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Washington DC - elegant and spacious capital city

Costa Rica

Washington DC is one of the top city destinations in the USA. Gareth visited the USA’s elegant and spacious capital city and found so many things to see, with lots of shopping close at hand. Picture - Gareth Huw Davies, 2007.

Let the bus take the strain.

The bus tour for people who never do bus tours. Tourmobile,(starts at Union Station), takes you down the majestic sweep of the mile-long National Mall from Capitol Hill, past the world’s greatest concentration of museums (13 branches of the Smithsonian). Hop-on, hop-off options wherever you like - there’s another along in 20 minutes.
On past the 555 foot high Washington Memorial, over the Potomac (as green presidential helicopters rattle overhead into the White House) and on into Arlington Cemetery, where there’s a free bus tour. On the return leg you must see the Vietnam memorial, with athe simple
dignity of a 200-yard long polished black granite wall listing 58,249 names of
those killed or missing. Not an inch of phoney glory.

District fit for a king

Just a mile from the stately, widely-spaced streets of central DC is Georgetown (named after our own Geoge III). This is a much older district, with distinguished vintage homes, authentic atmosphere and
independent American shopping at its best, full of one-off outlets – from clothes to furnishing - and some enduring tourist lures, like the infamous staircase from the Exorcist. We found a restaurant to match. 1789 is all poise, full of old prints and Limoges pottery. Ambassadors entertain senators at the next table. We enjoyed Nathan's pistachio crusted lamb with goat cheese tortelloni, cerignola olives and roma tomatoes, followed by chocolate hazelnut torte ganache, feullitine and chocolate cake, espresso cream and candied hazelnuts.

Temple to the train

If train travel were a religion, DC's Union Station would be its high temple. The largest in the world when it opened in 1908, this monumental white granite gateway has been restored to its original pomp. (They put in 130 shops to fund the rescue, but they don't seem to lower the tone.) Grand Central in New York may have its famous slanting sunbeams, but the Union, with 70lb of gold leaf shimmering across lofty, vaulted ceilings, is finer still, on a scale long lost in British stations. (Britain had the booking hall in Euston station, but we chose to knock it down.)
No wonder presidents hold inauguration balls here. It is on the Metro, so call in even if you go only for coffee, or breakfast at Centre Café under the gaze of Roman legionnaires. Oh, and they still run trains, great names like the Capitol Limited to Chicago. It's your chance to re-enact the Marilyn Monro, Tony Curtis swagger along the platform from Some Like it Hot.

Shopping made easy

Slog-free shopping begins at the mall that DC insiders chose, Fashion Centre in Pentagon City just outside DC (a cab ride from downtown, or a stop on the Metro - about 15 minutes). This mall is wi-fi enbled. So take your laptop there, fix yourself a coffee, look up and plan your buying at Macy’s and Nordstrom and 175 other stores. For upscale shopping visit the Collection at Chevy Chase, with branches of Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton and many at that level. It is pitched at DC’s gilded classes. (Friendship Heights Metro.)
For original downtown shopping try Eastern Market (Eastern Market Metro) one of the oldest in DC. From Turkish kilim bags to the world’s fattest apples, via crafts galore. And blueberry pancakes to queue (a very long time) for.

French connection hotel

Staying at the Sofitel Lafayette Square helped us understand the DC French connection. The White House, the spacious boulevards, the wide green spaces - all have Gallic design behind them. So finding a stylish French hotel downtown is not so odd. The Sofitel has a restrained elegance: they play up the small details rather than smother you with grand gesture. So the money
goes on flowers in reception rather than showy extravagance. I like the small touches, such as real coffee in the lounge from 6:30 a.m. to carry up to your room with the Washington Post. We took the short stroll to the White House, the homage visit for addicts of Channel 4’s West Wing like us, for the
obligatory photograph through the railings, well before the crowds. Then back to breakfast with the most delicious freshly pressed Florida orange juice I have tasted.

Redskin’s revenge

When I grew up, Westerns gave us a black and white truth: Indians (bad) attacked settlers (good), while the Army rode to the rescue. We now see this continent’s original people in more honest HD colour. National Museum of the American Indian, the first to the native (north and south) Americans, opened in 2004, completes the picture.
The building is part of the story, clad in golden limestone to evoke millennia of smoothing by wind and water. In the entrance, a joyous Babel of a greeting, in 150 native languages. You could easily spend a day touring three floors of exhibits, from the crest of the Andes, to the ice floes of Alaska; from the mesas of New Mexico to the canyons of Manhattan. Do not miss the restaurant, for a huge spread of freshly cooked ethnic native American food.
Admission free.

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