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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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