HOW TO SPEND 48 HOURS IN DC
WORDS BY REEM KHOKHAR
Neo-classical architecture, historic landmarks, quirky neighbourhoods, malls, museums, cultural cauldrons, and culinary hotspots… the capital of the United States of America is all things to all people. Conscious of its history and confident in its modernity, the city’s identity as seat of political power is understated but omnipresent. Welcome to Washington, DC!
Whether on a fleeting work trip or a weekend break, 48 hours is all you need to sample the best the city has to offer.
10 a.m.: Take a walk through history
The National Mall is in the most iconic part of DC, a congregation of all the great historical monuments and memorials. The soaring Washington Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and grand Capitol Building set a stately mood for the entire hood. There is the sombreness associated with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the sprawl of the FDR Memorial, and one of the newest additions, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. This is an image that is 30ft high and inscribed with powerful quotes about democracy and peace.
2 p.m.: Fly me to the moon
The National Mall is irresistible for its scores of free museums. The Smithsonian is an institution with 19 museums, galleries, and a zoo and has something for everyone. Its newest addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is as exciting as that art lovers’ paradise, the National Portrait Gallery. One of the most popular exhibitions is at the National Air and Space Museum with its huge collection of aviation and space objects. Poke at some moon rock brought back by the Apollo 17 mission, stare geekily at the Star Ship enterprise model in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, or do some daytime stargazing through a solar telescope at the public observatory.
6 p.m.: Enjoy an evening in and around Chinatown
While some of Chinatown’s original, ethnic population have left, the area is packed with shopping, entertainment, and dining options. The Friendship Archway Gate, a colourful 272-dragoned archway still stands, and all shop signs in Chinese characters lend the ’hood (and your photographs) an air of authenticity.
Theatre buffs can choose to catch a performance at the Shakespeare Theatre Company or at the Sixth & I, located at a historic synagogue.
You could low-brow it and people-watch in the Plaza area, indulge in some window shopping or dive wallet-first into the CityCenter DC which is luxuriously festooned with the likes of Dior and Gucci.
Visit the place where Lincoln’s assassination was planned – an erstwhile boarding house run by Mary Surratt – that is now a Wok n’ Roll with a mix of Chinese and Japanese fare and karaoke.
10 a.m.: Catch the news
With the amount of news DC generates, it’s no surprise that a museum – or rather the Newseum – is headquartered here. An interactive, engaging space, it is ideal for adults and children. Dedicated to the freedom of expression and the First Amendment that defends freedom of religion and the press among others, the Newseum has 15 galleries and theatres with exhibits that include the editorial cartoons by Jim Morin of the Miami Herald, whose work satirised U.S. presidents and burning issues of the day. You’ll walk past gripping displays like the 9/11 gallery or the largest collection of Pulitzer-prize winning photographs. Quirky special interest galleries like “First Dogs: American Presidents and their Pets” treat visitors to the important tidbits like FDR’s terrier having his own press secretary or JFK’s dog allergy not inhibiting him from having nine canines!
2 p.m.: Gargoyle gazing
The Washington National Cathedral, the sixth largest cathedral in the world, is an impressive Gothic structure complete with stained glass windows and gargoyles. As the National House of Prayer, it is used for presidential funerals and prayer services. Thirty-minute guided tours are available, and there are free music performances on weekdays. The grounds afford a lovely ramble, with a medieval style Bishops Garden, winding paths through Olmsted Woods, and an atmospheric café in the Baptistry building where you can stop for some coffee and dessert. The highlights include the gargoyles on the cathedral exterior, some of which are modern. Spot the hippie gargoyle and Darth Vader!
7 p.m.: Take a walking tour
“John Wilkes Booth was the George Clooney of that time…he was very popular,” says the guide, passing around an iPad with a black and white picture of a moustachioed Booth, one of the most famous assassins in history. The DC-on-foot themed walking tours along themed trails are a great way to learn more about the city.
The Lincoln Assassination Trail takes in the area around the White House and Lafayette Square and on over to the National and Ford Theaters. The spirited narration takes you back in time to a pre-security era, when you could stride all the way up to the White House. Abe Lincoln was trying to unify his countrymen after a brutal Civil War, and many – including the Confederate sympathiser Booth – didn’t appreciate his words and actions. Determined to not just get rid of Lincoln, Booth orchestrated what was meant to be a triple assassination targeting the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. The tour brings alive the people, the charged atmosphere, the botched attempts at taking the VP and Secretary of State’s lives, and the unfortunate and tragic success of Booth’s determination to end Abe Lincoln’s time at the Ford Theater. (Interesting fact: Timing was key. All three murders were planned for 10 p.m. when the funniest line of the play was expected to lead to an eruption of laughter that would mask the bullet shot and delay reactions and news of the murder).
9:30 p.m.: Jazz it up at U Street
End the day in the U Street area, once the centre of African American culture and birthplace of DC jazz legend Duke Ellington, which offers a choice of jazz clubs and other music options. Clubs like JoJo and Twins Jazz are a quintessential DC experience. Then there’s the 9:30 Club, which gets so busy it has a wheeled stage that is moved around to accommodate more people. When it’s time to eat, the jazz plays on at several trendy rooftop lounges and iconic restaurants like Ben’s Chili Bowl, which serves up the Chili Half Smoke, reportedly voted Washington’s signature dish.