1. Zinging foodie scene
Straddling the US’s northern and southern regions, DC has a food scene as diverse as its population. It’s got Michelin-starred restaurants, including Pineapple and Pearls, which features pricey modern American tasting menus, and the avant-garde fine-dining spot Minibar. There’s also a lively line-up of southern cuisine, with downtown’s Succotash – which was opened last year in a former bank building by Kentucky native Edward Lee – doing chicken and waffles served with maple syrup on delicate floral plates. Food trucks are also a thing, and some of the best, like Red Hook Lobster Pound and DC Empanadas, are found crowding the National Mall park and the Wharf (more on that later).
2. Statement-making hotels
Can a hotel be woke? It’s one adjective to describe Eaton Workshop, which opens this month mere blocks from the National Mall park. The flagship property from Hong Kong’s Great Eagle Holdings, owner of the Langham, has a lofty goal: to encourage ‘conversation’ between the city’s artists, entrepreneurs and decision-makers. Other new openings include the LINE Hotel inside a converted church in the formerly seedy, now chic Adams Morgan district; while down on the Wharf is the glassy InterContinental Washington DC – The Wharf. Plus, DC’s first Conrad outpost opens in the landmark CityCenterDC development early next year.
3. Endless museums
It would take years to look at every exhibit in DC’s museums. Best to choose wisely. The muscular Smithsonian Institute has 20 museums in the city alone, including the fascinating Air & Space, the National Museum of Natural History and the newest (and in my opinion, most powerful) National Museum of African American History & Culture. The latter is a vertical museum in a gorgeous David Adjaye-designed, three-tier bronze lattice, and it traces a timeline of African American history from the 1400s to the Obama presidency. Not sure where to start? The gothic, rust-red Smithsonian Castle doubles as a visitor centre. Then there’s the Newseum, dedicated to journalism – and, like most good content, not free of charge. It hangs more than 800 front pages from around the world every morning, and the sixth-floor terrace has a smashing view down Pennsylvania Avenue.
4. World-class art
The National Gallery of Art hangs pieces as varied as Italian Renaissance works, European impressionists (including a handful of Monets) and wacky Jackson Pollock murals. A few blocks north is the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Portrait Gallery, with one of DC’s most high-profile exhibits: the Presidential Portraits. There’s an abstract Bill Clinton, stately George Washington and playful Barack Obama, accompanied by Hawaiian flowers and a queue.
5. A well-placed park
Bracketed by the majestic Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, the home of Congress, the mile-long landscaped park National Mall is flanked by Smithsonian museums, monuments to founding fathers and the country’s decision-makers. You could walk (it’s all pedestrianised) or you could tour it by bike or Segway with local guides Bike and Roll, which will also skim you past monuments including the joyful (yes, really) Second World War Memorial, the contemplative Vietnam War Memorial and the Tidal Basin, around which cherry blossoms unfurl for a couple of weeks in spring.
6. Wine country
In wealthy Loudoun County next door, there are about 40 vineyards growing mainly chardonnay, cabernet franc and viognier grapes. The wineries here aren’t flashy but rather cosy, in converted barns, with pastoral views and sometimes horses trotting about. Sunset Hills vineyard, unsurprisingly, has a cracking view of the sunset, while 868 is surrounded by forests and orchards. Lansdowne Resort can organise wine tours so you don’t have to drive.
7. Old and new neighbourhoods
Compactness is a major DC asset, meaning it’s easy to scurry from one neighbourhood to the other. There’s historic Georgetown, setting for a number of TV shows and movies including House of Cards and The Exorcist. The main drag is less quaint, lined with big-brand shops, but turn off down any side street to find charm: colourful row homes shaded by elms, trendy coffee joints like Blue Bottle Coffee and the pretty C&O Canal. Then there’s the hipster Adams Morgan, with overpriced perfumers, CrossFit gyms and the new LINE Hotel. Stroll down 18th Street, a streak of arty townhouses, indie bookshops and the weekend party crowd.
8. The Wharf
Finished just a year ago, the overhauled 1.6-kilometre-long Wharf is a long overdue entertainment district for DC and reassuringly generic, with glossy condos staring down on casualistas sipping frosé at riverfront restaurants. Top spots include Mexican Mi Vida, which has a following as strong as the margaritas it serves, and Dolcezza Gelato, which does poncy coffee and artisanal ice cream. There’s entertainment, too. The Anthem hosts acts as varied as Lenny Kravitz, the Goo Goo Dolls and Reese Witherspoon, while makeshift stages on the piers host more impromptu performances. The Wharf is right under the flight path, so you can watch planes descend into nearby Reagan Airport, if you’re into that.
9. George Washington history
The man the city is named for is George Washington, the first US president and a Virginian farmer. Mount Vernon, his plantation home 27 kilometres outside DC proper, is a lovingly restored mansion set within 200 groomed hectares by the Potomac River; while Old Town Alexandria, quickly accessible by water taxi from DC, holds the honour of being his hometown. Stroll the cobbled streets and cutesy row homes of King Street, perhaps stopping to visit his apothecary, preserved since 1933, on Fairfax Street.
Less than an hour up Chesapeake Bay is Baltimore. Its claim to be ‘Charm City’ is perhaps oversold – it’s really best described as gritty – but the fresh Maryland crabs are worth the Amtrak journey. Its historical district, Mount Vernon, is endlessly Instagrammable, thanks in part to the 19th-century George Peabody Library and Walters Art Gallery (both free). The harbour area, which runs from the busy Inner Harbor through industrial-chic East Harbor to offbeat Fell’s Point, is ideal for a stroll on a sunny day.
Cathay Pacific flies to Washington DC from Hong Kong four times a week starting 15 September