‘Welcome to the capital of the world!’ exclaimed our taxi driver as we crossed the Potomac into Washington DC.
My teenagers’ eyes shone with excitement.
Given that eight hours earlier they’d barely been speaking to me as I informed the British Airways stewardess I was a nervous flyer and therefore quite keen for a gin and tonic, things were looking up.
‘Look left and you’ll see the White House,’ continued the driver, and we peered through the dark to see the famous building lit up like a wedding cake, before he segued into the best sneaker (trainer) stores in the city and where to go for ‘half smoke’ hot dogs, a local delicacy.
Thus began our week in DC, and the sheer cheerful brilliance of the American capital never let up.
MailOnline Travel’s Harriet Arkell visited Washington DC with her two teenage boys, describing the U.S capital as being cheerfully brilliant. Above – the eastern facade of the Capitol Building, the seat of the United States Congress
Harriet and her boys went on an informative and gripping guided tour of the Capitol Building, which included hearing about how the Rotunda frieze (above) was painted by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi
‘America’s front yard’: The National Mall stretches two miles from the Lincoln Memorial in the west to the Capitol in the east
Culture, sport, trainers and chili dogs: Washington DC promised it all.
It turns out the city is compact and easy to navigate, whether on foot, via the cheap (and architecturally stunning) Metro, buses, or via the plentiful Ubers, whose drivers were all huge fans of their city and full of advice.
They said we’d be safe in tourist areas, but that there were areas in the south-east of the city they wouldn’t go to for fear of being car-jacked or accidentally shot in crossfire. (‘OMG, GTA’, whispered my 16-year-old.)
The Washington Monument, pictured, is located between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building
Stunning Brutalist architecture: The Metro is beautiful to look at, cheap and easy to use
But we were here for culture, not computer games, so we stayed firmly in the tourist areas and never felt unsafe for a second as we tackled what we were really there to see: the American capital’s world-famous museums, monuments and galleries, most of which are contained within, or bordered by, the landscaped National Mall.
Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a museum dedicated to it in DC, from harmonicas to the Bible to spying.
Thanks to a rich Englishman named James Smithson, who left his fortune to the cause of furthering education in the United States (bizarrely without ever setting foot in the country), the mighty Smithsonian Institution now runs 17 museums and galleries in DC, all of them free, and they are the best of the best.
Even the surliest of teens will come alive when they see the treasures in DC, as I discovered.
So, at the National Air and Space Museum we saw Neil Armstrong’s NASA spacesuit from his 1969 moon landing, as well as the Spirit of St Louis, the actual (tiny) plane flown solo across the Atlantic in 1927 by 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh (it took him 33 and a half hours).
The National Air and Space Museum was one of many highlights. It houses myriad treasures, including the Spirit of St Louis, the actual (tiny) plane flown solo across the Atlantic in 1927 by 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh
LEFT: Out of this world: Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit from the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing at the National Air and Space Museum. RIGHT: The very first Kermit at the National Museum of American History – another spellbinding experience. The original green Muppet was made by Jim Henson in 1955
At the National Museum of American History we enjoyed seeing the very first Kermit, made out of Jim Henson’s jeans and his mum’s old coat, the original Star-Spangled Banner, and Dorothy’s actual ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.
The National Museum of African American History & Culture houses the coffin of Emmett Till Jnr, whose story shocked us to tears: lynched aged just 14, accused of offending a white woman in a shop.
We wanted to see American art, and were spoilt for choice with an array of world-class galleries. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is stuffed with unmissable works by Edward Hopper, Albert Bierstadt, and Agnes Tait, while the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) next door captivated us with its presidential portraits.
Harriet gazed upon Edward Hopper’s People In The Sun (1960), inspired by NYC sunbathers, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Harriet found the National Portrait Gallery ‘captivating’. Above is the gallery’s portrait of Michelle Obama, the first African American first lady of the United States
In fact so enthralled were my sons by the cultural jewels of DC that not once all week did they whip out their phones in any of the museums or galleries other than to photograph things – an incredible feat that parents of teenagers will understand.
‘Watch out for the Presidential cavalcade,’ our Uber driver warned us as we headed to the very cool Planet Word museum. ‘If you don’t get out the way soon enough, the Secret Service won’t hesitate to shoot.’
We never got the chance to test this. Or see the inside of where the President works. For security reasons, Brits (and other foreign nationals) can’t go inside the White House at the moment, but the Capitol Building more than makes up for it with an informative and gripping guided tour.
Inside the Rotunda, we stood, rapt, as our enthusiastic female guide described how the 70-something Italian artist Constantino Brumidi fell in 1879 while painting the 48ft-high frieze, grabbing onto scaffolding and dangling for several minutes before he was rescued. The old man, who spent 25 years of his life painting the Capitol, was so shaken by the incident he gave up the next day.
Washington DC is also packed with monuments and memorials to former presidents, war veterans and key characters from the nation’s history.
The best way to see them all without spending all day trekking up and down the National Mall is on a guided bike tour (unlimitedbiking.com/tours/monuments-and-memorials-bike-tour), which takes three (leisurely) hours and is led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide.
Most of the American capital’s world-famous museums, monuments and galleries are contained within, or bordered by, the landscaped National Mall (above)
We also loved hiring Lime electric scooters, ubiquitous on DC’s wide and empty streets, to zip around the city.
No visit to DC is complete without a trip to the enormous Capital One Arena, home to the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals, who were playing the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs (n.b not ‘leaves’) when we visited.
The ice hockey was addictive to watch: fast and furious, aggressive yet balletic. And it was impossible not to join in with the home crowd hollering for their team. For sheer full-on American good fun, this was hard to beat.
