Thursday 29 September 2016

Washington DC: Food, politics, museums, marvels and more in 'The District'

Direct flights to DC

Donal Lynch

Published 25/05/2015 | 02:30

Cherry blossoms at the Washington DC Monument
Cherry blossoms at the Washington DC Monument
Lincoln Memorial
In full bloom: The Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC on the banks of the Potomac River seen through Washington's signature cherry blossoms.
Map of United States
The sights: Donal Lynch visited the Washington DC monuments by bike
Spy Museum
Embassy visits

Donal Lynch boards Aer Lingus's new direct route for a flying break in Washington DC.

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To begin with, I was a little bit wary of Washington DC.

I'd lived in New York for a few years and never bothered with the train trip down there. I'd pictured a city full of stuffy museums and button-down political wonks on expenses: not my idea of a good time. But over the years, television has slowly beaten me down. First Homeland, then House Of Cards, with their alluring montages of the city.

Then Aer Lingus opened up a new direct route to the city, which makes it much easier to get to from Dublin. And finally a friend provided the clinching, if completely politically incorrect, argument: "DC is actually a lot blacker than you'd think."

Quite apart from its most famous resident, Washington has one of the highest proportions of African-Americans in the union and the city has a rich and varied history of black music, food and culture. It all provides a much-needed contrast to the slightly starched, heavily policed feel that the rest of the city can have; the sidewalks of America's capital city teem with cops and Secret Service-type blacked out SUVS glide silently by every few minutes.

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Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

On our first day in the city we undertook a black food walking tour of the city, which is, hands down, the best guided tour I have ever been on. It took us along U Street, the beating heart of the city. Known also as Black Broadway, U Street has also been the home of a vibrant music scene for over half a century - the legendary Duke Ellington used to make his home there. For the purposes of the tour we sort of munched our way from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and in the meantime soaked up a bit of civil rights history.

We sampled unctuous macaroni and cheese with spicy fish from a roadside booth. We slurped up tiny bowls of gumbo, a silty Creole broth with sausage and shrimp, back ribs and fried green tomatoes from a Southern-themed place called Eatonville.

Around the corner was the famous Chilli Bowl restaurant, which is a favourite of everyone from Obama to, er, Bill Cosby (news of his fall from grace seems not to have reached most of DC). Meanwhile our excellent guide took us from the area's humble beginnings around the time of the Civil War through the Jazz Age to the race riots of the 1960s and beyond (The riots in nearby Baltimore were just fizzling to a standstill while we were there).

As some quite spectacular luck would have it, we undertook all of this on the very day that DC's famous Funk Parade, a once-a-year street festival, was taking place.

Our first inkling that something was happening was when we passed a huge yard full of musicians and people engrossed in what looked like an arts and crafts expo. In fact they were making robot masks for their bit of the parade and as the robots danced past us, followed by a troupe of shimmying black girls in hot pants and a brass band that writhed as they played, you were half inclined to wonder if your fried green tomatoes had been laced with some sort of hallucinogenic. As the day turned into evening the U-Street area became even more lively with most of the bars opening out onto the street.

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Spy Museum, Washington DC

The best way to see the many monuments of Washington is probably by bike; they're a little bit too spaced out to be comfortably walkable, but a bus tour would also miss the best bits.

The cliché about The White House is that its not as impressive when you see it in real life and this might be true, but the war memorials certainly pack an emotional punch. This is particularly true of the Vietnam memorial, which consists of a large black wall inscribed with the names of the thousands of American men and women who died in the conflict. On the day that we visited, there were groups of Americans laying flowers and weepingly looking for the names of relatives who never came home.

The memorials are particularly beautiful at night when they are illuminated. Many of them are open 24 hours and offer great views of the city.

The famous Arlington National Cemetery, located just across the Potomac River, is also a prime place to visit and home to dozens of memorials including the Coast Guard Memorial, the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial and the Spanish-American War Memorial. On the way there we passed through the famous underpass from the opening montage to House Of Cards; the locals roll their eyes as tourists stop to gawp at this unprepossessing stretch of concrete.

My preconception of Washington as being quite sedate was ill-founded. True we were there during two festivals - the aforementioned Funk Parade and Cinco De Mayo, with its obligatory margaritas - but even during the rest of the year, DC is livelier than you might expect. The city has one of the highest proportion of single people in all of America and there is a vibrant bar and club scene: even on a week night the bars were full until well past 1am.

