It’s a surprisingly eclectic city. I didn’t expect it to have quite as much personality as it did. The fact is, the little I remember of DC from my first visit over six years ago is of pearly monuments, intimidating government buildings, stately homes and men running around in almost 90 degree heat still fully kitted out in suits and ties.
This time around, I experienced a little bit more of the real DC, the city that tourists miss in their desperation to get the perfect shot of the White House.
The Global Power Player
Most people’s perceptions of Washington DC come from drama filled TV shows like Scandal, The West Wing or Designated Survivor. Standing below the south lawn of the White House looking at the lights on in the residence in the early evening, it is hard not to wonder what exactly goes on behind those mysterious walls – especially with such an erratic president currently sitting behind the Resolute desk. Without diving into politics, I think it’s safe to say that everyone seems to be constantly puzzling over what is going to come out of President Trump’s mouth next. Or rather, what his next tweet will be.
DC is one of the most high-powered cities in the world. It is the seat of some of the most globally influential people and organisations. It is nothing short of fascinating – especially to an outsider. Not that I can figure out how it works. American politics continues to mystify me. I’m not even sure the politicians themselves fully understand what is going on in the government half the time. Speaking with two former politicians, who I won’t name here, was an interesting experience. Eye opening is the only way to describe it. Not because I understood half of what they were discussing (I definitely tried to pretend to, but I’m not sure I pulled it off), but because of their attitudes towards the current and recent political climate. What I heard were tales of a broken system and power hungry politicians. Sure, it isn’t anything like Scandal, but it is definitely twisted in its own way.
Not that there aren’t any white knights left in the capital. No need to completely lose hope for the future of mankind. There are plenty of people working to make a difference. Yes, that sounds cheesy. But, yes, it’s the only way to describe organisations like Africare or Bread for the World. DC is home to hundreds of NGOs and international organisations trying to tackle some of the world's deep seated issues in an effort to bring about profound change.
The Tourist Magnet
The nation’s capital was built to impress. The gleaming monuments to American heroes offset by vivid green lawns and pink Japanese cherry blossoms; it all makes DC one of the most beautiful and memorable cities the US has to offer.
Everywhere you turn there is a towering monument or museum. The National Mall stretching almost two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building is surrounded by buildings and monuments dedicated to America’s history and achievements. Crowding every street are flocks of tourists fumbling for their cameras and ogling some of the nation’s most iconic structures. And they are iconic for a reason. DC is extraordinarily beautiful. It is a city that was built to rival the historic prestige and beauty of Europe’s most famous capitals.
I don’t like to play favourites, but nothing can quite compete with the Library of Congress. Walking up the dramatic sweeping stairway that would make Cinderella swoon, I didn’t know what to expect. What I found astonished me. Gleaming mosaics surrounded by polished marble. Built in the 1890s, the elaborate library rivals Europe’s most over the top buildings. And it is clear where the architects got their inspiration. The Library of Congress is the spitting image of Charles Garnier’s monumental Parisian opera house. As they say, imitation is the surest form of flattery.
It’s incredible how much wealth has been poured into the capital over the past two hundred years. Even more shocking is how much poverty remains. The city has one of the largest homeless populations in the country and it shows. Next to the freshly manicured lawns hover people begging for change. It seems the city is more concerned about taking care of its image than its residents. Though I guess that shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But it is a reminder of the cost of keeping such a beautiful city alive.
The Local Hideaways
Like every city that suffers year round tourist invasions, the locals have carved out their own territory to enjoy. Despite all of the grandeur of the Mall and its surrounding area, my favourite part of DC was a small neighbourhood called Adams Morgan. Only a ten-minute walk from my hotel, I would easily never have discovered it had a DC student not let me in on the local secret.
Adams Morgan is a colourful mix of interesting restaurants, cafes and small local shops. Since the mid twentieth century it has been a haven for activists, immigrants and DC’s small concentration of artists. The result is one of the most fun, interesting and culturally diverse areas of DC. At night the streets really come alive, strung with lights and live music pouring into the street from the area’s many bars and clubs.
From the modern Korean eatery Bul to the quaint Al Volo Osteria, the area is full of delicious food from every corner of the globe. The streets are full of vintage and boutique stores, gluten free bakeries, intriguing coffee shops, and one of my personal favourites, an artsy café, bar and record store hybrid. The Songbyrd Café is definitely not something to be missed. Starbucks and McDonalds may have infiltrated the area in recent years but the area has stayed true to its unique and certainly eclectic identity. If you want to see the best of the real DC, this is it.
Photography by Savannah Hayes
Top: Executive Eisenhower Building
Middle: The Capitol Building; Downtown DC
Bottom: Adams Morgan