Washington DC, the capital city of the United States, never fails to impress with its monumental museums and memorials, art galleries and public gardens. And, as the seat of some of the worlds most politically powerful, it offers a vibrant dining scene of historic bars and restaurants where todays movers and shakers rub shoulders with visitors
Whether surrounded by blossoming cherry trees in the spring or lit up by an autumnal firework display of amber, gold and crimson leaves, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is spectacular, with a sense of weight and serenity heightened only when the clouds clear and the backdrop is a vista of cobalt-blue skies. Seen from a suite at Mandarin Oriental, Washington DC, the portico, Ionic columns and circular marble steps, which are illuminated at night, seem to almost throb with presence and command.
The Multiverse light sculpture by American artist Leo Villareal incorporates a moving walkway that connects the East and West Buildings of the National Gallery of Art
Graced with views of this splendid memorial to America's Founding Father, as well as the Tidal Basin, and visited by many notable personages from business magnet Warren Buffett and First Lady Michelle Obama to the fearsome (and, thankfully, fictional) President Frank Underwood from the political drama House of Cards the hotel makes for an ideal introduction to the city. Located within three blocks of the Capitol Complex, the Senate Office and Union Square, it's hardly surprising that political and financial heavyweights have all attended events here.
Many continue their evening at the hotel's Muze restaurant. Here, waterside vistas through floor-to-ceiling windows, and Executive Chef Adam Tanner's modern American cuisine with an Asian spin, provide the ideal atmosphere for an intimate tjte-`-tjte in the heart of the city once described by John F Kennedy as one of 'Southern efficiency and Northern charm'.
The Sculpture Garden fountain sits in the centre of the National Gallery of Art's gardens and is transformed into an ice rink in winter
DC hasn't always impressed its visitors, though. Back in the 1840s, Charles Dickens called it 'the city of magnificent intentions', perhaps as a reference to the less-than-auspicious early years of this planned municipality built on forests and farmland. During the War of 1812, British forces had burned down many of the nascent buildings, including the original Library of Congress and its collection, most of which belonged to Jefferson.
It was the combination of the American Civil War, in preserving the Union and creating a sense of freedom and equality, and the opening of the Smithsonian Institution, a Government-run group of museums and research centres named after its founder, the British chemist James Smithson (who, incidentally, had never visited the United States in his lifetime), which began the transformation of the city into the definitive fulcrum of American knowledge and power.
It would 'make wonderful ruins', so said Thomas Vidal, grandfather of Gore Vidal, whose novel Washington, DC is still the high-water mark of political fiction. Today, the modern political machine in Washington DC is as much about lobbying as it is about lawmaking. Known as K-Streeters, after the city thoroughfare, its lobbyists number close to 15,000.
Although very few firms have their offices on K Street itself, it is these industry persuaders, representing everything from firearms to fast food, that account for the reason why so many bars and restaurants in DC appear to specialise in covert booths and nooks and crannies, where arms can be twisted, elbows sharpened and deals done.
Dupont Circle Station
Until recently, it was the power lunch that provided the (usually alcohol-fuelled) scenarios for journalists to get scoops, K-Streeters to wield influence, and congressmen to make or break partnerships. In these more sober times, however, it requires an earlier start if you want to eavesdrop on some political derring-do.
The commitment to the DC dining scene goes right to the top of the White House. In recent years, the sight of the President and the First Lady out on the town has been a common one. George W Bush rarely visited the city's restaurants, but Barack and Michelle Obama have frequented numerous haunts, including Komi, a minuscule, low-key dining room in Dupont Circle, presided over by chef Johnny Monis, whose innovative Med-influenced cuisine is a far cry from the standard DC dining fare of steaks and martinis. The Obamas didn't, by all accounts, indulge in the roasted lamb neck with house-baked pitta and hummus on their visit, but it's this dish, the highlight of Komi's tasting menu, that has had DC food bloggers raving.
For a president looking for the common touch, eating at a low-key establishment is a long-running, favoured way for the man in the White House to at least appear to be more closely connected to the people. Over in Georgetown, Martin's Tavern is an historic inn, which boldly claims to have served every president from Harry S Truman to George W Bush. Request a seat in booth number three when you enter and, according to popular legend, you'll be sitting in the same seats as John F Kennedy and Jackie when JFK asked for her hand in marriage. The restaurant still serves up traditional East Coast favourites, such as oyster stew and clam chowder, although, if recent outings by the current president are anything to go by, gourmet burgers are currently the in-vogue blue-collar meal of choice.
Barack Obama and his Vice President, Joe Biden, were once spotted dining out at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, an unpretentious joint famed for its gargantuan prime-beef patties. For Michelle Obama, though, the Good Stuff Eatery, centrally placed on Pennsylvania Avenue, is the go-to spot for comfort food. In her honour, chef Spike Mendelsohn renamed the free-range turkey burger with Swiss cheese, calling it the 'Michelle Melt'.
The Washington Monument on the National Mall
Thomas Jefferson's statue inside the Memorial
With all this rib-sticking food on offer, the trim figures of those in Capitol Hill the congressmen, lobbyists and mandarins who keep the cogs of the machine oiled suggest a fairly serious commitment to the gym after indulging. For visitors, the sidewalks provide a more than adequate way to work off lunch, especially since this is one of the few American cities that can be explored on foot. In fact, it's an ideal way to take in the quite staggering array of museums and monuments that tell the story of DC's immense political history.
