If you want something gritty, smart and noir – head to New York. Trashy, seedy crime? L.A. But backstabbing political intrigue… There is nowhere that tops the beating heart of the US establishment – Washington D.C.
There are so many iconic locations to visit and so many books to choose from…
With only two days to cram in as much as possible there was only one book that could provide not only thrilling excitement and mystical mystery but also work as a veritable treasure map of Washington’s finest sights – Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”.
We arrived in the capitol in the afternoon and went straight to our hotel: Phoenix Park, located in the East End district. Super easy to get to and with the option of either valet parking or a nearby garage – it was right in the heart of the action. It’s also right by Union Station if you’re coming into town by train. The hotel itself is listed as a historical building and has recently been refurbished. The rooms are small but beautifully done up – I would ask for one at the back of the building though as the rooms at the front (as ours was) are on a busy road that seems to be used as a main emergency services route…
Our first stop on the Robert Langdon tour is also the first in the book – the Capitol Building. Whilst the building itself shuts at 4:30, the final tour leaves at 3:20 and we had a mad dash to try and catch it before it left. It’s well worth taking one of these free tours, the tour guide was very entertaining and knowledgable about the building – plus this is the way you get to see the building’s full glory – the rotunda, the speaker’s office (no going in!) and the statue room. There is also a brilliant Langdonesque trick with acoustics that you need to make sure your tour guide shows you. The buildings are beautiful, you really get a sense of the lofty ideals that underpin the design. It’s also fun spotting Brown’s references as you move around the building – yes to Washington being painted as a God on the rotunda ceiling, no to the remains of the iron railings around the old eternal flame! The tour lasted an hour and this did mean that we weren’t able to get into the Library of Congress afterwards. They stop admitting people before the 5pm stated closing time – you have been warned!
Before dinner, to build up a healthy appetite of course, we walked down the National Mall and took in the Washington Monument. This was really spectacular as the sun was going down and the view back up towards the Capitol Building gorgeous. No spoilers (you need to read the book) but it was very interesting to know a bit of the Masonic history of this iconic structure. You can’t currently go up in the elevator – it’s closed indefinitely for emergency repairs… Langdon would have a conspiracy field day with that one!
Given that I chose the hotel, the restaurant was on my husband. He went with Commissary in Logan Circle – an inspired choice given how ravenous we both were by the time we got there. We headed up via the White House, a primary site in one of my other Washington reads, Brad Meltzer’s “The President’s Shadow”. Luckily for us there didn’t seem to be any mysterious buried limbs in the rose garden that particular evening… The food at Commissary is American with a twist and in very plentiful supply with friendly knowledgeable staff. They have a great gluten free menu and a brilliant deal for two starters, two mains and a dessert for $54. The Kung Pao brussel sprouts (sounds weird, I know) are incredible and might actually have been our favourite part of the meal, even my carnivorous husband thought they were delicious.
After a strong slap up Irish breakfast and some cheeky televised football (Premier League not NFL) in the hotel restaurant the next morning, we headed out with grand plans to tick off a number of our must see Washington sights. In retrospect it was a tad ambitious – at nine months pregnant I’m not as mobile as usual, but Washington is beautiful and easy to navigate so I would urge you to walk between sights if you can. Otherwise the metro is a convenient if not particularly frequent alternative option. I wanted to see the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the Smithsonian museums, specifically the Natural History Museum and the Space and Flight Museum, as well as Ford’s Theatre – I’d just finished reading Susan Higginbotham’s historical fiction novel “Hanging Mary” which follows Mary Surratt as she becomes embroiled in Lincoln’s assassination.
The walk to Lincoln’s Memorial is quiet and reflective. You go past a number of other memorials including the WW2 stone circle and there is definitely a reverence in the air as you walk past. At this time of year the fountains across the city are drained and the iconic cherry blossom isn’t out yet, but this didn’t do anything to dim the beauty of the architecture and if anything focused you more on it. Even though it was February the sites are all still quite busy, both with tourists and runners. Set off early if you want a chance to take an uncrowded photo back up the Mall.
In the end we walked down the south side of the park and took in Jefferson’s Memorial from across the water. This one is harder to get to without a car as there isn’t really a metro stop nearby and it’s quite a walk out and round from the west end of the Mall.
Once we made it back to the main Mall we hit the many, many museums that together make up the Smithsonian Institute. It’s very bizarre seeing how Americans have taken such a wide range of historical designs and influences from other countries throughout history when designing the city, there is not only plenty of buildings that emulate Rome and Ancient Greece, but look carefully and you’ll also find a cheeky castle nestled in amongst the art galleries. The museums are really wonderful and well worth a visit. The collections are extensive (and free!) and only a very small amount of the actual holdings are ever on display. If you’re looking for weird and old then you’ll be pleased to know you can currently see giant squid, mega dinosaur sharks and the Hope Diamond all within the walls of the Natural History Museum, as well as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 spacesuits, a lunar landing module and the Wright Brothers’ actual plane in the Space and Flight Museum. This place is a mecca for tech kids of all ages and is very impressive.
Unfortunately we ran out of time to see Ford’s Theatre – it’s on my list for our return trip after the baby’s arrival in April. If you’ve been, let me know if it’s worth the wait!
The Great Read: “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown
Dan Brown is the king of the chapter cliffhanger and this book has all his usual hallmarks – great pace and an easy read. This is another in the Robert Langdon series and follows the intrepid academic as he attempts to unravel a secret from deep within the Masonic Order to save the life of a longtime friend. The book is basically a ‘where’s where’ of Washington D.C. It hits all the big sights and makes you look at them in a new way. I always love the way that even if it’s all coincidental rubbish, he is able to fit together so many things, so perfectly, in his denouements that you feel like you’ve genuinely had something revealed to you – all the puzzle pieces, etymology, facts about art or philosophy fall into place in some magical manner. On the downside the novel is formulaic in some respects – there is always a twist, someone who is not what they seem and this is no different. Some elements of the narrative are frustrating – looking at you Director Sato – but are evidently necessary for plot development. Unfortunately this also leads to an ending that is not a particularly shocking twist but nevertheless entertaining.
Already read ‘The Lost Symbol”?
Why not try these other titles set in Washington D.C:
- “The President’s Shadow” – Brad Meltzer
- “Hanging Mary” – Susan Higginbotham
- “The Silence of the Lambs” – Thomas Harris
- “Along Came a Spider” – Robert Patterson
- “Duplicity” – Newt Gingrich
- “The Hunt for the Red October” – Tom Clancy
- “Winter of the World” – Ken Follett
- “The Winds of War” – Herman Wouk
- “Lincoln” – Gore Vidal
- “The President’s Daughter” – Ellen Emerson White
If you have Washington D.C. based recommendations then add them to the comments below