At the end of July, a musical called Dave opened at Arena Stage, a small arts venue on the Potomac river in Washington DC. An adaption of the 1993 film, Dave follows an ordinary teacher who looks so much like the US president that he ends up standing in for him.
The show is a study in American patriotism: there’s even a performance of The Star-Spangled Banner midway through, sung by both cast members and the audience. I stood up and mumbled along, even though I didn’t know the words. A thought popped into my head: ‘It’s my last night in DC and I feel American, baby!’
DC does that to you. The US capital is a living museum, filled with federal government buildings and monuments, monuments, monuments. The area that surrounds it – Maryland, Virginia and Chesapeake Bay – houses some of the US’ earliest colonial settlements. American history flows here more smoothly than the wine from neighbouring northern Virginia.
When DC was founded, with first president George Washington’s signature on the Residence Act in 1790, it was just a slender parcel of undeveloped land on the Potomac that sat on the boundary between the North (Maryland upwards) and the South (Virginia downwards). Setting the template for future New World capitals, it was built from scratch.
Location is important. It’s what lends DC its unique flavour: of history, democracy, diversity and, if you look at Instagram, cherry blossoms. It’s also a city in flux. No longer just-a-federal-city, it’s now a kinda-cool city. There are the requisite regeneration projects (The Wharf: more on that later) and a growing private sector to rival big government. And there’s a name for the new breed of Washingtonian: the govsters.
This new type of city breeds a new type of tourist – one not just looking for American history, but wanting to snack on food truck fare and barista-made coffee. And in DC, they can meet happily in the middle.
How do I become – temporarily – American? Eat at Five Guys (DC’s original burger chain)? Immerse myself in the Kardashian oeuvre?
No. You have to start, as founding fathers Washington, Jefferson et al did, on the National Mall. The three-kilometre-long national park, which runs from the Lincoln Memorial to the neoclassical Capitol, passes the Washington Monument and some of the Smithsonian museums and federal buildings housing America’s decision-makers. I could have walked (it’s fully pedestrianised), but instead I joined a bike tour with Bike and Roll DC, which peddled us past the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the back of the White House and around the Tidal Basin, the epicentre of cherry blossom mania for a few fleeting weeks in spring.
Then you have to visit the Smithsonian Institution – a pioneering establishment fondly known as ‘America’s attic’.
The Institution, which runs 19 free museums and galleries (plus a zoo) in DC, is best approached from the gothic Castle on the Mall – inside is a visitor centre.
You may need more than one lifetime to see everything.
The newest Smithsonian museum is the National Museum of African American History and Culture – in the shadow of the 169-metre-high Washington Monument – which opened in 2016. Designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, the museum traces a direct timeline from the start of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1400s to the Obama presidency, with exhibitions on African American culture, music and art.
To deep-dive into American art history, visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum, joined to the National Portrait Gallery through a lively covered courtyard. It has one of the country’s largest collections of 20th century New Deal art (riffing on Franklin D Roosevelt’s post-Depression economic plan – see how everything in DC intersects with politics?), with work by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Willem de Kooning. But it’s the presidential portraits that people are here for. There’s a slightly dopey George W Bush, an abstract Bill Clinton and (with a long queue) a Hawaiian-flower-surrounded Barack Obama.
Okay. I have the basics covered. Now to become a modern, urban govster. Downtown is Govster Central – new mixed-use developments like CityCenterDC, which welcomes the capital’s first Conrad next year. We’ll lunch on maple syrup-drizzled chicken and waffles at Southern-inspired restaurant Succotash; or hang out at Eaton DC – the flagship property of the Hong Kong hospitality brand, which opens this month – to mingle with some of the city’s artists, journalists and activists.
The Wharf is the new waterfront district just 20 minutes’ walk (or a short ride on the free shuttle bus) from the Mall. The 1.5-kilometre-long stretch is studded with alfresco restaurants (like Mi Vida, a storming Mexican whose fried cheese and margaritas are the ideal post-work snack), bars (dockside Cantina Bambina) and a coffee-and-gelato shop (Dolcezza Gelato).
