I grew up in the Washington area and have lived there most of my life. Those with a critical bent might say it is the place where ugly people go to siphon off money from the rest of the country, and I would not argue with that assessment. Washington is not where the beautiful or the creative go. Despite being about politics, it’s not a place for passionate committed people. In reality, Washington is about the business of politics, not ideology. On a day to day basis, the vast majority of people working in Washington are concerned with getting re-elected, getting the right type of regulation passed for their industry, getting their clients seen in a favorable light, and generally milking the system to enrich themselves and their clients, in that order. There is an army of lawyers, thousands upon thousands of mid-level bureaucrats, a zillion lobbyists, and about 1,000 people with real power: senators, congressman, agency heads, supreme court justices, their top advisors. The overwhelming concern of these people is not advancing any political agenda but advancing their careers. The most visible lobbying firms are politically neutral, hiring equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans so that they can be effective regardless of which party is in power. Having said that, the city itself and the closer in suburbs, especially in Maryland, vote overwhelming democratic; if you live off the government machinery, government can never be too big.
The Washington area is really the tale of 3 areas. The district itself was not too long ago under the thumb of long time ruler Marion Barry, run much like a third world country, with predictable results, including out migration to the suburbs. It is now better managed, and more people in the area are joining the nationwide trend of returning to the cities. There are a number of very large and interesting redevelopment projects now taking place in the city itself.
The nearby Maryland suburbs like Montgomery, Howard, and Bethesda have always been more liberal than those on the Virginia side of the river, both politically and culturally. Northern Virginia is the most economically vibrant of the Washington areas; Virginia consistently ranks as one of the top business climates in the nation, and has always tended to be more politically conservative than the rest of DC, although the closer in suburbs like Arlington and Alexandria consistently vote democratic.
Much of the development in the DC area is clustered along the Metro lines. This development has generally been quite successful, with the areas around the Clarendon and Ballston metro stops in Northern Virginia being hailed as outstanding examples of transit related development. For young professionals who like high rises, Ballston is nice, and very convenient, if somewhat bland. Clarendon is less dense, and is as hip as Northern Virginia gets, which is a nice try in any event. Still no beautiful people, but some nice places to eat and drink.
It’s not an accident that the counties surrounding DC; Fairfax and Loudoun in Virginia, and Montgomery and Howard in Maryland, are now the richest in the nation. This is the home of the mini, and sometimes not so mini, mansion, built for government contractors, otherwise known as beltway bandits. There are lots of lawyers clearing seven figures, and some much richer politically connected entrepreneurs; as you drive out in the suburbs you’ll be amazed by the sheer number of big gaudy houses, and how far away from DC they stretch. The Washington area is also one of the most educated in the nation, and the world, but it’s not the kind of education that makes for interesting people, like artists with masters in fine arts or writers who studied comp lit. In Washington the affluent have law degrees, or doctorates in the kinds of sciences that help the defense department develop more efficient drone strikes. There are literally cul-de-sacs where every house will contain someone with a law degree; or a couple where each has a law degree.
So there is great affluence in this area, but, other than the houses, it is generally not so in your face as you might find in Miami or New York. Washingtonians spend money on real estate, but not so much else. You won’t see Rolls Royces or Ferraris, although there are a lot of high end cars of the more routine variety; endless Mercedes, Volvos, Audis, and BMWs. There is continual talk by boosters as to how Washington is becoming more sophisticated, but generally the dress is even more boring than the rest of America, though a bit more formal; more men still in suits and ties than elsewhere. There are plenty of nice restaurants in the DC area, but generally not super high end, as in these more constrained times lavish expense account entertaining is out of style, and your typical Washington lobbyist wouldn’t dream of actually paying for a very expensive meal just for himself or his family. Charming Old Town Alexandria, one of the closest suburbs, is home to scads and scads of million dollar plus townhouses, but only a couple of really high end restaurants, like Restaurant Eve. Downtown McLean, ground zero for politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists, is all million dollar plus houses, but very few nice dining, or shopping, options without trudging into Tysons Corner.
The richest man we know in Northern Virginia is a real estate developer who owns thousands of apartments with the mortgages completely paid off; his free cash flow must be tens of millions per month. But he lives in a modest house and generally very inconspicuously. Many of the richest men in the DC area; and they are overwhelmingly men – have built fortunes through real estate, as the machine that is the government seems to inexorably grow through any kind of administration or economic climate, and with it the need for offices, housing, and retail space. The real estate they have built is generally of the generic, but very profitable type. These guys don’t take big chances on any type of innovation, and why should they, when they know the faceless beltway bandits will fill their generic office space, and the endless stream of lawyers will buy an endless stream of colonial mini-manses, and the bland people will keep shopping at the bland malls and strip centers.
Despite all the above, there are areas in DC worth spending time in. These tend to be older areas like Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria, built long before the current highly regulated cookie cutter development took over. Also, because there is so much money in the Washington areas it has managed to attract, like bees to honey, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs in a partially successful attempt to spice up this great siphon for taxpayer money.
