WASHINGTON — Now that our elected officials have avoided a shutdown of the federal government, it is safe for travelers to head to Washington. The nation's capital is the perfect place for a long weekend of museum visits and serious dining. If you have 48 hours, you can do D.C. in high style.
Day 1: If you plan your arrival for early afternoon, you have time to check into your hotel before heading to Georgetown, a neighborhood of impressive Federal-style mansions. One of these, Dumbarton Oaks, site of a 1944 conference that gave birth to the United Nations, has an especially storied history (Doaks.org.) The 19th- century mansion was the residence of John C. Calhoun, the nation's seventh vice president and later a U.S senator for South Carolina. Today, the mansion is a museum specializing in Byzantine and pre-Colombian art and European masterpieces.
The museum is interesting, but the gardens are the real draw. Situated on 10 acres and laid out in terraces, they are spectacular in March, April and May, when blooms include double snowdrops, daffodils, dwarf iris, grape hyacinths, Star of Bethlehem and bluebells.
For dinner, book a table at PS7, a stunning space on the edge of Chinatown. Chef Peter Smith, who can lay claim to having prepared a meal at a base camp on Mount Everest, is partial to the influence of Asian street food in his cuisine, but that hasn't stopped him from creating the Capitol's Top Dog — a hot dog garnished with house-made tomato confit, pickle relish and mustard. Members of Congress often can be spotted there, munching on a dog.
Smith's counterpart at the bar, mixologist Gina Chersevani, is as playful with ingredients as Smith is, using peppery nasturtium flowers and baby figs in her award-winning cocktails.
There's no better place to end the evening than Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel, within a stone's throw of the White House. The Willard has many footnotes to the nation's history: President Abraham Lincoln holding staff meetings in front of the lobby fireplace; Julia Ward Howe being inspired to write the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic after hearing Union soldiers singing John Brown's Body outside her bedroom window; and Martin Luther King Jr. composing his "I Have a Dream" speech while a guest there in 1963.
Perhaps of most interest to Kentuckians is that it was in the Round Robin that Henry Clay mixed the capital's first mint julep in the 1840s, and the julep, using Clay's recipe, is still the signature drink.
Day 2: You can't go wrong at any of the Smithsonian's storied museums, but if you haven't been to the newest, the National Museum of the American Indian (AmericanIndian.si.edu), you're in for a treat. At the Capitol end of the National Mall, the stunning building was designed by members of the Blackfeet, Cherokee/Choctaw and Hopi tribes, and it features symbols reflecting the Native American universe.
Spread over four levels, the museum is a moving account of the indigenous experience in the Americas, from Alaska and the Yukon to Peru and Chile. The U.S. exhibits tell the stories of current tribal members and those of Apache chiefs Geronimo, Cochise and Mangas Colorado, and Sioux warrior Crazy Horse. The tale begins in the impressive Lelawi Theater, where it unfolds on three levels — the domed ceiling, four screens and a glowing replica of a fire that reflects tribal images. After your visit, wander the grounds, which were designed by a Native American ethno-botanist who has incorporated Chesapeake Bay wetlands and 40 Grandfather Rocks, symbolizing the long relationship of Native Americans to the natural world.
By now, you're probably in need of sustenance, so head for the Park Hyatt Hotel in the Foggy Bottom District for afternoon tea. The hotel lobby, featuring glass box sculptures etched with images of cherry trees, sets the stage for an extraordinary tea experience. The hotel might be one of the few that has a tea concierge to guide you.
Forget those Earl Greys and English Breakfast teas; the Park Hyatt's tea flight will introduce you to Blood Orange Green, White Dragon and Emperor's Chocolate Elixir, which, I swear, smells just like a Snicker's bar. If bourbon and champagne have their premium brands, so does tea: Try the 1978 Vintage Reserve Cage Aged pu-erh from the Chinese province of Yunnan, which is aged for 25 years. By the time you finish your luxurious tasting, you'll agree with British poet Colley Cibber that the custom of tea time is but an "innocent pretense for bringing the wicked of both sexes together."
Spend a few hours relaxing or sightseeing, then have dinner at Acadiana Restaurant. Chef Jeff Tunks, who also runs D.C. Coast and Tenpenh, spent many years in New Orleans, and he has brought the essence of the bayou to the Beltway, with a rich gumbo of Creole and Cajun dishes. Try the crispy pork boudin balls with Creole mustard, followed by blackened redfish, barbecued shrimp, or grits and grillades. In addition, Acadiana has an awe- inspiring collection of bourbons; Tunks recently was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in recognition of his promotion of the commonwealth's native spirit.
Day 3: Even if you're not a news junkie, you should plan a morning at the Newseum (newseum.org), an interactive museum where five centuries of news history combines with up-to-the-second technology. The six levels of exhibits have something to appeal to everyone — kids will love the TV studio, where they can practice their anchor skills, and adults will feel a pang of nostalgia at seeing the replica of the office of the late Meet the Press anchorman Tim Russert.
Some of the displays are gut-wrenching: exhibits about Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the montage of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, including the massacre at My Lai and the self-immolation of Buddhist monks. Some are charming — the gallery focusing on the canine companions of first families, from a lithograph showing George Washington with his American foxhound to the Obamas' dog, Bo. Others are just plain informative — the multimedia presentation showing the candid moments of chief executives and their families in pictures taken by White House photographers, and a large map of the world, illustrating the level of press freedom in all the world's countries. I was amazed to discover that the African nation of Mali was color-coded green, indicating a completely free press, while Italy was yellow, for a partly free press, the result of a clampdown by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Other fascinating exhibits include a portion of the Berlin Wall, a memorial for journalists killed while on assignment, and the role of the media in Hollywood films. Plan to spend at least three hours here.
Before heading to the airport to catch a late- afternoon flight, enjoy a leisurely lunch at Brasserie Beck, where acclaimed chef Robert Wiedmaier specializes in Belgian cuisine. If you wonder what constitutes Belgian cuisine, think steamed mussels with white wine, garlic and parsley, served with Belgian frites; beef carbonnade stew, enhanced with Kasteel beer; or roasted rabbit loin in Framboise beer. Speaking of beer, it wouldn't be Belgian without it, and Brasserie Beck offers 130 types.