Washington, DC: Georgetown to U Street
Written by Vanessa H. Larson
There’s so much more to the US capital than the famed monuments and museums of the National Mall. Washington, DC native and writer Vanessa H. Larson introduces us to some of the city’s most appealing neighbourhoods.
Not far from the government buildings and official atmosphere of downtown Washington, the route from Georgetown to U Street presents a vibrant mixture of history, culture, shopping, entertainment, and scenery that is perfect for exploring.
Washington’s oldest neighbourhood, Georgetown conveys a palpable sense of history in its narrow, cobblestoned streets lined with well-kept brick row houses dating back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This busy port on the Potomac River during the late colonial period remained a separate town until its incorporation into the city of Washington in 1871.
Long one of Washington’s most affluent enclaves – famous residents have included Lincolns, Kennedys, and other political leaders, diplomats, statesmen, and society mavens – Georgetown has a certain genteel air about it and also boasts the city’s most sophisticated shopping scene. The Gothic revival-style campus of Georgetown University, founded in 1789 as Washington’s first institution of higher learning and still one of its most prestigious, abuts the neighbourhood.
The Old Stone House, nestled inconspicuously among the modern shops and restaurants on M Street – Georgetown’s main thoroughfare – is the oldest surviving house in Washington, dating back to 1765. Now open to the public, its handful of small rooms, furnished in period antiques, offer a glimpse of middle-class life in early America.
Just south of M Street, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, constructed between 1828 and 1850 as a trade route bypassing unnavigable sections of the Potomac, is an especially picturesque spot. In warm months, the towpath that runs along the 297km canal is a favourite with strolling families, joggers, and bicyclists.
Steps away is the Potomac, flanked by the landscaped Georgetown Waterfront Park and the Washington Harbour complex, housing several dining establishments popular for both brunch and dinner. Fiola Mare, chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi’s third venue, opened in early 2014 and quickly earned accolades as the city’s best restaurant for Mediterranean-style seafood. Excellent views of the river, plus Washington landmarks including the Kennedy Center, Watergate complex, and Key Bridge, complement the well-prepared grilled fish and shellfish.
The intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue forms the heart of Georgetown’s commercial district, featuring a plethora of fashionable brands – from Kate Spade, Tory Burch, and BCBG Max Azria to Diesel, Lacoste, and Coach – as well as independent boutiques such as Hu’s Wear and Hu’s Shoes, which carry a curated selection of chic women’s clothes and footwear. A short way farther along M, Cady’s Alley has several high-end furniture and design stores, while antique-sellers, gourmet food and tea shops, and other speciality stores dot nearby streets.
Don’t leave Georgetown without trying one of its contemporary traditions: cupcakes. Extreme sweet tooths will delight in Georgetown Cupcake’s concoctions, topped with a decadent amount of buttercream frosting, while Baked & Wired has a loyal following for its uncommon flavours like carrot cake and chai. Expect queues out of the door at both places, particularly on weekends.
To the northeast of Georgetown is Dupont Circle, one of the city’s most attractively designed roundabouts, from which three major arteries radiate. With its marble fountain, benches, and concrete chessboard tables, the tiny park in the centre is a popular gathering spot, particularly during warm months.
The surrounding neighbourhood is filled with elegant turn-of-the-century buildings and brownstones that are now as likely to hold diplomatic missions, think tanks, and non-governmental institutions as apartments. Embassy Row, roughly the area extending northwest of the Circle between Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues, lays claim to the largest concentration of Washington’s embassies, among them those of Indonesia, India, Kenya, and South Korea.
Also in Dupont Circle is the Phillips Collection, the city’s premier private art museum, with an outstanding collection of European and American art ranging from works by Impressionists including Monet, Cézanne, and Degas to modern artists such as Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky, and Willem de Kooning. Founded in 1921 by industrial heir Duncan Phillips, the gallery is housed in the family’s charming 1897 mansion and two adjoining wings.
East of Dupont, U Street – a historic centre of Washington’s African-American cultural life, once frequented by musical greats such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Sarah Vaughan – has recently been revitalised after several decades of decline. The U Street corridor and the intersecting section of 14th Street now form one of the city’s buzziest quarters, filled with dozens of trendy dining and entertainment venues.
