A part from two years in London, I have spent more time in the three major cities on the US East Coast than any other metropoles on Earth. I live in New York, spent four years studying at a Boston university and visit Washington DC frequently for work, to see friends, and, yes, the occasional political march.
The Acela train operates along the Northeast Corridor, carrying passengers from DC to New York in three hours and from New York to Boston in under four. You can easily have lunch in the Big Apple and be in DC for dinner. While these cities are connected historically, politically, culturally, the train lets you experience the landscapes: from seaside villages in Connecticut to Maryland’s green-fringed estuaries along the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay.
What could I discover about places I know so well riding the rails on a whirlwind three-day tour?
1. The art scene
As it turns out, Boston’s booming Seaport District is entirely new to me and just a 15-minute walk from South Station. I walk across a green lawn to the Institute of Contemporary Art; while directly across the water is the Boston Harbour Shipyard and Marina in East Boston where the new ICA Watershed, a seasonal art space in a former copper pipe factory, opens on 4 July.
After a dose of art, I head back over the channel to follow the red bricks of the Freedom Trail across the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway to the North End, Boston’s oldest residential neighbourhood. I walk up Salem Street, past the cream-filled cannolis of Bova’s Bakery, to the peaceful Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.
2. Historic words
Shaded by massive beech trees, I try to read the pre-Revolutionary War headstones – the oldest is from 1659. Down the hill is Old North Church, where the sexton hung the famous ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ lanterns to let the Americans know the British were coming, and where nearly 50 years ago then-President Ford came to commemorate the US’ bicentennial. His words carry a warning: ‘let us pray…that those who follow 100 years or 200 years from now may look back at us and say: we were a society which combined reason with liberty and hope with freedom.’
3. Evening eats and frosé
I’m ready for dinner after walking back to the Seaport, a challenge well met at chef Barbara Lynch’s Sportello, a casual eatery with an open kitchen that turns out fresh tagliatelle with bolognese; seasonal plates such as lightly fried soft shell crab with melon, all shimmering golden and pink; and meltingly good gnocchi lifted by succulent pieces of lobster. After dinner, I head to the rooftop bar at the Envoy Hotel, where it seems all of Boston’s singles have gathered to drink frosé (frozen rosé) and microbrews.
In the morning there’s just enough time for breakfast, so I stop at South Street Diner, an all-night diner with a classic chrome exterior, and take a seat at the counter. Instead of Boston cream pancakes with lashings of maple syrup, I order two eggs, bacon extra crispy and a mountain of home fries. It’s delicious.
On the train, from the urgent green of Rhode Island’s backwoods, we emerge onto Connecticut’s shore: Stonington, Mystic, New London flash by, as do the small beaches along the Long Island Sound. Soon we enter the Bronx, then Queens and see Manhattan’s towers in the distance before we arrive at New York’s Penn Station, which is one of the unloveliest train stations in the country, especially galling when you see photos of the original McKim, Mead and White beaux-arts glory, torn down in 1963.
4. The High Line
I head two blocks west to see an example of preserved architecture: the High Line – an elevated park created from a former railway. I pass million-dollar flats designed by Zaha Hadid, Peter Marino and Bjarke Ingels; and at 23rd Street, I take the stairs down to peer into West Chelsea art galleries, and then carry on past crowds taking photos of a mural of stylised Statues of Liberty and America’s welcome to immigrants: ‘I lift my lamp besides the golden door.’ The path sweeps me under The Standard hotel, and down to Gansevoort Street and the Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum of American Art, which sits as an architectural exclamation mark at the High Line’s terminus.
5. Simon and the Whale
For any meal at any time, I’m spoiled for choice. Restaurateur Gabe Stulman has gone above 14th Street for the first time with the Simon and the Whale restaurant at the Freehand Hotel. The black bread and taramasalata is currently my favourite beginning to any meal, and the fish sandwich is unapologetically served with coleslaw and French fries.
From New York, it’s a short three hours to Union Station, which is a suitably grand arrival into the District of Columbia, with its massive gilt-coffered ceiling and views of the Capitol dome. Across the National Mall, Washington has rediscovered its riverfront on both the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. In the Wharf District in the city’s southwest, new hotels, restaurants and public piers seamlessly tie in the city’s existing fish markets and steamed crab stalls selling the bounty of Chesapeake Bay.
6. Rivers, blossoms and leaders
I hop aboard the Wharf Jitney, with its sunny yellow top, and cross the river to East Potomac Park. From there it’s a 20-minute walk to the Tidal Basin, ground zero for DC’s cherry blossom festival every March and April, and the great rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial. His statue stares not just at the White House across the water, but now also at the nine-metre-high relief of Martin Luther King Jr. The two great leaders are linked by the memorial for a third: Franklin D Roosevelt. As the lights come on in the early evening, one of King’s quotes takes on prominence: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’
The cleaned-up Anacostia River has also seen a revival with the Capitol Riverfront and Navy Yard districts bringing new restaurants, hotels and parks. At Chloe, chef Haidar Karoum’s cubio crudo has just the right amount of heat from diced Thai chillis. I devour the hummus with minced beef and sliced almonds, which is followed by a whole crispy dorade atop a mound of fragrant jasmine rice.
8. Galleries of history
The next morning, after an excellent coffee and croissant sandwich at the airy Dolcezza at the Wharf, I ogle ikat robes from Central Asia and James Whistler’s stunning Peacock Room, with panels and ceiling painted by the American artist in blue-green and gold, at the recently renovated Freer and Sackler Galleries. Across the Mall, at the National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture, I start in the lower galleries where shackles and chains worn by slaves lie in black ironbound silence, and the history of America’s ‘original sin’ is laid out. But as I ascend to the civil rights movement exhibits and then onto the cultural, sporting, culinary and musical contributions of African Americans, the mood becomes lighter, even joyous.
In three days, I’ve had a taste of American history, innovation, struggle, cuisine – and how they were shaped by immigrants from around the world, my own ancestors among them. I think of the signs that have been placed along the High Line: You are welcome here. Long may it be so.
WHERE TO STAY
The Envoy Hotel, Boston
Bright rooms with tiled floors, sunny yellow curtains and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Fort Point Channel and Boston’s Financial District, as well as the hulking steel skeleton of the Northern Avenue Bridge. The rooftop lounge is the place to be on a summer evening, and in winter it has inflatable igloos to keep guests warm.
The Beekman, New York
Just north of the Brooklyn Bridge, this might be the most Instagrammable hotel in New York – head to the nine-storey atrium and look up (or down). The ornate Victorian cast-iron railings, balustrades and facade of the 1883 building were preserved and are echoed in the rich decor in the lobby and Bar Room. Some of the rooms and suites (dark wood floors, light walls, jewel toned carpets) have views of City Hall and the Woolworth Building.
InterContinental, The Wharf, Washington DC
The rooms at this luxe riverfront hotel have mesmerising views across the Potomac of planes taking off and landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which are even better from the rooftop pool. The chic lobby’s stunning brass-rail staircase and hanging light installation is already a favourite Instagram spot, and chef Kwame Onwuachi brings Caribbean, West African and Creole influences to his inventive menu at Kith/Kin. On the wharf, rent paddleboards from Recreation Pier, pick up the latest Washington tell-all at bookshop Politics & Prose or hop on a water taxi to Georgetown.
Cathay Pacific flies to Boston from Hong Kong seven times a week, New York City 35 times a week and Washington DC four times a week