For the vacationing Portlander, Washington DC might not immediately stand out as a destination, despite its direct flight status from Portland International Airport, courtesy of both United and Alaska Airlines.
Instead of beaches, there are bureaucrats. Instead of guaranteed sun or mountain snow, there is the East Coast’s special brand of humidity or frigidity, depending upon the time of year.
And yet, especially for the many Portlanders of a particular political persuasion who may have avoided the nation's capital from 2016-2020 given the then-occupant of the White House, there are plenty of reasons to hop a a flight, including new museums and refurbishments of old favorites, the best Ethiopian food this side of Addis Ababa, and administrative and legislative branches that are more politically in tune with many a die-hard Oregon liberal. (Act fast though—the electorate is restless, and who knows what the November midterms might bring?).
Every visitor to DC winds up on the National Mall at some point, especially given that the Washington monument is visible from virtually every vantage point in town. Rent an electric bicycle from Unlimited Biking (998 Maine Avenue SW) or go old-school with one from the Capital Bikeshare system, with docking stations all over town, to reach all the monuments in a timely fashion.
Yes, the giant World War II Memorial spearheaded by the late U.S. Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas) is as jingoistic as you’ve heard, but the accordion-like unfolding of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is quietly effective, and even after all these years, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains a masterpiece. DC residents advise returning to the mall at night, when the memorials are lit up.
The Smithsonian’s arsenal of museums fan out from the mall and need some culling depending on your interests. Reserve timed admissions tickets for the glorious Museum of African American History and Culture (1400 Constitution Ave., NW), housed in a building based on the crowns worn by the Yoruba people of West Africa, a major hub of the slave-trading economy. Pro tip: Grab the earliest possible admission time you can get, to minimize time waiting on internal lines to see the flagship historical exhibits.
If any kids in your party are disappointed that the National Air and Space Museum is closed for badly needed renovations, head a little off the beaten track to the brand-new, all-things-language Planet Word museum (925 13th Street NW), housed in a historic former schoolhouse. It’s a much more interactive and immersive museum experience than any of the Smithsonian offerings, while sneakily teaching a fair bit about etymology, truth in advertising and even the cadence of a successful joke.
For an only in DC experience, book an early morning private tour at the National Archives (701 Constitution Avenue NW)—it’ll be just you, a few others, an informative guide and a couple of security guards, standing over originals of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the hushed rotunda. Another can’t miss: The National Museum of American History, (1300 Constitution Avenue NW) which is chock-a-block with Americana, from a rebuild of Julia Child’s iconic Cambridge kitchen to the statement inauguration dresses worn by nearly ever first lady to a meticulous re-enactment of NE Sandy Boulevard c, 1950, as part of an exhibit on car culture and transportation in America.
Public tours of the White House (1400 Pennsylvania Avenue NW) are starting back up again on April 15 after a long pandemic hiatus. (But don’t just show up—arrange your admission in advance via your local Congressional representatives.) The Capitol and the US Supreme Court are still closed to visitors, so instead, indulge in some retail therapy over in Georgetown which has an absolute plethora of preppy temples for the browsing, from J. McLaughlin (3278 M Street NW) to Vineyard Vines (1225 Wisconsin Avenue NW).
Don’t miss DC’s finest independent bookstore, Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Avenue NW) either (check their event listings beforehand—this is a de rigeur stop for high-profile politicians with campaign manifestos to flog). Or, pop into the original branch of the Capital’s most beloved deli, Call Your Mother, (3428 O Street NW) for bright bagel sandwiches. If you're really hungry, take the blue line from Foggy Bottom and transfer to the red line at Metro Center, then get off at the Florida Avenue stop and make your way to Union Market, (1309 5th Street NW) DC’s indoor answer to our food cart pods, with branches of some of the city’s best restaurants—our vote goes to the roasted vegetable/yellow lentil dosa with cilantro-sesame dipping sauce from DC Dosa.
Should you be unable to get a power lunch table at Le Diplomate —and trust us, unless you are President Obama, you will probably not be getting that reservation—good quicker lunch options around the downtown core include Teaism’s (400 8th Street NW, among other locations) much better-than-they need to be bento boxes and steaming bowls of udon noodles and Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn’s grab-a-slice joint on Capitol Hill, We, The Pizza (305 Pennsylvania Avenue SE).
At dinner, do not miss the Michelin-starred Chercher (1334 9th Street NW), an Ethiopian restaurant in the hopping Shaw neighborhood—the vegan special, a steal at $14.99, comes with just about everything that can be scooped up by injera bread, including split peas cooked with ginger and garlic, simmered and chopped collard greens, and lentils in house special berbere sauce. (Carnivores may prefer the beef tips, cooked with onions, garlic, jalapeño, and patent-pending “exotic spices.”)
As for where to stay, options are thick on the ground. You could go opulent at the White House adjacent Intercontinental, but our pick is the freshly opened Hotel Zena off Logan Circle (1155 14th Street NW), a temple to femininity that includes a pointillist inspired mural of RBG made from tampons, plus wellness classes and potent cocktails at the cheekily named Figleaf, the in-house restaurant.