The newest big hitter in terms of visitor attractions is a monument to a man who never held office in the White House, someone who has come to define the power of protest, rather than the engine of the Establishment. For located on the south-western corner of the Mall, a spot chosen to create a symbolic line of vision with the Lincoln Memorial, stands a nine-metre relief sculpture, the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial, hewn from cream-coloured granite. Behind it lies a colossal chunk of granite split in two. Positioned to look as if it has been dragged out of the middle of a mountain, it is symbolically engraved with one of King's quotes, which reads, 'Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.'
Surrounded by elms and cherry trees, this is a place designed to linger and reflect, rather than grab a quick Instagram and move on to the next point of interest. Benches are strewn around the landscaped site and hours can be spent reading the 137-metre-long inscription wall, which bears some of King's most notable quotes in his struggle for the Civil Rights Movement. The famous 'I have a dream&' speech may be memorised by generations of schoolchildren, but the lesser-known quotes are no less inspiring; one reads, 'I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.'
This is one of the few American cities that can be explored on foot
For anyone of non-American nationality looking to gain insight into the real source of power, booking a White House visit and tour is an incredibly difficult exercise, involving contacting the embassy of your country in Washington and then filling out numerous requests. This is not feasible if you're only in the city for a short visit, but console yourself with the fact that the tours only take in a mere eight of the 132 rooms and can be over in as little as 20 minutes.
Far better to take a trip to the Supreme Court, where security is tight but it's still possible to enjoy a tour at any time during the day without requesting permission in advance. At first glance, the Corinthian columns, pediments and bas-reliefs suggest appropriate levels of solemnity for what is the ultimate constitutional and judicial authority. But look closer and quirks emerge, such as the sculpted turtles symbolising the slow pace of judicial deliberation. Visitors can sit in to hear cases argued, and at the same time observe the burgundy drapes of the court room and the goose-quill pens that still grace the lawyers' tables. Of the stream of facts imparted to visitors during the tour, one learns, for example, that out of nearly 7,000 cases submitted on average each year, only around 120 are actually heard.
The US Capitol Building
The US Capitol Building, home to the Senate and the House of Representatives, can also be visited, but it's advisable to book a day or two ahead online. Originally designed by French architect Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who described what was then a plateau as 'a pedestal awaiting a monument', this also became known as Capitol Hill. Since its construction, ordered by George Washington, it has had numerous extensions added and is now akin to a small city as many as 20,000 people work here. You'll get a serene feel, however, from the Rotunda. The highlight of the tour, it offers an up-close view of the nine-million pounds of iron that make up the dome, which is painted to resemble marble.
The colossal fresco on the dome's ceiling, painted by Constantino Brumidi, depicts George Washington ascending to heaven, flanked by figures representing Victory, Fame, Liberty and Authority. Hubristic it may be, but for a nation so entwined with notions of self-confidence and individuality, this makes for a fitting, if rather bombastic, centrepiece.
Perhaps one of the secrets behind this kind of self-belief is the American reverence for freedom of press. No matter how high you may climb in the political jungle, nobody, as Richard Nixon would no doubt testify, is beyond the reach of political journalists. The Newseum, located on Pennsylvania Avenue, attracts passers-by with its huge stone tablet inscribed with the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees free speech. Inside, visitors can peruse highlights from the museum's 30,000-strong newspaper collection, which tells the story of American history, from the repeal of slavery, to women's suffrage, to the modern phenomenon of citizen journalism. The Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery showcases every winning entry from 1942 until today. At Level Six, the walls are lined with the front pages of more than 800 different newspapers from around the world that are published that day. Here, you'll also enjoy one of the best views in the city, encompassing a magnificent panorama of the Capitol.
Sip a refreshing artisan cocktail on the Empress Lounge terrace
The lofty ideals of Washington and the belief in democracy may be personified in these monumental memorials, museums and collections, but for a more street-level introduction to this city of power players and wannabees, perhaps the most edifying location is a far more humble one. The Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street first opened its doors in 1856 as a boarding house. The oldest bar in the city, its illustrious diners over the centuries have included presidents Grant, Cleveland and Johnson. Just a block from the White House, its location accounts for its popularity to this day among the dealmakers, the power hungry, and the just plain hungry. Packed each day (booking ahead is advisable), Ebbitt has an atmosphere that defines the DC approach to work and pleasure namely, that the two almost always go hand in hand. Frequented by the likes of Stephen Colbert, host of CBS's The Talk Show, and even a passing Lenny Kravitz, this is where the lines between Bills and bonhomie blur as the night wears on. Oysters, crab cakes and calves' liver all prepared with a lightness of touch that probably wouldn't have pleased the notoriously rotund President Cleveland in the late 1800s are served well into the night, making this the best spot in town to sit back, dine, and watch the political machine in full throttle-forward motion.
The 15-metre pool at Mandarin Oriental, Washington DC
Jefferson said that, 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants'. But for the modern-day journalists, senators and lobbyists, it would seem that red wine and maybe even the odd burger are fuel enough to keep Washington, with all its debate, discourse and decrees, awake for another day at the very heart of the nation.
As for visitors to the city, the Empress Lounge at Mandarin Oriental, Washington DC is the ideal place to sit back and refuel with a drink and snack or afternoon tea, and take stock of all that you have seen. Come evening in summer, there's nothing more perfect than sitting on the terrace overlooking the gardens, sipping a refreshing artisan cocktail, or indeed in winter cosying up inside. The Mandarin Dream (vodka, pear and pomegranate juice) cocktail is, according to the menu, 'made to fulfil the most luxurious dreams'.
Such dreams can be lived out in The Spa, where a contemporary Zen-like space is the backdrop to heat and water experiences, a choice of relaxing treatments, a fitness centre and a light, bright 15-metre swimming pool perfect for a power workout.