Bon Voyage Director, Phil Newcombe, revisits Washington D.C. for the first time in more than a decade to see what all the fuss is about. He discovers that things certainly “ain’t what the used to be”.
OK. Hands up all those who knew what an outstanding city Washington DC has become. Anyone? Just a few of you then – thanks for keeping that little nugget to yourselves!
The last time I was in DC was, as near as I can recall, some twelve years ago. Of course, colleagues have visited in the meantime and come back with tales of urban regeneration and new attractions. But there’s nothing like a little first-hand knowledge, so when an opportunity to visit Washington DC arose I leapt at the chance.
We left on Thursday. Well, I say Thursday but given that we were on the very early United Airlines flight from Heathrow’s Terminal One, the 0545 check-in felt more like Wednesday night. But on the plus side the run to the airport was on deserted roads and even the short section of M25 was traffic-free for a change. Our small (but perfectly formed) group met up with our hosts from DC and United and off we went. Checked-in and through security in record time, a quick mango smoothie in Giraffe then down to the gate for boarding. On the way to our seats in Economy we had our Jim Bowen Bullseye tour of the sumptuous First and Business cabins (“Let’s have a look at what you could have won”). At over six feet tall I do tend to struggle in the back of the bus but the seat pitch in United’s Economy cabin is acceptable, the food OK, the entertainment from the seat-back screens pretty good and the crew friendly. For my money I would pay for an upgrade to one of the forward cabins – something a lot of our customers tend to do, not only for the extra leg room and general comfort but for the food and extra luggage allowance too – but I am pleased to report that the flight passed off without incident!
I tend to adjust my watch to destination time as soon as I board the aircraft so that my body clock can start to adapt as soon as possible. With a more or less on time departure the flight landed in Washington just after 11am local time. Washington Dulles airport has the oddest transfer system I have ever encountered; After de-planing we were directed toward shuttles to the main arrivals building. The shuttles themselves are buses on hydraulic lifts that drop down some ten or twelve feet before setting off – the last time I transitted through here I was en route to Denver and the hydraulics failed halfway down (or up – I don’t recall) and we were stuck for over an hour causing us to mis-connect. Anyway, no such drama this time fortunately. Even though we were close to last off the aircraft and our flight arrived just after an early morning Tokyo flight we nipped through immigration and customs in an admirable 40 minutes and were on our shuttle into the heart of the capital with the whole afternoon to look forward to; Top tip – when you are going for a short break to the US, get the earliest flight out you possibly can to maximise day one!
Half an hour later and a few sights already glimpsed (CIA’s Langley site, the Watergate Building, The Kennedy Centre and any number of the monuments) we arrived at our hotel on Dupont Circle. Normally arriving this early one has to leave luggage with the concierge but we were lucky that our rooms were already prepared. A quick change and we hopped on the Metro. And herein lies one of the best elements of our trip – we did lots of things that locals would do, most significantly in the way that locals would do them. Like riding the Metro (the DC underground); it’s pretty cheap, it’s very logical (red, orange, yellow, blue and green lines instead of names) plus it is very clean, quick and safe. During our time in DC we got around a lot on the Metro and I would heartily recommend it.
So off for lunch in a local restaurant. Delicious pizza (but as always I looked around the table jealously at the tasty morsels ordered by my cohorts thinking how much nicer their food looked). Then we headed off to the Newseum. Now I like the occasional museum the same as the next man, but I confess I’m not the world’s greatest culture vulture. The Newseum, however…. Oh. My. God. It took my breath away – more than once in fact – and brought stinging tears to my eyes. From a chunk of the Berlin Wall to the top of the World Trade Centre North Tower, an exhibition of Pulitzer prize-winning photos, the Unabomber’s actual hut, Richard Reid’s exploding shoe plus newspaper front pages from around the world chronicling the landmark headlines since the dawn of the printed word; I would go as far as to say this is my favourite museum anywhere in the world (and I have seen I few). The 9-11 exhibits in particular are especially poignant – not a dry eye in the house as they say. I could have spent the rest of the day there, pottering around and reading the exhibits. But our group had a schedule to keep and we were whisked off to the hotel for a quick shower before heading out to dinner.
