However you arrive in Washington, D.C., the parade of stately monuments and leafy vistas will bring back memories of your eighth-grade class trip. But as you start exploring this 68 square miles of fetid swampland turned nation's capital, you'll find much more than the red-velvet ropes and marble columns you remember. The District of Columbia has a distinctly groovy new attitude.
"We're getting a little creative class," says Philippa P.B. Hughes, a young art collector who holds salons in a downtown loft and blogs of her adventures at hoogrrl.com. Washington, she continues, is "becoming less transient. People only used to move here for work. Now, there are lots of people who are curious and diverse" but also putting down roots. "It isn't just about the same old stodgy Washington traditions," Hughes says. (That being said, mark your calendars: The National Cherry Blossom Festival starts March 29 and ends April 13.)
The capital has long been user-friendly, with its stellar museums and whisper-quiet Metro, but this city of more than half a million inhabitants used to be rather staid in the style department. Not anymore. Designers, artists, architects, and tastemakers have been rescuing urban spaces not found on any Tourmobile itinerary. Terrific chefs have launched a feeding frenzy, and relatively edgy boutique hotels are providing spirited alternatives to grande dames like the Willard InterContinental and the Hay-Adams. And historic Georgetown has been reborn as a bona fide design district.
Neighborhoods that didn't even have names a decade ago now flaunt sassy new monikers and vitalities to match. Celebrities seem to be everywhere. Bono lobbies Congress. Hometown girl Goldie Hawn has been spotted dancing at Eyebar and Cyndi Lauper chowing down on kebabs at the Bombay Club. George Clooney is practically a regular, holding court at Cafe Milano.
D.C.'s hardly Hollywood on the Potomac, though. "We are still a city in the making," says Anthony Lanier, whose real-estate development company, EastBanc, has helped bring an urban-village attitude to parts of Georgetown. "But right now, we're a hot location. I think action is our best commodity. If you want to feel the energy of the city, go to Penn Quarter when all the young lawyers spill out of their offices at night."
The recently christened Penn Quarter, situated between the White House and the Capitol, once was an anonymous zone of rundown buildings. Now well-heeled locals stop here for tapas before the theater, and gallery-goers make the rounds. Style-conscious shoppers can admire Hella Jongerius's latest sofa for Vitra in the windows of the forward-thinking shop Apartment Zero. And as for that band of whippersnapper attorneys, first they belly up to the bars at Zola and Zaytinya, then they head to Rasika for Vikram Sunderam's masterful curries.
There's an especially fine local architectural attraction too: the undulating glass canopy that architect Norman Foster placed over the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. Acclaimed for glass-doming the British Museum and Berlin's Reichstag, among other things, Lord Foster worked with the Smithsonian on the recent $63 million project, which had to respect the Greek Revival building that houses both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Beneath the transparent bubble is a garden oasis and a hypnotic fountain composed of a barely there sheet of water that ripples across a section of granite floor.
Patricia Schultz, the Georgetown University alumna author of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, hangs out in Bhutan and Timbuktu these days, but she often heads back to D.C., which she calls "one of the most quietly powerful capitals" in the world. "There aren't many cities around that regularly have new additions to an already chockablock museum scene," Schultz says. "There's always something world-class about to open or an old favorite that has had a renaissance." On her must-see list is the latest incarnation of the Newseum, an interactive museum of journalism, slated to open on Pennsylvania Avenue this spring. What some observers call the capital's next monument is the $611 million Washington Nationals baseball stadium on the Anacostia River in Southeast, which architecture firms HOK and Devrouax + Purnell loaded with environmentally friendly features. It should be unveiled in April.
Though the residents of the White House often set the style in D.C.—the glamour cast by the Kennedys and Reagans is hard to forget—the Bushes have kept a fairly low profile. Which doesn't mean they haven't made an aesthetic mark. Last year the First Lady redecorated the Lincoln Bedroom and Sitting Room. And though Laura Bush touts her love of books, she also is a serious shopper. With Ken Blasingame—the Texas interior designer behind the White House's private quarters as well as the Bush ranch—she scours artsy 14th and U streets and Georgetown shops such as John Rosselli (Robert Kime fabrics, high-style furniture) and Darrell Dean (Frank Gehry cardboard, 19th-century pine cupboards). First Daughter Barbara Bush recently snapped up a French table for her Manhattan apartment at Cherry Antiques & Design.
The doings on Capitol Hill may grab headlines, but style happens in Georgetown, with cobblestone streets and redbrick townhouses where the cave dwellers—a nickname for members of the city's oldest families—tend to gather. Near the head of Wisconsin Avenue is A Mano, a stunning tableware and accessories shop whose front garden spills over with giant urns brimming with rosemary. A stroll down this long thoroughfare is a visual treat, especially in early morning—and when the stores open, signaling it's time to break out your wallet, don't miss the aristocratic consignments at the Christ Child Society's Opportunity Shop. Just off M Street NW on popular Cady's Alley, which was developed over the past decade by Anthony Lanier from a warehouse district, high-end establishments like Baker and Relish abound.
