Travel: Quick Weekend Getaways: Washington, DC

As I prepared for an escape to Washington, D.C., my weekend was shaping up to be a study in contrasts. That seemed appropriate, since the capital is both a history lesson and a vibrant urban playground, with monuments and Civil War-era architecture rubbing shoulders with the energy of Georgetown and the adrenaline-juiced politicos who flood the downtown restaurants. Everything, it seemed, could be split into old school and new, so I lined up two hotels—one brand-new, the other like a live-in luxury museum. Then I stumbled across another contrast that hit even closer to home, a theme of divergence that plays out in cities all across the country where folks vacation.

I wanted to see triceratops bones, Native American weaponry, samurai armor and the space shuttle Enterprise.

My girlfriend wanted to shop.

Together, but with slightly separate agendas, we drove down on a Saturday morning and left our car and bags at the Mandarin Oriental, a hotel so recently opened that you expect to see price tags on the furniture. Commerce would wait until tomorrow, though. Since we were already in the city’s southwest quad (as with Philly’s Broad and Market, D.C. is divided by Capital Street and Constitution Avenue), we headed to the new World War II Memorial. Bookended by the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument, it looks like something lifted from Athens, with a grand ring of stone columns for each of the 50 states. After a careful, heads-down walk along the Reflecting Pool (they clearly edited out all the duck poo for that scene in Forrest Gump), we caught a cab to the just-opened National Museum of the Native American. Unfortunately, the stunning building was more stimulating from the outside than inside, where it suffered from poor organization (artifacts were scattered instead of presented in chronology or by tribe) and a lack of energy.

At the National Museum of Natural History, my dinosaur jones was well served, and, to be fair, my girlfriend was interested in much more than just the Hope Diamond. In fact, we both could have spent the entire weekend touring the Smithsonian empire along the Mall—including the Air & Space Museum, which offers a shuttle to the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, where the space shuttle, the Enola Gay, and a fleet of other aircraft are on display. As closing time approached at the museum, we headed back to our hotel before dinner. The Mandarin impressed from the front door, where the bellman remembered our names, to the room itself, decorated in salmon, beige and brown, and with a huge, marble-tiled bath.

That night, local friends joined us for dinner at Ceiba, a popular Latin American restaurant in the heart of downtown. Sugarcane-skewered shrimp and blackened yellowfin tuna were big hits, as were the mojitos. Afterward, we ventured to nearby hot spot Zaytinya for drinks. The fruity retsina cocktail earned high marks, but unless you’re there for dinner or looking to pick up a lawyer, it can be a chaotic scene.

The next day was her day, and shopping was its order. We took a taxi to the Eastern Market, a bazaar along 7th Street between North Carolina and C Street bursting with cultural art (a Mongolian watercolorist, African-American jewelry makers, Asian photographers) and a food station reminiscent of Reading Terminal. (If you’re there on a Saturday morning, hunt for a seat at the Market Lunch and savor the blueberry pancakes.)

Once she, er, we were fully armed with candles and a sparkling turquoise brooch, we crossed town to the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. This was all boutiques and chain stores, though some of those, my shopinista informed me, are worth the visit no matter where they’re found—including Kate Spade, Paper Source, and Lush, advertised as a “cosmetic deli.”

With bags in tow, we retreated to our other hotel, the historic Hay Adams. A recent $18 million makeover enhanced the Hay but didn’t modernize it, and that’s a good thing. Each room is meticulously decorated, and everything from the pillow-covered bed to the toilet-seat warmer is the height of early 20th-century elegance. If you score a room on the sixth floor or higher, you might have a view of the White House across the street. (But it’ll cost you—suites can be as much as $5,500 a night.) Our long day of shopping was capped off with an early dinner at Galileo—the only four-star D.C. Italian restaurant in Washingtonian’s dining roundup last year—where we took advantage of the pre-theater prix fixe for $33 each. Chef Roberto Donna’s homemade gnocchi and sea-bass-filled ravioli were impressive, but the expansive, bland room didn’t quite make for the cozy dinner we’d hoped for.

The next afternoon, I spotted Curt Schilling, still on crutches after his World Series win, checking out of the Hay Adams. Minutes before, a senator had strolled in for lunch. Pitchers and politicians inhabiting the same space, both perfectly at ease—one last study of opposites in a weekend full of them, and made all the better for it.

Mandarin Oriental, 1330 Maryland Avenue S.W., 202-554-8588; Rooms from $495 to $645; suites $950 to $8,000.

Hay Adams, 16th and H streets N.W., 202-
638-6600; Rooms from $385.

Ceiba, 701 14th Street N.W., 202-393-3983; Dinner for two, about $90 with drinks.

Galileo, 1110 21st Street N.W., 202-293-7191; Dinner for two, about $155 with wine.

World War II Memorial, 17th Street between Constitution and Independence avenues; Free.

National Museum of the American Indian, 4th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., 202-633-1000; Free.

National Museum of Natural History, Constitution Avenue and 10th Street N.W., 202-633-1000; Free.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Virginia, 202-633-1000; Free; parking $12; round-trip shuttles from D.C. $9 to $12.

Eastern Market, 7th Street between C Street and North Carolina Avenue S.E.; 202-544-0083. Year-round; free.

Travel Time: 1:47 (by train)