Washington's famous cherry blossoms date back to 1912. That year, as the nation geared up for a presidential race, the mayor of Tokyo presented the national capital with 3,000 cherry trees. This simple diplomatic gift has grown to become one of the city’s most formidable economic engines: An estimated one million people now visit Washington, D.C., during the two-week National Cherry Blossom Festival (nationalcherryblossomfestival.org; March 28–April 12 in 2009).
This spring, as those pale pink flowers bloom and are scattered by gusts of wind, Washington is once again adapting to change. In addition to a new (and historic) administration, there are new museums, fresh cultural attractions, hip clothing shops and nationally recognized restaurants—even in staid old Georgetown. It feels as if this old city is finally beginning to blossom.
MUSEUMS, CLASSIC AND NEW
Spring is the prettiest time to visit the National Mall, home to many of the city’s imposing cultural institutions. Conveniently located by the Washington Monument, the Corcoran Gallery of Art (500 17th St. NW; 202-639-1700; corcoran.org; $6) is often considered the city’s first museum dedicated to fine art. While it specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American and European works, the Corcoran also hosts top-notch international exhibitions like 2006’s acclaimed “Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939.” Curators also organize breakthrough shows like the recent exhibit of Richard Avedon portraits.
Farther east is the year-old National Museum of Crime & Punishment (575 Seventh St. NW; 202-393-1099; crimemuseum.org; $18), which chronicles the history of bad guys from Blackbeard to John Wayne Gacy. Permanent exhibitions include a reproduction of Al Capone’s prison cell and the notorious Tennessee Electric Chair dubbed Old Smokey.
The Newseum, an interactive museum dedicated to journalism, opened its elaborate Pennsylvania Avenue digs last summer (555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 888-639-7386; newseum.org; $20). Inside you’ll find a Cold War–era East German checkpoint guard tower (imported from Berlin) and an exhibition dedicated to 9/11, showcasing the mangled broadcast antenna from the top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
A block or so away, the beloved National Gallery of Art (401 Constitution Ave. NW; 202-737-4215; nga.gov; free) lays claim to one of the best Old Masters collections in the world, as well as a garden dedicated to modern sculpture. The gallery’s West Building is a neoclassical icon designed by John Russell Pope, with a rotunda inspired by the Pantheon. The East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, is instantly recognizable for its modern H-shaped façade.
At the eastern end of the Mall is the new $600-million Capitol Visitor Center, which officials believe will help double the number of tourists. Built three levels below ground to avoid diminishing the stately approach to the Capitol, the 580,000-square-foot complex is the new starting point for Capitol tours. You can grab a bite at the restaurant or browse one of two gift shops while waiting to take the popular—and free—guided tour (visitthecapitol.gov; no Sunday tours).
Georgetown is considered D.C.’s answer to New York’s SoHo. Its main drag, M Street, and the surrounding streets are lined with high-end stores. Wink (3109 M St. NW; 202-338-9465; shopwinkdc.com) and Sugar (1633 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-5331; shopsugardc.com) are two popular fashion boutiques that sell everything from designer jeans to Diane von Furstenberg dresses. For housewares, try A Mano (1677 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-298-7200; amano.bz). For jewelry and handbags, the best bet is Nido (1425 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-5445; nidodc.com). And don’t miss the shops at Georgetown Park (3222 M St. NW; shopsatgeorgetownpark.com), home to retail chains like Anthropologie and Intermix, and the Georgetown Flea Market (1819 35th St. NW; georgetownfleamarket.com), where you can shop for antiques and vintage wares.
Another gem of this neighborhood, the 10-acre Dumbarton Oaks Gardens (1703 32nd St. NW; 202-339-6409; doaks.org; $8), is at its prime this time of year. The refuge is ideal for a random meditative stroll, or you can follow the petite guidebook bestowed upon arrival through exquisite gardens with names like Lilac Circle and the Herbaceous Border. Cherry Hill, on a slope at the foot of the garden, is—not surprisingly—a sea of cherry trees in an assortment of species.
