Washington, DC feels familiar. When you first set eyes on the US Capitol building (home of Congress), the Statue of Freedom standing triumphantly on top, you feel acquainted.
This close acquaintance is partly down to the big screen; from the Capitol building being flattened in Designated Survivor to the Lincoln Memorial being blown to smithereens in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Hollywood can’t get enough of America’s capital.
But whether your knowledge of the city comes from the history books or House of Cards, there’s nothing quite like seeing it for yourself. Washington, DC is a destination on the rise, with a record 22 million tourists arriving in 2017.
It’s been the home of the US government since 1790, but DC is much more than white-collar workers and Congress. There are vibrant and diverse neighbours to explore, all buzzing with delicious eateries and lively bars. And the city is heaving with museums and galleries – most of which are free to visit.
Here’s your essential guide...
Segway the sights: Get your bearings with a guided Segway tour along the grassy National Mall, which stretches for two miles between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial, and is flanked by some of DC’s most impressive museums. Once you’ve mastered the Segway, you’ll be whizzing alongside iconic monuments, your guide explaining their history along the route. Bike and Roll DC (bikeandrolldc.com) offers a 2.5-hour Sites by Segway tour for £52 per adult.
Get Lost in a Smithsonian museum or gallery: Whether it’s art, culture or science that piques your interest, make time to visit at least one Smithsonian museum or gallery. DC boasts 17 of them, with the majority clustered on the National Mall. They’re also free to enter, which makes seeing multiple museums in a day totally doable. Visit si.edu.
Don’t miss the National Museum of African American History & Culture (nmaahc.si.edu), which provides a vital reminder of how African American history has shaped America today. Exhibits include a plantation slave cabin from South Carolina and a linen shawl gifted to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria.
Go behind the scenes of the US government: As the federal heart of the USA, DC is crammed with government buildings. Some are closed to foreign visitors (including the White House), but those that let you past the red tape are well worth a visit.
Start with a tour of the US Capitol (visitthecapitol.gov; free but book in advance), home to the legislative branch of the government. Guided tours include a look inside the Rotunda and the Crypt, plus the National Statuary Hall, which is dedicated to sculptures of prominent Americans.
Head east to the Library of Congress (loc.gov; free), the largest library in the world containing more than 164 million items. Beyond books, the main draw is the grandiose and heavily ornamented Thomas Jefferson Building. Guided tours are available.
Top tip: Most US government buildings have airport-style security, so leave extra time for entry if you’re on a schedule.
Feast on global flavours: From casual bistros in Georgetown to Michelin-starred elegance in downtown, DC is a foodie paradise. Supra DC (supradc.com; large sharing plates from £15) in Logan Circle is the city’s first Georgian restaurant, and its unique menu includes a section dedicated to khachapuri, a traditional Georgian bread filled with cheese and egg.
For spot-on Mexican cuisine, head to Mi Vida (mividamexico.com) in the Wharf Development. It’s floor-to-ceiling bar is stocked with a headache-inducing selection of tequilas. For an afternoon well spent, enjoy a margarita (from £9) paired with some juicy tacos (from £8 for three) on the water-facing terrace.
For a quick bite, head to Luke’s Lobster (lukeslobster.com) in the Penn Quarter. Its fresh lobster rolls (from £14) are stuffed full of wild-caught lobster and served in a soft buttery bun.
Enjoy cocktails and culture after dark: Evenings in DC take on a slower pace; the selfie-stick ditherers diminish and popular landmarks get quieter. Amble along the National Mall and enjoy key landmarks illuminated after dark, including the Washington Monument and Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
Next, tick off both culture and cocktails at the POV Rooftop Lounge and Terrace (povrooftop.com; cocktails from £14) located in the W Hotel. Just a short stroll from the National Mall, the rooftop overlooks the White House and the Treasury; that’s two more sights ticked off with a cocktail in hand – nice work.
Continue the night at Wild Days (wild-days-dc.com), the Eaton Hotel’s top-floor bar, which has nightly DJs and a rooftop firepit. There’s also a weekday Happy Hour (Mon-Fri, 4-6pm), with drink specials.
Wrap yourself in a blanket of wellness: Staying in DC is becoming more affordable thanks to a recent influx of mid-range hotels. The wellness-focused Eaton Hotel (eatonworkshop.com; doubles £113 per night excluding breakfast) in the heart of downtown, is both affordable and stylish – but it’s more than just a place to rest your head.
The Eaton is a cultural hub with co-working spaces, a dedicated yoga studio (including an infrared sauna) and an in-house radio station. Its sustainable design is minimalist – think exposed concrete and brass lamps – and the industrial feel is softened with leather sofas, bespoke woodwork and bushy plants.
The rooms are spacious and homely – and all feature a record player with vinyl collection included. The minibars include healthy snacks and kombucha.
North America Travel Service (0333 323 9099; northamericatravelservice.co.uk) offers a four-night Washington, DC package from £1,337 per person based on travel in September 2019. Includes direct flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to Washington Dulles International Airport and four nights’ accommodation at the Eaton DC Hotel.