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Based on a trip to Washington DC in April/May 2004


The USA is a BIIIIGGGG place – and I’ve only been twice: to Massachusetts in 1997 (don’t expect me to remember anything) and just recently, to Washington DC (in Spring 2004), so don’t expect a detailed multi-city guide just yet. What I can give you is a rundown of what we saw and where we drank in the 4 days we were in DC, and hope that it may help.

Before you go anywhere in the US, bear in mind that you will have to queue. A lot. And it starts as soon as you step off the plane. Visa regulations are in a state of flux, and are muddied by the confusion over biometric passports, so do check up on the US Embassy website when planning your trip. Also try and bear in mind that due to the current security concerns, many government attractions that were previously open to visitors are now off-limits.

Remember to smile and be nice to EVERYONE, and when someone asks if you are well (i.e. waiters, taxi drivers, barmen etc), it’s good form to say “yes, thanks. And you?”. Never ask for the “toilet” (or any cruder variation) – it’s always the “restroom”. And don’t, whatever you do, call anyone a “twat” – it’s guaranteed to offend!

In almost every bar, you will be served at your table (sometime you will be expected to wait to be shown to a table). Before you get that far, expect to be ID’d at the door (especially at weekends and in the evening), so carry your passport! You’ll run up a tab, which you settle at the end (like in Europe) – remember to tip around 15% (if you ever want to get served again in that place, that is!).

American’s do seem to swear by their “lite” beers – “cheap and domestic” was a phrase I heard more than once. At the other end of the scale, strong cocktails like vodka martinis and cosmopolitans (made famous by Sex and the City) are popular, and tequila and Wild Turkey bourbon seem to be the favoured rocket fuel for downing shots.

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Dorothy's Shoes

America's National Christmas Tree

Stroke a cruise missile at the Air & Space Museum

Washington DC

To be honest, DC had never really appealed to me before – although I had been meaning to go for ages to meet Dave since he moved there after Grad School. It had never been on my list of classic US cities to see (New York, LA, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, Nashville), however I have to say my visit really changed my perspective of the place.

Founded in 1790 (as you’ll never be allowed to forget!), Washington has more history than most other cities, and is the proud home to many national museums and monuments. DC is a pretty formal place, with a lot of people working for the government or associated quangoes (“Quasi-Autonomous-Non-Governmental-Organisations”, if you must know!), and almost as many people “supporting” these professions by working in bars and coffee shops. As a result, a lot of downtown pubs and restaurants close pretty early, at least by European (not British) standards, and has given DC a reputation in some quarters as a sleepy Southern town.

Taxis are cheap, and are not metered but calculated on a zone basis with charges for extra people in the cab. The metro is superb and clean, and very spacious, and there are lots of buses, but we didn’t catch any. Trains run to suburban locations, but Union Station is a tourist attraction in it’s own right (in the style of Diocletian’s palace, apparently) so is worth a visit even if you don’t need to go anywhere. One major problem is getting to and from the airport – Dulles is miles away, and it is easy to get caught in traffic. We got the Super Shuttle mini bus in, but the driver seemed determined to find every traffic queue there was on the way into town. Coming back was more successful – metro to West Falls Church, then $8 on the Washington Flyer coach sidestepped all the downtown traffic.

DC is split in a grid system, and is divided by 4 quadrants with the Capitol Building at the centre. You want to stay in the NW quarter if you can help it – just about all the tourist sites, bars, restaurants and hotels are there. Numbered streets run north-south, and lettered streets run east-west (most, but not all, “named” streets are diagonal), and they exist in different quadrants – so 1400 L Street NW is on the other side of town from 1400 L Street NE. Just to add to the fun, everything south of the Potomac, such as Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon is not DC, but in Virginia. On the subject of streets, neighbourhoods can change from good to bad within a few blocks, so keep your wits about you, although to be fair we never felt threatened.

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The Washington Monument

The White House

Football in the Mall, in front of the Capitol


Things To Do & See

Washington Monument – see that big pointy thing you can see from almost everywhere? That’s the Washington Monument, that is. 555 feet of obelisk, and completely free: and therein lies the catch – timed tickets are dispensed from 8am each day. On busy days, these will have all gone by 11am, whilst on quieter days you can just stroll up and get one on the spot. Expect massive queues, loads of brusque security checks, and queues for the windows up top. Still worth it though, as long as you don’t have to get up and queue for a ticket at 8am!

The National Mall – The Mall is a big (as in “American” big!) rectangle of grass stretching from the western frontage of the Capitol down to the Lincoln Memorial, and includes the Washington Monument, the Reflecting Pool, and a whole host of nationally famous museums (belonging to the Smithsonian Institution, and therefore free to get in). You’ll recognise the view up towards Capitol from countless films and TV series. All the museums have things going for them, especially the Art Gallery you can just wander into for a chill-out session in front of a Monet or two, but my two favourites are:

The National Air & Space Museum – just because I’m a big kid! The IMAX and Planetarium shows are well worth buying tickets for, as is the simulator (just practise outside on the small monitors first!). Loads of stuff hanging from the ceilings, and a couple of cruise missiles sitting around.