The ultimate in American fun: A night watching ice hockey at Capital One Arena (above) is hard to beat, says Harriet
Undercover billionaire: Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards
Earlier, browsing the gift shop, a charming older American man had approached us, and his female companion asked if we wanted our photo taken with him. Given that everyone in DC is incredibly friendly and polite, we accepted graciously.
Only later did we discover the man was in fact Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Caps, the Washington Wizards, and the arena we were in. A billionaire twice over.
In contrast to the din of the ice hockey game, a peaceful cruise along the Potomac to Georgetown showed the fall colours in all their tranquil glory against a bright blue sky.
DC’s oldest and most charming neighbourhood, Georgetown has upmarket boutiques, pretty painted townhouses, and smart bars and restaurants along the waterfront. Bring your credit card – the locals have deep pockets, and there are prices in the shops to match.
DC’s oldest and most charming neighbourhood, Georgetown (above) has upmarket boutiques, pretty painted townhouses, and smart bars and restaurants along the waterfront, says Harriet
Bring your credit card to Georgetown (above), suggests Harriet – ‘the locals have deep pockets, and there are prices in the shops to match’
Harriet with sons John, 13, and Rupert, 16, on the National Mall
We had dinner at Sequoia, a super-friendly American restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river, on which Georgetown University rowers sculled.
The boys are still talking about the pudding we shared: a ‘skillet chocolate cookie’ served hot in the pan with white chocolate chips and vanilla ice cream.
Which brings me on to the only downside to our trip: you will not return home feeling slimmer than you left. You may, like us, only have eaten vegetables twice all week.
But the food was fabulous – a glory of all the American favourites we’d hoped for, and a teenage boy’s dream.
At Founding Farmers & Distillers (on Massachusetts Avenue), fried chicken came with a freshly-cooked hot cinnamon sugar waffle – sounds weird, it worked – and mac n cheese. While for brunch on our last day we feasted on spicy breakfast tacos with Mexican cotija cheese.
Ben’s Chili Bowl is a must-visit, declares Harriet. Obama and the Pope have also beaten a track to this DC institution on U Street
Yum’s the word: Harriet tucked into Ben’s Original Chili Half-Smoke and Chili Cheese Fries
At Founding Farmers & Distillers on Massachusetts Avenue (above two images), Harriet and the boys ordered fried chicken, which came with a freshly-cooked hot cinnamon sugar waffle. ‘Sounds weird, it worked’, concludes Harriet
Ben’s Chili Bowl, best known for its ‘original half-smoke’ hot dog with chili sauce and original 1950s decor, is a must-visit (Obama and the Pope have also beaten a track to this DC institution on U Street), and we all loved the ‘puffy eggs’ for breakfast at Piccolina da Centrolina.
Waldorf Astoria Washington DC: Impossibly glamorous old-school luxe
Hotel heaven: The impressive Waldorf Astoria and its fairytale turrets
Donald Trump once ran this town and his presence is still very much felt, from the schoolchildren wearing orange Trump wigs as they tour the sights, and the occasional ‘Wanted for President 2024’ T-shirt bearing the former President’s mugshot, to the ‘Roving Anti-Trumpism Bandwagon’ outside the Lincoln Memorial selling $4 badges saying, ‘He’s indicted and it feels so good.’
One place you won’t find a trace of Trump, however, is the legendary hotel that once bore his name – the Waldorf Astoria Washington DC, formerly the Trump International Hotel.
Opened in its new guise in 2022, this glorious building, the Old Post Office, boasts fairytale turrets, a famous clock tower, and an unbeatable location on Pennsylvania Avenue, aka ‘America’s Main Street’, which links the White House to the United States Capitol.
Staying here feels like the very essence of the American capital.
The ‘breath-taking’ atrium at Waldorf Astoria Washington DC
Bought from Trump for $375million, Waldorf Astoria Washington DC ‘is one of the grandest and most luxurious hotels in the U.S, and the ultimate place to stay in DC’
The opulent rooms are next level in terms of luxe and glamour
Beds at the Waldorf Astoria are ‘enormous and incredibly comfortable’
Bought from Trump for $375million, it is one of the grandest and most luxurious hotels in the U.S, and the ultimate place to stay in DC.
The huge, soaring atrium takes your breath away, with an enormous Stars and Stripes flag hanging at one end, sharp-suited DC power brokers murmuring over $18 bowls of granola beneath it, and the beautiful Bazaar restaurant at the other.
The opulent rooms are next level in terms of luxe and glamour: beds are enormous and incredibly comfortable, marble bathrooms boast goodies by Aesop, and many of the rooms have fantastic views – my boys were thrilled to see the FBI headquarters from theirs. You can see even further from the 270ft-tall deck of the Old Post Office Tower, which is free to enter for residents and non-residents alike.
A taste of Spain: The jamonero at The Bazaar by José Andrés restaurant carved Harriet and her clan jamon iberico at their table
The current President, sadly, is nowhere to be seen, while a staff member admitted to me that he missed the last one, saying Trump and his chums ‘spent a lot of money’ and tipped well. But the money doesn’t appear to disappeared entirely, judging by the enormous luxury SUVs we saw parked outside.
The Bazaar by José Andrés is one of the hottest restaurant tickets in DC right now – and was one of the most memorable aspects of our stay.
Featuring tapas with a nod to American history and a large dose of theatrics, from cocktails that arrive in a puff of nitrogen to tiny ‘Crab Louie Cones’ and jamon Iberico carved at your table by a ‘jamonero’, our dinner here was the foodie highlight of our trip.
If you possibly can get a table here (book well in advance), it’s worth it. The food and service were phenomenal.
The hotel was the icing on the cake for this break.
Washington DC as a tourist destination? It got the thumbs up from my boys, who said it was the ‘best trip ever’.
But it deserves a presidential seal of approval.