It doesn’t have to be an election month for all eyes to be on Washington, D.C. Sure, the U.S. Federal government is what brings most business travelers here, but there are many other reasons to visit the capital of the United States. It’s a beautiful, multicultural city influenced by every country in the world and every state in the union. (If the kids get bored while you’re driving around, challenge them to a license plate spotting contest. You’ll see them all here.)
Washington, D.C., is bordered by Maryland to the north and east and Virginia to the south and west, but the city’s most significant border is the Beltway — Interstate routes 495 and 95 — that encircles the District of Columbia and parts of Bethesda, Md., and Arlington and Alexandria, Va. Here we’ve focused on interesting sights, dining and lodging inside the Beltway (Washingtonians prefer it that way) with suggestions for day trips generally within a two-hour drive — assuming you don’t encounter Washington’s infamous Beltway traffic.
They call the Smithsonian Institution “America’s Attic” because of its cornucopia of American art and artifacts: Andrew Wyeth paintings, ancient Indian relics, a combat-flown F-14 “Tomcat” fighter plane. You name it, the Smithsonian probably has it housed in a group of separate museums, most of which are situated on the National Mall. Each is devoted to a different subject, including African History, American Indian history and Asian art. Kids love the National Museum of Natural History and its IMAX theater. The National Air & Space Museum, which also has an IMAX theater, is great for science-minded visitors. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is a must for art lovers — and it has a nice cafeteria. The National Museum of American History, a perennial favorite that exhibits everything from the “ruby” slippers featured in “The Wizard of Oz” to the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is closed for renovations until 2008. In the interim, a selection of items from the American History Museum will be displayed at the Air & Space Museum. Admission to the Smithsonian is free (tel 202 633 1000, http://www.smithsonian.org).
The National Zoo (tel 202 633 4800, http://www.natzoo.si.edu), also part of the Smithsonian, is open daily, year-round (except Dec. 25) and admission is free. It’s famous for its giant pandas — now living in the Giant Panda Habitat opened this fall — and Sumatran tigers — with three new cubs born this year. Other new habitats include the Asia Trail, featuring animals native to Asia, and Amazonia, which re-creates tropical South America.
The International Spy Museum (tel 202 EYE SPYU, http://www.spymuseum.org) is housed in buildings that once were home to the offices of the American Communist Party. Now it’s a place to indulge your inner James Bond. The subject matter might be tough for really young kids to grasp, but artifacts like buttonhole cameras and invisible ink are intriguing to visitors of any age. The museum also runs spy-themed scavenger hunts and two-hour “Spy City” tours that visit 65 places in Washington, D.C., where espionage activities have occurred.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (tel 800 444 1324, http://www.kennedy-center.org) is a superb venue for dance, theater and music, but securing tickets to a performance in the auditorium requires pre-planning. An alternative — simply go to the Kennedy Center at 6 p.m. any day and see what’s playing for free on the Millennium Stage in the building’s Grand Foyer. You never know what you might see – Indian dance ensembles, jazz combos, bluegrass players, Irish folk musicians, the Joffrey Ballet. It’s all good.
Walking Town D.C. (tel 202 661 7581, http://www.walkingtowndc.org) runs free guided theme tours that change with the seasons. It’s a good way to explore Washington’s many distinctive neighborhoods: historic Georgetown, busy Dupont Circle, multicultural Adams Morgan and more.
Don’t leave town without visiting at least one of Washington, D.C.’s famous monuments. The obelisk of the Washington Monument is probably the most recognizable, and the Lincoln Memorial will strike a chord with fans of Jimmy Stewart who had an epiphany moment there in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or Lisa Simpson who had better luck at the Jefferson Memorial in the “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington” episode of “The Simpsons.” Other monuments worth a visit include the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the World War II Memorial. National Park Service rangers conduct excellent free tours at the sites (tel 202 426 6841, http://www.nps.gov).
With all the sights to see in and around Washington, D.C., it’s easy to overlook the area’s terrific outdoor activities. Yet on a beautiful day — and there are plenty of them in Washington, D.C. — there’s nothing better than taking off on a bike, on a hike or in a canoe. The towpath along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, beside the Potomac River, is great for biking and walking. The most popular stretch runs from the Georgetown Visitors Center north to the Great Falls Tavern Visitors Center. At several places along the way you can rent bikes and canoes. The visitors centers run canal boat tours from spring through autumn, and the Billy Goat Trail in Great Falls Park is a fun and challenging hiking route for the whole family (tel 301 739 4200, http://www.nps.gov/choh).
