miserable tourists tromping through D.C., and you don't want to be one of them. So one guiding principle: Don't visit things that look the same on TV as they do in person. The White House, for example, is not worth the trouble, sorry to say. You are free to look at it from the outside and marvel at the snipers on the roof, but since 9/11, it has become obnoxiously difficult to get inside. The Washington Monument? The best thing about it is its starkness. You will see that from afar all over town. In 24 hours, your time is better spent popping into one of the outstanding museums, strolling through a garden and then inspecting one of the many icons that say more about America than a slab of concrete ever will.

1. United States Capitol

One fixture you can still access in post-9/11 Washington is the Capitol, and it is a weird and beautiful place. There are 540 rooms and almost as many lawmakers, all connected by winding halls, tunnels and an underground train. To get inside, you have two choices: You can go on an official tour after getting tickets from a kiosk just outside the building or you can contact your state Senator or Representative to get a pass to the gallery and watch the place in action — or inaction, which is equally interesting.

For lunch and politico-spotting, crash one of the surprisingly decent, low-priced cafeterias in the Rayburn House Office Building or the Longworth House Office Building on Independence Avenue, or get a glass of wine and pasta at the upscale Sonoma on Pennsylvania Avenue, right behind the Library of Congress. (Metro: orange or blue line to Federal Center SW)

2. The National Mall

The best way to see most of Washington's monuments and museums is to stroll down the Mall, a greenway crowned by the Capitol and lined with treasure all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. Start by taking the Metro there (orange or blue line to Smithsonian; take the Mall exit out of the station), as parking is impossible. Then choose your own adventure, rambling in and out of museums and staying only as long as you'd like. If you have kids with you, take a break at the old-fashioned carousel in front of the Arts and Industries building, about halfway down the Mall. Or duck into the sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum nearby. There's a lot to see, so you'll have to prioritize — or chill out and assume you'll be back one day.

The National Museum of American History is one museum not to be missed on the Mall. Reopened on Nov. 21, 2008, after a two-year renovation, it is a massive collection of all things American — from Abraham Lincoln's top hat to the Nintendo Game Boy. Another sure thing on the Mall, the National Museum of Natural History has something for everyone in the family, from the femme to the fierce. The Hope Diamond is here, along with an insect zoo, an IMAX cinema and a hall full of dinosaurs.

Things to skip: the National Museum of the American Indian, which feels like a museum designed by committee, and the World War II Memorial, an eyesore that offers little to inspire.

3. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

O.K., I told you it was not a fun city. But the Holocaust Memorial Museum, located just off the Mall, is profound, unusual and a place you must visit eventually. The architecture enhances the exhibits, which are alternately provocative and heart-stopping. I wouldn't bring young children here. To visit during the high season from March through August, you'll need timed tickets, which you can get on the day of your visit or in advance here. Ride the orange or blue line to the Smithsonian Metro station; take the Independence Avenue exit.

4. Vietnam Veterans Memorial

At the west end of the Mall is a dark low wall that may be the most powerful memorial to loss in the world. Veterans and relatives come to make pencil rubbings from the 58,000 names engraved in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For everyone else, to walk down the long, long chronological list of the casualties is to grasp the consequences of war, without fanfare or hubris. (From the Smithsonian stop on the orange or blue line of the Metro, head west.)

5. International Spy Museum

This is one museum that is actually worth paying for — especially if you're burned out on the more nutritious museums (which you will be any second now), or if you have children over age 10. The Spy Museum, one of D.C.'s most popular attractions, is noisy with films and interactive displays. But at the end of the day, this museum works because spies are cool, and so are KGB lipstick pistols and invisible-ink letters. Be sure to check out the exhibit on the Navajo codetalkers and the history of spying going back to Moses. Then have dinner at Zola, a sophisticated American restaurant adjacent to the Spy Museum. (Yes, D.C. now has a few sophisticated restaurants. Incredible but true.) Reservations are recommended. Take the red, yellow or green line to Gallery Place/Chinatown.

6. Washington National Cathedral

America does not have many truly impressive Gothic cathedrals, so the National Cathedral is one worth visiting. It is actually an Episcopal church, but Congress has designated it the National House of Prayer. Since 1907, it has been used for state funerals for three presidents, monthly emergency unity services during WWII, presidential prayer services and 9/11 memorial ceremonies. Half-hour tours are held throughout the day. It is striking and pleasantly removed from the rest of official D.C. in a more residential area. After your tour, head to 2 Amys for excellent Neapolitan-style pizza.

7. National Zoo

Just down the road from the Cathedral, the National Zoo is yet another free play zone brought to you by the Smithsonian. Meander by the Giant Pandas, keep an eye out for the orangutans, which can travel freely on a system of cables 40 feet above your head, and if you have small children with you, make your way all the way down to the petting farm and the pizza-garden playground.

8. The U Street Corridor

At night, you have three main choices in D.C.: Georgetown, where the tourists and frat boys go to party; Adams Morgan, where the frat boys go once they've graduated; and U Street, where you won't find any of the above. The strip of bars, restaurants and boutiques runs for about eight blocks between 17th Street and 9th Street NW, in a neighborhood called Shaw. The birthplace of Duke Ellington, U Street was once a center of African-American culture. Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong were regulars. After the 1968 riots, the corridor sat mostly vacant for far too long. But it is now finally, fully revived, jangling with sound and motion after dark.

Check out D.C.'s best live-music venue, the 9:30 Club, just off the corridor at the corner of 9th Street and V Street NW. You can also find good, upscale restaurants and bars like Marvin, a bistro and bar with a rooftop lounge. But the icon of U Street is still Ben's Chili Bowl, a family-run, old-school chili-dog joint that opened in 1958 and stuck around when almost nothing else did. Take the green or yellow line to the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo stop.

9. Gravelly Point

To get a break from all the history and heritage, head across the Potomac River to Gravelly Point park (off the northbound George Washington Parkway in Virginia). It's a grassy knoll known only to locals where you can watch airplanes come in (shockingly close to your head) for a landing just a few hundred feet away at Reagan National Airport. There is also a walking and biking path that runs along the river, plus a pretty view of Washington.

10. Malcolm X Park

One of the nicest and least appreciated parks in D.C. is a place officially called Meridian Hill Park but known to everyone as Malcolm X Park. Its 12 acres sit on a hill overlooking downtown and the monuments. John Quincy Adams lived in a mansion here after leaving the White House. Today, there are spooky statues and cascading pools of water, more reminiscent of a neglected European chateau garden than a National Park Service tract. Visit late on a Sunday afternoon to dance to the sounds of the ad hoc drum circle that has been forming weekly since the 1950s.