Arlington Cemetery. Photo: Alamy
Dead presidents, living presidents. If there is one thing they could agree on, it's a love for this city, writes Dugald Jellie.
JFK lampooned it as a "city of southern efficiency and northern charm". Dickens thought it a "city of magnificent intentions". Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father ("all men are created equal") and third president, memorialised here in a bronze statue overseeing the White House's back door, said: "All is politics in this capital."
Washington, DC, the "boss town in the country", like other planned capitals (Canberra, Brasilia, Ankara), is a construct of compromise. Its order was laid out in 1790 by a French engineer who borrowed on the Parisian ideal of boulevards, lined since with bombast, ambition, idealism, scandal and the hubris of power.
Washington Monument. Photo: Alamy
A city of monumentality, it's also a perfect tourist town. Sites are mostly free. It's easy to get about. Spectacle is everywhere. And as with its political movers and shakers, most others are also passing through: usually in sneakers, noosed with cameras, maps in hand, sightseeing the American dream.
Pace the National Mall, a civic spine where the US freely assembles among Walt Whitman's "democratic vistas", with a jog, walk or bicycle ride (see bikethesites.com for rentals). As with most of the capital, it's an artificial landscape - all lawn swathes, imposed neoclassicism, reflection pools - ended by the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol building, and flanked for three kilometres by sites of national ceremony, commemoration and repository. Map the simple grandeur of Pierre Charles L'Enfant's geometric city plan, and welcome to the heart of empire. To download a National Mall app, see nps.gov/nama.
Breakfast at the Willard, a Beaux-Arts landmark two blocks from the White House, where Lincoln once lived, where Martin Luther King, jnr wrote his I Have a Dream speech, where Ulysses S. Grant drank whisky, smoked cigars and met political wranglers in the lobby - so coining the term "lobbyist". (It's also where K-Rudd resigned as foreign minister). Eat eggs benedict for $US12.95 ($12.35)) at its Cafe du Parc, or make like a visiting dignitary and return to its grand lobby for high tea - in the company of a harpsichordist and among flamboyant floor mosaics, chandeliers and capital gossip.
Willard Hotel, 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW; breakfast at Cafe du Parc served Monday-Friday 6.30am-10am, Saturday-Sunday 7am-11am; see washington.intercontinental.com.
Walk to the White House and pose by the palisade fence of the president's pile. "I haven't been to Versailles but I have been to Buckingham Palace," a woman from the midwest says. "It's a lot bigger than this." Security's on the roof, TV correspondents do stand-uppers on the lawn. Streets are cleared, police sirens whoop, a motorcade arrives. Is it Michelle? Just like the movies. Power walk north through Lafayette Park and meet the First Family's neighbours: vagabonds and resident protesters. An elderly Italian-born woman has held a peace vigil here since Reagan's election. "People are coming like robots with cameras, taking pictures," she says. "But they are not thinking."
White House Visitor Centre, 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue, is open daily 7.30am-4pm, with exhibits and ranger-led talks; see also whitehouse.gov.
Catch the Metro from McPherson Square to Capitol South, admiring the coffered arched ceilings that lend DC's subway the noble air of Roman vaults. From here, loop Capitol Hill - the geographical and legislative heart of the city - passing the Library of Congress (see goddesses and cherubs in the Great Hall of the 1897 Jefferson Building), then the gleaming white marble of the US Supreme Court, with its pediment engraved with "Equal justice under law". Continue to the front of the Capitol building. "You can fit the Statue of Liberty inside the rotunda and it will not touch the top," a tour guide outside says of the cast-iron dome that caps this centrepiece of US government and from which DC is divided into four districts.
Capitol building tours run Monday-Saturday from 8.50am-3.20pm (free, bookings recommended); see aoc.gov.
It's the world's second-most visited museum (after the Louvre in Paris), and with the world's largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft it's easy to see why. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall is a must-see: to touch a moon rock, view the original Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer or the Apollo Lunar Module, and be wowed by the wonder of flight. The entrance hall - festooned with a Sputnik satellite, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis, a Viking lander and the Bell X-1 (the first aircraft to break the sound barrier) - leads to 22 exhibition galleries. Try for two. Free admission.