Old Town is interesting because it’s a large area really dominated by older buildings, mostly townhouses, but it’s a real community, not a museum like Williamsburg, Virginia. Development has been harmonized so as not to alter the historic vibe, which is nice, with the unfortunate side effect that there is no place a non-lawyer can afford to live. Nonetheless, it makes for a nice visit. We recommend Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton hotel, with a great location on King Street, and surprisingly affordable rates for this new, colorfully designed hotel with large rooms. (You’ll want a room overlooking King Street, or on the side nearer the river. On the other side you’ll hear a noisy exhaust fan.) From this hotel it’s an easy walk to the water and the parks surrounding the water, as well as up and down King street itself, where you can catch a free trolley down to the King Street Metro station.
Christ Church is a small historic and still used church, centrally located, with a nice cemetery, and certainly worth a visit. Founders Park, by the water, is lovely when the locals take their dogs out, throw Frisbees, and generally act like happy people in the rest of America who are not contemplating who they can most profitably sue next. Carlyle House, just two blocks off from Founders Park, has a lovely and tree lined small private park behind the historic home. Prince Street, just one street off King Street, is one of the best examples in America of a tastefully restored historic residential area, especially the stretch from Washington Street to Union Street. Alexandria also has a lot of small, interesting antiques shops.
One of the best parts of visiting Old Town is that it’s such a pretty drive along the George Washington Parkway (called Washington Street while in Old Town). You can cross any of the bridges coming out of DC and follow the signs to the GW parkway, taking it to Old Town. Continue on the parkway out of Old Town for the lovely drive along the water to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, also worth a visit, mostly for the grounds and outbuildings rather than the relatively modest home itself.
Georgetown is the historical area in DC and the most fun area for general walking, browsing, eating and drinking, but its not near the major tourist attractions, and it is not served by Metro. The main drag, M Street, is the rough equivalent of King Street in Alexandria, but a bit more tourist oriented. M Street has most of the usual national mid range brands and some upper tier brands, but few really high end like you’d find at Bal Harbour mall in Miami or Tysons two in Virginia suburbs. M Street has gotten gradually more sophisticated over the years, but The back streets are filled with historic homes, many quite large, and both M Street and Wisconsin are filled with some interesting shops, mostly focused on clothing and apparel. Just above Georgetown is Georgetown University. Below Georgetown is the Washington Harbor area; this area is not historic, but is tastefully developed, with a lot of nice restaurants to eat or have a drink while watching the activity on the Potomac, such as rowers from local schools. In fact, Georgetown harbor has some of the best views from dining and drinking spots you will find. Directly out front there will be some boats tied up, perhaps including a real yacht or two. On the Georgetown side of the harbor is Kennedy Center for the performing arts. Directly across the river is the Roosevelt Island park, and part of what makes the view so special is that the park provides an undisturbed tree line, so while the Georgetown side is nicely developed, you’ll see mostly trees looking across the river. You’ll also see the high rises of Rosslyn on the Virginia side; Rosslyn itself is fairly soulless, but makes a nice visual contrast to the tree line.
Alongside the Georgetown park development there are some lovely parks fairly recently developed. I’m not sure if it’s a classic “what you don’t know should not really bother you” scenario, but the lovely fountains, designed for kids to play in, and making for great photos, are also next to a rat infested area. The combination of waterfront with the fact that the sanitation people are not great about keeping the trash picked up on busy summer weekends leads to simple equation: water plus trash = rats. There would be a lot of screaming from the tourists if they knew that rats were scurrying around 10 feet from where there kids were running around barefoot.
An areas of Georgetown that most tourists miss is the canal, between the water and M Street. This is a really lovely path along the canal running the whole length of Georgetown. Years ago the park service ran a boat along the canal pulled by horses; they no longer do this, but it’s a very pretty path with lots of views, and far less congested than either M street above or the Potomac below.
Penn Quarter is on the other side of town, about 20 blocks from Georgetown, and really centered around 7th street between F and G? One night, or perhaps none, is fine in this area. It has the reputation as being trendy, but it’s really the same old huge chain restaurants, hotels, and retail dressed up in trendy clothing. (As opposed to, say, the lower east side of Manhattan, where the hotels, restaurants, and retail are typically one –offs owned and managed by locals.) The area is built around the DC Convention center and the Verizon Center; any place that is built around these is going to cater to the masses, because it’s the short and tee shirt crowd that goes to conventions and performance centers like Verizon. And even though Washingtonians are not a beautiful people, that is, for some reason, particularly in evidence in this area. Having said all that, the mix of standardized suit wearing Washingtonians, tourists, and the much poorer blacks that are on the economic fringe of this gentried area is a slice of life. But really, the best thing about this area is that its very near to the museums on the mall.
