Weekend in ... Washington DC

Plan your trip well and you’ll find the US capital a vibrant, fascinating city



While most Americans associate Capitol Hill with congressional misadventures and general dysfunction, thousands of people – senators, reporters, congressional aides, artists, working-class long-timers and young families – call it home. Amid the charming rowhouses and grand federal buildings, Capitol Hill is dotted with restaurants and night spots. Its history is vibrant and largely accessible, from the United States Capitol to the Navy Yard, where the banks of the Anacostia River were once lined with military ships, to dynamic H Street, the site of riots after the 1968 assassination of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King jnr. And don’t forget baseball. Take in a Nationals game, if possible, among cheering fans and very good stadium food.

Green oasis 

Most tourists are drawn to the city’s spectacular array of admission-free Smithsonian museums, but the United States Botanic Garden is an overlooked pleasure in the shadow of the Capitol. Created by Congress as an instructional garden, this is an oasis of roses; medicinal plants; native, exotic and endangered flowers; orchids; shoots and seeds; ferns and the occasional carnivorous plant and more. You could while away an hour in the National Garden alone, with its Butterfly Garden and the First Ladies’ Water Garden, which explores the history of White House residents and their gardening interests. Also on the grounds is the lovely Bartholdi Park. No gift shop, no restaurant. Just flowers, and more flowers.

Rose and rye 

By 4.30pm, locals are lined up for the first seating at Rose’s Luxury, a cultish little Barracks Row spot that has a distinct Charleston vibe. Head upstairs to the bar for a cocktail served in gorgeous mismatched barware. Try the rosewater cocktail, with a generous splash of rye ($11/€8.10). The fried oysters ($3/€2.21 each) are among the best you’ll find in any city, and don’t miss the confit jerk chicken ($13/€9.60).

H Street sustenance

Head north to bustling H Street, where gentrification has been slow but steady, to begin the rest of your evening. Start at the Atlas Room, where tables fill quickly and reservations are recommended. Residents know to sidle up to the bar for a bourbon and innovative American cooking, including pork shoulder with eggplant in a spicy peach sauce ($23/€16.94) or foie gras with truffle vincotto appetizer ($13/€9.60).

Pub crawl

Revitalisation means the arrival of fun bars and good pie. Start at the Biergarten Haus – try a König hefeweizen – and then head to the H Street Country Club, a multi-level space with table games and an elaborate mini-golf course with Washington-themed holes, including one with a replica of the Washington Monument. Round it out at the Pug, where diners wait for a seat at the wildly popular Toki Underground restaurant upstairs, which unfortunately doesn’t take reservations but does serve sublime Taiwanese food. 

Dive bar breakfast

A family-owned, decades-old dive bar extraordinaire, where Capitol Hill’s older and working-class residents pull on Budweisers and scarf down burgers at night, the Tune Inn is also a decent place to start the morning. The coffee is meh, but the French toast tastes of nutmeg, the omelette with grits is good and the service is professional. Expect to pay about $10/€7.36 for breakfast.

History at the Library

One of the city’s greatest troves of stories, artwork, history and architecture, the Library of Congress, which began as Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, is often skipped over, although there is much to see here. While it is best known for its ornate main reading room, the library offers a number of exhibits on Civil War history, music, cartography, poetry and the like.

For Shakespeare buffs

After the hustle and bustle of the Mall’s Smithsonian museums, such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Gallery of Art, the Folger is a quiet, hidden respite. A “bardophile” paradise, the reading rooms of this library are open only to scholars, although Saturday tours are available; sign up in advance. Open to all at no cost is the world’s largest collection of objects related to Shakespeare and his world, including paintings, etchings, sculptures, books and manuscripts. The Tudor-style theatre, based on the Globe in London, has an intimate orchestra level and balcony tiers straight from Shakespeare in Love. Plays run almost nightly.

Pizza on the Hill

Sometimes lost in the shadows of We, the Pizza, the Top Chef-star-run competitor down the street, Seventh Hill Pizza serves up the real deal: crisp, charred, thin-crusted pizza. Try the Eastern Market with goat’s cheese, tapenade and mushrooms ($10.95/€8 for an eight-inch pie) or the Potomac Ave with Felino salami and arugula ($10.95/€8.06), washed down with a little glass of grenache or maybe a Purple Haze beer.

Cemetery stroll

Stretching beneath the unforgiving walls of the city jail is the Congressional Cemetery, with long paths and benches. The cemetery is filled with the graves of lawmakers, including Representative Stephen J Solarz, Democrat of Brooklyn, who once had a nine-hour conversation with Fidel Castro and alienated many in his own party when he supported the Persian Gulf war in 1991; and Representative Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress. Here, also, is John Philip Sousa’s burial site, marked with a stone lyre, and the grave of J Edgar Hoover, which is suitably forbidding, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. The women in the welcome centre smile as they offer self-guided tour maps. Visitors can pay $10/€7.36 for a day pass for their dogs to run off the leash among the dead.

Straight From New York

With Osteria Morini, the New York chef Michael White managed to break the rule about the inverse relationship between food quality and view: giant windows overlook the Anacostia River and new riverfront park. But be prepared for a high noise level in this bustling spot. Among the best bets are the cured meats with cherry jam ($17/€12.52), a succulent duck breast with farro, braised greens and cherries ($29/€21.37) and the mixed grill of lamb, skirt steak, sausage and pancetta ($29/€21.37). Desserts include an inventive selection of gelati – stracciatella and grapefruit-Campari among them (three for $9/€6.63).

Jazz it up

Not merely a club, HR 57 is a cultural centre devoted to the history of jazz and blues. The name of the place is pure Washington: It refers to a 1987 House of Representatives resolution – HR 57– that designated jazz a rare and valuable national American treasure. Don’t expect ambience: a large video screen flashes acts, the decor is decidedly sparse and drink selection is minimal. But it’s all about the music, and you’ll hear some of the best jazz gigs in the city.

Pancakes and crab cakes

The indoor Eastern Market has some competition from the more upscale Union Market, but the food purveyors and artisans make this a draw for visitors and locals who crowd the counter space at Market Lunch for blueberry pancakes ($5.50/€4 for a short stack) or a crab cake sandwich ($9.95/€7.33), the most vernacular of Washington fare. Then check out the market’s wares, including woven bracelets, or giraffes made out of aluminum cans. Next, zip over to the adorable Hill’s Kitchen, which occupies an 1884 townhouse, to fill your suitcase with colourful kitchenware.

Around the Park

End your visit at the sprawling Lincoln Park. On the west end of the park sits a monument to the activist Mary McLeod Bethune, and at the other a striking, and bizarre, statue of President Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation with a presumably freed slave kneeling at his feet. If you need refreshment before hitting the road, head to Ted’s Bulletin, a 15-minute walk away, for a divine milkshake ($8.99/€6.62); if you’re not driving, get one spiked.

© 2014 The New York Times. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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