Travel: 24 hours in D.C.

On the town in America's capital

Washington, D.C.’s grand monuments and high-powered politicos can make the American capital an overwhelming place for first-time travellers. But by following our guide to the town’s best spots, you can impress the locals and have some fun on your business trip, too.

The Breakfast: Instead of waiting in line for the overpriced food at Kramerbooks & Afterwords (1517 Connecticut Ave. N.W.), which is one of D.C.’s most famous political bookstores and brunch spots, wander around the corner to the Firehook Bakery and Coffee House (1909 Q St. NW, and seven other locations in the D.C. area). You’ll find the city’s finest baked goods and a decent cup of java. Grab a stool by the window and munch on a banana nut muffin, chocolate biscotti or ham-and-swiss on multi-grain. If you’re really hungry, opt for the enormous turkey panini on focaccia for US$4.25.

The Cocktail: Nobody important here dines before 8 p.m., so tide yourself over with a cocktail at the Hotel Washington’s rooftop bar. Open since 1918, the landmark boasts a tremendous view of the White House. Or opt for the Hawk ’n’ Dove, the archetypal Capitol Hill bar. Locals agree with the Irish pub’s management’s description of the joint as “a place where staffers, both Democrat and Republican, gather to gripe about their bosses.”

The Dinner: Despite once having a bad culinary reputation, D.C. boasts a number of excellent foodie spots, including Café Saint-Ex (1847 14th St., N.W.). Opened in 2003 in the rapidly gentrifying 14th & U Street neighbourhood, the trendy boîte — which, thanks to its art deco touches and pressed-tin ceilings, feels like a cozy brasserie — appeals to young and old alike. Upstairs, sip drinks around the banquette while waiting for a table (they don’t take reservations), then tuck into phenomenal wood-grilled wild king salmon with brussels sprouts, balsamic brown butter, and pine nuts (US$18), or roasted organic chicken with pistachio butter and grilled greens (US$18), for your main. Looking for a little action? At Gate 54 downstairs, DJs start spinning everything from down-tempo electronica to ’70s soul and funk at 10 p.m. most evenings.

The Nightcap: Around the corner from Café Saint-Ex is trendy Utopia Bar & Grill (1418 U St. N.W.), which features live jazz almost every evening, and a crowd distinctly more eclectic than the norm in D.C. (in other words, not racially segregated). The exposed brick, regularly changing art display and myriad books shoved into cracks in the walls (I spotted one by Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Márquez) add to this unique venue’s energetic vibe.

The Hotel: Located just a few short blocks from the famed K Street corridor, Hotel Madera (1310 New Hampshire Ave. N.W.) is the Dupont Circle neighbourhood’s hippest boutique hotel. Managed by San Francisco–based Kimpton Hotels, Hotel Madera is a favourite among politicos and lawyers who want to live in a place where you can walk to work in the morning and enjoy a funky, upscale neighbourhood populated by Hill staffers and think-tank academics. Sure, the sheets could be softer and the towels fluffier — but Madera is a find at US$229/night and up. Ask for a cardio room, and you’ll get a treadmill, elliptical or recombinant bicycle in your room. The perfect way to work off last night’s excess and get ready to network all over again.