Hmmm. Breakfast on the flight, lunch also on the flight, pizza was lunch number two and now dinner. Beginning to wish I had packed elasticated-waist trousers, we headed out to a local restaurant within walking distance of the hotel.
As an aside I must mention something about DC. When I was last there I seem to recall that the city had the second highest murder rate in the United States; and since America has more guns than anywhere in the civilised world (and probably as many as most uncivilised places) I would extrapolate this frightening statistic to say the second highest murder rate in the world. I remember being quite intimidated during my last visit – particularly at night. I was warned not to take the Metro, not to visit certain neighbourhoods (most neighbourhoods in fact!) and even during daylight hours the feeling of decay and deprivation was always only one street corner away. Last time I wouldn’t have walked to a neighbourhood restaurant – hell, last time I was so intimidated by the constant warnings I probably wouldn’t have walked from the elevator to the hotel ‘s own restaurant (“Hello, room service?). But a decade can make a world of difference. The overall crime rate and the homicide rate in particular have plummeted. There are a lot fewer derelict buildings and the atmosphere on the streets even late at night was not in the least bit threatening. In fact I would be so bold as to say that London’s West End is more “charged”. That’s not to say that there aren’t places that as a tourist you shouldn’t go with a Nikon around your neck and a Rolex on your wrist, but that’s true of anywhere in the world. I can honestly say that I didn’t feel nervous once during our visit.
Anyway, it turns out that Lebanese food is pretty good and the lamb kebab left me stuffed and ready for my bed. Seasoned travellers will know all about the “Tylenol PM” anti-jetlag trick before bed – suffice to say I awoke Friday morning after a great night’s sleep raring to go. A hearty breakfast at another local hangout, a bookstore/restaurant (or was it a restaurant/ bookstore) just around the corner from the hotel packed with locals, then on the Metro for a few stops to start on the day’s great adventure. Bike & Roll is a rapidly growing business that is starting to establish itself around various cities in the ‘States.
Basically you can hire a bike with helmet and lock and explore the city under your own steam, or as we did, have a guided tour. Our guide, Neil, was excellent; a local lad from neighbouring Virginia, he had been away to New Mexico to study English and Psychology and was back in the city sharing his knowledge of American history with us. Not boring, stuffy history, rather relevant and intriguing glimpses into the architecture and monuments that were the focus of our morning ride. Bizarrely, the ride seemed to be gently downhill all the way around – and keeping in mind we cycled a loop covering several miles and most of the major monuments I don’t remember a single hill! Plenty of stops en route for a quick history, photo and a gander. Of particular interest to me were the brand new Martin Luther King Memorial and the Korean War Memorial. We then stopped for the obligatory picture of the Whitehouse (or Presidential Mansion as it is more properly called, apparently) before arriving on the National Mall for a picnic lunch hosted by some charming folks from the Spy Museum – more about them shortly.
I cannot recommend the cycle tour highly enough. You see the distance between all of the major monuments is quite large despite them all being in one area. Last time I was there I walked between some of them but it can be very time-consuming. On the bikes we whizzed around and covered a lot of ground.
After a delicious deli sandwich – with meat as thick as my wrist as is the American way – we returned the bikes and had the afternoon free to explore. There is so much to see but I narrowed my options to just two sights; The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Spy Museum. The former is fascinating, from the Wright Brothers to the Spacelab and everything else in between (there is another air and space museum out near the airport apparently and they have a Space Shuttle and a Concorde). Hours of fun for kids of all ages. There are of course many more museums in the same area, mostly free, for those with a penchant for art or history but time is required to see them properly. A 15 minute stroll took me to the Spy Museum.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect but it was fun and informative with interesting displays and short videos that gave a great insight into the history of spying and intelligence gathering worldwide. To be honest I whistled around it due to the time constraint but I would happily go back and give it the full treatment.
