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A design editor’s weekender in Washington DC

Cherry Blossoms - Washington DC
Cherry Blossoms - Washington DC

Art, culture, gardens and extraordinary architecture make Washington DC a destination full of surprises. Here’s where to go and what to do in the USA’s capital

For no good reason I had always envisaged Washington DC as a larger, louder Canberra. And granted, there are parallels, but what I hadn’t expected was the absolutely extraordinary grandeur of the architecture and gardens. These effectively work as a frame to the museums and art galleries at a magnificent scale. With collections and curators that are leading the world, the art galleries are particularly inspiring and easily parallel their counterparts in New York and Paris.

As an embassy city the chefs and hotels are beyond exceptional with an extraordinary variety of culinary cultures and styles to choose from. The vibe is jumping, with service extended to bars in most hotels to accommodate walk ins and last-minute reservations. There is however, nothing second rate about this option with staff skilled in silver service endearing themselves to the late-night post-theatre crowds.

Fine Dining

With legendary chefs innovating progressive cuisine, Washington’s food scene is phenomenal. Fabio Trabocchi at Fiola, for example, has shifted the way Italian food is perceived with both Fiola and Fiola Mare receiving Michelin stars. The interior of Fiola is old world stone, but the menu is impressively light and flamboyant with melt-in-the-mouth Oro Nero (ricotta and caviar), a delicious experience of creamy textures and explosions of mild ocean nuance.

Via Sophia, in the Hamilton Hotel (old world exterior, modern interior) is headed up by chef Colin Clark and it comes as no surprise to learn that he came to Via Sophia having honed his trade under Fabio Trabocchi at Fiola. His offering is an exploration of interesting combinations that work beautifully on the palette. Burrata with peas, strawberries and tarragon, for example, excited the senses with colour and visual harmony before perfectly coalescing in flavour. The incredibly subtle grilled octopus with smoked tomato and olives was another well-orchestrated combination. This calibre of American restaurant does dessert well with good variation between light sorbets and heavier chocolate. That said, the coconut sorbet at Fiola was next level with a warm toasted aftertaste contrasting with the freshness on the palette. Interestingly more Caribbean influenced than Asian, there may have even been a rum component balancing the whole.

Cherry Blossoms

The city of Washington DC was gifted the cherry trees by Japan in 1912, and the Tidal Basin (the large inlet lake of the Potomac, which the monuments surround) now hosts nearly four thousand cherry blossom trees. Needless to say, when in flower they are truly spectacular and though the pruning is naturalistic, they are a photographer’s dream for beautifully framing the monuments. With twelve different varieties the season is extended and shifts through phases of white (Yoshino) splashed with pink (Akebono) to a variety of pinks including the double pinks of Kwanzan and Fugenzo. The walkway along the basin edge streams with people through most of the day. This is compounded by festivals timed to coincide with the most floriferous periods. However, early morning is relatively people free with locals enjoying their city.

National Gallery of Art

Spanning twenty-five acres of gallery space, and a collection to rival the louvre, Prada and Met, this is a gallery of monumental calibre. Attracting the best curators from around the world, including Australian Lynne Cooke, the exhibition program (such as the recent Rothko, and forthcoming Paris 1874: The Impressionist Moment), while all free to the public, is prodigious to say the very least. That said, the gallery collection is astounding with, for example, seventy-five artworks by Lionardo da Vinci held in the collection including Ginevra de’Benci. This astounding work to rival the Mona Lisa and slightly predating it, is completely accessible and without the crowds of the Louvre. The gallery has just short of four million visitors a year. PS: the gallery café is excellent and a great place to spot the abundance of fossils in the terrazzo floor.

National Arboretum

With fourteen kilometres of winding paths over around two hundred hectares, the National Arboretum is a breath of fresh air. The trees are magnificent, the lawns perfectly sloped for lounging and the trails are scenic. However, be warned there is nowhere to lunch! Most hotels will pack a picnic for you and you will need to book a return car, but it is well worth it for the rambling aesthetic that is so very different to Washington DC more generally. (Perennials are starting to appear along the National Mall, but for the main it is lawns, roads and buildings.)

The Arboretum is also home to the columns of the National Capitol. Without a portico, these twenty-two Corinthian columns make for a grand sculptural presence. The Bonsai collection is likewise impressive with the oldest tree a veteran of four-hundred-years. Also home to some magnificent cherry trees, the season is slightly ahead of the Basin, but this means the avenue of Magnolias are in bloom, so a treat none the less.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

The extraordinary building designed by architectural group Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup (FAB), comprises an incredibly beautiful bronzed steel veil surrounding a glass case. Officially opened in 2016 by the then President Barack Obama, the Smithsonian institute is affectionately known as the Blacksonian. Separated in to cultural genres across history, music, fashion and sport, this is the most alive a museum can be with pictures and objects, film, music, speeches, inventions and struggle all overlapping and telling a profound story. In museum circles it is almost radically good fun with George Clinton’s P Funk Mothership sitting alongside Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, James Brown’s cape and the black lace and rust satin cocktail dress worn by Billie Holiday.

Accommodation

As an Embassy town, the Nation Capital, and home to the FBI (you can visit with application five months in advance), hotel accommodation in Washington DC is generally excellent. All of the luxury brands are well represented, as well as some interesting places such as Hotel Zena. As the name suggests the theme is powerful women, but it is explored through art with most pieces interesting and harmonious to the whole. (On that note, the National Gallery of Women in the Arts houses an international collection of extraordinary artworks.) More typical to Washington accommodation, the linen is premium and the rooms are abundantly comfortable, well designed and with views across the park.

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