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For the better part of the past two centuries, Washington, DC, has been known for its formal, play-it-safe conservatism. When our powdered-wig-wearing Founding Fathers established the capital, politics was a genteel sport (they chose the Mid-Atlantic location as a gentlemanly compromise to smooth both Northerners' and Southerners' ruffled feathers). Even as the fast-paced, media-fueled wheeling and dealing of modern politicking supplanted the Old World decorum, DC remained largely buttoned up. Today, however, DC is shedding its stuffy image and becoming (gasp!) hip. In the past decade, there's been an influx of residents in their 20s and early 30s who have prompted a boom in fashion-forward boutiques, hot nightlife spots, and stylish hotels. Now cool and cosmopolitan, colonial and conservative all at once, the diamond-shaped city is as glittering and tough as its gemstone counterpart, with as many faces.
Which face of this scintillating metropolis will you experience? It all depends on where you choose to check in, sightsee, dine, party, shop, and relax. If you want to go old school and surround yourself with historic reverence, bed down at one of DC's traditionally elegant hotels. The Willard InterContinental and The Hay-Adams both boast opulent Old World architecture, cream-of-Washington-elite guest registers, and steps-from-the-White-House locations, while The Jefferson, Washington, DC is a positively presidential boutique with décor evocative of Thomas Jefferson's estate Monticello. If you want a peek at a real presidential estate, though, head to Mount Vernon, the sweeping 18th century manor of George Washington. You can also visit his former stomping grounds in Old Town Alexandria, a colonial port that's now a quaint historic and arts district.
To get up close and personal with the political machine of the present day, you'll want to head straight for DC's iconic nodes of influence: the White House (the President's official residence) and the U.S. Capitol building (the seat of government). While tours of the White House are currently on hold due to sequester, you might bump into the President and First Lady at Komi, an intimate Greek-inspired restaurant (favored by the Obamas). Indeed, DC has its share of power restaurants where political alliances are brokered, from classic steakhouse The Palm and upscale French Bistro Bis to clubby saloon Old Ebbitt Grill and lively seafood spot Johnny's Half Shell (deals also get sweetened with cupcakes from The Sweet Lobby, a Capitol Hill bakery). Venerable cocktail spots like Off the Record and Round Robin & Scotch Bar are crawling with politicos too.
If your interest in the capital is more patriotic than partisan, though, DC has plenty to make you proud. Pay homage to architects of democracy at the contemplative Lincoln Memorial and Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Admire American ingenuity at the National Air and Space Museum, the freedom of the press at the Newseum, and American art at the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. Soak up the historic and contemporary Americana featured at the National Museum of American History−everything from Betsy Ross's flag to Carrie Bradshaw's laptop. All this made-in-the-USA stuff will no doubt have you hankering for some homespun American fare. On the casual end, go for a legendary chili dog at 1950s relic Ben's Chili Bowl or munch on BBQ and sip cocktails from mason jars at American Ice Co. On the refined end, enjoy elegant Southern comfort classics at Vidalia or dine surrounded by American antiques at Nora (posh organic) or 1789 (upscale seasonal American). For brunch, don't miss the homemade donuts at the charming Tabard Inn.
Even if DC gets your patriotic pulse going, there's no denying that a great deal of the city's vitality comes from the contributions of those who arrived from beyond US borders. Just check out elegant Embassy Row to see the wide array of foreign ministries that have a presence in DC. To rub elbows with an international crowd, stay at the East-meets-West Mandarin Oriental, Washington DC (and indulge in an Asian-inspired treatment at The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Washington DC) or chic French-inflected Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square. Scope out Chinese and Japanese art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries or peek at Russian imperial portraits and Fabergé eggs at Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens. Hop the globe by dining on creative Mexican at Oyamel, nouveau Indian at Rasika, northern Thai at Little Serow, Japanese kaiseki at Makoto, and traditional Spanish tapas at Estadio or Jaleo. After dark, slip into swank Chi-Cha Lounge for Latin-inspired cocktails and flavored hookahs, or join the sexy young things on the salsa dance floor at Café Citron.
Speaking of sexy young things, you'll definitely want to sample the vibrant cultural offerings favored by DC's hipster set. Trendy boutique hotels at relatively accessible price points, like The Dupont Circle Hotel and the W Washington D.C. (with its hopping P.O.V. Rooftop Lounge & Terrace and fun Bliss spa) are giving more staid, traditional hotels a run for their money. At the top of the hip heap is the collection of Kimpton properties with stylish themes (like the art-themed Hotel Palomar and free-spirited Hotel Helix) and progressive perks (free morning coffee and weekday wine receptions, anyone?). Fan out from your hotel to DC's buzzy neighborhoods to plug into the city's expanding artsy-urban energy.
The U Street corridor is perhaps the newest and buzziest of the bunch, loaded with quirky-cool restaurants like soul food joint Marvin, Mexican cantina El Centro D.F., and bohemian French bistro Café Saint-Ex, as well as chic nightlife options like cozy Cork Wine Bar and sophisticated speakeasy The Gibson. You'll also find hipster hideaways in Dupont Circle, from highbrow Filter Coffeehouse to sultry Eighteenth Street Lounge. Adams Morgan has become a hot nightlife hub with spots like Bourbon and Jack Rose Dining Saloon that mix refinement with the party spirit. Whatever you do, don't forget to dress the part; in the fashionable Georgetown neighborhood, pop into one-stop-designer shops like the Neiman Marcus spinoff CUSP, Barneys New York CO-OP, or Intermix for some trendy duds.
So, it's official: traditionally stodgy DC has loosened a few buttons and−thanks to these global and hipster contingents−revealed its (dare we say) groovy, worldly tendencies, yet it's still managed to preserve the grandeur of its Old World past and the sharp focus of its politicking present. With all of these elements being polished to perfection, it truly seems like this diamond-shaped city's moment to shine. And, in the democratic spirit with which the city was founded, chances are you won't just select one side of DC to savor−we bet you'll find the perfect compromise among its rich and varied elements. Those Founding Fathers would sure be proud.BEEN HERE? SEND US YOUR PHOTOS