If you enjoy art, a trip to the Mall is a must. But you must plan. The densest concentration of museums on the planet are located here, far more per square walking foot than New York’s museum mile, so just walking to the mall without a plan doesn’t make sense, as any one of these behemoths could occupy the day. Like the Met in New York, the National Gallery is overloaded with treasures, and you really need to plan not only which museums to visit, but what to visit in each museum. What can we say; Washington is a town for careful calculation, and you need to think that way if you plan a visit to the Mall. Where to visit simply depends on your personal interest, as there is a museum or memorial for every interest: the Air and Space Museum, African art, modern art, traditional art, natural history and much more. The Freer and the Sackler are small and intimate for devotees of Asian art. All the museums on the mall are free. The Vietnam Memorial is a famous and innovative means of memorializing those who died in that conflict, among the many memorials in this area it is the most interesting, though very simple. If you want to see famous art, you can’t beat the Mall. The hotel nearest the mall is on L’enfant plaza, but we can’t comment on it as we’ve never stayed there. If you want to buy art, rather than just stare at it, the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria is your best bet.
Dupont Circle was known as the gay refuge for many years, but now its just one of many gentried areas that with both gay and straight locals as well as the usual mix of tourists. If you happen to be in the area it’s worth a stroll along Connecticut Avenue, although you’re really not going to find much here that you can’t find elsewhere, although this strip does house one of what seems to be the last full service independent bookstores, Kramer Books, a local institution.
If shopping is your thing there are many malls. The most interesting design was Georgetown Park, on M Street in the heart of Georgetown. Of course, because it was interesting, it failed, and is now being redone. The most successful malls are very conventional huge enclosed malls at Tysons in Vienna, Va, about a half hour form the core of DC, much longer if traffic is bad. Tysons One is huge and aimed at mid-tier shoppers, or at least mid tier by the standards of wealthy Washington. Tysons Two is less crowded, and truly upscale, with a focus on women’s high end fashion, and other offerings as well. Both of these malls have plenty of dining options, Tysons One also has movie theatres. If you’re really hardcore about shopping, and want to get right down to it, you can stay at the Ritz Carlton that is attached to Tysons Two. An extension of the Metro, the Silver Line, is now being built in Tysons, so the whole area is a mess, with huge construction sites interrupting traffic flow. Don’t even think about driving here at rush hour.
There are 3 airports serving the Washington area; BWI, near Baltimore, is about an hour’s drive from Washington and is the low cost option. Dulles is about 45 minutes from Washington, but a pretty drive. Budget plenty of time to navigate through Dulles, as you have to take a people mover to get from the main base to your terminal. Reagan is just outside the city in Alexandria and is the easiest option, but most international flights are via Dulles. You can use the Metro system to get to and from Reagan and BWI, and, hopefully by 2018, Dulles.
Washington area hotels:
Hotel Lombardy – great location about 6 blocks from the white house and in a generally nice area with lots of eating and drinking options. But hey, there are plenty of well located hotels; don’t stay at this one. Sure, it’s historic, which some might find charming, but the age of the building means that you hear everyone walking in the room above yours; the elevators are tiny, water pressure in the showers is weak, there basically is no lobby, and the fitness room is just a few cardio machines. The building is generally nicely kept up, and the Venice bar is an unusual hidden spot, excellent if you’re planning a coup. And the standard rooms are tiny, although the larger ones include a small kitchenette area. Staff is nice and helpful. Free wifi in the rooms.
Georgetown Suites – These aren’t fancy; in fact, they’re just a few steps up from seedy. But the one bedroom suites are quite large, and a great value for the the money. The location is great; about one block from Georgetown harbor and just a couple blocks from M Street. Somewhat confusing as there are two buildings; one with an entrance off 29th street and one with an entrance off 30th street. The building are kept clean, the service is fine. Unfortunately, they tend to keep the TV on in the lobby, but they have a decent continental breakfast, and free wifi in the rooms. This is not the 4 seasons, and there aren’t a lot of amenities, but for space and location are great values. If you‘re a long term traveler like me you’ll find that this place has the most important thing in the world; washers and dryers. (Not in the unit, but on the floor). Also have a nice patio off the lobby for coffee.
Embassy Suites (900 10th Street) – This hotel is both the very definition of generic, and also what makes America great. In direct contrast, to, say, the Kimpton chain, everything here speaks to anonymous corporate or tourist travel. But if you time your visit right, you can get a suite with a small bedroom and a separate sitting room that is clean and modern at a great rate. If you like Starbucks and the Gap, this is the hotel for you. Even if you don’t, it you’re short on cash it may still work. Includes breakfast, but not wifi. All in all, a great and soulless value, which is the way many people describe America.
Hotel Rouge – In keeping with the Kimpton theme of over the top design, this red hotel Is apparently an attempt to recreate a slightly tired brothel. So if you’re in DC for a dirty weekend, as the Brits like to say, you’ve fond the right place. Location is central, just a couple blocks from the uber trendy 14th and U street corridors, and a few blocks in the opposite direction from Dupont Circle. They provide a pass to the large YMCA facility a couple blocks away if you’re in need of a work out. Try to get one of the larger rooms in the back corner; rooms in the front of the hotel overlook busy and noisy 16th street. Like most Kimpton hotels, this can be an excellent value if you book at the right time.