Capitol Thrills: Washington DC is the ideal destination for history buffs and foodies, writes Sunday Life editor Martin Breen
I'd watched alluring images of the city on TV for years and after a particularly intensive House of Cards-athon recently I decided 2015 was the time to visit Washington DC.
With Aer Lingus having started a new direct service four times per week to the US capital from Dublin there is no better time to travel there.
For years I have followed the twists and turns in the life of Netflix's House of Cards' character Frank Underwood and while I didn't uncover a political scandal, I found plenty to see and do and fell in love with this very cool city.
Coincidentally the hotel I was staying in appeared in a scene in House of Cards, the Dupont Circle Hotel in downtown DC. This luxury boutique hotel is part of the Doyle group and the room, food, service and overall attention to detail was superb. An evening spent sipping cocktails on the terrace people-watching was a very enjoyable way of spending a few hours and judging from how busy it was this seems to be a popular pastime there.
A lot of the House of Cards' series is filmed in nearby Baltimore but the famous scenes from the opening montage, such as Capitol Hill, home to the Senate and the House of Representatives, the underpass, monuments and much more are all visible around Washington DC. However I was a tiny bit disappointed to learn that political schemer Frank Underwood's favourite eatery, Freddy's BBQ Joint doesn't actually exist.
However that sense of disappointment disappeared a few seconds after finding foodie heaven on my travels. I took part in a food walking tour of the city, taking in traditional soul food, creole and cajun cuisine and much more, which took me along the famous U Street. Known as "Black Broadway", the U Street corridor was the centre of Washington's African-American nightlife for much of the 20th century and the birthplace of jazz legend Duke Ellington. It is vibrant again and the newest and hottest place in the city right now.
On our walking tour we sampled an amazing macaroni and cheese with spicy fish from a little café famous for being on the TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, we gobbled up bowls of the best gumbo I have ever tasted, devoured back ribs and fried green tomatoes and tried out some Ethiopian cuisine.
The famous Ben's Chili Bowl restaurant which is known for its half smoked chili dogs, and counts President Barack Obama among its customers, is also in this district. After half a dozen food stops we were just too full to even attempt it!
As the city doesn't really have a centre as such and there are so many sights to knock off the bucket list, you can easily walk off, or cycle off as I did, all those extra calories.
Washington is coming down with monuments, all of which are worth seeing. I recommend doing so by bike as it is the quickest and most enjoyable sightseeing tour. You pass the White House on the way but do be prepared to feel a bit underwhelmed as No. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not as impressive as it appears on the telly or in movies.
However the war memorials will have a lasting impact on you, particularly those to the wars in Vietnam and Korea. The Vietnam memorial is a huge black wall inscribed with the names of the thousands of Americans who perished in that bloody conflict. Every day you see many relatives of loved ones who never made it home making the pilgrimage to lay flowers at the memorial.
I was also impressed by the huge Lincoln Memorial which was built to honour the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to have been its greatest. (When in DC also check out Ford's theatre where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865).
On my bike tour I also found the Martin Luther King sculpture memorial very impressive with its striking facade of his face.
Another lasting memory I have is from my visit to the famous Arlington National Cemetery, located just across the Potomac River. It holds a staggering 400,000 graves and for miles on end all you can see are the small white headstones from all the conflicts America has been involved in, dating back to the American Civil War. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the grave of assassinated President John F Kennedy, marked by The Eternal Flame which burns from the centre of a circular flat granite stone, are also located in the cemetery.
Make sure you take in at least one or two museums when you visit. I tried both the Holocaust museum and the Newseum - a museum dedicated to all things current affairs.
The Smithsonian Institution is the main player in Washington's museum scene with large, sprawling buildings housing thousands 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.
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History contains 1.5 million square feet of space and altogether is the size of 18 football fields. It has it all, from Rembrandts to rockets, along with stuffed elephants and tribal headgear.
You will be happy to hear that all Smithsonian museums are free to enter as James Smithson's legacy decreed that all the museums established with his legacy must always be free, including the Smithsonian's National Zoo.
However the Newseum and others do charge a fee. But the fee for the Newseum is certainly worth it. It houses an FBI crime museum featuring dozens of artefacts from some of the FBI's biggest cases over the past century and events in history. It also has a glass memorial to journalists killed across the world with local newspaper reporter Martin O'Hagan and the Sunday Independent's Veronica Guerin on the list of names inscribed on the walls.
The Newseum is not just of interest to journalists as it showcases exhibits from 9/11, the war on terror against Al Qaeda, infamous gangsters brought to justice by the FBI and much, much more. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photography exhibit is a real treat for the eyes and is simply visually stunning.
The Holocaust Museum is another experience which should be on your itinerary. The self-guided tour, over three floors, is a real emotional tour de force, presenting you with artefacts from the time including shoes and clothing removed from concentration camp victims before they were sent to the gas chambers by the Nazis.
But Washington is not just museums and monuments. It has a great social scene with very many fine restaurants and bars.
Locals credit the city's most high profile residents, the Obamas, with helping make DC such an exciting and energetic capital in recent years.
I reckon that they will still be regular visitors after Barack departs the White House next year and after my recent trip so will I.
HOW TO GET THERE:
- Aer Lingus has begun its ninth direct transatlantic service, with a new four times weekly summer service from Dublin to Washington-Dulles operating until January 4. Flights are operated by Airbus A330 aircraft and will 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. Flights to Washington are available on aerlingus.com from €299 each way, including taxes and charges.
- Services available to customers on transatlantic flights include pre-clearance US immigration and customs at Dublin and Shannon airports, connections to onward destinations in the US with airline partners, hi-speed internet access, an in-flight entertainment selection and gourmet meals.
- Aer Lingus recently launched its new business class experience on its transatlantic flights, which provides a unique space based on a customer’s needs — depending on whether they wish to sleep, work, dine or relax. This is facilitated by seats which convert into a full-lie-flat 6’6’’ (2 metres) bed.
WHERE TO STAY:
- Dupont Circle Hotel, 1500 New Hampshire Ave, NW 20036. Visit: www.doylecollection.com/hotels/the-dupont-circle-hotel
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK:
- Cafe Dupont at the Dupont Circle Hotel creates memorable, modern French brasseries cuisine with fresh organic produce from local markets.
- Rural Society at Loews Madison Hotel, 1177 15th Street NW, Washington DC 20005. Check out: www.loewshotels.com/Madison
- Breakfast at Muze at the Mandarin Oriental: www.mandarinoriental.com
- Try a half-smoke chili dog at Ben’s Chili Bowl: www.benschilibowl.com
WHAT TO DO:
Check out: www.dcmetrofoodtours.com and www.bikethesites.com