Best things to do in Washington DC

By Leila George

Why a trip to Washington DC deserves your vote.

Man walking past Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington DC.
Man walking past Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington DC.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Washington, D.C. will probably be one part of America that really surprises you.

Rather than being a beige city stuffed with government workers and politicos, D.C. is a vibrant, exciting place to visit, brimming over with history, interesting things to do, and plenty of great places to eat and drink.

There's a real buzz in the tiny federal district — be careful not to refer to it as a state — which was created out of land donated from Virginia and Maryland in 1791 to make an independent, planned city from which to run the country.

If this sounds a little dry, trust us — you'll find plenty to see and do. Here are a few things not to miss.

FDR Memorial, Washington DC.
FDR Memorial, Washington DC.

New kid on the block

Unlike many of the must-see museums across the States, the majority in D.C.

are free to visit thanks to the legacy left by James Smithson, an English chemist who bequeathed his estate towards the founding of an educational institution in the city despite having never visited the US. Seventeen of the Smithsonian Institute's 19 museums and galleries are in Washington, and 11 of those are on the National Mall. They are all incredible and you could easily spend a day in each.

The one everybody is talking about at the moment is the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which finally opened its doors last weekend after years of planning and construction. The design of the stunning three-tiered building is loaded with symbolism — for example the bronze mesh panels that cover much of it are a nod to the intricate ironwork skills of freed slaves — and the prized collection inside its walls features more than 3000 artefacts, from pieces of a slave ship and Ku Klux Klan hoods, to Carl Lewis' Olympic medals and a vest once worn by Jimi Hendrix. This is a must-see.

Over at the excellent National Museum of American History, upcoming exhibition Advertising War piqued our interest. Opening in April, it will display the propaganda poster imagery used before and during American involvement in World War I.

D.C. hotspots

The US capital has a young population — the average age is early 30s — and they like to go out and have fun. They're in a good place for it — Bon Appetit magazine recently named it "restaurant city of the year" and it just joined New York City, San Francisco and Chicago in the Michelin Guide.

The hottest new foodie and shopping neighbourhood is Shaw, just north of the National Mall, an area that grew out of freed slave encampments. It had a vibrant alleyway culture behind blocks of rowhouses in the 19th and early 20th centuries that has been revived today on historic Blagden Alley and Naylor Court.

Once home to stables and workshops, these days they're drinking, dining and shopping destinations clad with colourful mural art. A local recommended The Dabney — which serves up mid-Atlantic cuisine using recipes inspired by 19th-century cookbooks — and the elegant Columbia Room cocktail bar.

Summer night in the city, Washington DC.
Summer night in the city, Washington DC.

Talking politics

The city is busy getting ready for the inauguration of the next US president which will take place on January 20. The traditional inauguration ceremony takes place at the Capitol building, where the President and Vice-President are sworn into office, and is followed by a parade along Pennsylvania Ave to the White House. Inauguration Day is disruptive for the city, not only because of the events that take place on the day but also due to the protests and demonstrations that precede and follow it, so if that sounds like too much hard work watch it on the telly and plan your visit around it.

If Donald Trump is not successful in his run for the White House, he'll still be able to claim Pennsylvania Ave as an address — the Republican candidate has just opened a 263-room luxury hotel at No 1100 at a cost of nearly $291m.

Pay your respects

America sure does memorials and monuments well, and D.C. has dozens of powerful, dignified and thought-provoking tributes to past heroes and fallen soldiers. It's not that hard to get around them all but a fun way to do it is on a Bike and Roll tour, which offers numerous cycling or Segway tours around the city. Its three-hour Monuments tour over a flat 6.5km covers off the main sites, including the Washington Monument and Vietnam Veterans, World War II, Lincoln, Korean, Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr memorials, with plenty of time to get off the bikes and have a good look around.

Its night tour offers an entirely different experience — the memorials look beautiful illuminated at night, there are fewer crowds, and in the summertime it's much cooler. The Korean War Memorial, featuring 19 statues of terrified US soldiers creeping through undergrowth designed to represent Korean terrain, is particularly haunting.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC.
Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC.

PLAN YOUR ROAD TRIP

To book your USA road trip: See House of Travel.

Further information: See visittheusa.com.

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