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As the US presidential election heats up, we thought we’d swing by the nation’s capital for today’s Destination of the Week and visit Washington, D.C. TPG contributor Melanie Wynne was born and raised in Washington. D.C., where she grew up thinking of the Smithsonian as her playground, and attended middle school alongside former First Daughter Amy Carter. So we asked our Washington insider to show us around her hometown and share all her favorite things to do, as well as outlining all the points properties in town.
WHAT TO DO
A vibrant, sophisticated city that is fast shedding its staid, conservative reputation, the nation’s capital offers a rich trove of American history, a global focus on cuisine, art and culture, expansive green spaces, and the constant buzz of political debate. In September, temperatures are just starting to drop a bit, many tourists have departed after the summer rush, and neither school tour groups nor fall foliage hordes have yet arrived; it’s a wonderful month to slow down and savor the best of the District of Columbia.
It’s less than ideal to rent a car here as street parking in the most-touristed parts of the city is hard to come by and most lots charge sky-high rates. Buses can be slow in city traffic, but the subway (simply called the Metro) quickly and easily connects almost every point in the city. Bring good walking shoes and don’t be afraid to ask Metro staff for help when buying tickets in stations.
If you miss the idea of a drive, hail a taxi and ask them to tool you along the winding roads of Rock Creek Park, a bonafide forest that runs through the heart of the city.
By no means is this all there is to do in this highly concentrated city stuffed full of attractions, but the following are the most ideal neighborhoods for first-time (or even second-time) visitors to explore in Washington, D.C.:
Metro Stations: Woodley-Park Zoo/Adams Morgan and U Street-Cordozo
Better known for nightlife than tourist attractions, this diverse, funky neighborhood is proof that D.C. has a soul. Home to a large cross-section of the city’s Latino populations (including Mexican, Salvadorean and Brazilian), as well as African restaurants and hopping jazz clubs, this is an area chock-full of flavor and color.
Centered around Columbia Road and 18th Street, it can make an excellent end to an exploration of nearby Dupont Circle, the U-Street Corridor, or both. Check out: Habana Village for salsa dancing and Cuban food; Ghana Cafe for West African cuisine and, on the weekends, live African music; or local landmark Madams Organ for live jazz, blues and soul food.
If you can only get here during the day, though, try to come on a Saturday for the outdoor Latin Quarter market at Columbia and 18th, or take a wander by the elegant statues in Meridian Hill Park, once considered as a possible location for the White House.
Metro Stations: Union Station, Capitol South, Eastern Market
Fanning out from the dome of the Capitol Building, this bustling yet stately area is full of Victorian row houses, leafy squares (and triangles) of green space, and droves of hard-working political staffers. Bars and restaurants here (like the cozy yet lively Dubliner Irish Pub) provide opportunities to eavesdrop on policy debates amongst off-duty senators, lobbyists and more.
In addition to its namesake, Capitol Hill is home a variety of city landmarks: the gilded and cavernous Library of Congress; the glass-encased United States Botanic Garden, which houses a huge collection of rare orchids from around the world; the Supreme Court, where oral arguments can be heard on weekdays; the historic Eastern Market, which features the Market Lunch dining counter and a Tuesday farmers’ market; and Union Station, both a train depot and a sprawling mall beneath a soaring ceiling. And if you’re a fan of the Bard, be sure to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library & Theatre for comprehensive exhibits and stage performances.
Dupont Circle/Logan Circle
Metro Station: Dupont Circle
At the intersection of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts Avenues, this upscale yet urban neighborhood is full of refined pursuits, as well as much of the city’s gay community. While here, be sure to soak up the people-watching scene around the fountain at Dupont Circle itself, and stop into the unique Kramer Books & Afterwords, a combination café and well-curated bookstore.
You might also want to feast your eyes on Impressionist masterpieces at the elegant Phillips Collection; tour the 19th-century Anderson House, the lavish home of a former diplomat; and explore awe-inspiring exhibits at the National Geographic Society. Catch a contemporary play at the renowned Studio Theatre, settle in for an artfully prepared dinner at the intimate Obelisk, or enjoy some fancy cocktails at the chic, multi-level Eighteenth Street Lounge.
