Washington, D.C.

House of Cards

Political power fills the air, but the capital of the United States is also an epicenter of college life, cultural opportunities, and good times, as seen in the city’s stylish restaurants, bars, and neighborhoods.

Text: ANNA VECIANA @AnnaVeciana    photos: ANDREW PROPP
       

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Washington, D.C., is more than just the U.S. capital; it’s the focal point of the international political scene, the setting for decisions that affect the entire world. This multicultural city of 600,000 is a blend of the most influential think tanks, beautiful embassies, and international organizations. It’s a melting pot of diplomats, scientists, artists, politicians, and journalists capable of catching the eye of any traveler.

The District of Colombia is also full of world-class museums (led by the Smithsonian Institution), vibrant college life (especially in the lovely Georgetown neighborhood), and interesting architecture that dazzles visitors who use the city as a hub for the entire U.S. east coast.

 

The Netflix Effect

The hit show House of Cards has made D.C. more fashionable than ever. Allthough most of the filming takes place in Maryland, the Netflix series showcases a mix of the city’s characters and locations. But the show’s shadowy tone has little to do with the bright spirit of this magnificent city. Miami, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles may come to mind first when you’re planning a vacation, but more and more tourists are flocking to the capital. The House of Cards effect? It may be.

 

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Jefferson Memorial    //    Old Executive Building

 

Beyond the Capitol Building, the White House, or the Pentagon, transnational institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund bring life to Washington, thanks to their practice of hiring young professionals. And it’s these transplants, along with students working towards their graduate degrees, who lend the city’s streets, restaurants, and bars an air of cool.

The notion of a town populated entirely by bureaucrats evaporates the minute you walk down 14th Street. Over the past two years, this area has become the hippest part of the capital, where young people rent luxurious studios, eat at expensive restaurants, and party the night away.

Along this extremely long street, you’ll find some key landmarks for understanding the country’s history, including the Ronald Reagan Building and Liberty Square. And if you reach the stretch between C Street and H Street, with a little luck you might spot President Obama flying overhead in his helicopter Marine One on his way to Andrews Air Force Base or perhaps stopping traffic with a convoy of black limousines and SUVs as he heads home to the White House.

 

Power Tapas

A stone’s throw from the presidential residence is Old Ebbitt Grill, one of the most iconic bars in Washington, D.C. Open since 1856, this haven of dark wooden paneling has welcomed legendary historical figures, including former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding. Ebbitt is the permanent residence of politicians, officials, and journalists. It’s worth the effort to get up early and stake out a place at one of the tables to witness the boisterous scene at breakfast, as the whispers and conversations suggest a deal is always being made.

Nine blocks north of Ebbitt is one of the most popular locations of the Barcelona Wine Bar chain, which serves up Spanish culinary classics from Serrano ham to Galician octopus: this is the place for power tapas. Restaurants preferred by the President and First Lady include The Source, Blue Duck Tavern, Tosca, and Equinox.

 

  • Barcelona Wine Bar // Blue Duck Tavern

 

And, of course, one of the city’s most entertaining embassies belongs to Cuba. In the heart of this stylish mansion, the Hemingway Bar offers mojitos, rum, and Cohiba cigars. You’ll need an invitation, however.

Beyond the exclusive embassy walls, power extends as far as the city’s hair salons. Take Diego d’Ambrosio, an Italian native and proprietor of the famed Diego’s Hair Salon since 1961. It’s a sensory experience from the bell on the door announcing new visitors, to the aroma of good Italian coffee and shampoo, to the heat of hair dryers, to the music of Luciano Pavarotti in the background. But don’t let that distract you: this is where the real power players come for haircuts, including President Obama himself.

 

Bar Confessions

The city’s hotels, lobbies, bars, and terraces are also interesting spots. And one of these bars is in The Hay-Adams, a historic hotel that opened its doors in 1928. The walls are decorated with political caricatures at Off the Record, perfectly suited for a refuge where the city’s most influential figures come to let down their guard. It’s a place to see and be seen, in hushed tones. If House of Cards protagonist Frank Underwood were up to something, there’s little doubt he’d make a stop at Off the Record.

 

Bar Off the Record del Hotel Hay-Adams. //  Willard Hotel

Off the Record, the bar at The Hay-Adams hotel.   //   Willard Hotel 

There’s also the popular terrace known as Top of the Hay, where the cocktails and conversations are set against a spectacular view of the White House. Visitors should also pay a visit to The Mayflower Hotel and its acclaimed bar, where low lighting creates an atmosphere of silence and anonymity. Its charms are such that former President Harry Truman once called it the best spot in town, after the White House.

The roads to success also pass through The Willard. This hotel’s Round Robin & Scotch Bar has attracted power players since the time of Abraham Lincoln. Legend has it that Ulysses S. Grant would often come here to smoke and drink brandy after his election as President in 1869. When people approached to buy him a drink and then inundate him with requests for favors, a fed-up Grant started calling them “lobbyists,” a term that is still used today.

When you’ve had your fill of pomp and circumstance and want to enjoy something simpler in nature, visit the shops of Georgetown in the afternoon or, when the spring begins to thaw out the snow, sit down for a cold beer and slice of pizza at a bar on Dupont Circle. Power may be a potent tourist attraction, but we all yearn for the pleasures of relaxation and the bustle of a city that is more vibrant than ever. in

 

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