Washington DC: up close and personal with the President
- Recommended for:
- Activity, Cultural, Road Trip, Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
You can tour the White House and Michelle Obama's vegetable patch if you wish, but there is more to Washington than political life – museums, art galleries and colonial Georgetown, for a start
It has been a surprisingly hectic evening here in Washington DC, in the company of Americans who have become suddenly patriotic. The bars and clubs in the Dupont Circle area – close to the White House – certainly know how to live it up in style; and after a wow of an evening, we are now paying our own respects to the founding fathers of the United Sates of America.
My companions are trudging along the infinity pool that links the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. It is, in its own way, an act of homage that I feel privileged to witness. When they reach the famous memorial, they are overwhelmed and let out startled cries, as Lincoln sternly gazes out at them.
It is a quasi-mystical 2am moment for them, I realise, and a demonstration of the awe in which the presidency is held in the US – and by absolutely everyone. Americans really are different from Europeans, and the whole new world they have created is best summed up by the grandeur of their public buildings and the homage they pay their founders. That is why you have to come to Washington DC, so you can appreciate those subtle differences. President Obama holds Lincoln in reverential regard too, as we will discover during the course of his presidency. Lincoln is the man who ended slavery, at the cost of some 620,000 lives.
Washington loves its visitors. Indeed the whole city, designed by French engineer Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant and commissioned by George Washington, is meant to impress new arrivals and make a statement. A ride or walk down Jefferson Drive and Madison Drive will take you past some truly magnificent museums and art galleries. Not to be missed is the Smithsonian Institution (1000 Jefferson Drive, SW), reminding visitors that this nation worships scientific achievement above all else. Next door (on the National Mall), the National Air and Space Museum leaves us in no doubt as to who pioneered space travel.
You will feel very welcome here, not only because there are no charges to pay at these public places. Washington was also designed to be a neutral environment where a Californian or a Nebraskan, a Yankee or a former Confederate, a Midwesterner or a Texan could feel at home – and this applies equally to overseas visitors.
The White House
A trip to Washington takes you up close and personal to the very heart of the world superpower – and, this being America, you can even go on a tour of the White House. If you are an American, check via your congressman.
The White House Visitor Center (at the corner of 15th and E Streets) is also very helpful and full of background information about the president's home. You can even tour the gardens and Michelle's vegetable patch on some days of the year!
If you want to be located near the heart of the action, the Holiday Inn Washington Central White House is just six blocks from the White House – and close to the big attractions mentioned above. Like the White House itself, it is surprisingly low-key and welcoming to its visitors. Washington genuinely wants UK visitors to feel at home and welcome. They really have forgiven that little upset back in 1814…
The history of Washington is best glimpsed in the lush suburb of Georgetown, which retains its former colonial character with neatly-tended gardens, modestly-sized homes and an indefinable air of ease and leisure. This is where the wealthy whites live, most of whom work for the government.
Georgetown is also where you will find the top hotels – including the Omini Shoreham built in 1930 and set within the 11 acres of Rock Greek Park. It is one of the locations for the inaugural balls, a self-contained glamorous environment that gives you a glimpse of the America inhabited by world leaders and their entourages. It is also a very convenient location for visiting the Zoological Gardens next door, and all the nearby galleries and museums.
In the bars and coffee houses of Georgetown, the young sit and debate loudly – a world away from the streets of downtown Washington which, at 3am, are strolled by an almost entirely black population. The divide is still there to see. Georgetown is far removed from this edgy environment. It is also the centre of the artistic and leisure scene, with the magnificent John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2700 F Street, NW) on the Potomac river putting on everything from theatre to jazz shows.
Many of the five million-plus Washingtonians live out in the suburbs, such as Alexandria – a port city that was originally part of the District of Columbia, but was seized back by Virginia when the federal authorities were slow to develop Washington in the early 19th century. It provides a glimpse into the vast world of American suburbia. If you want to get a feel for the authentic experience of the people who live close to Washington, a visit to its outlying suburbs and satellites repays the effort of getting there. Old-town Alexandria evokes a more leisurely and folksy America, while artists of all descriptions love its gentle vibe. The Torpedo Factory Art Center (105 North Union Street, Alexandria) features the work of no fewer than 160 artists who work in 82 studios at this former armaments factory.