Metro Stations: Federal Triangle, Archives-Navy Memorial, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Judiciary Square, Metro Center
An enormous swath of the city, it’s best to think of Downtown D.C. as a distinct set of attractions rather than a single neighborhood. Downtown encompasses several great museums, the city’s Chinatown (home to the Verizon Center and legendary Big Wong), and a slew of great restaurants, including Spanish chef Jose Andres’ vibrant, tapas-focused Jaleo and Eastern Mediterranean Zaytinya.
The state-of-the-art Newseum guides you through the world of newspapers and TV news, and features a chunk of the Berlin wall, a political cartoon gallery, and a room full of historic front pages. Conjure up the Cold War era (and the present day, as well) at the interactive International Spy Museum, where you’ll find James Bond’s Aston Martin, as well as surveillance innovations employed by the CIA, FBI and KGB.
If it’s a written document that pertains to American history, you’ll find it at the National Archives; be sure to seek out the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation. The National Portrait Gallery features a vast assortment of paintings, sculptures and photos of faces both famous and fascinating, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum‘s collections feature “MVSEVM,” a huge and intricate multi-media diorama by American artist David Beck.
Metro Stations: Foggy Bottom, Farragut North, McPherson Square, Farragut West
Home to the White House, the National Mall and Tidal Basin (where you can rent paddle boats), the Kennedy Center, and many of D.C.’s most popular museums (e.g., the Air and Space, Natural History Museum, and National Gallery of Art), Foggy Bottom is home to so many sights that some tourists never even leave this part of town.
Across the street from the White House, the Renwick Gallery features the works of America’s greatest craft artists. While here, if it happens to be a Friday and you find yourself hungry, stroll a couple of blocks to the food truck lineup at Farragut Park.
About a half-mile away — but just within a few blocks of each other — you’ll find the Victorian-era Smithsonian Castle, which houses pop-culture treasures like Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz; the modern art collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the comprehensive Sackler Gallery, devoted to art from Asia, and the African Art Museum, which resembles the interior of an Egyptian pyramid. Nearby is the American Indian Museum, an undulating building surrounded by a Southwest-themed garden and home to a cafe featuring recipes favored by tribes across North America.
Metro Stations: Foggy Bottom, Farragut North, McPherson Square, Farragut West
One of the oldest and wealthiest neighborhoods in D.C., Georgetown offers cobbled backstreets, riverside and garden strolling, and one of the city’s most popular shopping districts (including the elegant Shops at Georgetown Park).
Take a wander across the green campus of Georgetown University, watch the lights twinkle on the Potomac from the three-story windows at Sequoia restaurant on Washington Harbour, or simply take a seat at a sidewalk cafe on Wisconsin Avenue to people-watch for awhile.
Visit the romantic gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, enjoy a gracious, fireside American meal at 1789, and treat yourself to a wander along the quiet, historic C&O Canal. If you’re up for a healthy walk, take M Street several blocks north of Wisconsin Avenue towards the Key Bridge and climb “the Exorcist Steps,” a narrow flight of 97 stairs that featured prominently in the 1973 horror film.
Metro Station: 13th and U
Walking distance from both Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, this condensed, stylish center of black culture and boutique shopping was formerly one of D.C.’s sketchiest neighborhoods. Still a bit gritty in the evenings (when music clubs like Black Cat and the 9:30 Club draw hip, young crowds), the U Street area’s daytime attractions include the famed Ben’s Chili Bowl (where longtime fan Bill Cosby offers the on-hold accompaniment for to-go orders), the funky, literary-themed café scene at Busboys and Poets, and the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum. The independent shops here offers some of the city’s most unusual and artistic finds, from jewelry to clothing and housewares.
