On and off the National Mall
Written by Nicholas Gill
Washington, DC, is so much more than a seat of government. It’s a thriving urban landscape dotted with vibrant attractions, hip hotels, and Korean taco trucks. Nicholas Gill offers Oryx readers a packed itinerary around this famous capital.
Your alias is Gary Wozniak. You were born in New Zealand, but live in Canada. You are 25 years old. Teacher. Your cover is that you’re going to Singapore to research an exchange school, though you’re actually going to pick up classified documents hidden within the brochure.
This is your first impression of the International Spy Museum, one of Washington’s lesser-known attractions. You will be quizzed on your details in the middle of your walk through the F street museum, a few blocks from the National Mall, that traces the history of world espionage from ancient history to the 21st century through gadgets, artefacts, and films.
Not far away is the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall, the home of the National Geographic Society. Most of the exhibits are child-friendly and of the high-tech science variety, and are related to nature and world culture. Photographs of assignments in National Geographic magazine that didn’t make the final cut decorate one hall, while others feature the work of Presidential photographers, including shots of President Obama, and Great Migrations. Films, lectures, concerts, and family events led by explorers, scientists, photographers, and performing artists are presented in the Grosvenor Auditorium, a 385-seat state-of-the-art theatre. Only certain special exhibits and some lectures and performances come with a fee.
Back on the National Mall is the National Museum of the American Indian, dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans. The museum opened in 2004 in a 23,000m2 building of curved Kasota limestone that evokes rock formations of the American southwest. The five levels of exhibits include textiles, carvings, jewellery, and weaponry of nearly every major indigenous culture in the western Hemisphere, from the Canadian Arctic to Cape Horn in South America. Before leaving, stop by the museum’s Mitsitam Native Foods Café, one of the only restaurants in the USA to serve the food of the country’s native people, as well as that of indigenous groups elsewhere in the Americas.
Across the Mall, Newseum, traces five centuries of news gathering in North America. The 14 major galleries and 15 theatres immerse you in the flow of information through some of the world’s great news stories. You’ll find 3.6m-high sections of the original Berlin Wall, a gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, and an exploration of front pages from across the world – 700 are transmitted to the museum daily and 80 chosen. The latest exhibition describes the reporting of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that devastated New Orleans.
A bit further away, just under 9km from the Mall, is the National Museum of Health and Medicine, sitting inside the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The museum focuses on the history and practice of American medicine, military medicine, and current medical research, and has vast collections of American military medical artefacts (microscopes, medical instruments, Civil War-era photographs, pathological specimens). Most, however, make their way here to see the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln, and pieces of his skull fragments and hair taken during his autopsy.
In the last five years Washington’s restaurant scene has become one of the hottest in the USA. Your first stop should be at the city’s convenient Chinatown, a cluster of two-dozen Chinese and other Asian restaurants accessed though the Friendship Archway, a painted Chinese Gate at H and Seventh streets. The area recently underwent a US$200 million renovation that brought in dozens of national chain restaurants, but classic dishes like the Mongolian hotpot at Tony Cheng’s or Vietnamese pho from the new Pho DC can still be had for cheap.
Stroll amid the 19th-century brick buildings in Georgetown, site of the greatest cluster of shops, restaurants, and nightlife in the city; and don’t miss eating at Ben’s Chili Bowl, an all-American diner-style eatery that has changed little since first opening in 1958. Known for its bowls of beef chilli, chilli half-smoke hot dogs, chilli fries, chilli burgers, and thick, creamy milkshakes, the restaurant has hosted more celebrities and Presidents than any other restaurant in Washington. A sign at the counter states: ‘No one eats for free except the following people: Bill Cosby and the Obama Family’.
Elsewhere in the city you can’t go wrong at any of the restaurants of Spanish chef and restaurateur José Andrés: Jaleo (Spanish tapas); Minibar (a six-seat, avant-garde tasting table); Café Atlantico (Nuevo Latino); Oyamel (Mexican); or Zaytinya (Eastern Mediterranean). Andrés is often credited with bringing the small plate concept to the USA, and each of his modern eateries follows this philosophy faithfully.
In the fashionable Logan Circle neighbourhood, a contemporary Spanish restaurant worth checking out is Estadio. In the bull ring-inspired atmosphere, you’ll find Spanish cheeses and charcuterie, tapas (jamón croquetas, blood-sausage bocadillos), and Basque pintxos, though the bar might be even more noteworthy. Spanish wines and sangria are common choices, but a more recent trend are their slushitos, crushed ice cocktails flavoured with ingredients such as sherry, scotch, and pumpkin. This is one of the hardest tables to get in Washington right now.
Across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, there’s Ray’s Hell Burgers, which made news in 2010 when President Obama took Russian President Dmitry Medvedev there. The 10-ounce, hand-trimmed burgers come blackened, Cajun, or grilled and can be topped with ten or so cheeses and dozens of toppings, most of which are free to add. For something extraordinary, try the Burger of Seville, which is topped with foie gras, bordelaise sauce, and white truffle oil.
Since 2008 stylish design hotels have been popping up all over the city, like the Donovan House on 14th Street, with its cocoon spiral showers, a rooftop pool, and sushi restaurant, Zantan, from celebrity chef Susur Lee. The W Washington DC, on 15th Street, opened in 2009 and looks out towards the Washington Monument. The trendiest of DC hotels, it has a canopied rooftop bar overlooking the White House, a spa, and a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant.
A more classic accommodation in the city that attracts political big wigs and lobbyists is the Willard Intercontinental, at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave, which has been the centre of social and political life in Washington, DC, since it first opened in 1818. Mark Twain wrote two books here, Martin Luther King finished his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech while staying here, and every president in the past 150 years has been a guest. American history breathes through each of the 335 rooms.
Washington DC, USA