National Air and Space Museum, cnr 6th Street and Independence Avenue, SW; open daily 10am-5.30pm; see nasm.si.edu.
As if on cue, Papa Was a Rollin' Stone begins as we step inside Ben's Chili Bowl, a grease-trap institution on U Street, which has served chilli hot dogs since 1958. It's a Washington tourists don't always see - the African-American metropolis, becoming in 1965 the first big US city where blacks outnumbered whites. A sign by the till says: "List of people who eat at Ben's Chili free: Bill Cosby, Obama family - no one else". Wrangle a booth. Listen for the grill sizzle. Admire the white neon, ceiling fans, and bottles of tomato ketchup and chilli sauce on laminate tables. Food is served on red plastic trays and full of salt and saturated fats. As we leave, an African-American man pulls up at the kerb in a vintage Rolls with the number plate: "PORKCHP". Quintessentially DC.
Ben's Chili Bowl, 1213 U Street, NW; lunch and dinner Monday-Thursday until 2am; Friday-Saturday until 4am; Sunday to 11pm; see benschilibowl.com; Bill Cosby's original chilli half-smoke hot dog, $US5.70.
Memorial time. Begin with the World War II shrine, affirming Washington's classical Greek impulse: all alabaster granite etched with triumphal platitudes. Valour turns to haunting solemnity at the nearby Korean War Memorial - its statue soldiers weighted by the hell of battle ("Freedom is not free") - then into a string of fatal dates on a black-marble chevron at the stark Vietnam Memorial, tattooed with the names of the dead.
The steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearby is where Marian Anderson in 1939 gave a soul-stirring concert against racism, where Martin Luther King, jnr in 1963 delivered his 17-minute I Have a Dream speech, and where the poor and oppressed always have rallied for justice and equality. It's a powerful sentiment, to stand by the feet of Abe Lincoln - the Civil War president struck in stone among fluted Doric columns, on a throne-like marble chair, casting his shadow over the affairs of Congress - where perhaps more than anywhere else the US gathers to champion its democratic ideal.
Cross the Potomac to Arlington National Cemetery, where war's brutal chaos is ordered in elegiac rituals of burial. There's beauty in the simplicity of commemoration - in rows of headstones ribboning the landscape - exemplified by the red-granite blocks of the Kennedy Memorial with its eternal flame flickering above the capital. Visitors make a beeline for the Kennedy graves and the Tomb of the Unknowns. Even more poignant is the low ground of Section 60, with its freshly turned soil and names and dates of mostly young men killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Open daily, October-March 8am-5pm, April-September 8am-7pm; admission free; see arlingtoncemetery.mil.
Fried catfish at Martin's Tavern, a DC institution in Georgetown since 1933, where John proposed to Jackie in booth No.3 1953, where Nixon came for his regular meatloaf, where every president since Truman has dined among its Tiffany lamps, dark-timber panels and fox-and-hound prints. Expect comfort food and old world sensibilities, with a polite crowd that ranges from senators to college students. Booths are squishy, but great fun. Feeling homesick? There's a framed Wallabies jumper on the dining room wall.
Martin's Tavern, 1264 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Georgetown, DC; see martins-tavern.com.
See the city lights from the Washington Monument, the world's tallest obelisk, a pleasingly simple needle rising at a crossroads of the capital and which could be the centre point of empire. If context is everything, it doesn't get more epic than this. The monument has been closed since an earthquake shook its foundations last year, but it's ringed by flagpoles bearing the Stars and Stripes and has a monolithic aesthetic that cuts the Washington sky.
Getting there Qantas has a fare to Washington DC for about $1740 low-season return from Sydney, including taxes. Fly non-stop to Los Angeles (about 14hr) then non-stop to Washington (4hr 50min); see qantas.com.au. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Staying there For the classic Washington experience, spend a "Weekend at the Willard", the city's fabled hotel across the road from the White House, with low-season rates from about $US325 ($309) a night. See washington.intercontinental.com.