Like skydiving, coffee appreciation or Tetris, travel is one of those hobbies that sometimes borders on addiction, and there are more than a few addicts at Smith HQ. There should be some sort of jet-set rehab clinic. The closest thing we’ve found is The City Traveler, an online gathering of travel writers and global gadabouts that enables them to share their admiration for the world’s urban attractions (a sort of ‘Hello, my name is Mr Smith and I just can’t get enough underground art exhibitions in Istanbul‘ kind of place).
We cornered co-founders JoAnn Greco and Robert DiGiacomo –both seasoned travel journos – and asked them to share some city secrets about one of their favourite US cities, Washington DC…
Hi guys. First of all, tell us a bit about The City Traveler. How did it get started?
JoAnn The City Traveler is an online magazine written by professional journalists with experience in travel writing. It focuses on urban destinations and unique city experiences.
Robert As long-time freelance writers, we saw an untapped niche to create a site that would focus on the neighbourhoods, restaurants, museums and other elements that make city travel so compelling.
Your site encourages people to ‘dig deep’ and look beyond the obvious big city sights. What are your favourite off-the-tourist-trail attractions in DC?
JoAnn The capital’s Chinatown/Penn Quarter area has really taken off lately, with museums such as the International Spy Museum, the Newseum and the National Building Museum located here, and hip hideaways like The Passenger – an atmospheric speakeasy that offers old-fashioned drinks.
There seem to be endless ways to explore the city: bike tours, bus tours, jogging tours, moonlit hikes… How would you recommend taking in the sights?
JoAnn The capital can be a tough place to walk simply because the distances are greater than they first appear. Even the excellent Metro system leaves gaps: you can’t ride the subway into Georgetown, for instance. To stay outside and get some exercise, then, try Bike and Roll, which organizes cycle tours through the city’s neighbourhoods. Or, consider an evening river cruise from Capitol River Cruises. The last departure is at 8pm (through October), so time yours to catch both a sunset and the early darkness when the city’s monuments shine so brilliantly.
There must be more museums per head in Washington than anywhere else in the world: where are the most exciting exhibitions this autumn?
Robert I’d suggest budgeting a big chunk of any visit to the Smithsonian, which is actually a series of free national museums. Among the many possibilities this fall, I would check out ‘Losing Paradise: Endangered Plants Here and Around the World‘, running until 12 December at the National Museum of American History; ‘Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection‘, a showing of jewelry worn by the former US Secretary of State, running until 17 October at the Smithsonian’s Castle, and ‘Elvis at 21‘, a collection of photos of the King himself, running from 23 October to 23 January, at the National Portrait Gallery.
What about theatre?
JoAnn Mad for Chekhov? The great dramatist receives his due at the prestigious Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with a Russian-language production of Three Sisters. Later in the season, a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s rarely-staged Follies is unveiled. Other great companies to check out include Arena Stage and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Okay, that’s culture dispensed with; where can we go shopping?
Robert For cutting-edge fashion, I recommend browsing the emerging U Street Corridor, where you’ll find boutiques like Muleh for women’s clothing, furniture and home accessories, and Nana, for vintage clothing and denim. Georgetown, with its mix of national and locally owned boutiques, continues to set a more upscale standard. Across the Potomac in Old Town Alexandria is a whole host of specialty shops, including Treat, which focuses on sample-size items for women.
Food-wise, we find it hard to tear ourselves out of Alain Ducasse’s Adour restaurant at the stately St Regis hotel in Washington. What other eateries are there to tempt us outside?
Robert The nation’s capital is known for power-dining spots like the Old Ebbit Grill; fun, neighborhood-y places like Kramerbooks & Afterwords, a bookstore-café with delicious brunch offerings a
nd mouthwatering desserts; a bustling strip of Indian, Ethiopian and other ethnic eateries along 18th Street in Adams Morgan, and one of my personal favorites, the romantic Tabard Inn, just off Dupont Circle.
JoAnn During early April, the Tidal Basin comes alive as thousands of cherry blossom trees burst into canopies of pink and white. Prime spots include parks near the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, each one on a different side of the water.
Which autumn events will you be sure not to miss?
JoAnn September’s annual National Book Festival on the Mall, sponsored by the Library of Congress, is a must for bibliophiles. Or, explore some of the city’s neighborhoods, like Adams Morgan and Georgetown, which host festivals on, respectively, 12 September and 9 October.
Some Smiths may be travelling with little ones in tow. What is there to do that the kids will love?
Robert Every kid I know, as well as most adults, loves the National Zoo, which is known for its giant pandas. The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum is another sure thing, as is the lesser-known National Building Museum, which throughout September 2011 is offering the wildly popular ‘Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition‘ exhibition.
We have time for one last thing before heading to the airport. What should it be?
Robert Bulk up for the long plane ride home by grabbing a bite at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Politicians, from Barack Obama to Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, have chowed down for the cameras here, so you never know who might be eating the Half-Smoke (half-pork, half-beef beef smoked sausage on a bun with chilli sauce) at the next table.
Finally, if you had to produce a top five of the world’s cities, what would make the shortlist and why?
JoAnn New York: despite more competition than ever, the City That Never Sleeps still offers culture vultures, indy spirits, urban pioneers, and shopaholics an endless bounty. Been there, done that in Manhattan? We doubt it — but don’t neglect Brooklyn.
Robert Hong Kong: more than a decade after becoming part of China, this traditional capital of Asian commerce still maintains its British air, especially when being told to ‘mind the gap’ exiting its underground trains. Hong Kong’s constant bustle, fabulous food, shop-till-you-drop retail, and dramatic island perch really call to me.
JoAnn Tokyo: sprawling, ugly, noisy, and confusing as hell, this manga-fused capital has no real tourist attractions to speak of. But it’s ever-stimulating, ever-changing, and ever-unknowable.
JoAnn Paris: romantic and intimate, grand and elegant, this city is the epitome of all things French. September marks the celebrated ‘la rentrée’ when autumn’s crisp air has everyone stepping out in more style than ever.
Robert Rome: the nonstop energy, beautiful people, incredible churches and juxtaposition of ancient and modern makes the Eternal City a must for every traveller’s itinerary. The holy food trinity of pasta, pizza and gelato doesn’t hurt, either.
Many thanks to both JoAnn and Robert for sharing their DC tips. You can get more insider advice at thecitytraveler.com (and of course, in Mr & Mrs Smith’s detailed travel guides). This month’s travel topic include ballooning in Albuquerque and thermal baths in Budapest…
Any other Washington must-dos, anyone?