Welcome to Washington
In the wake of Barack Obama’s re-election, there’s only one place to be this winter: Washington DC. Anna Maria Espsäter shows us the way to go
Mention Washington D.C. to anyone and you’ll immediately be conjuring up images of presidents and politics across the pond. With the recent U.S. election the world’s eyes have been firmly fixed on the city’s powerful institutions, but does Washington have something to offer the visitor less interested in affairs of state? I decided to pay it a visit and as a first-time visitor I found the capital, complete with imposing buildings, surprisingly laidback.
Power and politics – D.C.’s raison d’être
There’s no getting away from the fact that politics are what makes this city tick. You’ll hear it discussed in coffee shops and bars, see it in the ‘power suits’ walking by, in fact sometimes you can almost smell it in the sleek hotels and restaurants near government buildings and this city truly has enough of those to knock your socks off. Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I figured a visit to Washington would not be complete without at least a sneak peek at all this nation-building architecture and where better to start than the White House itself. This famed building comes across as remarkably understated in real life, dwarfed as it is by the nearby Department of Treasury and several other enormous grey-looking hulks surrounding it. Unless there’s a state visit of some kind, it’s possible to walk right up to the gates and ogle the President’s abode, which I was intending to do, but a more illustrious foreign visitor rudely beat me to it. There was nothing for it but to continue my exploratory amble.
Monuments rule the day
If the White House is something of an anti-climax after all those TV moments, the monuments that cover a large part of central Washington are all the more imposing. You could quite easily dedicate a full day to the city’s memorials and still not fit all of them in. Trundling down 17th Avenue from the White House led me to the 555 feet high obelisk that is the Washington Monument, usually open to the public, now sadly closed until 2014 after earthquake damage in 2011. From here it’s another short walk to the National World War II Memorial, the DC World War I Memorial, not to mention two impressive ones dedicated to the Vietnam and Korean wars. Then there are all those former presidents who get their very own magnificent structures to commemorate them, so there is plenty to see. Although these places are certainly worth a visit, there is something slightly eerie about all these imposing tomb-like constructions, all white marble in sweeping lines. Luckily the Franklin.D.Roosevelt Memorial adds a bit more vivacity and spark to what’s otherwise a rather sombre experience even in splendid sunshine. Roosevelt’s memorial features a number of sculptures of the former president, including one with him seated together with his favourite dog, as well as many quotes by him.
A stroll along The Mall
The broad, green area running through the heart of the city from Lincoln Memorial, near the Potomac River, to Capitol Hill is known as The National Mall and it receives an incredible 20 million visitors a year. What’s so special about this particular patch of grass, you might well ask yourself. For a start this is where you find some of the many memorials already mentioned, as well as the Reflecting Pool (turned into a ice-rink in winter), promenades, an artificial lake and numerous gardens, but arguably the main draw lies further along the Mall – the Smithsonian Institute and all its world-renowned museums. However, it was a gorgeous sunny day, so I walked straight past all these certainly worthwhile museums, instead making a short stop to admire the Smithsonian Castle – a rather pretty, Gothic-looking building in red sandstone – before reaching the steps up to the U.S. Capitol Building on Capitol Hill, three kilometres away from the start of the Mall at Lincoln Memorial.
You could easily start suffering from “imposing building overload” in the U.S. capital and after a few days of touring the main sights it’s necessary to take time out and explore some of the less well-known areas. Heading southeast from Capitol Hill along the broad Pennsylvania Avenue I soon found myself in a different neighbourhood altogether. Still in the area of Capitol Hill, Eastern Market, the city’s oldest fresh food market, dating from 1873, is open Tue-Sun. It’s a community hub for the area, selling all sorts of fresh produce and there are arts and crafts stalls selling quirky gifts and souvenirs. In summer they hold outdoor farmer’s markets on different dates, while in winter most of the action takes place indoors.
Going south of the border
Shopping at local markets is a great way to mingle with locals, check out the food scene and find some interesting and unusual gifts to take home. For me, nothing beats a local market, except perhaps the chance of sampling different dishes in local restaurants. Apart from good old-fashioned burgers, great steaks and fabulous pizzas, Washington has far more authentic Latin American cooking than can be found e.g. in the UK, which has been slow to cotton on to the culinary delights of many dishes originating south of the border. In Washington, with its much larger Latin community, it’s easy to find anything from Chilean and Argentine empanadas, Peruvian ceviche and of course authentic Mexican home-cooking at its finest. 7th Avenue, near the city’s miniscule Chinatown, is home to several of the best Mexican restaurants in town – Rosa Mexicano for fine dining and Oyamel for a less refined, but just as tasty, night out. The latter occasionally hosts a festival of tequila and also mezcal, tequila’s evil cousin, which happily (or should I say merrily) coincided with my last winter visit.
Although Washington can be fiercely cold in winter, it’s also remarkably cosy. There are plenty of winter activities taking over the capital this season – in fact there are some 100 free, or almost free, events taking place – wintry guided tours of the city, a festive exhibition in the Botanical Gardens, winter crafts and ice sculpting at the National Zoo and much more. Then there’s ice-skating to be enjoyed in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, where there will also be live jazz performances and guided tours of the sculptures (presumably without ice-skates). Just wrap up warm and enjoy the capital in winter and if wrapping up doesn’t work, there’s always tequila and mezcal to warm up the most frozen of visitors.