Wednesday 25 April 2018

Vicki Notaro: Does Washington DC translate from TV to real life?

Vicki Notaro travelled to Washington DC to see if it translates in real life as well as it does on TV, and she wasn't disappointed

Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

As a self-confessed America-phile, there are few cities in the great US that I've yet to visit. When deciding to take a holiday, my first instinct is always to head west towards the US of A.

There's just something about the States that appeals to me on another level – the diversity, the sheer size and scope and the over-the-top nature of the country and its inhabitants – I just love it. However, despite this interest in all things Americana, I had never experienced the nation's capital city, Washington DC, until this year.

It was TV that finally made me make the trip. Having spent the winter watching 'The West Wing' box set and 'House of Cards' on Netflix, I decided that it was high time I saw the birthplace of American democracy with my own eyes. Thus, I travelled to DC to witness the city during Obama's second term.

I had read that the city has a vastly different feel with every administration, and Barack's presidential campaign had certainly highlighted areas of the city that were formerly seen to be less than desirable.

Flying direct from Dublin with United Airlines, I arrived at Dulles International and took a cab to Dupont Circle, where I stayed at the eponymous hotel, Irish-owned by the Doyle Collection.

I quickly realised that Washington is a city with no real centre, rather landmarks spread out around the unassuming central Scott Circle. It became apparent that DC isn't really a place for rambling and discovering like nearby New York, but rather a place to go armed with a plan to take in as many sights as possible. A feast for the eyes and senses, there really is something for everyone in the relatively small capital.

The museums

The Smithsonian Institution (si.edu) is the big daddy of DC museums, with several large, sprawling buildings housing hundreds of exhibits mostly based around the National Mall. From Air and Space to National or Natural History, Portrait Gallery to African Art, you could spend days trawling through the wonders on offer behind glass cases. They're all free to enter, but expensive cafés and gift shops manage to suck punters in.

I visited several, and the nearby Zoo to see their giant pandas, and while the Smithsonian is fantastic, it was a different museum that stole my heart.

The Newseum (newseum.com), or Museum of News, is not just of interest to journalism nerds like myself. My travelling companion had little interest in even visiting the seven-level building, balking at the $25 (€18.85) price tag, but wandered around in wide-eyed wonderment once inside.

With video footage, compilations of articles, interactive exhibits and spellbinding photographs, the place is truly emotive – I bawled real tears at exhibits showcasing JFK's life and death, the Second World War and, of course, 9/11.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning photography exhibit also tugs at the heartstrings while being a real treat for the eyes, and the more lighthearted sights uplift between the serious stuff – I particularly enjoyed candid pictures of America's presidents and their dogs, the First Pups.

Your ticket allows you to return a second consecutive day to the Newseum, and you really could spread it out over a weekend. The balcony also has stunning views of the Capitol, and is walking distance from the Mall and all its treasures. Not to be missed.

The Holocaust Museum is another real experience. The self-guided tour, over three floors, is not for the faint of heart, and only suitable for children over 11. It's galling and moving, and a real emotional tour de force. It will leave you wondering how the atrocity ever happened, while being presented with historical artefacts and information. See ushmm.org.

The monuments

The most obvious building people want to see when they visit DC is Obama's home, The White House. No. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is awe-inspiring but frustrating, as it's difficult to get as close as you might like. Still, a sight so familiar from the big and small screen is a must-see when in town.

The Capitol building which houses Congress is easier to access at the head of the National Mall, which also houses the Smithsonian and many of the sights to be seen. Stand on the steps and view the National Monument in all its phallic glory – currently surrounded by scaffolding, which is slightly disappointing – get a picture with the famous domed roof and then wander down the Mall to see everything on offer.

You could spend three or four days checking this particular area out.

DC is littered with spectacular statues and memorials to its late and great, but some are more awesome than others. The Lincoln Memorial, enshrined in a colonnaded building, is probably the one with the biggest wow factor. The colossal likeness of the nation's 16th president is beautifully eerie, from his pensive, seated pose to the echoey atmosphere in the chamber. However it's always packed, so the presence of hundreds of other tourists takes away from any sombre feeling.

One of the stand-outs for me was the Martin Luther King sculpture, relatively recently erected and thus far more contemporary than its counterparts. Situated close to the Korean and Vietnam war memorials – both also worth seeing – its striking facade of the late MLK's face is affecting and great for a photo op.

Where to stay

As DC has no city centre, the town is your oyster when it comes to choosing where to stay – practically nowhere is off limits.

I liked the chilled vibe of Dupont Circle, which is right on the Metro line, and there were cute cafés, book stores and restaurants nearby. However, it wasn't exactly hopping at night, and if I were to return I'd head straight for Georgetown and its beautiful branch of The Four Seasons.

The neighbourhood synonymous with the Ivy League university nearby is quaint, cute and great fun at night with shopping, drinking and strolls galore.

However, most people would probably plump for somewhere near the National Mall and White House, which is where most of the luxury hotels lie. The Hay-Adams overlooks the Obamas' home, while The Jefferson is in the heart of downtown.

Food and drink

For such a majestic city, it's not hard to eat well for little money in DC. Start your day in Dupont Circle with breakfast or brunch at Afterwords Café, situated in the famous Kramerbooks store. Munch on a 'Barack Obamlet', some delicious French toast or simple bacon and eggs to set you up for the day.

Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street – where Obama stopped for a dog before his inauguration, to the delight of the world's press – has been open since 1958, throughout racial turmoil and the ups and downs of the local community.

For a bit of history and some really good chilli in the heart of the real DC and its inhabitants, don't miss this place, a world away from the beaten tourist track.

The Smithsonian's restaurants are ridiculously expensive for what they are, so I'd recommend avoiding them. The nearby Hank's Oyster Bar (hanksoysterbar.com) has delicious fresh seafood with a southern flavour and is reasonably priced.

For dinner, head to Georgetown, where you can choose your cuisine as the neighbourhood has everything. You could have tapas at Bodega, Asian at Bangkok Joe's and dessert at Serendipity, but I loved the simple gastro pub Clyde's of Georgetown, where the food was fresh, traditional American with a sophisticated edge and really reasonable. A cool interior, too, with lots of nooks and crannies and friendly student staff.

There are watering holes dotted around the city. Have a cocktail at the Hay-Adams Hotel to experience the decadence, check out happy hour and craft beers at The Big Hunt in Dupont Circle, or hit Martin's Tavern in Georgetown, where John F Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier.

Irish Independent

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