DC owes much to The Wharf. The regeneration gave a new lease of life to this previously swampy strip, which is still home to the Municipal Fish Market, the oldest of its kind in the US. The Wharf amped DC’s cool factor. It forced new infrastructure (a fast water taxi to Old Town Alexandria takes just 20 minutes). And it has given government workers of the nearby Mall somewhere other than Capitol Hill to hang after work.
If I’m serious about being an all-American govster I’ll need to get an expensive condo in the Adams Morgan district, recently anchored by the opening of the Line Hotel, in a converted church with a restaurant from famed farm-to-fork chef Spike Gjerde, who cooks ‘hyper local’ stuff. I’ll also need to shop in historic Georgetown.
But DC is only 228 years old. Some oak trees on the George Washington Memorial Parkway are probably older than that. If you want to learn more about American history during your trip, we need to go further back in time – and further down the Potomac river.
Old Town, a neighbourhood within Alexandria, Virginia, is within sight of the Capitol building. Founded in 1749, it’s George Washington’s hometown – the apothecary he used is still there on Fairfax Street, and it’s not hard to imagine him strolling Captain’s Row and the rainbow-coloured row homes and boutiques of King Street. (It’s less easy to imagine President Washington snooping round the three levels of the riverfront Torpedo Factory art centre – where long-time Alexandria resident Lisa Schumaier makes chewing gum Last Suppers – but worth a visit regardless.)
From Alexandria, it’s a 10-minute zip down the George Washington Memorial Parkway to Mount Vernon, the sprawling 200-hectare plantation that the first president of the United States made his home. The road is so landscaped it’s considered a national park; while the humble wooden mansion (delicately restored in private hands) is about as far from Trump Tower as you could imagine.
And back through the suburbs – Arlington, the Pentagon, Theodore Roosevelt Island – into DC proper. I’m having dinner down on The Wharf. The sun is setting behind the yachts moored here; planes are descending into Ronald Reagan National Airport. DC is lively, fun, playful – and a reminder that even the most recognisable and storied of American cities can occasionally reinvent themselves.
DC WINE COUNTRY
Even DC’s nearby wine country, in Loudoun County (America’s richest county), Virginia, has links to the founding fathers.
At the start of the 1800s, Thomas Jefferson tried to plant several grape varieties that he’d magpied from France. They didn’t last, although the idea did: and today the chalky soil of Loudoun, just across the Potomac River, has around 40 of Virginia’s 300 vineyards, growing mainly chardonnay, cabernet franc and viognier. The wine industry here is young, with the oldest vineyards not more than 50 years old.
There are plenty of vineyards to choose from in Loudoun (plus loads of interesting breweries, like Leesburg’s Crooked Run), but one of the most atmospheric wineries is Sunset Hills, in an Amish-renovated German barn, run by Floridians Mike and Diane Canney. Rather unsurprisingly, as the name suggests, there’s a beautiful view of the sunset.
WHERE TO STAY
Washington: Mandarin Oriental
Recently renovated rooms in shades of cream and teal sit inside one of DC’s few luxury riverfront properties, a five-minute stroll from the Mall. The Mandarin Oriental, Washington DC has just launched a Bedside Reading programme, allowing guests to take home a selection of books. Why? Because Jefferson loved to read.
Old Town Alexandria: Hotel Indigo
Newly opened on the soon-to-be-spruced-up marina, Hotel Indigo has Potomac river views and maritime-themed furnishings. Handily located for Old Town and just moments from King Street.
Baltimore: The Lord Baltimore
Sixty-six kilometres from downtown DC, Baltimore is the birthplace of the national anthem, and the home of Edgar Allan Poe and TV’s The Wire. Baltimore – the kind of place where you need to use adjectives like ‘edgy’ and ‘authentic’ – grew up around its tobacco trade with England, and today its best bits are still found around the harbour. The Lord Baltimore has a central Downtown location, plush rooms and a rooftop bar for summer nights, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cathay Pacific launches a four-times-weekly flight to Washington DC from Hong Kong on 15 September