Kapnos, helmed by former Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella, serves up a feast of flavourful Greek-inspired mezes, spit-roast meats such as marinated lamb and baby goat, and stone-baked flatbreads. Its next-door sister establishment, G, treats diners to a four-course Italian tasting menu on Wednesday through to Sunday night, doubling during the daytime as a casual joint offering sandwiches and light fare to eat on-site or take away.
Farther down 14th, one of the most talked-about recent openings is Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr’s Le Diplomate, featuring a well-made menu of French classics – from veal escalope to moules-frites – in a warm brasserie ambiance that practically transports diners to Paris. Nearby Etto serves innovative daily specials of Italian-influenced small plates – such as smoked Spanish mackerel on crostini, or Piedmontese-style rabbit with green tomato jam – along with artisanal pizzas. Numerous other cuisines can be sampled within just a few blocks’ radius, from Latin American to Southeast Asian to Ethiopian.
While most of these top tables have opened up just in the last few years, one noteworthy U Street eatery has been in business since 1958: Ben’s Chili Bowl, serving US diner-style food, including its famous chili, is a veritable DC institution whose regular patrons have included celebrities and presidents.
Also on U Street is the historic Lincoln Theatre, a cinema and stage built in 1922 for black audiences who were kept out of other venues because of segregation. Restored in the 1990s, the grand performance hall now hosts big-name musical acts, comedy shows, and other events.
Other noteworthy arts destinations in the vicinity include the9:30 Club, which regularly draws established singers and bands, and the Black Cat, with a more eclectic line-up. The well-regarded Studio Theater, an independent theatre company operating since 1978, and the Source Theater, which plays host to several companies in residence in addition to various festivals, are both located on 14th St.
A short walk north is Meridian Hill Park (also known as Malcolm X Park), a lovely urban oasis with Italian-style gardens, statuary, and the continent’s largest cascading fountain. Frequented by Washingtonians from diverse walks of life, it’s the ideal place to sit back and take in the lively scene in the US capital.
Washington with Children
It might be known as a government town, but Washington has plenty to delight children. A perennial favourite is the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum – the most visited museum in the USA – which showcases everything from aircraft and space shuttles to astronaut gear and Moon rocks. Another top draw is the National Zoo, home to some 300 species of animals, including big cats, Asian elephants, great apes, and reptiles. Kids particularly adore the zoo’s most famous denizens, giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian and their cub Bao Bao, who are among only about 50 pandas in the world outside of China. Family-friendly events in DC include the Folklife Festival, a two-week extravaganza of music, dance, crafts, and food on the National Mall that highlights different parts of the world; this year’s featured country is Peru (June 24 to July 5).
My Washington, DC
Located just two blocks from Dupont Circle, the 82-room Hotel Madera – part of the Kimpton brand of boutique-style hotels – feels like an intimate pied-à-terre. The hip yet cosy accommodation features bold colours and design flair, along with pleasantly quirky touches such as animal-print bathrobes. Service is attentive, bikes can be borrowed gratis, and Firefly restaurant, serving seasonal US comfort food, is a trendy neighbourhood hangout in its own right.
Rasika is not just a restaurant, it’s an experience – from the contemporary interpretations of traditional Indian regional dishes and grilled specialities to the upscale service and chic vibe. James Beard award-winning chef Vikram Sunderam’s innovative menu – which varies slightly between the Penn Quarter and West End locations – includes delicate flavour combinations such as black cod with fresh dill, honey, and star anise. Don’t miss the signature appetiser, palak chaat: crispy spinach served with sweet yogurt and a tamarind sauce.
Mirroring Washington’s growing fascination with artisanal cuisine, farmers’ markets have become popular destinations. Eastern Market, a red-brick edifice dating to 1873 and restored in 2009, is the longest-running emporium, with a craft and flea market in addition to food. Opened in 2012, the more out-of-the-way Union Market features trendy craft producers and eateries. Dupont Circle’s outdoor market takes over a block of 20th Street on Sunday mornings, with dozens of vendors selling produce, flowers, and light fare.
International Spy Museum
In the city that gave birth to the CIA and FBI, the International Spy Museum gives visitors a taste of the intriguing history of espionage, from the Roman Empire up through the Cold War to today. The interactive exhibits on the gadgets and technology that form the tools of spycraft, as well as the stories of real-life spies both infamous and anonymous, appeal to both adults and children.
Washington DC, USA
Distance: 11,120 km
Flight Time: 14 hours, 35 minutes