herald

Thursday 23 November 2017

The power trip

Lisa Hughes visits the Capitol attractions of Washington DC – and its unmissable surrounding areas

Lisa in the heart of DC.
Lisa in the heart of DC.

Even though it's home to America's capital city, the Capital Region of Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC is firmly on the 'lesser spotted' list for Irish tourists.

With a vibrant food scene and iconic sights, DC is perfect for anyone who's been to the big hitters like New York and Chicago but wants to see more of the US. Meanwhile, neighbouring Maryland offers an edgy downtown experience in Baltimore and a wealth of history in Frederick.

With the White House and Capitol Building on the backdrop of the news most nights, you can feel like you've been to DC when you haven't. Not to mention it's the setting of a host of TV shows from House of Cards to Veep and The West Wing. With the cherry blossoms adding an unexpected pop of colour across the city, DC is postcard-perfect in spring and this is the best time to visit.

LANDMARKS

DC is the ninth US capital but strolling along Pennsylvania Avenue it's hard to picture anywhere else having the title. Built according to Pierre L'Enfant's masterplan, DC was intended to be a city of monuments and memorials and even the most nondescript office is housed in a grand building. With all the major monuments illuminated, Washington at night is a different city. Jet lag permitting, if you can book the Monuments by Moonlight bus tour on your first night, it's the best way to see DC.

Taking off from Union Station, the two and a half hour Old Town Trolley tour ticks a sizable chunk off your must-see list in one night. The old style trolley bus stops off at all of the area's most notable places from the iconic Iwa Jima statue in nearby Virginia to the unforgettable Martin Luther King statue. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where MLK gave the 'I have a dream' speech and looking towards the Washington Monument on the horizon is a once-in-a-lifetime feeling I'll never forget, as is peering through the railings of the White House. Tickets for Monuments by Moonlight cost $39 and it's the highlight of any trip.

MUSEUMS

Washington isn't just a city of monuments, it's a museum haven too with a whopping 13 Smithsonians in the mall area alone. Popular choices are the Newseum for news junkies and the Museum of the American Indian but a DC stalwart everyone will love is the enormous Smithsonian Museum of American History. You can find everything from Dorothy's ruby slippers to the top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated to the very first Stars and Stripes flag on display here.

DC's slightly off-kilter museums are also worth a look, such as the Spy Museum, dedicated to the fine art of espionage, and the Crime & Punishment Museum, a must for CSI fans.

FOOD

In culinary capital terms, DC is fast catching up with its East Coast counterparts.

A great way to sample its eclectic food scene is on a DC Metro food tour.

I recommend the Capitol Hill area tour which takes you away from DC's tourist hotspots to the pretty Greenwich Village-style side streets.

In between visits to the places of note like the Civil War-era Old Naval Hospital you can tickle your tastebuds with homemade Limoncello at Lavagna, grilled halloumi at Cava and risotto at Zest.

Other DC food spots to try are Ted's Bulletin where they make homemade pop tarts in front of a drooling crowd and the Obama-approved Ben's Chilli Bowl.

One of the best hotels in DC is the luxury Mandarin Oriental, worth checking into for the super-indulgent spa alone. Dine at the hotel's Muze restaurant for Asian fusion delights as well as sunset views over the Jefferson Monument's glowing globe.

If you're still hungry for a view, head for the bell tower at the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue.

At 270 feet high it's no Empire State Building but that said the panorama is hard to beat.

MARYLAND

A few days in Washington is all you need to have this surprisingly compact capital covered. Most visitors combine DC with somewhere like NYC but, for a more off-the-beaten path experience, neighbouring Maryland complements DC perfectly. On your way to Baltimore, stop off at Frederick where you can book a Civil War tour or it's just a short drive to Gettysburg.

The birthplace of Francis Scott Key, Frederick's quaint streets are lined with 18th and 19th century architecture and cute boutiques and cafes like the Tea Emporium make it an all-American pit stop.

Market Street is the place to go for lunch and the Jackson's Power Lunch (filet mignon, fries and chili steak sauce for $18) at the Tasting Room more than hits the spot.

Don't leave without trying some Old Bay, a spicy local delicacy that's added to everything from crab cakes to chocolate. All I can say is it's an acquired taste.

BALTIMORE

Think of Baltimore and chances are cult drama The Wire springs to mind, well, for TV fans at least.

Whereas central DC can feel like you've stepped into a film set, Baltimore feels more real. Thanks to low taxes 'Charm City' is regularly used as a film location and most of House of Cards is actually filmed here, not in DC. Baltimore's beating heart is along the harbour where jazz musicians set up camp on sunny days.

Check out 'America's Bastille' Fort McHenry, Maryland Science Centre and you could easily spend all day at the gigantic National Aquarium.

For a city that lies on Chesapeake Bay, the third biggest estuary in the world, it's no surprise that Baltimore is all about the seafood and the city is worth visiting for the food and drink scene alone.

Harbourside views and fresh local produce in mouthwatering dishes combine to make Waterfront Kitchen a certified hit.

For after dark, kick off your night at B&O American Brasserie for a masterclass in cocktails followed by dinner at 1010, a stylish restaurant offering more locally sourced food. Let the aphrodisiacs fly with a plate of succulent oysters and keep it local with a Black Ankle Wine, from the Maryland winery of the same name.

It's all a far cry from The Wire but Baltimore is proof you shouldn't believe everything you see on TV.

Factbox

For more information on the Capital Region USA, visit www.capitalregionusa.co.uk

Hotels - Mandarin Oriental, DC - www.mandarinoriental.com/ washington and The Lord Baltimore Hotel in Baltimore - www.lordbaltimorehotel.com

United Airlines fly non-stop service from Dublin to its Washington, DC hub, Dulles International Airport with fares starting from €846 for travel between 1 April - 24 June and 23 August - 31 October 2014.

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