Three major airports serve the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area:
Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA)
Approximately four miles from downtown D.C. in Arlington, Virginia, DCA is the most convenient option for those who have come to the Nation’s Capitol for the Smithsonian, White House, and other major landmarks and monuments. Airlines that fly in and out of DCA include Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, United and US Airways.
Car rental from such a nearby airport can be burdensome in light of high parking prices at most D.C. hotels and downtown lots, but fortunately, there are two inexpensive, alternative transportation options:
Metro: The Blue and Yellow line Metro trains run to the concourse (Level 2) between terminals B and C. Free shuttles run between the DCA Metro station and Terminal A every six to seven minutes.
Metrobus: On weekend mornings, buses 13F and 13G run between downtown Washington and the airport.
Dulles International Airport (IAD)
Approximately 25 miles from downtown D.C., this Chantilly, Virginia, airport is served by JetBlue, Virgin America, Southwest, United, US Airways, Delta, American, Southwest and more. IAD is near a slew of corporate office parks and the expansive, perpetually construction-clogged Tysons Corner mall complex.
Driving from IAD to D.C. takes about 40 minutes to an hour (depending on the time of day), but there are a couple of transportation alternatives:
Metrobus to the Metro: Metrobus 5A makes three local stops in Virginia, then takes you to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in downtown D.C. The full trip takes about 50 minutes and costs $6 each way.
Express coach to the Metro: The Washington Flyer express bus travels between Dulles (at Door 4 on the arrivals level of the main terminal) to the West Falls Church Metro station. The trip takes about 25 minutes and costs $10 one way, $18 round trip.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI)
Set in Linthicum, Maryland, BWI is served US Airways, United, American, Delta, JetBlue, Frontier, Southwest and others.
Car rental shuttles provide quick, free service between BWI and the off-airport rental facility; BWI is 15-minute drive from downtown Baltimore, and approximately one hour’s drive to downtown D.C.
There are a few alternative transportation options from BWI to D.C.:
Amtrak: The 30-minute trip from the BWI Rail Station to Union Station costs $11 each way.
MARC: The 40-minute trip from BWI to Union Station costs $6 each way, but there is no weekend service and only limited holiday service.
By Metro/bus: The BWI Express B30 stops at two locations on the airport’s lower/arrivals level, then runs nonstop to/from the Green Line’s Greenbelt Metro station for $6 each way.
Country Inn & Suites by Carlson, BWI Airport: Closer to the tourist attractions of Baltimore, Maryland, than Washington, D.C., this 107-room hotel is an ideal option for those with late flights in/early flights out of BWI. Breakfast, airport shuttle service and internet services are complimentary, and the fitness center offers an indoor pool. Rates in September begin at $81 a night, 28,000 Club Carlson Points, or 5,000 CC points + $57.40.
Country Inn & Suites by Carlson, Washington Dulles National Airport: In the heart of the Dulles Technology Corridor, this 59-room hotel is traditionally furnished and 100% smoke-free, and offers complimentary internet services and daily breakfast. There is a fitness center on-site and free shuttle service to and from IAD. Rates in September begin at $70 a night; 28,000 Club Carlson Points; or 5,000 CC points + $49.40.
Radisson Hotel Largo-Washington, D.C.: A short drive from downtown D.C. and near several Metro stops, this tastefully renovated 184-room hotel is 100% smoke-free. Internet services are free for Club Carlson members, and the hotel offers a fitness center, heated indoor pool, Sleep Number beds, and complimentary shuttle service to nearby attractions like Fed Ex Field. Rates in September begin at $109 a night, 44,000 Club Carlson Points, or 10,000 CC points + $64.40.
Radisson Hotel Ronald Reagan National Airport: Set one mile from DCA in Arlington, Virginia, and just a couple of miles from downtown Washington, this 243-room business hotel offers free shuttle service to the airport, the nearby Crystal City Metro stop, and the Pentagon Mall. The state-of-the-art fitness center offers a seasonal outdoor pool, and internet services are free throughout the hotel. Rates in September begin at $109 a night, 44,000 Club Carlson Points, or 10,000 CC points + $64.40.
