Finding Americana in Washington, D.C.
I don’t know about you, but whenever someone comes to visit and tells me their itinerary I secretly roll my eyes and think “but there is so much more to the city than that!” I know I’m not alone. I’ve asked a few friends to tell me what they love about the cities they have lived in, and give us the insiders guide to how to tackle a new place from a local’s perspective.
Washington, DC is a great place for a family vacation. You’ve got a beautiful, walkable city, the Smithsonian and government buildings to knock home the kids’ history and civics lessons, world-class restaurants, and sporting activities galore. It’s an easy city to navigate, with four quadrants (NW, NE, SE and SW) divided by the crossing of (North, South, East and West) Capitol Street.
Though we often proclaim our love for Washington as a global city, it’s also a great place to celebrate all things American. A perfect “American” day in the city might go like this:
If you’re a photographer and an early riser, you can get an swoon-inducing shot of the Iwo Jima Memorial, with the Washington Monument and the Capitol building silhouetted in the light of sunrise from across the Potomac River in Rosslyn. If you’d rather stay on the DC side of the river, a shot from the Lincoln Memorial will capture two of the three nicely.
If Congress is in session, you will find that the power breakfast is alive and well in DC. The tourbooks might recommend the Four Seasons, Old Ebbit Grill or newcomer the Hamilton, but where you will more likely find your lawmakers is in their offices. Several Senators, like Al Franken, Dianne Feinstein and Bob Corker, host breakfasts with their constituents in their offices on a regular basis.
Touring the Capitol, the White House, and more
When you call your representative’s office to check on breakfast, be sure to ask them about touring the Capitol Building, White House, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The latter is always a big hit with kids, who inevitably spend the afternoon trying to figure out how to get into the money-printing room to steal a big stack of bills.
Since you’ll probably be on Capitol Hill at some point in the day, why not go for lunch at one of the many spots along Pennsylvania Avenue or 8th Street SE. This is where you will find the Hill staffers either talking about the latest legislation or whether the local sports teams (Wizards, Capitals, Redskins, Nationals, Hoyas) are finally going to be good this year, or whether we’ll have to adopt a team from nearby Baltimore again. Good Stuff Eatery, by Chef Spike Mendelsohn, serves the finest burgers, fries, and shakes in the city, and even the President has been back more than once (and has a burger named for him).
If you’re inspired by the sports talk, and the weather is nice, check to see whether the Nationals have a home game. It’s not a bad walk from Capitol Hill to Nationals Park, and even if you don’t care about the game, you’ll have a great time. There’s good local food available throughout the park, and the between-inning entertainment will keep things interesting. Watch for the Presidents’ Race in the Fourth Inning, where likenesses of George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt, soon to be joined by William Howard Taft, compete in a running race where, until the end of the 2012 season, Teddy always lost, and usually in a fairly humiliating way. Cheer on the underdog, as Washingtonians have found themselves doing all too often in recent years.
Art in the Afternoon
If the weather or the season or the mood are not right for baseball, head to the National Mall for the best collection of free museums in the world, including several Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery. If we’re going for Americana, though, the one to see is the Museum of American History, where you can find Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Julia Child’s kitchen, and the Star Spangled Banner – the actual flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became the U.S national anthem.
Every day at 6 pm, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presents a free, no-tickets-required performance in the Grand Foyer. It could be anything from Bollywood dance, to a jazz trio, to a gospel choir, to a 600-person tuba orchestra. Arrive by 5:15 to get a good seat (earlier if it’s a nationally known act).
Ahhh, dinner in Washington. There are so many wonderful choices for American food. From the traditional (Old Ebbit Grill, Tabard Inn, Georgia Brown) to the modern (Lincoln, Poste, Ris), from the casual (Hill Country, Birch and Barley) to the formal (1789, Morrison-Clark), there is something for everyone’s taste. My suggestion, though, is to head to Busboys and Poets, a restaurant that celebrates the people who inspire social change. Busboys creates a community space for art, culture and politics, and also happens to have terrific food. There are four locations in the DC area, but I recommend heading to the flagship at 14th and V Streets, NW, so you can be in the perfect location for the nightlife centered in the area.
And about that nightlife
The U Street corridor is home to some great music venues – the 9:30 Club for national acts, Black Cat for Indies, Bohemian Caverns and Twins Jazz for, um, jazz, U Street Music Hall for dance and djs. This area was once known as “Black Broadway” for the African-American cultural scene centered here, which included performances by Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway at the Lincoln Theater, and Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald and the Supremes at the recently reopened Howard Theater. Soak it all in along the street, and round out your evening with a half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl, the iconic DC sausage joint that swarms with locals and tourists alike at all hours.
Paige Conner Totaro is co-founder of All Over the Map, a website about experiential family travel. She is currently on a one-year round-the-world trip with her husband and twin daughters, and is not sure she wants to go home.