One of the joys of exploring a city with locals is that you see and visit things that most tourists never hear about – that’s one of the reasons Bon Voyage places such importance on our own staff visiting as many places as possible to gain that insight so we can share it with our customers. One such place is the bar we visited on 7thStreet for cocktails before dinner. Believe me, looking at the street in general with its derelict and boarded up neighbours I wouldn’t have gone in on my own; having arrived a few minutes early we waited for our hosts on the “sidewalk” outside. And it was because of this that we managed the anglicisation of a few locals, who must have assumed that the bar wasn’t yet open and queued behind us!
We were shown through the main bar to the most delightful cocktail bar in the back and then proceeded to work our way through the unconventional menu from top to bottom. It must be said that I am not normally one for drinking nine different sorts of alcohol before dinner – or afterwards for that matter – but we had a ball sipping from these amazing fusions of flavours and swapping glasses amongst ourselves.
Dinner followed in another neighbourhood – the H Street Corridor – at a restaurant that had a great buzz and was packed all evening. Following on from all of our dining experiences thus far the food was tasty and plentiful, the service attentive and enthusiastic and the company hilarious.
Another day dawned with news of the defeat of both England and Ireland in the Rugby World Cup. The trusty Metro took us out of the city to the adjoining state of Virginia to Alexandria for the start of what was going to be an ordeal; an ordeal by meal. We knew from the itinerary that this would be a day to stretch the waistline and test the stitching so we started with a very pleasant, but by no stretch of the imagination low-calorie brunch near the Market Square before meeting our guide for a walking tour.
Alexandria is very quaint and is pleasantly reminiscent of more historic port villages in the UK. Our guide was charming and knowledgeable and gave us a brief tour with an explanation of the town’s historical significance. She was certainly very restrained when it came to the British treatment of the inhabitants during the Revolutionary War in deference to her audience.
The tour finished at the ferry which was to return us to the posh Washington suburb of Georgetown, a pleasant 40 minute cruise up the Potomac River past Ronald Reagan National Airport. We had a little time to explore Georgetown. I spent most of my time looking wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the prices of properties in realtors windows and deciding that only a EuroMillions jackpot win would get me an apartment in this swanky area. We then jumped in cabs for the short ride into the city to U Street for the start of the Gastronomic Tour.
Jazz, our chirpy guide from Philadelphia, met us at the African-American War Memorial. She gave us a little background on the various gastronomic tours offered by her company then we set off walking around the neighbourhood, learning of the African-American settlement of the area in the early part of the twentieth century. Normally these tours would cover more restaurants than we managed, eating different types of food in several restaurants and walking from one to the next talking about the history. Due to our time constraints (and the fact that none of us was wearing elasticated waist trousers) we limited ourselves to just three restaurants (and three meals) over the following two-and-a-half hours.
To be honest I could have stayed in the first one we visited all afternoon; a “soul food” institution, that on first glance looked like a dodgy kebab shop in Hackney, we had to by-pass the long queue at the counter and ascend a dark and dingy stairway at the back to a cramped room with mis-matched, rickety furniture and a TV propped precariously and showing college football. At this point some worried glances were being exchanged. Styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery preceded the food, accompanied by still more worried looks. Then out came the food. Blackened, fried catfish, spicy collard greens, fried chicken and corn bread. Not what you might call haute cuisine but it was good – very, very good – and the group tucked in with a gusto that ignored the fact that this was only the first of three stops. I tried to pace myself but the catfish just kept calling me back for just one more bite.
Louisiana and the food of the Bayou was our next port of call. A different type of restaurant again – much larger and more modern with vast artworks depicting African-American heritage adorning the walls.
Here we tried a “Hush Puppy” stuffed with seafood that was simply perfect, together with a bowl of Gumbo. The portion was starter-sized and begged the question “how great would their main courses be?”. But time, tide and tour wait for no man so we moved on to meal number four. Jeepers.
Once again if proof were needed that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the walk down 9thStreet to our final stop was “colourful”. Not in a threatening way but an interesting insight to a less than salubrious area that, as yet, hasn’t been redeveloped. Yet. The liquor store on the ground floor gave no hint as to the lovely, intimate and eclectic restaurant and bar on the first floor. Here we were treated to an exquisite lobster meat-ball. Even though I was already stuffed I could happily have selflessly forced a few more down to bolster the ego of the chef.