Capital Hilton: Situated two blocks from the White House, five miles from DCA and near several Metro stops, this Category 7 property includes an Executive Club Level, as well as a MINT fitness center and day spa. Internet services are free in the lobby and cocktail lounge, but cost approximately $12 in all guest rooms. The on-site restaurant serves three daily meals. Rates in September begin at $264 a night or 50,000 Hilton Honors Points.
Hilton Garden Inn Washington, D.C.: Just 7 miles from DCA and right near the U.S. Capitol Building, this 204-room/suite Category 6 property features a cocktail bar and elegant restaurant which serves three daily meals, seasonal cuisine, and seafood from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Internet services are complimentary, and the fitness center includes an indoor pool and whirlpool. Rates in September begin at $126 a night or 40,000 Hilton Honors Points.
Washington Hilton: A political landmark, this Category 6 hotel is several miles from downtown, near Woodley Park and the National Zoo, the jazz hotspots of Adams Morgan, and the shopping avenues of Georgetown. You’ll find a restaurant specializing in traditional American seasonal cuisine, as well as a cocktail lounge, sports bar, and extensive courtyard with gardens, firepits and fountains. The outdoor pool is heated, and while internet services are free in many public areas, in-room service costs $12. Rates in September begin at $191 a night, 40,000 Hilton HHonors points, or 20,000 Hilton Honors Points +$70.
Other Hilton properties in/near central Washington, D.C.: Embassy Suites Washington, D.C. – Convention Center and Hampton Inn Washington-Downtown-Convention Center; DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Washington, D.C., Embassy Suites Washington, D.C. and Homewood Suites by Hilton Washington; and near DCA, DoubleTree by Hilton Crystal City, Embassy Suites Crystal City – National Airport and Hilton Crystal City at Ronald Reagan International Airport.
J.W. Marriott Washington, D.C.: Located 4 miles from DCA and around the corner from the White House by The Shops at National Place, this 737-room, 35-suite luxury hotel is ideally situated for both shopping and sightseeing. The fitness center includes an indoor pool and whirlpool, and in addition to a casual bistro and an upscale restaurant with a landmark-studded view of Pennsylvania Avenue, there’s a full-service Starbucks in the lobby. Internet services are available in-room for $12.95. Rates in September begin at $197 a night or 35,000 Marriott Rewards points.
The Mayflower Renaissance: A historic landmark built in 1925, this elegant 585-room, 74-suite hotel in the heart of downtown is where FDR gave his famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech. A sunny, casual restaurant serves daily breakfast, and in addition to cocktails, the bar cafe serves appetizers and small meals. There’s a fitness room on-site, and internet services are available in-room for $12.95. Rates in September begin at $149 a night or 30,000 Marriott Rewards points.
The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C.: Set in Foggy Bottom near both the Metro and trendy Georgetown, this 267-room, 32-suite hotel features the Westend Bistro by celebrity chef Eric Ripert. Club Level rooms provide free access to an adjacent Sports Club/LA facility; it’s $15 a day for other guests. Rates in September begin at $359 a night or 60,000 Marriott Rewards points. This is also a member of Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts.
Other Marriott properties in the Nation’s Capitol include The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, the Washington Marriott Wardman Park; Washington Marriott at Metro Center; Washington Marriott Marquis; the Courtyard Washington D.C. – Dupont Circle; the Courtyard Washington, D.C./ U.S. Capitol; the Courtyard Capitol Hill/Navy Yard; the Courtyard Washington Convention Center; the Residence Inn Washington, D.C./Capitol; Fairfield Inn & Suites Washington, D.C./Downtown; and the Renaissance Washington, D.C. Downtown Hotel.
