On the dawn of Donald J Trump’s inauguration, I ventured to the US capital for the first time. I had just three days to acquaint myself with a city I felt I already knew thanks to TV shows like The West Wing, House of Cardsand, more recently, Designated Survivor. Happily, I found a Washington DC with far more going for it than just politics.
By: Cara Bouwer
One of the advantages of arriving at “sparrow’s” in an international city like Washington DC (courtesy of SAA – via Dakar, Senegal) is that once our bags were stowed and we’d freshened up at the affordable and utterly delightful George Washington University Inn, we could hit the ground running. Probably the best defence against jet lag is a full day in the open air in a city where walking is easy and enjoyable – a treat when you come from car-obsessed Jo’burg.
First up, naturally, was a wander down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House, past the International Monetary Fund building, the Renwick Gallery (part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum), and the impressive Eisenhower Executive Office Building. While you can usually pre-book a White House tour in advance of your visit (through your embassy) for some reason foreigners weren’t getting the nod ahead of my visit, possibly due to preparations for the change in administration. So the best we could do was stare through the black bars and take a selfie, along with everyone else.
After gawking at the Washington Monument obelisk while taking in the impressive National Mall that stretches from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, we elected to take a tour bus and hop on and off at will. We chose City Sights, which proved a sad disappointment as they’d closed without warning in advance of the following day’s public holiday, leaving us stranded except for our handy SmarTrip Metro passes. (Note: if your trip falls on a public holiday, rather book on the day to see which operators are bringing their A game).
The city loop, however, was a pleasure, taking in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, US Capitol, Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, the White House (again), National Archives, Smithsonian Castle and Union Station. The trip helps first-timers to the city get the lie of the land and is well worth the US$24 per person (US$69 for 48 hours). An added bonus of a day spent in the heart of DC are the fast-food carts which line the streets. Do try the Chilli Dogs, which are a triumph of on-the-go cuisine and far better than frequenting one of the 90-odd Starbucks operating in the city.
With the weather on our side and armed with Metro passes, after slogging up the hill at Georgetown to view the National Cathedral, we made our way to the charming town of Alexandria, past the Pentagon, before hopping off at King Street station on the Metro blue line. The hometown of US President George Washington, Old Town Alexandria plays brilliantly to its history by creating a quintessentially early American experience for tourists and locals alike.
Dotted with museums such as the Freedom Museum and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, you can dine at Washington’s former hangout (Gadsby’s Tavern Museum) and ride the complimentary trolley bus up and down King Street. It takes you from the station to the Waterfront with regular stops in between.
At just under 2km, the route is eminently walkable – although you can hire a bike – and is dotted with shops and restaurants, from the highly recommended Warehouse Bar & Grill (the She Crab soup is a must) to Kilwins sweet store (try the homemade caramel), a range of gift shops and even a clairvoyant to set you on the right path. If you’re missing home, Nando’s is flying the flag for SA at 702 King Street.
Alexandria is a delightful addition to any Washington DC experience, not only because it seems to offer something for every disposition or palate, but because it’s a reminder of the foundations of this dominant global power. Like Georgetown, Alexandria could easily have been gobbled up when the brash new capital sprung up in 1790, but it too has retained its magical appeal and village-like quality. Both come highly recommended although, for my money, Alexandria wins for sheer time-travelling charm, and crab soup.
by Cara Bouwer