"The city has a very different face from 20 years ago," says Debra Lehman-Smith, a partner of Lehman Smith McLeish, an interiors and architecture firm. "It's more dynamic and just more fun."
Part of the excitement is people-watching, and the umbrella-shaded tables on Cady's Alley offer a cozy vantage point to spot the movers and shakers as you sip a cappuccino from Leopold's Kafe + Konditorei. "When you walk down the stairs to that café, it gives you the time to size up who else is there," says Deborah Gore Dean, owner of an enticing Georgetown antiques shop, Gore Dean. People-watching of another kind can be fulfilled at Oak Hill Cemetery, a resting place of eminent worthies (museum founder W. W. Corcoran, Confederate spy Bettie Duval, hostess Evangeline Bruce). Its Gothic Revival chapel was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and the brooding castle that is the Smithsonian Institution. "It's a very peaceful and calming place to go," says interior designer Darryl Carter, rhapsodizing over the "beautiful gazebos and gardens."
Walking and running are among the favorite pastimes of Washington's dynamic young mayor, Adrian Fenty, and his attorney wife, Michelle Cross Fenty, and both take their strides through the U.S. National Arboretum. Located in Washington's Northeast section, the Arboretum has 446 acres of meandering roads, herb gardens, azaleas, bonsai trees, and recycled U.S. Capitol columns. You also might run into the mayor, a marathoner, jogging through trail-lined Rock Creek Park.
If pastoral idylls aren't your thing, there are multiple opportunities to commune with some of the world's best art—there's barely an art-history giant, for example, whose work isn't hanging in the Phillips, the Hirshhorn, or the National Gallery. Govinda Gallery in Georgetown is the place to find music-related photography exhibits, and Maurine Littleton is all about contemporary handblown glass by Dale Chihuly et al. The gallery scene around Dupont Circle and the trendy Adams Morgan section of town is buzzing too.
The neighborhood called 14th and U—rich in African-American history and not far from historically black Howard University—is populated with artists' studios that welcome tours. (For details, see midcityartists.com.) Home-furnishings leader Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams recently opened a shop here, since Gold found 14th and U's groovy vibe fit his laid-back aesthetic. New lounges and eateries here include Marvin, which is named for native son Marvin Gaye and plastered with photographs of soul-music idols. If you want to escape the hordes of tourists queuing up to see the next monument on their shortlist, then head down H Street past Union Station to the Atlas district in Northeast Washington. It's a realm of indie-rock venues and home of the Palace of Wonders, where vaudeville shows and two-headed oddities recall the heyday of P. T. Barnum. The gastropub Granville Moore's draws hipsters with Belgian artisanal beers such as the strong pale ale La Chouffe.
Old favorites, however, can be just as satisfying. The National Gallery's neoclassical West Building, for instance, is "seldom in the news" but consistently thrilling, says interior decorator Rosemarie Howe (her newsiest project of late is Hillary and Bill Clinton's house off Embassy Row). She often heads to the museum to commune with Vermeer's A Lady Writing and Van Gogh's Roses, given by the siren turned ambassador Pamela Harriman. "There is almost nobody in those old galleries," Howe confides. "It's almost too good to be true." Frankly, it may be the only spot in D.C. that isn't hopping.
ESSENTIAL WASHINGTON, D.C.
The area code is 202.
Commune with nature. The Georgetown hillside estate Dumbarton Oaks (339-6401; ) features ten acres of formal terraced gardens with seasonal shows of crocuses, roses, and wisteria.
Take the path less traveled. Stroll through the FDR Memorial (nps.gov/fdrm) on the western side of the Tidal Basin at dusk when the crowds have subsided. Don't miss the waterfalls in the landscaped outdoor rooms near the famous Cherry Tree Walk ().
Shop for goodies. Capitol Hill's Eastern Market (7th St. and North Carolina Ave., SE; ) was damaged in a fire last year, but vendors settled in a temporary hall across the street. On weekends, locals navigate the stalls of produce, cheese, and baked goods and the adjacent open-air flea market.
Experience capital culture. The Kennedy Center (2700 F St., NW; 467-4600; ) hosts more than 2,000 plays, ballets, and concerts a year. Daily free programs at 6 p.m.
WHAT TO SEE
Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of State, 2201 C St., NW, 647-3241; : This clutch of stately rooms where diplomats schmooze is appointed with priceless 18th- and 19th-century American paintings, furniture, and decorative arts.
Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave., NW, 686-5807; : Fabergé and fabulousness courtesy of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887–1973) at her elegant, antiques-filled Georgian-style mansion on 25 acres.
The Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd., NW, 337-3050; : Works by Monet, Cézanne, and Washington artists such as Gene Davis and Sam Gilliam are on view in this posh 1967 residence-cum-recital-hall designed by Philip Johnson.
