It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions,” Charles Dickens famously wrote about Washington, DC; and anybody who has visited our nation’s capital can attest to the strength of purpose that is apparent throughout its streets, parks, and monuments. The District of Columbia was built with a specific intention—namely, to serve as a home for our nation. These days, it is a veritable theme park of restaurants and sightseeing spots, one that is worth far more many days than the 3 allotted for the Association of Advancement of Medical Instrumentation’s Annual Conference & Expo in June. So if you have taken it upon yourself to extend your vacation a bit—or if you just want to squeeze some pleasure in with your business—24×7 has got you covered. We have focused our search within the confines of the city borders to limit travel to walking, public transportation, or, if necessary, taxi cabs. We have even included a section on getting around to help you out when the often-overwhelming grid of the city becomes draining.
First things first: Get a map. You will need it. The addresses in DC are designated according to a grid system, although it might not seem that way at first glance, what with diagonal avenues going every which way.
The city is divided into four quadrants, like a compass—NW, NE, SE, and SW—with the Capitol building at the center of it all. Which would seem easy, except that the Capitol isn’t exactly in the center of town at all (that designation belongs to the Washington monument). This has led to the Northwest becoming the largest quadrant, which makes it home to most of the sites in this article and the largest number of areas of interest.
The streets are labeled according to letters, numbers, and state names. So, if someone tells you to meet him or her at Sixth and G, you will need to ask him or her which quadrant, since there are four different Sixth and G intersections in the city—one per quadrant. Within the quadrants, the numbered streets run north-south and lettered streets run east-west (with one letter, J, omitted from the grid to avoid confusion with the letter I).
The grid of the streets is simple, when you get the hang of it. For example, 900 G Street, NW, is the intersection of Ninth and G streets in the NW quadrant of the city. Likewise, the alphabet and the numbers are fairly easy to make correlations, as long as you remember to skip J. For example, 1600 16th Street, NW, is close to Q Street, as Q is the 16th letter of the alphabet, if you don’t count J.
Now, what about those famous diagonal streets? These confusing pathways were the idea of Pierre L’Enfant, Frenchman and designer of our capital, who tossed in diagonal avenues in homage to Paris. Most are named after US states. Which would make 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, close to Q and 16th streets in the Northwest quadrant.
The good news for visitors confused by the DC street system? Almost every sight worth seeing in Washington can be reached by the city’s subway system, the Metrorail, minimizing street navigation. There are five color-coded lines, with each train’s direction determined by its destination. Lights flash on the edge of the platform when a train approaches the station. Before boarding, look for the maps and signposts on the train platform and double-check the direction and color of the train, which is indicated by screens at the top of the cars.
Fares vary by the length of your journey and by the time of day. On weekdays, passengers pay more to ride the trains from 5 to 9:30 am, 3 to 7 pm, and 2 to 3 am. The minimum fare is $1.35 one way, rising to a maximum of $2.35 during nonrush-hour times. A one day pass is $6.50, which makes it most efficient if you are planning on visiting many sites around the city as it allows unlimited travel after 9:30 am on weekdays, and all day on weekends and holidays. Farecards can be purchased from machines in each station. The Metro runs until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 3 am on Friday and Saturday.
While the Metro is one of the more efficient areas of DC life, the taxi cab system is one of the more confounding. Unlike most cities, taxis in Washington do not use meters to determine fares. Instead, they use a zone system that bewilders residents as often as visitors.
The cabs have maps in the back seat, which are not oriented north-south, as one might expect. Instead, the fare is determined by the address of where you hailed the cab and the address of your destination. Passengers pay for the number of zones traveled through, not the mileage. This means no more extra charges for waiting in traffic, but it often remains downright confusing for newcomers. An average one-zone trip downtown costs a basic rate of $6.50 for the first passenger. But the extras add up quickly: $1.50 for each additional passenger, and a $1 rush-hour surcharge for travel between 7 and 9:30 am and 4 and 6:30 pm. And remember to look for the driver’s photo and license number, which should be posted on the passenger’s side, and the map. If you don’t see either, hail a new cab.
Made in America: The Sights
Since the convention takes place during the hot month of June, the city and sights may be slightly less crowded than during other times of the year. That being said, a general rule of thumb for getting the most out of sightseeing is to go during the night, when all the great monuments are more impressive and less crowded. So after a long day at the convention hall, try to squeeze in some sightseeing. It will be worth it.
There should be no avoiding the Capitol. Home of the Senate and the House of Representatives, the grand building is reminiscent of the Roman Pantheon in design. Additionally, the architecture is breathtaking in and of itself, filled with frescoes and statues. If you plan in advance and write your representative or senator about your visit, you can access VIP treatment at the White House; the Capitol; the FBI building; the Bureau of Engraving; the Library of Congress; and, if you can get out there, Mount Vernon. VIP treatment means guaranteed tickets without the hassle of waiting in Disneyland-esque lines.