EMBASSY SUITES HOTEL AT CHEVY CHASE PAVILION
Of the many Embassy Suites locations in the area, this one is especially convenient because it’s right at a Metro station, which means you can leave your car parked in the hotel garage (for a fee) and take the Metro to visit the Smithsonian, the monuments, the zoo and other must-sees. All the hotel’s two-room suites have refrigerators, coffeemakers and microwave ovens. Breakfast is included in the rate and there’s a pool on the premises. Lots of shopping and casual restaurants, including local favorite Booeymonger, are just steps from the hotel. $$$
EMBASSY SUITES HOTEL AT CHEVY CHASE PAVILION
4300 Military Road NW
tel 202 362 9300 fax 202 686 3405
FAIRMONT WASHINGTON, D.C.
A graceful hotel with 415 classically furnished guestrooms, the Fairmont is centrally located within walking distance of most monuments and the White House. Panda fans take note: The hotel is one of 10 in the city that offer the National Zoo Panda Package, which includes overnight accommodations for two adults and two children and a “Zoo Welcome Kit” that contains panda-related goodies. For every room night booked on the Panda Package, $10 is donated to the Giant Panda Conservation Fund. $$$$
FAIRMONT WASHINGTON, D.C.
2401 M St. NW
tel 202 429 2400 fax 202 457 5010
In button-down D.C., this hipster hotel stands out with eclectic decor that’s sort of “That ’70s Show” meets “Project Runway.” Its 178 guestrooms include 18 suites and 12 specialty rooms, such as the Bunk Rooms, where families can stay sleepaway-camp style, raid the honor bar for candy, play the in-room Nintendo and use the complimentary WiFi. Book the “Bring ’Em Along” package and you get a Bunk Room for four, an in-room pizza party, ice cream delivery and a family board game. $$$$
1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW
tel 202 462 9001 fax 202 332 3519
A local fixture since the 1960s, when the first location opened in Georgetown, Clyde’s now has 13 restaurants in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, but the owners vow that their focus will always remain local. Each location has its own style and clientele. All serve dependable American fare with something on the menu to please everyone. $$$
Even though this restaurant group has branched out up and down the eastern seaboard, it remains a hometown favorite, serving burgers and fries (and not much else) that are consistently ranked No. 1 in local magazine and newspaper reader polls. There are several locations throughout Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area. $
Washingtonians swear Two Amys makes the best pizza in town. It’s loud and crowded, the pizza is authentic Neapolitan style, and once you’re inside it’s family friendly, but the wait for a table can be long.Arrive hungry. Pizza choices extend far beyond the usual pepperoni and mushrooms, and the dessert menu is excellent. $$
3715 Macomb Street NW
tel 202 885 5700
INFO TO GO
Washington, D.C., is served by Reagan National Airport (DCA), Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI). Amtrak trains arrive at Union Station, which has excellent food and shopping, including places to pick up healthy snacks for the train ride. It’s so nice that locals go there to eat and shop even if they’re not preparing to board a train.
Driving in Washington can be stressful because many of the city’s main arteries, while scenic, simply weren’t built to handle the volume of traffic they currently must. Metrorail — the “Metro” — is one of the saving graces here. It’s clean and efficient and it usually will take you where you need to go, especially tourist areas or government buildings. Fares are determined by time of day and distance traveled, starting with a base fare of $1.35 (tel 202 637 7000, http://www.wmata.com).
Annapolis: Maryland’s capital is charming, relaxing and very much in touch with its nautical heritage, which dates back to its founding in 1649. Tour the state capitol building and the United States Naval Academy campus. Watch the ships come in at the 18th century City Dock. Take a cruise on the Chesapeake Bay or a self-guided tour of the city’s many historic buildings, and don’t miss the chance to sample Maryland crabs at a waterside cafe. (tel 888 302 2852, http://www.visitannapolis.org).
Civil War Sites: There are dozens of Civil War-era historic sites in the Washington, D.C., area: battle sites such as Manassas and Fredericksburg in Virginia, or Antietam near Hagerstown, Md.; the Appomattox Court House in Virginia,where General Robert E. Lee surrendered; Harpers Ferry,W.Va., where abolitionist John Brown made a stand against slavery, and more. Many are now National Historic Parks and Sites (http://www.civilwartraveler.com).
Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is the largest living history site in the United States. If you enjoy watching costumed interpreters recreate the 18th century — from making horseshoes to baking on an open hearth — it doesn’t get better than this.There are historic buildings to visit, taverns where you can eat authentic 18th century cuisine, and year-round activities.When you’re done living in the past, the nearby golf course and newly opened spa will ease you back into real time (tel 800 HISTORY, http://www.colonialwilliamsburg.com).
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