I’ve never seen so many suits in one place,” declared a friend visiting from Ohio, as we surveyed the packed metro train to Washington for empty seats several summers ago. Suited, booted and stiletto’d locals stood out from the casually dressed, fanny-pack-and-camera-toting tourists.
History lesson: (clockwise from top) The Capitol, the seat of the US government; Washington Monument; the hustle and bustle of Chinatown; the north facade of the White House.
It is the humble suit that gives the visitor to Washington a sense of the city’s enterprise — the production, not of automobiles or food products or pharmaceuticals, but of laws, decisions, policies, and, not to forget, a scandal or ten.
From a distance, the city is unimpressive. None of the usual landmarks that define large American cities demarcate Washington from its surroundings. There are no shiny skyscrapers signalling the start of its business district or massive steel bridges heralding the approach of its borders. You would have to look really hard to find the smokestacks on top of factories at the edge of town.
What is recognizable of the city from miles away, appropriately enough, is the dome of the US Capitol—which houses Congress—and the Washington Monument, the “needle” in local parlance, erected in memory of the nation’s first president.
Up close, the city is compelling. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the capital “of this vast empire”, as he referred to the US two centuries ago, was nothing short of genius. The land he was allocated on the banks of the Potomac alternated between marshy bogs, heavily wooded wilderness and farmland, with a few hilly patches thrown in. What he envisioned was a neatly organized city with broad, tree-lined avenues, parks and grand buildings and monuments befitting the ideals of a new nation. Amid strife and delays—typical of the way Washington does business even now—it took nearly a century for an approximation of his blueprint to come to life in stone, marble and concrete.
In an election year such as this one, Washington and the way it does business are in sharper focus than usual. “Washington insider” is bandied about as an insult as presidential candidates criss-cross the country, claiming the mantle of the “outsider” who will save the country from the clutches of the “special interests that control Washington”.
What transpires once the outsider gets in is anybody’s guess, but until the dust settles on 4 November and a victor emerges—bloodied and bruised from the ever-lengthening campaign season—voters are bombarded with missives, ads, debates, media interviews and stump speeches purporting to lay bare the machinations of Congress and the White House.
These four-yearly rituals merely scratch the surface—or so it seems in the face of the number of scandals and leaks that erupt with alarming frequency in this city. The leaking of Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame’s identity to the press was one of the latest, but the big daddy of them all is still Watergate. Named after the Watergate Complex—a striking edifice that houses a hotel, shops, offices and luxury apartments—the fiasco brought down a president and has the unparalleled distinction of helping name successive scandals (Monicagate sound familiar?; Lewinsky, ironically, lived at the Watergate).
Numerous paths lead into Washington from all directions, but my favourite is via the Arlington Memorial Bridge. With the majestic Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument at its top, the marble façade of the Kennedy Center and the spires of Georgetown University to its left and the entrance into Arlington Cemetery at its foot, the expansive bridge transports you into town in style.
As you follow the winding road at the top of the bridge, the vast treasure trove of cultural and political history that is Constitution Avenue begs to be explored. The must-see list—the National Gallery of Art, the National Museums of American History and Natural History, the National Archives, the Smithsonian Museums (home of the ever popular Air and Space Museum), not to mention the White House and the Capitol—is so long that days could blend into weeks in trying to do justice to all that is available in this small corner of Washington.
On sunny weekdays, the immense grassy expanse of the National Mall is the venue of choice for Capitol Hill staffers, lawyers, lobbyists, and other assorted Washington employees escaping their offices for long, lazy lunches. Being within plain sight of the White House, it also serves as a popular setting for protests, marches, cookouts and concerts. Martin Luther King delivering his historic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is one of the many iconic images to have come out of the city.
But there’s also a Washington that doesn’t make the headlines. When the world press converges on the city around 4 November, chances are Chinatown—minutes away from the Mall—will continue to move at its relatively sedate pace. The hub’s multicultural restaurants are the antidote for your aching feet after a day spent hopscotching between museums and monuments.
Aggressive efforts to reclaim the cultural landscape from crime and decay have paid off and Washington nightlife throbs to a new rhythm these days. But, keep an eye on the schedule at the Verizon Center (home of the Washington Wizards basketball team). Michael Jordan may not play for them any more, but capacity crowds (around 20,000) inundate Chinatown on game or concert nights.
Well north of the Mall lies Adams Morgan, where entertainment takes on edgy overtones. The go-to place for locals on the prowl for ethnic cuisine, lounge bars, dives and chic boutiques, Adams Morgan wears its energy on its sleeve and sucks you in. My most treasured Adams Morgan experience is decidedly lower key—a communal meal of injera (a close relative of the dosa, made with teff flour) shared with friends at an Ethiopian restaurant after a night out on the town.
Georgetown’s old-world charm, upscale restaurants, watering holes and shops beckon after a Kennedy Center play or concert. At the über-trendy Café Milano, celebrity spotting is as much a draw as the food. Georgetown sojourns almost always seem to draw us down to Sequoia’s river-front bar. If you can find a place to sit, you might as well order a drink and settle down.
As you put your feet up and take in the breathtaking views of the Potomac, as the cadences of Washingtonspeak ebb and flow in the gentle breeze, it occurs to one that Washington is a living, breathing shrine to the strengths and the foibles that bless and beset human beings. And that politics—and the relentless pursuit of power—trump culture as the city’s favourite pastime.
How to go:
Multiple airlines connect New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore with Washington, with a stopover at a European gateway. British Airways, which halts at Heathrow, offers round-trip economy fares from Rs53,000, ex-Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Visas cost Rs5,240 plus a Rs322 processing fee from the US embassy in New Delhi, or the consulates general in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.
Where to stay:
Eight million tourists arrive in Washington each year. So, the city abounds in great choices for hotels with a wide range of comfort and pricing. Go to www.washingtondchotels.com. For a little bit of history and proximity to the White House and the Mall, you can’t go wrong with the Hay Adams Hotel (www.hayadams.com); rates start at $325 (around Rs13,000) per night. The Renaissance Mayflower Hotel (www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/wassh-renaissance-mayflower-hotel/) is also conveniently located; rates start at $195 per night.
Where to eat:
Hobnob with power brokers and talking heads at The Palm (202-2939091). Soul food and southern hospitality are on the menu at Georgia Brown (202-3934499). TenPenh (202-3934500) offers pan-Asian cuisine in an upscale ambience. For Indian food, head to the elegant Bombay Club across from the White House (202-6593727).
What to do:
Ride up to the top of the 555ft tall Washington Monument for unparalleled views of the city (tickets are free but required and they go fast). Catch a free performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage every day of the year at 6pm (www.kennedy-center.org). Watch the city go by from a Potomac river dinner cruise. Hop on the DC Duck and go around Washington on land and on water (www.dcducks.com). Drive into Virginia on the enchanting Rock Creek, Spout Run and George Washington parkways— stop at any of the numerous river-front parks that catch your fancy, grab lunch in Old Town Alexandria and continue on to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home and now a museum open to the public. In addition to the museums on the Mall, don’t miss the Holocaust Museum or the Spy Museum. Head to the National Zoo (www.nationalzoo.si.edu) to meet the giant pandas, two of its most popular residents.
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