Of course, the epicenter of Washington tourism is the Mall, the long, two-mile strip from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol building. It is the closest thing to an American-themed amusement park as we are going to get. Where else could visitors get a glimpse of Charles Lindbergh’s airplane, The Spirit of St Louis, the Hope Diamond, Juila Child’s kitchen, and dinosaurs? People often try to walk the whole thing, wearing down their shoes and their patience. To focus your trip, there are some oft-recommended sites that are worth a visit, namely:
• The Smithsonian Institution Building; 1000 Jefferson Dr, SW; (202) 357-1739.
• The National Air & Space Museum; Fourth St and Independence Ave, SW; (202) 633-1000.
• The National Museum of Natural History; 10th St and Constitution Ave, NW; (202) 633-1000.
• The National Museum of American History; 14th St and Constitution Ave, NW; (202) 633-1000.
• The National Archives; Seventh St and Constitution Ave, NW; (866) 325-7208.
• The National Gallery of Art; between Third and Seventh Streets at Constitution Ave, NW; (202) 737-4215.
As for monuments, Lincoln takes the title of “Most Inspiring.” Yet the Washington monument is hard to (read: can’t be) missed; and the Jefferson, Vietnam, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorials have their fair share of devotees. For those who crave a more international feel, Embassy Row will cure what ails you, what with mansion after mansion and dozens of flags from all around the world flapping in the breeze.
Dining Like a King of the Hill
There are three cities where big names can be spotted in certain restaurants. Although New York and Los Angeles’ contingent Who’s Who remain staunchly in the entertainment bloc, Washington, DC, spottings are almost always of the political power persuasion. For your best lunching options, try these famous eateries out for size, but leave your budget at the hotel.
15 E St, NW; (202) 661-2700
General manager Ralph Johnson calls the three booths on risers on the main dining level of this French-accented eatery, “power central.”
Bobby Van’s Steakhouse
809 St, NW; (202) 589-0060
Eating as one brings the patrons of this steakhouse together. The smallest porterhouse on the menu is for two.
The Capital Grille
601 Pennsylvania Ave, NW; (202) 737-6200
Known among those in the know as a Republican clubhouse, this is the DC location of the high-end steakhouse chain.
Charlie Palmer Steak
101 Constitution Ave, NW; (202) 547-8100
The window tables along the side of this meat-loving restaurant offer views of the Capitol.
107 D St, NE; (202) 546-4488
Famous political quotes cover the beams in the dining room, so trying to spot notorious political players could be disguised as reading. The booths along the walls are known as favorites of the Supreme Court Justices.
Ocenaire Seafood Room
1201 F St, NW; (202) 347-2277
The lobster cobb salad is famous both for its quality and quantity. As for seeing political masterminds, look for table 35, the circular booth on the far wall, which is notorious as being the place to be seen.
1600 K St, NW; (202) 452-1866
For those looking for something outside of the traditional surf and turf, Olives comes as a welcome surprise. Try the goat-cheese dumplings, which are a hit with its Democrat patrons.
Inexpensive Eats DC Style
For those on a budget who still want to sample some of the best of DC dining, try out some of these less expensive options.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U St, NW; (202) 667-0909
Since 1958, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been an institution in the recently hip U Street corridor. The great word of mouth helps its patronage, as do its extra-late hours that make it easy for night owls to snarf down a “half-smoke.” But patrons warn that a “large fries” really is “large” (and on the brink of unfinishable), so buyer beware.
1335 Wisconsin Ave, NW; (202) 337-0400
If you’ve ever been curious about where the potatoes for your fries came from, Five Guys has got you covered. Be it Maine, Idaho, or elsewhere, they will let you know the home state of your fries of the day. If you are not in a fry mood, try the grilled hot dogs and hand-patted burgers. (Double patties are popular.)
1967 Calvert St, NW; (202) 232-5431
This Lebanese restaurant is a much-loved resident of the famous Adams Morgan district. Try the hummus, and if you are feeling adventurous, go for the ground lamb and pine nuts variety; the baba ghanoush; or lebnah, a creamy cheese made from yogurt.
1792 Columbia Rd, NW; (202) 332-1011
Owner Pepe Montesinos used to sell soft tacos over the counter of this former grocery store. Demand quickly exceeded supply, so he added another room and table service. In addition to the classic soft tacos, the café now provides tortas, tamales, menudo, and, of course, margaritas.
701 Ninth St, NW; (202) 638-0800
Not only is this restaurant on the inexpensive side, but it has also been rated one of the top 100 Very Best Restaurants by Washingtonian magazine. The menu consists of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare that takes a communal approach to dining. As for the best dishes? Survey says you can’t go wrong with garlicky pork sausages with tart orange rind and bean stew; lollipop lamb chops with rosemary syrup; spanakopita made from homemade phyllo dough; and braised lamb on a bed of puréed smoked eggplant, béchamel, and keflograviera cheese.
Michelle Said is associate editor of 24×7.