Even as the US capital reels in turbulent times, you can find pockets of peace and slices of culture and flavour in this picturesque town – you just need to know where to go. Sudeshna Ghosh tells you.
Why go: The American capital often gets overlooked by glitzier neighbours, but with its unmistakable quiet sophistication, is definitely worth a visit. Surprisingly pretty, the low-rise city is spread across leafy expanses (extremely photogenic in colourful autumn) with plenty of parkland and incredible historic architecture. And there’s a treasure trove of vintage charm waiting to be uncovered in Georgetown, the 18th century heart of the city that is today a designated National Historic District. From awe-inspiring monuments and museums, to a stylish dining and nightlife scene, DC has plenty to fill a couple of days with.
What to do: The National Mall, or The Mall as it is commonly known – which isn’t a mall at all, but technically a national park – is where it’s all at, with most of the memorials and museums conveniently located within its couple of square miles, book-ended by the White House and Capitol Hill. A good starting point for a day of taking in the sights is the needle-like Washington monument, smack bang in the middle of the Mall.
There are a staggering number of museums in the city, with something for everyone – from natural history to space, and some of the most prized art collections in the world – and covering all of them would take several days. Not to be missed are the National Museum of American History (for obvious reasons) and the National Gallery of Art – walking through its Sculpture Garden is an immersive experience in quirky, modern creativity. The National Museum of African American History & Culture, which opened in 2016, is the newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution (a collection of museums in this precinct) and is probably an important one to visit in these divisive times.
Of the many memorials and monuments, paying homage to America’s heroes and martyrs, the Korean War and Vietnam War memorials are probably the most intriguing, while the more popular Lincoln Memorial and World War II Memorial are architecturally impressive. Although it all seems close by, it’s quite a lot of walking, so comfortable shoes are a must.
Offering a contrast to downtown DC’s grey, neo-classical and hushed atmosphere is vibrant, colourful Georgetown. This 18th century tobacco port town – which was here decades before the French urban planner Pierre Charles L’enfant-designed capital city was built – has been carefully preserved. Georgetown is best explored by walking around its cobblestone streets and restored buildings that now house trendy boutiques, galleries and restaurants. The quaint Old Stone House, which replicates 18th century life, is a must visit, as is a walk along the picturesque C&O canal
Where to stay: Located right at the gateway to Georgetown, the Four Seasons Washington DC exudes the sort of understated luxury it would need to, to host the many presidents and celebrities it regularly does.
Recently refurbished, with a subtle cherry blossom theme underlining the entire design scheme, the hotel feels like a tranquil, intimate retreat with neutral colours, sleek lines and plush, luxurious furnishings. Exclusively curated art infuses the entire space – there are 1,600 pieces in total, including recognisable works of Andy Warhol – adding a stamp of character. Signature Four Seasons beds and a ‘sleep menu’ (featuring add-ons such as scented pillow oils and herbal teas) ensure a good night’s sleep, while Salvatore Ferragamo amenities ensure you start the day feeling fragrant.
While heads of state and such like would check in to one of the six presidential suites (all bulletproofed and designed to be shut off as private enclosures if needed, for security purposes), the friendly warmth with which all guests are treated – being made to feel a bit like royalty themselves – makes a stay here special. And with the charms of Georgetown just footsteps away and dynamic downtown a convenient driving distance, it is the perfect base to explore DC from.
Where to eat and drink: Washington’s restaurant scene has been getting buzz for a while now, and the Michelin guide coming to the city for the first time in 2016 just helps cement this fact.
One of the restaurants that recently got a Michelin star is well-loved Washington chef, James Beard-award winning Fabio Trabocchi’s flagship, Fiola. Consistently rated one of the city’s finest, this downtown restaurant offers exquisite contemporary iterations of rustic Italian cuisine. The sophisticated venue, with a touch of old-world glamour, oozes a subtle yet palpable sense of power, filled as it is with suits and pearls – clearly popular with the Capitol Hill types.
A creative, ingredient-led menu – think Piedmont burrata with heirloom radishes, tomatoes from local farmers’; Shenandoah valley lamb with fennel; and Valhrona chocolate ganache topped with sea salt flakes, hazelnut crunch, and olive oil ice cream on chocolate crumb – is dished up in what can only be described as art on a plate, complemented by seamless service. Chef Fabio’s passion for provenance – even the crockery is sourced from local artisans – is evident in the fresh, bright and authentic flavours.
For a more laid-back, all-American dining experience, Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons – frequented by everyone from Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks, to Hillary Clinton – offers exactly what it says on the tin. Chic dark leather clad booths – in a nod to the privacy-seeking clientele that dines here – and a buzzing vibe provide the perfect setting for gourmet steaks and seafood, focusing on prime, organic cuts and locally sourced ingredients, at this Michael Mina-helmed restaurant. Their trio of chips (herb dusted with pickled tomato ketchup; pastrami with A1 sauce; and ranch spices with red pepper aioli) while a side dish, can outshine any of the bovine star players and is the perfect example of how modern American flavours are celebrated here.
Also beloved by the power players is Washington DC institution Café Milano – which has recently opened its first international outpost in Abu Dhabi. This surprisingly unprepossessing restaurant on a Georgetown side street, with an inviting outdoor patio, is the toast of the town (just ask the Obamas!) as much for its fresh, classic southern Italian fare, as for its dynamic owner who ensures that anyone who dines here is made to feel at home. The ‘slice of Italy’ vibe is enhanced with the signature wall decoration of designer scarves, and quirky ceiling fresco of a vintage Milan subway map. But what has made this people-watching haven (you never know who you might end up sitting next to!) as beloved as it is, is the warm, discreet, ‘nothing-is-too-much-trouble’ approach to service.
Time running out? The Newseum is a modern museum dedicated to all things media and journalism, with interactive exhibits explaining free expression and the First Amendment. It’s one of the few museums in DC where entry is ticketed, but is probably never more pertinent for a visit than now.
Trip tip: The Four Seasons concierge is one of the most well connected people (yes, even in the power corridors of this town) who can not only sort out covetable reservations and tickets, but also give you the inside track on the locals’ secrets spots. And if you ask nicely, the hotel car is available for guests for quick drop-offs to nearby restaurants and such (to spare an uncomfortable walk in high heels).