Your meeting in the Nation's Capital ended a little early. You glance at your watch.
Time to burn. What to do?
Of course, you could always wait on an interminable line to see where the feds print the money at the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, or watch from the Capitol visitors' gallery while some senator drones on about National Beef Week. But as any local will tell you, Washington is too vibrant a city to waste time maneuvering between gawking tourists and baby carriages at the National Air & Space Museum.
EXOTIC FLORA. Hidden amid the majestic monuments and halls of power, there are plenty of ways to enjoy a quick respite from Washington business while savoring a taste of the town. Knowing where to go is the key. Whether you're browsing through the bookstores and bistros along Connecticut Avenue north of Dupont Circle, or sampling delicate spring rolls and Pho along Vietnamese Row in Georgetown, Washington is filled with a dynamic inner life all its own.
Longtime denizens know the spots. Looking for solitude on a grand scale? Duck out to the U.S. Botanical Gardens, at the foot of the Capitol. The glass building houses an extraordinary collection of exotic flora. Or hop a cab to Dumbarton Oaks and meander across 10 acres of terraced gardens where diplomats first hammered out the United Nations Charter. Then you can stroll through the oldest part of the city to Georgetown Park on M Street, an enclosed enclave of tony clothing and specialty shops. You'll probably recognize it as the backdrop of just about every chase scene in Washington suspense thrillers, from No Way Out to True Lies.
Most visitors gravitate to the huge Smithsonian exhibitions clustered along the downtown Mall area. But these frenzied places, awash in T-shirt vendor trailers and hot dog stands, are shunned by us locals--except after snowstorms. There are richer jewels in some of the lesser-known museums around town. A personal favorite is the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art, located on F Street between 7th and 8th Streets. With its ornate circular staircases and atrium of stained glass, the building alone is a treasure. It features official portraits of every American President, plus a haunting exhibit of historical photos and paintings, many of them familiar masterpieces. It's not for kids--and it's only a block from Washington's Chinatown, where an excellent dim sum lunch can be had.
America's oldest museum of modern art, the Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle, is also more manageable than the hectic Smithsonian art-o-ramas. Another gem is the exhibit of famous scientific expeditions in anthropology, oceanography, and outer space in Explorers Hall on the first floor of the National Geographic Society, at 17th and M Streets. Or try the National Museum of Women in the Arts, at 13th Street and New York Avenue. While you're there, enjoy a cappuccino in the elegant cafe.
No local would deign to journey to the top of the Washington Monument except under extreme duress from out-of-town in-laws. There's a more splendid view of the city--with no lines--atop the 315-foot clock tower of the Old Post Office Pavilion, on Pennsylvania Avenue between 11th and 12th streets.
But for a scene sure to fill you with Olympian hubris, throw back a few under the awning of the Sky Terrace Restaurant, atop the Hotel Washington across the street from the Treasury Building. Open through October, it's a capital favorite. Twilight is best, looking down on a vista that sweeps from the White House across the mall and the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery. Later, stroll the lobby of the elegantly restored Willard Hotel, next door. This is the corridor where 19th century ne'er-do-wells, looking for jobs and favors from Washington officials, once loitered. Thus was coined the term "lobbyists."
BELLY DANCERS. Hungry? The Occidental Grill, located on the same block at Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street, is a favorite restaurant for Washington power brokers. If you're feeling adventurous, try Marrakesh--a windowless restaurant at 617 New York Ave. NW. Step through a narrow door into a foyer with a fountain and a red-carpeted dining room. Guests lounge on cushions, eating with their fingers off a bronze tabletop while a belly dancer performs in dimmed lighting. A very exotic evening that's not as risque as it sounds. But you'll need a cab to get there and back, and dinner starting at $30 is pricey.
Georgetown features one of the nation's premier supper clubs in Blues Alley at 1073 Wisconsin Avenue. A former carriage house, it's long been a showcase for jazz legends such as Sarah Vaughan, Ramsey Lewis, and Joe Williams. Creole dinners, too.
Still want to see some Washington politicians? La Colline, at 400 North Capitol Street, is a favorite lunchtime spot for U.S. sen
ators. Try the lobster fricassee and look around--you'll likely see somebody you recognize. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) are regulars. Afterward, take a walk across the street to painstakingly restored Union Station; the architectural grandeur is guaranteed to knock your socks off.
A favorite lunchtime hangout of Republicans is Galileo, a great Italian restaurant on 21st St. between L and M Streets. Try the mozzarella chunks with tomatoes and basil as an appetizer. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has a regular table against the far wall. For Clintonites, there's the Bombay Club at 815 Connecticut Avenue--a short walk from the White House. With its tropical white decor and Raj-style cuisine, this is a favorite lunchtime spot for everyone from Presidential advisers to Food & Drug Administration head David A. Kessler. Even the President has been known to sneak over occasionally for dinner.
But the locals know that the preferred time for a power meal in Washington is 8 in the morning. One power breakfast hot spot is the elegant Hay Adams Hotel, located across the street from the White House. Or try the Sheraton Carlton at the corner of 16th and K Streets. You may not spot any powerful bigwigs, but you'll feel like one in settings that are vintage Washington.
Remember, if you have the time, Washington has plenty to offer. Just ask the locals.
BY CAB Any attraction mentioned is less than a $5 cab ride from downtown.
BY SUBWAY The Metro is perfect for quick jaunts everywhere except Georgetown. For the Hotel Washington, take the Red or Blue lines to Metro Center; National Portrait Gallery, the Red or Green lines to Gallery Place; the Phillips Collection, Red line to DuPont Circle; La Colline, Red line to Union Station; Old Post Office, Blue or Orange lines to Federal Triangle; and Bombay Club, Blue or Orange lines to Farragut West. All trips, about $1.