State Three: Washington, District of Columbia/Virginia

The Stars and Stripes fluttering at the National Monument

Ok, we know DC isn’t a state, but when we were in town we actually stayed across the Potomac in Virginia. If you’re looking for a hotel recommendation here, you might want to look away now. We stayed at the Americana, and whilst it had a good line in kitsch furnishings and donuts for breakfast, it was less hot on providing normal human sized beds and walls thicker than a sheet of paper. If you want somewhere cheap to stay, give it a look, but if you want to sleep tight, look elsewhere.

We spent four full days in DC and each day was packed with history, politics, culinary delights and even some pandas. DC is an ideal place for USA beginners. Like London, many of the museums and attractions are free but no less fascinating for it. We went to the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, toured the Capitol, Library of Congress and Pentagon*, stopped by the Drug Enforcement Agency museum and the National Postal Museum, all for free; each a treat in their own way.  In visiting these attractions we learnt about Owney – the terrier adopted as a postal mascot who travelled (much like we’d like to) across all the US states and around the world clocking in over 140,000 miles in his lifetime, we gasped at the world’s largest library (that of Congress) and wandered down corridors measuring over 17 miles long in the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense.

We paid to get into a few museums too and they were also super interesting. At the International Spy Museum we assumed identities and discovered what it would be like to be James Bond (without the cocktails and fast cars). At the Newseum we delved into newspaper archives from around the world before having a go at being newsreaders, which it turns out it’s harder than it looks!

The famous Ben’s Chili Bowl

It would have been remiss to come to D.C. and not visit the incredible monuments.  We took in the quiet dignity of the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials. We joined the throng to climb the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I have a Dream’ speech and read the inscription of the Gettysburg Address. We  gawped at the United States Marines Corps Memorial – depicting bronze men erecting the Stars and Stripes on foreign soil.  Not far from there was the beautiful, peaceful and humbling Arlington Cemetery. Row upon row of white crosses and Stars of David stretch as far as the eye can see, stark white against perfect green grass.  Here we saw the graves of John, Jackie and Bobby Kennedy, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the memorials to the crews of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles.

We ate well in DC. Really well. And highlights included a trip to Ben’s Chili  Bowl, located in U Street which has been open since 1958, survived the race riots and welcomed the United States’ first black President for a bite to eat.  In the meantime it’s seen a load of famous faces…and ours.  With hectic counter-staff and steamy windows, the building is absolutely beautiful, all high-arched ceilings and old diner stools. There’s a sign behind the counter which reads: “Bill Cosby, the Obamas – No one else eats for free”. We ordered the obligatory Half Smoke – a meaty, smoky hot dog covered with spicy chilli – and a plate of squeezy-cheesy chips for a uniquely satisfying lunch in an historic restaurant.

Retro Hotel-a-go-go

We spent a jean-popping night in La Plaza, a Mexican place on Pennsylvania Avenue, filled with kitsch trinkets and happy diners. There we ate bowls of warm nachos in zingy, lime-drenched salsa, chorizo and cheese – a pleasingly melty goop of spicy naughtiness – and gorgeous pork fajitas served with mountains of fresh guacamole.  Oh and the margaritas they served left us swaying and praying for more shots of tequila (which were on the house).

At Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington – the place where the President and Vice President apparently went to toast their historic victory – we scoffed burgers very nearly as big as our heads, so juicy they nearly melted the buns.  Fiery jalapenos, sweet sweet onions and Monterey Jack cheese draped over the hunks of meat. Frankly indecent.

And if all that wasn’t enough we saw giant panda bears, among other species, for free at the National Zoo (the pandas slept and pooped a lot in case you were wondering), saw Ford’s Theater where President Lincoln was assassinated and witnessed Shia LaBeouf filming the latest Transformers movie (that probably isn’t a regular occurrence).  Not to mention strolls along the National Mall and through leafy Georgetown.

Rate the State

Good for: Those on a limited budget, history, politics, tasty and varied dining experiences

Bad for: Traffic, hotels are pricey, some areas feel slightly sketchy

Overall: 8/10

* The Pentagon tour requires you booking well in advance, and if you plan even further ahead you can get tours of the White House as well, though we missed the boat on this.

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