In the age of post-tourism, we all want to feel like locals. But in Washington, I decide to own my visitor's badge. Because, as much as you think it's all familiar, you can't help but gawk at the sights – especially when the President is one of them.
I arrive on a humid Tuesday, and step out the door of the Dupont Circle Hotel, in a historic section of northwest Washington. Despite the 98 F weather, young women are dressed in tailored skirts and light blouses, gents right out of grad school wear shirts and ties, jackets slung over their shoulders. The worker bees talk into cellphones and carry briefcases, and suddenly I feel like a lucky slacker in my flip-flops and linen shorts. Welcome to D.C., where it's hip to be square.
Despite a continuing economic struggle across the United States, Washington's June unemployment numbers were the lowest – at 5.7 per cent – of the 20 largest U.S. cities.
What's more, housing prices are strong, personal income is well above the national average, and there are building cranes all over downtown – that's where I want to go.
It would be easy to take the Metro, but I head down 19th Street on foot instead.
Designed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791, Washington is laid out in a grid, with numbered streets running one way and lettered streets going the other. Gracious diagonal avenues, named after states, cut across the grid and connect in circles around town. Combine this with D.C.'s classical architecture and lack of skyscrapers, and the effect is stately and grand, a bit like Paris (no accident). It's great for walking.
Before long, the monuments and government buildings come into view, and it's surprisingly exciting. There's the Treasury Building! The Lincoln Memorial! The Washington Monument! Standing outside the White House, I am suddenly wildly curious about what it's like inside, but I haven't booked a tour, so I push on. (Damn my anti-tourist bent!)
What I have booked is lunch at Acadiana, a Louisiana-style fish house a short cab ride from the National Mall, in hopes of bumping into Michelle Obama. After consulting my waiter, I order what he assures me is the first lady's favourite. The seafood chopped salad is loaded with spiced shrimp, crawfish tail meat, marinated crab and veggies. It's all superfresh and delicious, but the fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade are even better.
That afternoon, I head back to Dupont Circle to explore Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue and the historic houses on N Street, walking slowly with the hope of getting a glimpse inside. Then it's off to sample D.C.'s excellent Ethiopian cuisine: With an Ethiopian community that is close to 300,000 strong, the choices are many, but I've heard good things about Ethiopic on up-and-coming H Street, so that's where I hungrily devour injera bread and lamb tibs until I can't keep my eyes open.
In the morning, I'm at the Willard Hotel for breakfast, taking in the history with my fluffy pancakes. I learn that an array of presidents-elect have slept here, as did Martin Luther King Jr. before delivering his famous speech. The location is convenient for me too – the 19 Smithsonian museums and galleries are just a short walk away.
Digging into that wall of culture sounds like a monumental task, if you don't know that every one is free. Forget the guilt of seeing every worthy item, go ahead and cherry-pick. Drift in and out, see only the exhibits that interest you, stay just 15 minutes if that's what works. Better yet, even in August, I didn't encounter a single lineup. I saw portraits of George Washington and Michael Jackson, a bronze sculpture of girls on their way to the gas chamber, Julia Child's kitchen, the flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner, Geronimo's rifle and much more – all in a single afternoon.
By dinnertime, I'm ready to relax and head to the Blue Duck Tavern. The wood walls and open kitchen feel welcoming, and the heirloom-tomato salad, braised beef rib, amazing bitter greens and apricot sorbet are unforgettable. This is another place I have heard that the Obamas like (I hear the Twittersphere blew up after the couple popped in one night last year), but tonight it's just a fine dinner – no presidential fireworks.
On my last day, I head to
Georgetown, looking for the offbeat stores and coffee shops that tend to crop up near universities. M Street is charming, but features mostly chain stores so, disappointed, I head back toward downtown. I am standing in front of the W Hotel when it happens. Police cars block traffic in all directions. Officers get out to urge pedestrians away from the edge of the sidewalk. Everyone holds their breath and finally the presidential motorcade drives by, Barack Obama waving to us from inside his limo.
I still feel the butterflies as I enter the hotel on my way up to the POV Lounge at the top of the building. But wait, what's this metal detector I have to walk through before getting in the elevator? And don't those guys look like the Secret Service?
Yes, that's right, they tell me, Mr. Obama is in the building. In the building!
Busy with a fundraiser in the lobby, the hottest celebrity in town is oblivious to my swooning six storeys above, but I can't forget him even if I want to: I'm looking at two snipers positioned on the roof of the Treasury Building directly across the street.
As the President eats dinner downstairs, I linger over a truly excellent Dark and Stormy and listen to locals recount their Obama sightings. Some presidents are rarely seen in public, but the Obamas go out and engage all the time. As a result, their city feels young and alive.
Everyone loves it – especially the tourists. Whether that will continue for just a few weeks or several years remains to be seen.
Porter flies from the Toronto Islands to Washington (Dulles) airport four times daily on weekdays; less often on weekends. You can find fares as low as $94 one way if you're lucky. Air Canada also has daily flights to Washington (Dulles and Reagan National).
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
The Dupont Circle Hotel
After a multimillion-dollar renovation, a nondescript building became this luxe sophisticated escape. Rooms are comfortable with great desks and glass showers, and the location puts you right in the centre of one of Washington's energetic hubs, with embassies, row houses, a memorable bookstore and great coffee all around. Rooms from about $230 for a deluxe double. 1500 New Hampshire Ave. NW, 800-423-6953; doylecollection.com
Where to eat
Enjoy spot-on Louisiana cuisine, pictured at right, such as shrimp and oysters or po'boys and beignets. 901 New York Ave. NW; 202-408-8848; acadianarestaurant.com
Eat with your hands and savour a great combo of spices and textures at one of the capital's excellent Ethiopian restos. 401 H St. NW; 202-675-2066; ethiopicrestaurant.com
Blue Duck Tavern
Even if you don't run into the Obamas, you are guaranteed great new American farm-to-table fare. 1201 24th St. NW, 202-419-6755; blueducktavern.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Destination DC and Porter Airlines.