Postcard from Washington

Long on monuments, museums, and atmosphere, Washington DC is a city with grandeur to spare and more than a few happening neighbourhoods. Donna Yawching on the unique pleasures of America’s capital

Fourth of July Fireworks over the Capitol dome. Photograph by Washington Dc Convention & Visitors AssociationSmithsonian “Castle” Building, with spring blossoms. Photograph by J Mcguire/Washington DC Convention & Tourism CorporationThe Lincoln Memorial. Photograph by J Mcguire/Washington DC Convention & Tourism Corporation

The trauma, no doubt, still runs deep; but it would take more than a terrorist plane-bomb to destroy the spirit of Washington DC. September 11, 2001, has left its mark on this unique world capital: invisibly, in the stricken hearts of its residents; and visibly, with the increased presence of security personnel and surveillance cameras, particularly around the Capitol. But none of this has changed the fact — the very evident fact — that this city is the absolute heart of political power, not just in the USA, but globally.

Designed in the 18th century as a Federal City, Washington could almost be described as a monument to itself. The official architecture is massive and (for the most part) classical, having been built in an age when Europe was the accepted standard for all that was beautiful, tasteful, “classy”. It’s not surprising to learn that DC’s designer was a Frenchman: the Library of Congress bears references to the Paris Opéra, while the Supreme Court coyly tips a wink at the church of La Madeleine. The most famous building in Washington, the Capitol, is an immense pastiche of columns and colonnades, reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon, topped by a huge and beautiful 19th-century dome. Numerous other classically-inspired buildings and monuments make up the heart of the city, which is symmetrically arranged around a vast greensward called the National Mall. The overall effect is one of well-ordered grandeur: this is a capital city that is acutely aware of its own unquestionable power.

But all is not austerity. The first time I visited Washington, it was early spring: I glimpsed the Capitol through a pointillist haze of tiny new leaves and pink cherry blossoms; everywhere were bright banks of tulips, daffodils, petunias. The Mall was a time warp of tranquillity: a refuge from the noise and traffic that swirled around it. In the mist, the city was beautiful, almost gentle.

But it’s not gentle on the feet. Built on this heroic scale, everything is always farther than you estimate; and there’s always something else to see that’s an absolute must. To start with, there are the monuments: Washington is not just a monument to power, it’s a monument to monuments. The presidential memorials are well-known: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt — and, of course, there’s the White House. Hordes of ebullient schoolchildren roam these sites, bussed in from around the country to imbibe the requisite dose of national pride and patriotism. Each monument has its particular grandeur; but the one that touches most deeply is the Vietnam Memorial, a stark black granite wall cut deep into the earth, like a scar, and inscribed with the names of the 58,000 Americans who died in their country’s most infamous conflict. There’s a hush at this memorial, as in a church; people walk by solemnly, reading the names as if they knew every single one. In places, a note is taped to the wall: “Happy Birthday”; or a US flag propped up, or a teddy bear. It is an almost unbearable spot.

The other thing Washington is famous for is its museums. Managed mostly by the Smithsonian Institution, they are too numerous to mention, but not to be missed. Collections are invariably first-rate and impeccably displayed: stimulating, educational, and extremely user-friendly. Absolute must-sees are the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs, yes, but also much more, including the legendary Hope Diamond); and the amazing Air and Space Museum, where the Wright Brothers’ historic Flyer shares space with Apollo artifacts and lunar landing craft. Kids are in seventh heaven in these museums, and as for adults — well, they become kids again. Fine art lovers should not miss the sterling collections at the National Gallery of Art (particularly the East Building, one of the city’s finest examples of modern architecture), the Corcoran Gallery, and the striking Hirshhorn Museum, whose cylindrical shape is a modernist sculpture in its own right. For something completely different, and exceedingly chilling, the Holocaust Museum is another place where people fall silent, and history descends upon you like a physical weight. Brilliant and evocative, this museum flinches from nothing: it will literally change you forever.

But Washington DC is more than just weighty buildings, monuments and museums: there is a lighter side to this grande dame of a city. You just have to head away from the centre, and into the neighbourhoods. Just east of the Mall, the area known as Capitol Hill is a shady residential district of red-brick houses, bay windows and upscale shops. On weekends, it enjoys the presence of the Eastern Market, an indoor-outdoor street fair where you can buy everything from flowers to second-hand furniture, fine crafts to kitsch. Inside the historic Market Building, the almost-as-historic  Market Lunch restaurant (since 1978) serves its world-renowned crab cakes in a no-nonsense setting. It’s a DC yuppie tradition.

At the other extreme of the city, in more ways than one, lies the hip and funky Dupont Circle/Adams-Morgan district. This is an area of small shops and cafes: European-trendy near to Dupont, segueing into somewhat-seedy as you drift towards Adams-Morgan, Washington’s most “ethnically diverse neighbourhood” (as the guidebooks put it). This is the territory of university students and new immigrants, value-for-money coffee-shops and every type of restaurant imaginable, from Eritrean to Vietnamese. Live music plays in gritty bars: rock/funk fusion, salsa, jazz, reggae. Wander a few blocks east on U Street and you’re treading on the heels of Duke Ellington’s childhood: at one time, in what was then a sharply segregated city, this was where Uptown Saturday Night happened for Washington’s black community. The area went up in flames in 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr; but now it’s in renaissance, featuring restaurants with names like U-topia.

There’s much more to Washington — Georgetown, an upscale version of Adams-Morgan, with its live jazz and trendy boutiques; lovely Alexandria, across the river; the Kennedy Center, with its breathtaking performances of dance and theatre; historic Arlington Cemetery, where John and Robert Kennedy lie buried, along with the Unknown Soldier — the list goes on. Whatever aspect of this city you choose to experience, one thing is certain: it will stir you. It is a city designed to do so.