Sunday 28 May 2017

Ms O'Faherty goes to Washington: A political tour of the US capital

American Holidays

Capitol Building, Washington DC
Capitol Building, Washington DC
WASHINGTON, DC: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC: President Barack Obama during a phone call in the Oval Office in 2013, in Washington D.C. Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images
US Capitol Building in Washington DC. Photo: Deposit
WASHINGTON: Then President-elect Barack Obama pays for his lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl in 2009. Photo by Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC: The 9/11 Gallery at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Loews Madison Hotel
A United Airlines plane
United Business Class
Washington, DC at the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial during spring
Chili half smoke at Ben's Chilli Bowl

Jane O'Faherty

From the US Capitol to President Obama's favourite chilli joint, Jane O'Faherty takes a political tour of DC.

Clambering up the steps to Washington's Lincoln Memorial, it's hard not to feel like I'm part of something big. Gazing over the DC skyline and the bustling crowds below, it seems like I could be in the opening sequence of a great political intrigue...

Maybe I am. With the US facing into one of its most intense Presidential elections in memory, there has never been a better time to travel to Washington, DC.

From real-life corridors of power to gripping dramas like House of Cards and The West Wing, the nation's capital is the epicentre of all things political - a dream visit for a reporter and political junkie like me.

WASHINGTON, DC: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If this city is a living, breathing political animal, then the 3km-long National Mall is its beating heart. While the better-informed tourist will know what to see here, a cycle through the park with Bike and Roll tours (bikeandroll.com) is a useful way to get your bearings. Speeding through the wide avenue of grassy lawns, fountains and sculptures, I pause for a while by the Vietnam War Memorial (above) - one of the most poignant reminders of a conflict that remains controversial to this day.

The White House (whitehouse.gov), the one building on everybody's list, can only be visited by submitting a tour request though one's Member of Congress. As my invite from Barack Obama (below) had obviously been lost in transit, I choose to go instead to Capitol Hill (visitthecapitol.gov) - the home of America's Congress.

WASHINGTON, DC: President Barack Obama during a phone call in the Oval Office in 2013, in Washington D.C. Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC: President Barack Obama during a phone call in the Oval Office in 2013, in Washington D.C. Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images

A working organ of the United States government and public museum, the US Capitol Building offers regular guided tours throughout the day, but I'm happy enough to walk through the building to the Library of Congress, a glittering book lover's haven, containing everything from literary classics to iconic contemporary music.

As a reporter, I'm equally fascinated by politics and the Fourth Estate, so make a beeline for the treasure trove of journalistic triumphs in the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue (newseum.org, pictured below).

WASHINGTON, DC: The 9/11 Gallery at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC: The 9/11 Gallery at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Don't worry, for those who shudder at the idea of another trip to a dusty museum, the Newseum is anything but. With centuries of reporting and investigations documented over its five floors, you could easily spend the day here. Exhibitions are updated daily, with up-to-date front pages from almost every newspaper in the world and real-time analysis of the US Presidential campaigns.

You can declare your allegiance before November by buying 'Hil' and Bill' or 'Trump' T-shirts downstairs. There's also plenty for history buffs - from large-scale exhibits on civil rights and the War on Terror to the actual Unabomber cabin and a real piece of the Berlin Wall.

After covering that much ground in a day, a slap-up meal fit for a high-flying legislator is needed. While DC has hundreds of high-end eateries, locals advised me that the best place to spot the big movers and shakers is somewhere a lot more humble.

Ben's Chili Bowl (benschilibowl.com, below) on U Street North West looks like just another all-American diner, but it also hosts legions of political regulars. It's common knowledge locally that President Obama himself comes in for dinner.

WASHINGTON: Then President-elect Barack Obama pays for his lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl in 2009. Photo by Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images
WASHINGTON: Then President-elect Barack Obama pays for his lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl in 2009. Photo by Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images

The hungry should try the restaurant's Chili Half Smokes, a hot dog laced in thick chilli sauce and served with fries. The guilty pleasure has impressed even former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Meanwhile, more hard-nosed hacks should check out the appropriately named Off The Record in the Hay-Adams Hotel on 16th Street (hayadams.com). I opted for a substantial meal at the Rural Society in the Loews Madison Hotel on 15th Street NW, where the lucky clientele can watch their Argentinian steaks being cooked before their eyes.

DC doesn't shut down after business hours, either. A favourite late-night venue of mine is the Round Robin Bar on Pennsylvania Avenue NW (washington.intercontinental.com), which has been a hotspot for the political elite since the days of Abraham Lincoln.

A discreet hideaway nestled inside the opulent Willard InterContinental Hotel, the quiet snug serves some of the best cocktails in town. It's also the place for spotting well-known senators or congressmen, if you'd like to lend an ear to juicy stories from earlier meetings (the legendary bar is reportedly where the term 'lobbying' was first coined).

Washington, DC at the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial during spring
Washington, DC at the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial during spring

However, downtime in DC isn't all about lounging around a glamorous bar in your finest suit. Washington DC has been named America's fittest city by the American Fitness Index (americanfitnessindex.org), so remember to pack your running gear.

In fact, over 93pc of the city's residents live less than a 10-minute walk from a public park, meaning there are plenty of opportunities to take time out from hectic city (and political) life. Plus, you never know who you might spot on your morning jog as DC wakes up.

For anyone with even a passing interest in US affairs, the power and political influence in DC is palpable everywhere - from the National Mall to the museums, from the parks and architecture to the knowing name-checks in restaurants and hotels.

A United Airlines plane
A United Airlines plane

As House of Cards' Frank Underwood said: "Power is a lot like real estate. It's all about location, location, location."

Get there

Jane travelled with United Airlines (united.com, above; from €583 return), which flies daily from Dublin to Washington Dulles. Cheaper fares of €481 are available between November 1 and Dec. 17, or Dec. 25 and March 30. BusinessFirst includes champagne, a three-course meal and Cowshed cosmetics from €2,157. See more at united.com.

Where to stay

Jane stayed at Loews Madison Hotel (loewshotels.com/madison, below), just a short walk from The White House at the centre of DC. The four-star boasts chic suites and The Rural Society, one of the city’s finest Argentinian steakhouses. Prices from $199/€178 for winter and summer stays, and $399/€357 for spring and autumn.

Loews Madison Hotel
Loews Madison Hotel

What to pack

Despite its compact size, visitors will end up walking deceptively long distances in DC. Throw in a pair of your favourite low-heel shoes to save sore feet. Temperatures can soar to 35°C in summer, so sunscreen, sunglasses and sun hats are also essential. Pack some glamorous evening wear, too.

Three Must-do's

Eat at Toro Toro's

Want a break from hamburgers? Toro Toro offers unpretentious but delicious Latin American meals —think a generous lunch buffet of cheeses, charcuterie and fresh bread, or a Churrasco Skewer (a towering brochette of chargrilled meats that will easily feed two) for dinner. richardsandoval.com/torotorodc

Rock, Power & Poitics

Rock ’n‘ Roll has always played a central role in political and social movements — from the Vietnam War to John & Yoko’s ‘bed-in’ and artists like Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine. ‘Louder than Words: Rock, Power & Politics’ opens at the Newseum on January 13. newseum.org

Go to a baseball game

Check out Nationals Park, the city’s baseball stadium, for a real taste of US life — and a crowd of fans that would rival the Irish at the Euros. Between cheerleaders, chilli dogs and catchy sing-alongs, even sports amateurs will be sucked into this all- American night out. washington.nationals.mlb.com

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