The most important thing to keep in mind when visiting Washington is that you're going to have to make some choices. You just can't do everything.
Washington has about as many museums as the Met has rooms, and there are more beautiful neighborhoods here that can be walked in a week.
Luckily for New Yorkers, Washington is only a three-hour train ride away-or a 45-minute flight, if you prefer to take advantage of airfares under $55-so you don't have to go just once. In that sense, Washington makes a perfect destination for a long weekend: It's not too far, there's plenty to see, and you can go in pretty much any season or weather.
Having been to Washington numerous times before but never really as a tourist, I started out my three-day trip to the nation's capital in Georgetown, a brick-sidewalk neighborhood with tree-lined streets and picturesque homes dating back to the Colonial era.
Georgetown and nearby Foggy Bottom, both easily accessible on the Metro, also represent the locus of Jewish life in Washington. The capital's most centrally located synagogue, Kesher Israel (2801 N Street NW, 202 333-2337), is in the neighborhood, and if you show up for Saturday-morning services you may be able to wish a "Good Shabbos" to this Orthodox shul's most famous member, Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
The area is also a good place to stop for lunch if you keep kosher-or if you simply have a craving for a decent pastrami sandwich. Eli's Restaurant (1253 20th St. NW, 202 785-4314) at Dupont Circle is the capital's only kosher restaurant, though there are several other eateries in the Maryland suburbs and kosher food at the cafes of the local JCC and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
From Dupont Circle, you're only a hop, skip and a jump away from the capital's most famous pavilion, the National Mall, which remains impressive no matter how many times you've been there. If you're with a first-timer, or if you've never been to Washington before, this makes for an excellent introduction to Washington-and to America. It's beautiful, it's historical and it's walkable, and you can choose whether to spend a half hour meditating on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, take a picnic in the central greenway, or move quickly through the memorials to foreign wars.
My first indoor stop was at the Library of Congress, the world's largest collection of books and other printed materials. The library has 130 million items on approximately 530 miles of bookshelves, including 29 million books, 58 million manuscripts, 12 million photographs, 4.8 million maps and 2.7 million recordings. Unfortunately, you can't really see too many of them, because the interior of this research library, while open to members of the public who register, is not part of the tour.
However, the tour does include fascinating rotating exhibitions and grand halls decorated with intricately designed works of art, including meticulously painted portraits, statuettes and friezes. The library's main building was constructed in 1897 and is one of the capital's most majestic.
The library is situated across the street from the Capitol, the famous building at Washington's figurative and physical core. Members of the public interested in a tour of the halls of Congress must obtain tickets, which are free (see http://www.house.gov/house/tour_services.shtml).
I was surprised by how small the House and Senate chambers actually are-the House chamber looks much bigger on TV when you watch the President's annual State of the Union address-and by how little actually goes on there. Much more interesting were the halls and back rooms of Congress, filled with works of art, statues of our nation's founders and some political personages we'd probably rather forget, and Washington's living, breathing wheeler-dealers. And who knew there was an underground tram for Congress' lazier members?
A new visitor's center currently under construction at the Capitol will add one more must-see to Washington's endless list of tourist sites.
Other sites on my list included:
· The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, a big hit with kids of all ages;
· The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum-which requires a certain mood;
· The National Gallery of Art, whose collection is spread out over multiple buildings;
· The Newseum, a museum of news;
· and the relatively new International Spy Museum, which I'm told is a lot of fun but which I was unable to fit into my busy schedule.
Rather than overdoing it on museums and monuments, I preferred to meander around Washington's neighborhoods, taking in the capital's glory and beauty at my own pace and whim.
A 29-foot wooden bench in the Blue Duck Tavern restaurant was built especially for the hotel by Vermont woodcrafter Timothy Clark, in keeping with the Park Hyatt's Americana theme. Fresh ice cream is made daily at the hotel's restaurant, where diners can choose to sit in view of the eatery's completely open kitchen or in one of four glass boxes where Washington insiders can dine while "being seen but not heard"-perfect for wheeler-dealers in a city where a single misspoken word can ruin a career.
As for the rooms themselves, comfort is an understatement.
The experience at the Park Hyatt-first built 18 years ago but now newly reopened after a two-year, $24 million renovation-is noticeably distinctive from the moment you step into the hotel. Rather than have to wait at the elegantly minimalist check-in desk upon arrival, a receptionist shows guests to their room and dispenses with the entire irritating check-in ritual.
The rooms are luxurious and beautiful. I stayed in a lavish Park Deluxe room, a 618-square foot suite separated into a work area and a bedroom, which made my Manhattan apartment look like a derelict closet (though that may say more about my apartment than the hotel).
The work area has an expansive desk, flat-screen television, relaxing chairs and its own bathroom, not to mention high-speed internet. On the other side of the door, the spacious bedroom preserves the hotel's modernist feel with clean-cut lines, dimming lights and sleek night tables. Yet the supremely comfortable bed-with high-threadcount sheets and perfect mattress and pillows-gives the room a very comfortable, homey feel.
The lack of clutter extends to the sizeable bathroom, where towels are stored in wicker baskets under the sink and toiletries are stowed away in a simple bamboo box. The stone-sunk bathtub and glass-and-stone shower, where you can use rainfall flow or the conventional showerhead, makes the bathroom feel like your own personal spa. Bath amenities like shower gels, shampoo and conditioner are, of course, designed exclusively for the hotel by the Park Hyatt's Parisian perfumer, Blaise Mautin.
If you manage to leave your room-there is, after all, a site or two in Washington that may might interest tourists-you can get a ride in the hotel's complimentary 2007 Audi A8 L sedan to anywhere in the capital. Reservations are neither required nor accepted.
While Washington has plenty of luxury accommodations, this carefully considered 215-room hotel is a welcome change from the unmemorable, interchangeable hotel rooms that cover the expanse of our variegated country. And while it may seem quite apart from most U.S. hotels, the unique Americana at the Park Hyatt in Washington offers a fresh perspective on what it is to be American.