Kate Gilliland flew into the US capitol recently to get a taste of life in the fast lane and discovered a surprisingly relaxed vibe in a city that’s now her new favourite American destination.
Travelling as guest of British Airways, Blue Insurance and Laser Travel she also discovered the benefits of being well organised in order to make the most of this exciting Trans-Atlantic citybreak. There’s so much to see and do in Washington that it pays to arrive well rested, and BA Club Class certainly delivered on that score, while the 4* Washington Plaza was centrally located and ideally placed for sight-seeing.
Kate’s top tip is to kick off with a guided tour; a perfect way to get your bearings and learn something of the history of this great city. We all know that it was named after the first U.S. President George Washington but might just hesitate over where the ‘D.C.’ originates. In fact, it stands for ‘District of Columbia’ a federal district rather than a state and deriving from the feminine form of ‘Columbus’ which was historically a poetic name for the United States. Importantly, a guided city tour will also give you a feel for today’s Washington DC and its role as seat of government for the US.
The tour will also give you inspiration about places you’d like to visit again and explore at your leisure and what better way to do that than by hopping on and off the city’s delightful Old Town Trolley Tours?
Once you have seen those key sights and had the obligatory photo opportunity against the White House backdrop, what next? Kate has her own ‘Top Ten’ of inspired ideas …
- Get a different view of the city from the beautiful Potomac River. There is no shortage of options, but we chose to depart the Wharf in DC’s Southwest waterfront on board the Odyssey DC which has live music, a near-constant supply of temptingly refreshing Mimosa cocktails and fine dining.
- The United States Capitol is the home of the U.S. Congress - the House of Representatives and the Senate - and one of the most recognizable symbols of representative democracy in the world. A visit to its superb Visitors Center gives a fascinating insight into how it all operates as well as a flavour of its history. Expect stunning art and architecture and be prepared to be completely bowled over by this most enjoyable history lesson!
- Tangers Shopping Outlet is a 20-minute cab ride from the city centre. I’ve done a lot of outlet malls in my time but this one is in a class of its own. Wear your most comfortable shoes and be prepared to give the credit card an airing! Bargains galore from some of the biggest names in American retail.
- Take time to explore Georgetown with its tree-lined cobblestone sidewalks, historic buildings, grand homes and peaceful C&O Canal. This popular neighbourhood is home to some super-stylish and occasionally quirky shopping, plus astonishingly diverse eateries to suit every pocket and taste.
- Distance is no object when you step onto a Segway. A little tuition and you’ll soon be breezing happily after your city guide. There are a vast range of tours to choose from, using this unusual mode of transport, but I’d heartily recommend the half day tour of the memorials of the National Mall.
- As we mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, get up close and personal with a tiny piece of real moon rock presented to the Washington National Cathedral by Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. The rock which weighs 7.18 grams and is estimated to be around 3.6 billion years old was collected from the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility and is now encased in a small, air-tight, nitrogen-filled capsule and incorporated in the Cathedral’s ‘Space Window’. The stained glass creation of artist Rodney Winfield (in collaboration with NASA) depicts stars and orbiting planets in hues of blue, green, white, orange, and red, inspired by photos taken from the Apollo 11 mission.
- Enjoy a taste of real-life Washington. The Maine Avenue Fish Market has been a Washington institution since 1805, making it the oldest continuously operating open-air fish market in the United States. Smelly, noisy, fascinating – and a great place to snap up a taste of great seafood from vendors who cook their produce while you wait.
- The traditional art of brewing has taken on a new lease of life in this vibrant city and brew tours are newly popular with thirsty visitors and locals alike. Join the party and enjoy not only a glass of two of craft beer, but also some great casual dining. The Ivy City neighbourhood is a great destination for both breweries and distilleries and a brilliant spot for casual dining.
- The US National Arboretum is outstanding even in a city renowned for its gorgeous parks and open spaces. The Arboretum presents a fabulous array of plants and trees and you’ll find here the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum with a riveting collection of legendary miniature Japanese and Chinese trees. The Japanese art of bonsai goes back 1,000 years and the Chinese art of penjing is an even earlier version of the same practice, with both providing a calming effect on the observer. The perfect spot to unwind.
- The (Smithsonian) National Museum of Natural History is larger than 18 football fields and is home to the largest natural history collection in the world. It’s also the world's most popular natural history museum, dedicated to understanding the natural world and our place in it. Endlessly engaging, there is something here to grip everyone’s imagination and make us all think more deeply about ‘Life, The Universe and Everything’.
Pic of Capital Visitors Center by courtesy of Matthew G. Bisanz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7789368