Crowne Plaza The Hamilton: Located 5 miles from DCA and right near the White House, this 318-room, 17-suite boutique hotel provides a stylish, Art Deco-era aesthetic, and a welcome break from sightseeing. The acclaimed 14K restaurant serves three meals daily and overlooks leafy Franklin Square Park. Internet services start at$12.95, and in addition to a limited on-site fitness room, guests can have access to a more extensive nearby fitness center for $10 a day. Rates in September begin at $215 a night, 35,000 Priority Club Rewards points, 25,000 Priority Club Rewards points + $70 cash, or 30,000 PCR points + $40 cash.
The Willard InterContinental Washington: Built in 1850, this grande dame hotel features 335 luxurious rooms and 41 suites, a restaurant overseen by Michelin-starred chef Antoine Westermann, an elegant afternoon tea, and one of the most popular dining terraces along Pennsylvania Avenue. The on-site Red Door Spa features an extensive fitness center that was renovated in 2011. Internet services throughout the hotel start at $10.95. Rates in September begin at $216 a night, 40,000 Priority Club Rewards points, 30,000 Priority Club Rewards points + $70 cash, or 35,000 PCR points + $40 cash.
Other Priority Club properties in Washington, D.C. include the Crowne Plaza Dulles Airport; Crowne Plaza Washington National Airport; Holiday Inn Washington Capitol; and the Holiday Inn – Washington Central/White House.
The Fairfax at Embassy Row: Also a Visa Signature property, this 259-room hotel is a Dupont Circle landmark set amongst Massachusetts Avenue mansions. Elegantly renovated to retain its 1920’s charm, The Fairfax offers touches like a cozy fireside bar, marble floors, and an intimate restaurant serving locally-sourced American cuisine. In-room Internet service starts at $12.95. Rates in September begin at $159 a night or 16,000 Starpoints.
The St. Regis Washington, D.C.: One of the most luxurious hotels in the city, this 5-star, 157-room, 25-suite Visa Signature and American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property is set just two blocks from the White House. Originally built in 1926, a 2008 renovation preserved the vintage feel while providing state-of-the-art technology upgrades. Suites include St. Regis butler service, the cocktail bar features a nightly Champagne-sabering ceremony, and the on-site restaurant, Adour, offers a contemporary French menu designed by Alain Ducasse. In-room Internet service starts at $14.95. Rates in September begin at $346 a night or 20,000 Starpoints.
W Washington, D.C.: This sleek, sexy Visa Signature property is home to two cocktail bars (one offering city views from the rooftop) and the first Bliss Spa in the nation’s capital. Formerly the Hotel Washington, host to stars and dignitaries, it’s now been completely remodeled to include an extensive state-of-the-art fitness center. Rates in September begin at $309 a night or 12,000 Starpoints.
American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts is a program exclusively for American Express Platinum Card cardholders, who are eligible for extra benefits such as room upgrades, free continental breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more.
Set just beside the White House, The Hay-Adams is one of the city’s most conveniently-located luxury hotels for both sightseeing and business. Built in the 1920’s, the 145-room, 21-suite hotel features free internet services, an elegant restaurant and cocktail bar, a small fitness facility, and refined touches like toile bedspreads and Asprey London toiletries. Guests who book through Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts will receive a $100 food and beverage credit, noon check-in based on availability, guaranteed 4:00pm check-out and daily complimentary continental breakfast for two. In September, room rates start at $399 per night.
Other Fine Hotels properties in D.C. include the Four Seasons Washington; Mandarin Oriental; Park Hyatt Washington, D.C.; The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown; The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C.; The St. Regis Hotel, Washington, D.C.; and The Willard InterContinental Washington.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards,Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Overlooking the Potomac River , the luxurious 400-room-and-suite Mandarin Oriental Washington, D.C. has some of the most romantic views in the city, as well as one of its most popular lounges for live jazz. Just five minutes from DCA and walking distance from the Smithsonian and many monuments, you can recover from sightseeing at the on-site full-service spa, which features an indoor pool, sauna and whirlpool. Rates in September start at $235 and those who book through Visa Signature Hotels will receive a $25 food and beverage voucher, free valet parking or in-room internet, daily complimentary continental breakfast, early check-in and late check-out as well as room upgrades all based on availability.