EATS ALONG THE WAY
Hook, the area’s trendiest restaurant since opening in 2006, is about as hip as conservative Georgetown can get. The jumbo-sized photographs of fish are a nod to Hook’s sustainable-minded seafood menu. While devotees swear by the crudo menu, the Barramundi entrée is the favorite dish. Also in Georgetown, Leopold’s Kafe & Konditorei serves Austrian specialties in an uber-modern environment (think Viennese art gallery), which extends into a lovely garden.
Just north of the recently opened Georgetown Waterfront Park (a 10-acre multiuse park on the Potomac, with prime views of Virginia) is the Roof Terrace, an Art Deco–inspired restaurant at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The unassuming Café La Ruche, near the Potomac, serves excellently prepared classic Parisian favorites like croquet monsieur, chicken Cordon Bleu and an unforgettable strawberry tart.
The Source, adjacent to the Newseum, is one of the latest restaurants in celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s empire. The bar’s tapas-style menu is perfect for lunch, with contemporary dishes like spicy tuna tartare and prime beef sliders with white cheddar. And in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, grab a bite at the Ritz-Carlton’s new Westend Bistro. Despite the posh digs, the lunch menu is affordable. (Hint: The salmon rillette appetizer is a winner.)
Finally, there’s Central Michel Richard, which took home the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2008. The vibe here is more casual than owner Michel Richard’s other restaurant, the legendary Citronelle, but the French-leaning menu is no less fabulous. Standouts include braised rabbit with spaetzle and a “faux gras” terrine, an inspired and low-cost riff on the haute staple.
After an early dinner, catch the Capitol Steps (capsteps.com) at the nearby Ronald Reagan Building (1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW). This troupe of Beltway-savvy comedians performs political satires and musical numbers every Friday and Saturday night. Their mantra? “We put the MOCK in democracy.” It’s a refreshingly humorous—and well-timed—take on a conservative city that seems to be embracing a little joie de vivre.
CENTRAL MICHEL RICHARD
1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW;
571-213-6868; dinner for two, $80*
575 Pennsylvania Ave. NW;
202-637-6100; dinner for two, $100;
chef’s seven-course or vegetarian
tasting with wine, $125 per person;
prix-fixe lunch, $35 per person
1190 22nd St. NW; 202-974-4914;
dinner for two, $100
3241 M St. NW; 202-625-4488;
dinner for two, $110
LEOPOLD'S KAFE & KONDITOREI
3318 M St. NW; 202-965-6005;
dinner for two, $80
CAFÉ LA RUCHE
1039 31st St. NW; 202-965-2684;
dinner for two, $55; brunch for two, $22
ROOF TERRACE RESTAURANT & BAR
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing
Arts, 2700 F St. NW; 202-416-8555;
dinner for two, $90
*Unless otherwise stated, prices cover a
three-course meal for two, not including
drinks, tax or tip.
RCI-AFFILIATED RESORTS NEAR WASHINGTON INCLUDE:WOODSTONE AT MASSANUTTEN, McGaheysville, VA*
THE SUMMIT AT MASSANUTTEN, McGaheysville, VA
EAGLE TRACE AT KILLY COURT, McGaheysville, VA
*McGaheysville is in the Shenandoah Valley, about a 2½-hour drive from Washington, D.C.
For more information,
visit RCI.com or call
HOTEL MONACO WASHINGTON, D.C.
On the site of the old post office in the
gentrified Penn Quarter, the 184-room
Monaco is the city’s top design-minded
hotel. 700 F. St. NW; 800-546-7866;
monaco-dc.com; doubles from $409
Within walking distance of the White
House, this historic 145-room hotel
offers great views and stately glamour.
800 16th St. NW; 800-424-5054;
hayadams.com; doubles from $435
With only 82 rooms, this hip Dupont Circle
boutique hotel has an intimate, residential
feel. 1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW;
doubles from $319
Designed to mimic the style of a modern
townhouse, the 86-room Ritz makes you
immediately feel at home, albeit with the
Ritz-Carlton’s world-class, personalized
service. 3100 South St. NW; 800-542-
8680; ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $629
This dignified 332-room landmark evokes
Old Washington and is a block from the
Mall. 1402 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 800-
doubles from $587
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.