It always seems to be happy hour somewhere and a bar stool is a terrific vantage point to observe that other popular Washington pastime - networking - particularly at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

According to local lore, the term lobbyist was coined by President Ulysses S Grant during his tenure in office in the late 1800s. Grant, it was claimed, would frequent the hotel to seek reprieve from the demands of office. Despite his best efforts to keep his outings private, individuals standing in the hotel lobby would approach Grant and ask him for special favours or jobs and the term lobbyist was coined. History and politics intertwine all over the city and the route from the airport took us past the famous Watergate hotel.

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Embassy visits in Washington DC

To escape from the heat we decamped to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's spa on one of the afternoons we were there. This is a little oasis of calm in the middle of the city, with a 25 metre pool, a sauna and best of all, an ice mist shower, which provided much needed relief from the oppressive temperatures outside.

We stayed at the Dupont Circle Hotel in downtown DC, which is part of the Doyle group, and every other person working there seemed to be Irish. Because of its vast proportion of government workers, Washington's hotels actually tend to have higher occupancy during the week than at weekends and late spring/early summer, right around the time the famous cherry blossoms make their appearance (we just missed them) is high season.

Expect to pay in the region of €300 a night for a four star hotel and beware, it goes without saying, that the dollar is very strong compared to the Euro now. Between tips, tax and the siren song of outlet malls you can end up blowing a fortune if you're not careful.

The weather forecast before we went indicated that nights might be quite cool - similar to daytime temperatures in Dublin. For this reason most of us brought coats and jackets in case things got chilly. This was a mistake; winter and indeed spring had gone with the cherry blossoms.

During the day it was scorching and at night the air hung as heavy as a tapestry. It's advisable to get to Washington before the height of summer or else to wait until 'The Fall', as the temperatures during July and August can be oppressive.

To escape the heat of the city on another day we took a picnic to Great Falls Park and enjoyed incredible views of the Potomac River. This national park is located just a few miles from Washington DC itself and there are a variety of activities there, including hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, bicycling, and horseback riding, which are all pretty reasonably priced. Camping is also an option. The park is accessible from both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the river and is a local favourite.

It used to be said of Margaret Thatcher, who made many visits to DC, that the reason she always appeared refreshed at airports was that she didn't have to bother with security or queues. Alas, there is no getting away from either now but the new Aer Lingus business class, with its full-length beds (on which I could stretch out even my 6ft frame), and revamped food menus, takes much of the pain out of travelling transatlantic.

I arrived into Dublin at 5am local time feeling like I'd had what was pretty much a normal night's sleep. It was the perfect ending to quite a spectacular trip.

Getting there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) has begun its ninth direct transatlantic service, with a new four times weekly service from Dublin to Washington-Dulles operating to January 4. Flights are operated by Airbus A330 aircraft and depart Dublin at 12.45 arriving in Washington at 15.35, with the return flight leaving Washington at 17.20, arriving in Dublin at 05.30.

Place to stay: The Dupont Circle Hotel (doylecollection.com)

Places to Visit: A bike tour around all of the monuments gives a great overview of Washington DC. There are many options but Capital City Guided Bike Tours might be the best (and cheapest) of the bunch: see bikethesites.com

Take three

1. Spying Game

The International Spy Museum is a wonderful antidote to the more "nutritious" museums of America's capital. Let's face it spies are just cooler than patriots. They have better lines in movies and better weapons. There is a particularly good exhibit here on the Navajo codetalkers and a great history of sneaky surveillance going all the way back to Moses. See spymuseum.org for more details.

2. Embassy thrill

During May and June more than 50 embassies in Washington, DC open their doors to the public. These events, known as Passport DC, allow participants to "travel the world" as they experience the food, art, dance, fashion, music, innovations, and manufactured goods from different countries without ever leaving the confines of the city. Well worth a look, especially if you get to peek inside some of the grander embassies.

3. Full Moon Cruise

Sail the Potomac River as the sun goes down and order from a three course menu while a live band and singer play jazz and Motown hits. The crowd may be a little older but it's pretty good value at around $80 all in and the atmosphere on board, as well as the views of the river and the city are incredible by the light of the moon. See odysseycruises.com/washingtondc for more details

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