The US Capital is more than just politics

Long perceived as the staid domain of fat-cat politicians, dusty old museums and dry monuments, Washington, DC is slowly transforming, as hip new bars and chic boutiques move in. Drop the jacket and loosen that tie; Washington's got a new spring in its step.

From the White House to the Washington Monument, Washington, DC is a city that’s in our collective psyche as much for its role in movies like Independence Day, as it is for being the heart of the US government. Behind its iconic skyline however – and apart from the Smithsonian and the various pantheons to past Presidents – America’s capital has always been something of a wasteland for tourists.

But no more. Modern Washington is a fun secret, its compact size and excellent 19th-century town planning meaning it’s easy to scoot round. Areas that were once destroyed in the 1968 race riots are now home to a mean cocktail of cool bars, concept-style restaurants and boutique boltholes. Forget the politics, pleasure is where it’s at.

Sleep in Georgetown

Georgetown StreetGeorgetown mixes great shopping with bags of charm
Sonara Arnav / Flickr

Washington’s pride and joy, the preppy, pretty suburb of Georgetown is home to posh universities, JFK’s former homes and a Main Street that has an assumed kind of wealth.

However its Ralph Lauren-styled conservatism is easing, with a new wave of luxury boutique hotels such as The Graham Georgetown which has an excellent rooftop bar with views over the city. Trendy coffee houses line the side streets next to the old C&O canal, such as family-run Baked & Wired who serve chai muffins and take-home muesli called ‘Hippy Crack’.

Baked and Wired DC Sample Baked & Wired's tasty muffins
Georgina Wilson-Powell

Many of the old red-brick buildings in the small town have been converted into upscale quirky boutiques, cupcake bakeries and sleek bars. It feels a world away, and a step back in time, from the political gravitas of the city centre, but it’s only a few minutes' drive, so you can sleep (and enjoy your breakfast) in Georgetown, and then skip across the city to more edgy areas with no major hassle.

Hit 14th Street for food

14th Street is where Washingtonians come to eat, drink and be merry. Strung over 10 blocks, from jazz joints to packed rooftop bars, the brightly coloured buildings of 14th Street are jumping.

Forget the gout-ridden politicians stuffing themselves in boring steakhouses, Washington is fast becoming a foodie city and two-storey 14th Street is where the serious chefs try out their latest concepts. Michelin-starred chef Richard Sandoval has turned the iconic American ‘long bar’ idea into a delicious Latin-Asian tapas restaurant at Masa 14, while locally revered Birch & Barley serves up a seasonal Sunday brunch to die for with ChurchKey, one of Washington’s top microbrewery bars, upstairs. Most of the bars and restaurants have roof terraces, so come the summer months, head upstairs to find the coolest parties.

Don’t miss a cool museum or two

Newseum D.C.Newseum's 9/11 memorial features hundreds of front pages from the day
Elvert Barnes / Thinkstock

While the Smithsonian complex can’t be beaten on America’s sprawling history, newer museums offer a more interactive way of getting to grips with the ‘great nation’. Purporting to explore historic news events through the lens of journalism, the newly opened Newseum is a modern temple to all things media… which also happens to have a fine dining restaurant from Wolfgang Puck – a favourite destination of President Obama and the First Lady. Aside from the president, this new kid on the block, with its great views of Capitol Hill, has been a huge hit.

It’s lucky your ticket covers two days; plenty of people have been known to need it. The most popular exhibition, ‘Anchorman: The Exhibit’, features props and costumes from the Will Ferrell cult classic (it runs until 31 August 2014). Another new opening is the International Spy Museum, where wannabe 007s can accept citywide missions, investigate 50 years of Bond villains and learn about the life of an international secret agent.

Kick back in Adams Morgan

DC CocktailsNight owls have lots of options for an evening in the capital city
TechCocktail / Flickr

If you want to take it easy, find independent boutiques to shop in, browse vintage markets and bookshops and generally be at one with the hipster crowd, then Adams Morgan is where you should aim for. Centred around 18th Street, Adams Morgan has a real neighbourhood vibe, worlds away from the sterility and formality of Capitol Hill.

With a flurry of unique bars, it’s just as busy at night as well. Drop into a free salsa lesson at Habana Village, watch live bluegrass at Madame Organs, often voted one of the country’s best blues venues, shoot some pool at one of the local pool halls or sample one of 700 bourbons on offer at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon.

Spend an evening on U Street

U Street’s credentials for having fun go way back. Until New York’s Harlem overtook it in the late 1920s, U Street was the place on the East Coast to find African American musicians playing. Almost 100 years later, the area has regenerated into a mix of contemporary art galleries showcasing a variety of American artists’ work and nightclubs keen to shake off Washington’s dusty image.

Both Liv and U Street Music Hall have put the area on the map for live music and DJs in the capital. Monserrat House manages to be an art space, club and after-party venue, with a homely cash bar and pop-up pho restaurant. Top it off with a late night visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, an iconic diner that has been around since the 1950s.

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