So impressed were we by both the food and the engaging owner that we asked for sight of their dinner menu (which looked excellent and offered good value too). Our host told us that getting hotel concierges to send their clientele to dine with them was difficult because of the neighbourhood – liability fears he suggested – but I would happily recommend it to our customers subject to sensible caveats about taking a cab. The neighbourhood just isn’t that bad and if the lobster meatball is anything to go by, the food is definitely worth the short cab ride!
A quick wash and brush-up and then time to go to dinner. Lord help us! First to the W Hotel for cocktails. Achingly trendy and full of uber-cool furniture, artwork and people, The W is a great place for people watching. We had a quick look at a few rooms, including the suite where her GaGa-ness stayed when she was in town. Simply fantastic and in a great location for downtown. But the reason we were here was for the sunset. Well, the sunset and cocktails, neither of which disappointed in the slightest. On the Penthouse level the side balcony bar overlooks the side of the Whitehouse and is close enough to just make out the snipers patrolling the rooftop. The west-facing bar at the end has vast panoramic windows with the best possible view of the monolithic Washington Monument.
Meal number five was on 14th Street and close to the trendy bar-hopping area of U Street. Housed in what we could only speculate was an old firehouse or garage, complete with rolling metal shutter at the front, this restaurant managed to defy a whole day of eating by serving up what was for most of our group the best meal of our stay. A classic case of simple food done really well, and presented without unnecessary fuss or flourish. And splendid vodka martinis too!
I won’t describe how the evening degenerated after we left the restaurant. Suffice to say the people of Washington DC know how to let their hair down on a Saturday night and we were welcomed with open arms.
Our last day in DC and a well-received late start. Back to the Metro like the seasoned locals that we were becoming, we visited Capitol Hill and specifically Barracks Row – the delightful suburb near the Marine training base – for brunch in a Belgian café.
Unsurprisingly, waffles seemed to be the order of the day, and delicious they were too. Then back over the street to Eastern Market for a potter amongst the diverse, open-air craft, fruit and produce stalls. I felt very comfortable to be able to spend a Sunday morning doing as the locals might do, though I regret I couldn’t fill a suitcase with the delicious local apples, peaches and pears that the stall-holders were so eager for me to try.
After collecting our luggage from the hotel we bade farewell to our generous hosts and headed off to the airport via the vast shopping mall at Tyson’s Corner. I know people who would think they had died and gone to shopper’s heaven at Tyson’s Corner – most of them work at Bon Voyage – but I managed to evade temptation and possible plastic meltdown.
Our timing for the 1900 flight was perfect; just time for a meal in an airside diner then straight down to the gate for an on-time departure to London.
All in all, a whirlwind trip into which we managed to shoe-horn so much. DC is the sort of city that people select as a weekend destination or as a three or four-night stay as part of a touring, multi-centre holiday. I am not sure I would choose to spend a whole week there (though there is plenty to see and do) possibly because the rest of the United States has so much to offer within such close proximity, but I would happily return for another long weekend or another visit. And here’s the thing – I would happily go back again and again. Over the years I have visited some places of which I can honestly say “Yep. Been there but don’t feel the need to go back”.
But with Washington DC I would happily go back repeatedly, happy in the knowledge that when I run out of “touristy” things to do there’ll still be all the stuff that the locals do every weekend. I could spend a couple of days cycling the bike-friendly routes. I could spend a day in each of the free museums – of which there are so many that I keep losing count as I scan the map. I want to go back to the Air and Space Museum. I will definitely go back to the Newseum (though I will take a spare handkerchief next time). And I will make it my mission to do each of the different gastronomic tours. Maybe more than once.
It is so difficult for a city to differentiate itself from its neighbours from a tourism perspective. But it seems to me that what Washington has achieved over the past decade – and continues to work on today – is to make itself a better place for local people to live.
As a convenient by-product of this effort it has made itself into the kind of city that can offer a quality-of-life experience for visitors as well as residents.
As a visitor I found myself envious of the people who get to work and play in Washington DC every day. As somebody who is fortunate to be very well-travelled, particularly in the United States, I can tell you that there aren’t many places that have captured my imagination like Washington DC. I loved my weekend break to Washington – you will too.