Turn a street corner in Washington DC today and it would be surprising if you failed to crash into a life-size poster of a grinning Hillary or a sombre-looking Obama pulling an Uncle Sam on you.
However, if it’s a trip to the White House you have planned, then be warned the presiding guards at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (George Bush’s home these days) most likely won’t feel the same way. Due to the terror alert levels changing colour faster than the seasons, a tour to the stately Presidential home can be cancelled in a blink of an eye – which is exactly what happened to me, though I had scheduled a visit four months in advance (it’s required by law, so don’t think you can simply sneak-a-peek without an official badge that allows you to pass go).
I made do with a postcard of the famous house, but with the cherry blossoms in full bloom the Tidal Basin made a delightful unscheduled stop before I embarked on my cultural adventure of DC.
You simply can’t escape the fact the capital is the seat of power in America, so rather than avoiding its heritage, try to unravel the enigma by stepping through the halls of history at its many memorials.
It was a crisp, cold morning that saw me wandering through the National Mall stretch (not to be confused with your average shopping arcade), which starts at the Capitol grounds and ends somewhere between Independence and Constitution Avenues. The wide-open green lawns are home to the entire expanse of monuments and museums that any DC explorer guide will tell you, but on a good sunny weekend you can also catch a celebrity or two, along with several open-air concerts thrown in for good measure. But even as I gawked at a Tom Hanks look-alike, he suitably paled in comparison at the first majestic view of the Washington Monument – or the Cleopatra’s Needle as many call it.
Paying a silent, yet powerful tribute to George Washington, I stumbled across many trigger-happy tourists like myself who were eagerly trying various yoga-esque poses to capture all 555 feet of the monument on their cameras. It really does make a picture perfect moment from the Tidal Basin, where you catch the blossoms reflecting in the shimmering waters of the Potomac River.
Satisfied with my own behind-the-lens craftsmanship, I headed down Constitution Avenue to explore the other monument that I had visited through the history pages as a child and was about to see it in its full glory – the Lincoln Memorial.
The tour books and the movies certainly don’t do justice to this tribute to the 16th US President, Abraham Lincoln. Resembling a stately Greek temple, complete with ionic columns, each pillar represents the 36 states that were part of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.
The visual marvel of its many murals paint a bloody history of the country’s fight for independence and the powerful figure that Lincoln represented. After spending the rest of the day exploring National Mall, it was time to take in DC’s nightspots.
A visit to DC is definitely incomplete without a visit to Improv, the stand-up comedy club that has played host to comic greats such as Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Billy Crystal. And even though it’s a hope in hell to catch any of them live these days, I hit lucky with the hilarious hypnotist comedian, Flip Orley. The added surprise, of course, were the cheap tickets, costing $20 (Dh74).
The following morning, the labyrinth of the Smithsonian and its 19 museums (including the National Zoo) lay before me. A word of advice though: it’s simply impossible to take in all 19 when travelling on a packed schedule, so do what I did and visit GoSmithsonian.com to pick a museum to explore.
The National Museum of Natural History held the most promise so off I went to satisfy the inner child in me. But dinosaurs and even a chapter and verse in the birth of civilisation isn’t all what the museum’s about. As I headed into the hall of gems, what awaited me was the stunning vista of the legendary Hope Diamond – all 45.25 carats of the deep-blue gemstone.
And what’s a diamond without a curse? Legend has it that after the diamond was stolen from a statue of a Hindu idol in 1660, anyone who possessed it for personal gain died a brutal and painful death. But rather than ending my trip to the museum on a grim note, I headed to the Live Butterfly Pavilion where hundreds of butterflies come out to play while you leisurely stroll through the special temperature-controlled chamber.
With my mind buzzing with history, it was time to return to the present and chalk a visit to the newer and funkier part of DC at Adams Morgan. Located two miles from the White House, the locale is a cultural melting pot of diverse art and ethnicities converging at this global playground.
As I gave into temptation at its many second-hand bazaars, by nightfall, the area had completely transformed into the city’s most entertaining hotspot and the perfect place to settle down for a cosy meal. Foodies take note, Adams Morgan is probably the only place where you can sample a different cuisine every two feet. Highly recommended of course is Meskerem, the oldest Ethiopian restaurant in DC and a fare that is virtually impossible to sample in Dubai.
It’s hard not to let the contagious spirit of the area carry you forward to places such as The Left Bank (one of its most exclusive lounges) and Habana Village to capture the revelry before it’s time to return home.
But as I left DC behind, along with its cultural delights, even I couldn’t resist the lure of a grinning George Bush dartboard as a final keepsake to the power capital of America.
Direct flights to Washington DC are yet unavailable, but you can choose from a variety of airlines and stopovers, including:
- KLM, via Amsterdam (Dh3,900 and upwards)
- Air France, via Paris (Dh4,200 and upwards)
- British Airways, via London (Dh4,200 and upwards)
- Qatar Airways, via Doha (Dh4,400 and upwards)
Where to stay
You simply can’t get better than The Mayflower Hotel – known as The Grand Dame of Washington. The 80-year-old landmark was the site of Calvin Coolidge’s inaugural ball in 1925, along with being the residential quarters for Harry Truman and then President-elect, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today, the hotel is best known for the scandal involving former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. A double room costs about $179 and up.
Plan your DC diary
- Washington International Film Festival (April 24-May 4): More than 100 features and documentaries to enjoy. Visit www.filmfestdc.org
And when that’s over, popular music groups will entertain you from mid-afternoon until the spectacular fireworks in the evening.
More than just America’ s hot seat of power