With its wide-open avenues, front porches, old neighbourhoods and views of the Potomac River, Washington DC is a city in which you can see the expansive sky – and feel the pulse of power
When direct flights from the UAE to Washington DC were announced, we put the US capital on our radar. Formally the District of Columbia, DC is a city familiar to anyone who watches the news, or at least ‘West Wing’, and has fascinated me since my teenage years.
When I first visited, more than 20 years ago, I touched down at Dulles International just as a snowstorm was hitting the East Coast. My American boyfriend (now DH) picked me up in the near white-out conditions and navigated the slippery, traffic-choked roads back to the Watergate building – a journey I’d later find out was his first solo drive.
This time, we arrived with our two boys in tow, in the middle of summer. A heat advisory on the first day saw us steering the children off the National Mall (not a UAE-style shopping mall, but the strip of green space between the Washington Monument and the Capitol building) before they melted and into the wonderful Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (more on this later).
The temperature continued to nudge the mid-90s for much of our visit, but whatever the season, the effect DC has on visitors is the same: the epicentre of power, and the city in which the machines of politics grind, Washington is memorable due to its boulevards, elegant buildings and knock-out symbols of US rule.
Designed by a Parisian, the version of the capital you see – comprising marble, museums and historic monuments – may stand in stark contrast to the run-down urban parts you don’t see, but you can’t fail to appreciate the grandeur and prettiness of DC’s heart.
Washington DC is also the only American city that does not allow skyscrapers, and its grid system layout means it’s both fairly easy to navigate and accessible. Determined to find the White House (left), we parked nearby and walked a few blocks until we stumbled upon it.
From a distance, I even had to look twice to be sure I was admiring the right home: The White House may host the President, but it’s not huge or shouty in itself. Closer inspection revealed it to be a rather lovely white residence, surrounded by green, manicured lawn and dwarfed by the US Treasury next door.
That’s the other thing I love about DC: take a stroll through Foggy Bottom or downtown, and you practically trip over national headquarters. To your left, the US Chamber of Commerce. On your right, the Labor Department and FBI Building. (Although our boys, of course, were more interested in the police patrolling high-security areas, especially the snipers on the roof of the White House.)
Sights to see
At 170 metres high, and with no taller buildings to obscure the view, the Washington Monument (right) is visible from miles around. Erected in honor of George Washington, the American Revolutionary War commander and first US president, the iconic marble obelisk recently reopened after three years of repairs to fix cracks sustained during a rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2011.
We’d hoped to take the elevator ride to the summit, but alas, arrived too late in the day to get tickets (book online so you don’t miss out – the views are meant to be amazing).
Instead, we gazed up to take in the towering obelisk’s austere, white outline. Set against a bright-blue sky, the building seemed to be standing proud, resolute after its facelift. At its base, it’s encircled by 50 American flags (one for each state), and you can’t help but admire its simplicity.
We then walked the length of the famous Reflecting Pool – which dramatically mirrors the pointing monument – and paused for a while at the National World War II Memorial, a moving, grand-scale tribute with stone architecture and fountains.
Our last stop was the Lincoln Memorial, immediately recognisable as the building depicted on pennies and five-dollar bills. Its marble halls, engraved with Abraham Lincoln’s most impressive speeches, resonate with significance even before you see his larger-than-life sculpture, staring pensively towards the Capitol.