I love to travel and yes I’ve been to some spectacular destinations and seen some beautiful places but I’d like to believe that I’ve evolved from a tourist into a traveller. I don’t go out of my way to seek out the tourist ‘must sees’ but I do go out of my way to explore and discover the essence of a place. This is not always easy to do when you have just a few days so on my first day, I always jump on the ‘hop on, hop off’ bus just to get my bearings and then it’s up to where my feet can take me and where the locals I meet suggest.
Now I was not prepared to be ‘wowed by Washington’ , by all accounts it was small and apart from the many monuments and the fact that the President of the United States lived there, there was not much else. Well, I loved the city.
A Short History:
Washington DC was not always the capital, that used to be Philadelphia, up until President George Washington decided to move it. Land for the new capital was given by the states of Virginia and Maryland and in March 1791 the African American mathematician Benjamin Banneker and surveyor Andrew Ellicott mapped out a diamond-shaped territory, almost a baseball pitch, that spanned the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, was originally appointed as town planner whose grandiose European-style capital of monumental buildings and majestic boulevards came to fruition but he was fired for being difficult to work with and the capital was completed by the Ellicott brothers. in 1800, John Adams became the first president to occupy the still incomplete mansion. Washington DC is not a large area, it is roughly 177 square kilometres, but the layout is pretty spectacular.
There are no skyscrapers in DC, buildings are not allowed to be higher than 6m more than the width of the adjacent street. So there is a feeling of airyness and light that is absent in cities like New York. The streets are wide, more like boulevards and crossing can be a challenge until you get used to it. I had quite a chuckle to myself trying to beat the countdown of the pedestrian signal every time I crossed a road, but I enjoyed walking the streets and yes, I’m sure that if you’re short on time a taxi or bus could get you to your destination much quicker but then you miss the nuances and character of the wonderful people of the city.
One afternoon as I wandered along downtown Washington in the heat, the summer is hot here, the sun brutal, I decided to sit down and enjoy a delicious crab salad from one of those revered ‘food trucks’ that Washington is well known for. Unlike, NewYork, the ‘foodtruck’ is a staple in DC. The food is fresh, local and absolutely lip smacking. That crab salad is the best I’ve ever had.
Colorfully painted food trucks dot the city
While taking in the sights and sounds around me, an elderly lady sat down beside me and we started talking.My first thought was, Oh My Goodness, I’ve just met Madea. And then she started speaking and I had a quiet giggle to myself because she sounded just like her too. But she was a typical of the people of Washington DC, they are friendly and helpful and don’t be surprised if you get invited to join them wherever they’re going that night or even to their homes.
Before I left I spoke to many friends who had been to DC and they all said the same thing, “You’re going to love the National Mall, its tiring but you will love it“, I thought this was a nod to my shopaholic tendencies, little did I realise that the National Mall was where all the most amazing memorials were laid out, within walking distance of each other.
From The Lincoln Memorial featured in the movie Independence Day to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial to the beautiful Martin Luther King Jnr memorial, they’re all there. Further up between Madison Drive and Jefferson Drive are all the museums, National Museum of American History, Natural Museum of Natural History and on and on it goes. I loved that all of these were in such close proximity to each other, but one day will never be enough especially if you want to explore each one for more than a photo taking opportunity.
The Arlington Cemetry, although close by is not within walking distance and in fact is not in DC bur rather in Virginia. The 624 acres of the cemetry and impressive landscape serves as a tribute to the service, sacrifice and honour of those who have served the American nation. As seen in so many movies, the rows and rows of white headstones leave quite an impression and a visit to Arlington is quite memorable.
And of course, The White House , well you simply cannot go all the way to DC and not at least take a picture at the esteemed building. I must say, when I first caught sight of it, I was surprised at how small it seemed. I guess, in my mind I thought it would be a lot more imposing that it looked. I did what any self respecting ‘tourist’ would do and got my picture. Both at the South side, which is featured almost always in the movies and the North side which faces Lafayette Park.