The National Museum of American History – Loads of things to see, from Clinton’s saxophone to Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, as well as a couple of big trains and a greyhound bus. Not to mention Muhammad Ali’s gloves and George Washington’s coat. Take your time (don’t do what we did and only leave an hour!)

The International Spy Museum – one of a kind. Not a Smithsonian, and clocks in at $13 (although there is a $1 discount if you can persuade them you’re a spy!). Loads of exhibits, detailing the history of espionage, as well as info on several WWII and Cold War scandals. My favourite bit was the shop – where else can you buy Che Guevara tissues and Revolutionary Finger Puppets (Gandhi, Che, Trotsky and Mandela)? Handy for the FBI Building, and the excellent Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant (see below).

Washington Zoo – Out between Adams Morgan and Cleveland Park, the zoo is another Smithsonian concern, and is again free. The monkeys were not very well when we there, but the famous pandas (immortalised on the metro tickets) were due to be getting jiggy with it any time soon. If live panda-on-panda action isn’t your thing, check out the beaver and the komono dragons – they’re still quite small, but should grow quite quickly.

Hotel Washington Sky Terrace – could have gone in the bars section below, but given the price, it’s best to budget this as a “sight”. Take the elevator to the “R” level (the 11th Floor), order a drink (a classic cocktail like a Bloody Mary or a Cosmopolitan may be on the agenda here) and soak up the view. Just about the best view across the White House in town.

The White House – tours are no longer an option, but you can still admire this global icon of capitalism/democracy from afar. The main entrance was off Pennsylvania Avenue (view from Lafayette Square), but the classic viewpoint is from the south, by the Ellipse – make sure you take them both in.

What we would have done if we’d had more time:

  • The Freemason’s Washington Monument – supposedly good views, and an insight into the organisation that seems to be at the heart of the American establishment
  • Arlington Cemetery – Final resting place of America’s heroes
  • The outside of the Pentagon – Again, tours are off the agenda, but surely a look at the outside of largest building in the world is still worth it?
  • A visit to Annapolis – a quaint seaside town within easy day-trip reach
  • Shopping at Pentagon City Mall – Because I wanted a mini iPOD and downtown has no decent shopping area.
  • A look at a space shuttle at the National Air & Space Museum Hangar near Dulles Airport – cheap buses make the return trip from the museum proper. In addition to the Shuttle, the Enola Gay is there too.
  • Georgetown – quaint cobbled streets, quirky shops and nice coffee bars, apparently
  • Capitol – viewed from afar down The Mall, but we should have got closer for a better look.
  • Pub crawl in Adams Morgan – wall to wall with pubs and bars
  • A close-up look at the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials – as made famous in the Planet of the Apes remake!
  • A chilli half smoke hot dog at Ben’s Chili House – because if it’s good enough for Bill Cosby, it’s good enough for me!

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Monet in the National Gallery

See yourself on a heat camera in the Air & Space Museum

The Mall towards Capitol, from the Washington Monument

The Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool

The best fridge magnets in the world?


DC's a big place, with lots of pubs, and I can only speak for the places I've been. Given I was in town for a few days, that was only a select few. Enjoy:

Fado – an Irish pub, but a good one, at 808 7th Street NW near Chinatown. Friendly service, a decent selection of beers, and reportedly good food.

Mackies, L Street NW, possibly between 18th and 19th – another Irish pub, but was open quite late and tolerated wanton drunkenness – not too bad.

Gordon Biersch (in the Marriott Courtyard hotel, F Street & 9th) – Now we’re cooking with gas! Why do I never manage to stay in hotels with bars like this one? A “Brewery Restaurant”, and part of a small chain around the USA, this place was posh! Four of their own house brews on tap; we had Helles (German style lager) and Dunkles (Dark lager, very nice and caramelly). If you just want a beer, best to just sit at the bar, but the menu did look tempting. Not particularly cheap.

Brickskeller Bar, 1523 22nd Street NW – A DC institution (but not quite like the Smithsonian!), this bar claims to stock 1,200 bottled beers (although they seemed to only have half the ones I asked for!). Bizarrely, there’s only 2 on draught. Worth getting to early and spending some serious time sampling the menu, but keep a mind on the prices! The Magic Hat beer (as recommended by Lorna) was nice.

RFD's (next to Fados on 7th) – The Brickskeller’s younger sibling has a more airy and spacious environment, and stocks the 700 most popular bottles from it’s big brother, as well as a mighty 30 draught taps. Smelt a bit funny when we were in, but we put that down to the floor being cleaned.

Capitol City Brewing Company, 2 Massachusetts Avenue NE – we were in the Union Station branch, in the same building as the National Postal Museum (and opposite both Kelly’s Irish Times and The Dubliner). A choice of their own brews (when we were there, they had an 8.5% pale ale on the go!) to suit most palates.

Zoo Cafe Bar, Connecticut Avenue – a friendly down to earth bar right opposite the zoo entrance on Connecticut, with a great menu of burgers and the like. Was serving beer in plastic glasses, but it was the middle of the day.

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Brian & Lou in Mackie's

The Brickskeller



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