National Building Museum, 401 F St., NW, 272-2448; : This architecture, design, and urban-planning temple boasts a dramatic Great Hall with eight colossal Corinthian columns, a frequent venue for glittering galas.
The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, 456-7041; : Contact your Congressperson at least a month in advance to reserve a self-guided tour for 10 or more or go to the White House Visitor Center, which has exhibits of presidential architecture, furnishings, fashion, and pets.
WHERE TO STAY
The Fairmont, 2401 M St., NW, 429-2400; : This large, sunny hotel near Dupont Circle features French doors in some rooms that overlook a lush courtyard garden.
Four Seasons Hotel, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, 342-0444; : Luxurious yet understated Georgetown lodgings. The indoor pool, newly spritzed-up spa, and proper afternoon tea will tempt you to stay in.
The Hotel George, 15 E St., NW, 347-4200; : Modern Kimpton boutique hotel a few blocks from Union Station, Capitol Hill, and Mall museums that's popular with VIPs like Arianna Huffington and Al Franken.
Hotel Helix, 1430 Rhode Island Ave., NW, 462-9001; : Austin Powers–like vibe near Logan Circle with a lively lounge scene.
Mandarin Oriental, 1330 Maryland Ave., SW, 554-8588; : Feng shui overlooking the Tidal Basin. Enjoy water views in rooms equipped with Japanese screens and state-of-the-art entertainment systems, as well as a soothing martini in CityZen restaurant.
The Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, 3100 South St., NW, 912-4100; : Small hotel boasting 86 posh rooms and limestone baths with deep soaking tubs.
WHERE TO EAT
2Amys, 3715 Macomb St., NW, 885-5700; : Neapolitan dough baked in a wood-burning oven is the star of this popular pizza joint.
Belga Café, 514 8th St., SE, 544-0100; : Steamed mussels, cheese croquettes, and Belgian beers draw a crowd of young Capitol Hill staffers to this modern bistro.
Ben's Chili Bowl, 1213 U St., NW, 667-0909; : Serving legendary chili dogs since 1958, the counter and tables are always bustling.
Hook, 3241 M St., NW, 625-4488; : Sustainable seafood in sleek, sophisticated surroundings. Don't miss the tautog and weakfish.
Lafayette Room, 800 16th St., NW, 638-2570; : Power-breakfast central in h, Waspy digs at the Hay-Adams hotel. Plenty of fresh flowers, starched linens, and silver— drop-dead views of the White House.
Leopold's Kafe + Konditorei, 3315 M St., NW, 965-6005; : Schnitzel and Sacher torte are daily fare at this European-style cafe on quiet Cady's Alley.
Rasika, 633 D St., NW, 637-1222; : Glam Indian food by chef Vikram Sunderam attracts luminaries such as D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty.
WHERE TO SHOP
A Mano, 61677 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 298-7200; : Adam Mahr's Italian-majolica-and-French-faience shop in a 19th-century Georgetown house also sells chic table linens, William Yeoward crystal, and Mark Spirito jewels.
And Beige, 1781 Florida Ave., NW, 234-1557; . Neutral modern accessories, furniture, and lighting on the outskirts of funky Adams Morgan.
Apartment Zero, 406 7th St., NW, 628-4067; : Washington's premier industrial-design store features furniture and housewares by Hella Jongerius, Antonio Citterio, Karim Rashid, and others.
Après Peau, 1430 K St., NW, 783-0022; : Attractive Washington mementos (White House note cards, First Lady bracelets), Fornasetti place mats, and melamine salad servers in a cozy boutique.
The Christ Child Society's Opportunity Shop, 1427 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 333-6635; : Elegant consignments, from diamonds to silver.
Cowgirl Creamery, 919 F St., NW, 393-6880; : The friendly staff at this charming old-fashioned shop knows everything about homemade organic cheeses.
Cusp, 3030 M St., NW, 625-0893; : Twentysomethings head to this new Neiman Marcus spin-off and buy Diane von Furstenberg frocks and costume jewelry by Kenneth Jay Lane.
Gore Dean, 32140 M St., NW, 625-9199; : Mrs. John L. Strong stationery, French silver, and rock-crystal chandeliers overseen by Washington insider Deborah Gore Dean.
Home Rule, 1807 14th St., NW, 797-5544; . Treats for every room of the house; look for the irresistible bath mats and kitchen timers.
Marston Luce, 1651 Wisconsin Ave., NW, 333-6800: Where Barbara Walters and Carly Simon go for 18th- and 19th-century painted French furniture.
RCKNDY, 1515 U St., NW, 332-5639; : This new modern design shop stocks laser-cut trays, Italian wool pillows, and Australian porcelain.
Relish, 3312 Cady's Alley, NW, 333-5343; : Proprietor Nancy Pearlstein handpicks an enticing selection of women's clothes and accessories by Jil Sander, Marni, Narciso Rodriguez, and Nina Ricci.