Lafayette Square was interesting, as this is the place of many political protests over the years. Up until 1804, it used to be a part of the Presidential grounds until Pennsylvania Avenue cut through it. The history of the square is interesting as its been used as a graveyard, a zoo and even a slave market.
Once you’ve done the ‘tourist’ routine and taken in all the major sites, head off to Georgetown. The quaint little university town has all the charm and grace of an era gone by. Back in the early 1900’s taxes were paid on homes according to their width, so many homes were built long and narrow. Georgetown offers a perfect glimpse into the style of homes that were built back in the day. In particular, no.2726 P Street is only about 2.7 metres wide. All the rooms were connected to each other by doors, imagine what it could have been like trying to get to the bathroom at the back if your room was in the front of the house.
The waterfront at Georgetown also offers a respite from the city, there are many bars and restaurants here and Tony and Joe’s Seafood place not only has the most amazing seafood but the outside bar is vibrant and lively and the cooling breezes off the river offer a perfect way to spend an afternoon.
If shopping is your thing, there are shops aplenty but only one mall. Pentagon City Mall is on the other side of the Potomac river and as the name suggests it is close to the Pentagon. Now, the Pentagon is an imposing building, you’re not allowed to take pictures of it, well, not unless , you’d like to spend a night in an American prison cell but worth the visit. The Mall has every shop you can imagine including a super size Macy’s, so shopping is definitely on the cards. And if you’re visiting in the Summer, you will be looking for a mall as its the coolest place to be. This side of the city also has the DEA, Drug Enforcement Administration museum, so if you’re interested in the how and why of illegal drugs and how they’re discovered, this is the place for you.
Pentagon City Mall
The best part of my visit I must say was the voyage of food discovery. I was amazed at the selection from not only the food trucks but the stunning restaurants like Firefly under the expert Chef Todd Wiss and Union Market under Chef Richie Brandenburg and even the fast food places. District Taco served the yummiest, build your own tacos, ever. I realised that Washingtonians are particular about their food and what they eat. And you will find that the local food snobs although they do dine at the fancy restaurants in the fancy locations they’re always on the look out for the ‘next best thing’ be it from a food truck or a little hole in the wall, nondescript mom and pop operation. I could write an entire article on my food voyage but that is for another time.
See Chasin Tails or Tales for review of Chasin Tails, arguably the best Cajun seafood. Ever!
There are pubs and bars and restaurants in abundance and I think the next time I visit, it will be purely a culinary journey, the choices are so many. Forget New York, purely as you could live in New York and never make a dent in all the restaurants on offer, DC has its share of culinary heaven.
Nightlife in DC is as colourful as its food scene.Whether its salsa dancing or a blues bar or even a jazz show, its your choice. I discovered the area of Adams Morgan, the locals love it here, and didn’t venture further as it had everything. From the most amazing Live Blues at Madams Organ to Bossa right next door with a Cuban band playing the best Salsa music. I was lucky enough to be in Washington on the 4th of July, so after spending some time amongst the crowds at the National Mall, I made my way to the rooftop of Madams Organ to watch the spectacular fireworks display that the Whitehouse puts on. I even ventured into a little Rasta place, and loved it.
In all Washington DC is colourful and alive and a city I truly fell in love with. As a South African, I am used to our wonderful rainbow nation and eclectic mix of people so I felt quite at home in DC, what I was not prepared for was the surprise on people’s face when I told them I am South African. That was quite funny to me, my accent’s been mistaken for British and my features have been mistaken for Mexican, Puerto Rican and even South American. What delighted me was that there were no questions about lions running around the streets as I discovered that the people of Washington are quite intellectual and the conversations about our wonderful country were interesting and informed.
Everyone seemed to know about Cape Town and Johannesburg, sadly very few knew of Durban. I hope I did my city proud with the little I had to share about it.
And of course, we found a NANDO’S in the city, yay SA!