The Toyota Prius winds through the dimly lit streets, making that quiet whirring noise that they do. I’m being driven around Washington, DC at night by Bill Thomas, the founder of Private Tours of Washington. Bill is a former newspaper journalist and author of several books including Capital Confidential: One Hundred Years of Sex, Scandal, and Secrets in Washington so he knows the city, as well as many of its closely guarded secrets, quite well. We drive past the illuminated White House, the recently restored United States Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial and Jefferson Memorial, all of which, when lit up at night, are even more mesmerizing than in daylight.
As we cross over the Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River Bill points out the windshield in the darkness ahead.
“See that little pinpoint of light up ahead?” I squint and see what he’s pointing to a small, but clearly visible flicker which appears to be suspended all by itself in the darkness like a lone firefly perhaps a hundred feet off the ground. “That is the eternal flame up on the hill at JFK’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.” Indeed, as we drive closer the outline of the hill becomes evident along with the thousands of paper-white tombstones perfectly aligned in thousands of rows. The only light comes from JFK’s eternal flame.
This is the type of moment that you have to stop and just marvel at spectacle of our nation’s capital, a city masterfully designed, intricately arranged and mystically interconnected by history, politics and culture. This treasure trove of sights make it a must for any traveler.
The “to-do” list in DC is staggering but manageable due to the clustering of the sights, many of which are either walkable or easily accessible via the highly efficient DC Metro. And, perhaps more than any other city in the world, many of these wonders are absolutely free.
Start with the monuments and the National Mall. In a relatively tight configuration with the White House, most of the major monuments and museums encircle the Washington Monument which dominates every vista. Standing 555 feet tall, the towering obelisk, by decree, is the tallest edifice in the city and the loftiest stone structure in the world. There all within walking distance lie stirring memorials to pillars of our history—the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the WWII Memorial and Vietnam Memorial. You could easily spend an unforgettable entire day at these sites and not spend a nickel.
Nearby the Smithsonian Institution, aka “the nation’s attic,” includes several of the top museums in the world including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History. All offer free entry to the public. Even the National Zoological Park (located a few miles away) which is part of the system offers free admission to view the adorable pandas.
Eating your way around the city can be rewarding as well with a dining scene that ranges from cutting edge to old school power chow. Regardless on your stance on immigration, Ambar Restaurant Balkan Cuisine plates gorgeous dishes from the Balkan Peninsula (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia among others). The food is rich and diverse, the drinks are strong and the experience is unforgettable. The Michelin-starred Blue Duck Tavern delivers power-lunch/brunch and dinner American cuisine in the West End of the city but with chic, organic panache. And over in Georgetown in the Rosewood Hotel along the picturesque C&O Canal, The Grill Room serves elegant modern-American plates of hand-cut, bone-in meats, fresh seafood and melt-in-your-mouth pastas in a tranquil setting that removes you from the hustle and flow of the capital.
A visit to the nation’s capital should be requisite for all citizens. Nowhere else do you get an experience of this country’s history but also a tantalizing glimpse into its future. Private Tours of Washington even now offers a tour called “Donald Trump’s DC”; three hours all the things the new POTUS brings to Washington, from the marketing savvy that got him elected to a revived interest in Russia and foreign intrigue. Especially juicy: a stop in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel where Marla Maples flung her 7.5 carat engagement ring (valued at $250,000) at her then-fiancé, The Donald.
Know If You Go
Three airports service the DC area: Baltimore (BWI), John Dulles International Airport (IED) and Ronald Regan Washington National Airport (DCA). Of these three do everything in your power to fly into Reagan. It is by far the closest and easiest to get to and from the city. The other two involve a pricey 30-40 minute taxi/Uber ride.
Private Tours of Washington offer a number of day and night tour options (as well as customizable ones) with vehicles that vary from Priuses, to Town Cars, to SUVs, to Sprinter Vans. (privatetoursofwashington.com)
If you would like more spontaneity with your sightseeing buy passes on Big Bus Tour which run continuously on a loop and offer hop-on-hop-off options. Download their app for the map and use the buses to not only get from place to place, but also to absorb history and information from the onboard tour guides. (bigbustours.com)
Both well-appointed and well-located, The Hamilton Hotel lies within walking distance of The White House, most of the museums and more. A 1922 mix of Beaux Arts and Art Deco and member of the Historic Hotels of America, the property melds classic European style with all-American luxury. And hotel’s 14K Restaurant makes a wicked crab cake. (hamiltonhoteldc.com)
The Metro costs between $1.75 (.85 for seniors) and $4.00 for an express ride. Much of the city is easily accessible by train including Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon.