Washington DC's Finer Side: Class Within Reach
It’s all here, within reach. And you don’t even have to crash the party.
By Lisa Singh
It’s who you know.
If ever a city operated by that rule, it’s Washington, DC. Capital of power players. Home to every US president since John Adams. And, these days, setting of the Bravo series, The Real Housewives of DC, which coolly tells us: It takes more than money to impress people in this town, it takes political power. (Plus, a little gate-crashing know-how, when all else fails.)
But there’s another side to this city. For all its reputation as a transient town in which social climbers come and go — and size you up, along the way, with the very DC question of, “So, what do you do?” — there’s a softer, more intimate side to DC.
Yes, intimate. And you don’t need to be a poser (cough, Salahi) or high-powered connector to access it. DC’s finer side is within reach.
Hillwood: Art collector’s paradise
Pull up to the gate of Hillwood estate, and an art collector’s paradise awaits. This isn’t just any museum experience, either — no throngs of crowds here a la Smithsonian. The quiet residential neighborhood in which this estate is located in Northwest DC is one reason why.
But nothing beats the bathrooms.
“Isn’t it fabulous?” says a woman, patting her face before a mirror in the visitor center bathroom. “How many times do you see real flowers in a restroom?”
Not often, except if you’re at Hillwood. The estate is that rare find: a city escape within the city. Located on 25 acres overlooking Rock Creek Park, the Georgian-style mansion at its center once served as home to one of the wealthiest women in America, Marjorie Merriweather Post (of Post Cereals fame.)
Following marriage number three, Post purchased the estate in 1955, and continued amassing what would become one of the finest Russian art collections in the world (including, the diamond crown worn by Empress Alexandra on her wedding day to Nicholas II).
“When I began [collecting], I did it for the joy of it,” said Post, later in life, “and it was only as the collection grew … that I came to the realization that the collection should belong to the country.”
Today, Post’s wish prevails. Step into the mansion’s entry hall, and get ready for a jaw-dropping moment: Grand staircase, rock crystal chandelier, and portraits of imperial Russia, plus French decorative art, await— much of it, remarkably, within plain view.
But this isn’t just a drool-and-envy experience. The mansion’s lush grounds, topped by a café with light fare of salads, sandwiches, and desserts, offers a chance to kick back. After a little afternoon tea (or champagne), journey on.
Post loved the grounds so much that, of all her homes (she had three), she chose Hillwood as her final resting place; an urn atop a granite column in the rose garden contains her ashes. Just around the corner, dart across a Japanese-style garden; touch the very ivy that once climbed the walls of Buckingham Palace; walk a nine-hole putting green (the bentgrass turf, great for cartwheels), and get some shade within a dacha, Russian country retreat.
Hospitality, Swedish style
Hospitality is also the name of the game across town, at another memorable spot: the Embassy of Sweden. Sure, Washington, DC has plenty of embassies (more than 170, in all). But none has a view quite like this one.
“We are the only embassy with a waterfront location,” says Mats Widbom, Embassy of Sweden’s cultural counselor, who takes me up on the roof for an exclusive look at what this prime spot of real estate, in the DC neighborhood of Georgetown, gets you: the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, plus the Watergate complex, right across the Potomac River.
It’s a view that’s earned this building the moniker, “Sweden on the Potomac.” (Oh, and for all you jazz lovers: The rooftop serves as venue for the annual Nordic Jazz festival each summer.)
But it’s not just location that gives this embassy its winning edge, it’s attitude. Back in his office, Widbom pulls up a PowerPoint presentation on a theme he’s pretty passionate about: open diplomacy. The first slide shows another embassy in town (which shall remain nameless), barricaded behind a gate.
“They call this open diplomacy?” says Widbom. He jumps to the next slide: A gate-less Embassy of Sweden. “This is open diplomacy!”
Built in 2006 in a sleek modern design, the House of Sweden, as it’s called, is open to the public every day of the workweek. Swing by — no appointment required — and enjoy an exhibit in the main lobby. (Next up: an exhibit on innovation, which, for the kids, includes a chance to build a “world of tomorrow” courtesy of wooden toys from Swedish company Micki.)
For Widbom, the embassy’s mission is simple. “We try to build relationships with people.” That includes travelers. So, come on by.
Tudor Place, yoga getaway
DC’s finer side includes another hidden perk: yoga. In a natural setting, that is.
The city’s no stranger to yoga, of course. But who wants to schlep across town to a pricey, overcrowded studio? Make a beeline past that scene for the wide open space of Tudor Place, a 200-year-old neoclassical mansion originally owned by Martha Washington’s granddaughter — and which, remarkably, stayed within the family for the next six generations.
In its day, Tudor Place was a gathering spot for various bigwigs: everyone from General LaFayette to Andrew Jackson. Today, Tudor Place belongs to everyone. The mansion’s last owner, Armistead Peter 3rd, saw to that. The estate, he said, “represents the dreams of many people.”
That includes anyone looking to decompress. For the past few years, Tudor Place has offered an hour’s yoga on its historic grounds for just 12 dollars — every Friday, six months out of the year.
“Tune into your breath … keep breathing,” says yoga instructor, Sabina Grewal, whose class today consists of one student, typical of the kind of individual attention you get here.
And what better place to om away than this spot: A spacious sloping lawn that’s preserved its original integrity — check out the “Old Blush,” a China rose planted back in the day by Martha Washington’s granddaughter herself. In all, there’s 5 ½ acres, everything from a Flower Knot garden to period shrubs and flowers, to explore on your way around.
Eat under a cabana — in DC
Rollup your yoga mat, and get ready to eat.
Start off at a new restaurant in Georgetown called Morso — that’s “bite,” in Italian. The food, meanwhile, has a decided Turkish edge; yogurt, garlic, and chickpeas are among the staples. Add to the mix impeccable presentation, especially with dishes like grilled Medjool dates with goat cheese, pastirma, and pistachios.
Just around the corner, indulge in more eclectic food — under a cabana, no less. No, you’re not in the south of Spain. Or Turkey, Morocco, or Miami Beach, for that matter. But Rashid Hassouni wants you to feel like you are. As owner of the new DC restaurant, Puro Café, Hassouni has delivered on a singular vision: a “chic oasis,” in the heart of Georgetown, where you can sip coffee, and more, at your leisure (which sure beats the frenzied lunch crowds on K Street.)
Choose your spot: Indoors, catch the latest fashion shows on a flat screen TV. (Hassouni himself was in the fashion industry for nearly 15 years.) Outdoors, comfy lounge chairs await under a sweeping white canopy — an ideal place to sample the café’s flatbread, made in-house, plus its signature drinks: lemonade with ginger and mint leaves.
It’s all pretty relaxing. Just ask the man to my left, tanned and sporty, in a Tour de France cycling skullcap (no wonkish DC types here). The most he has to worry about that day, he says, is feeding his dog, thank you very much.
He pours himself a little San Pellegrino, takes a few more sips, then heads on out. But not — not! — before letting me in on something: He owns one of the top cable companies in the world.
Before I can ask which one, he’s gone. But it hardly matters. It’s not like you really need social currency to enjoy DC’s finer side. It’s all here, within reach. And you don’t even have to crash the party.
Lisa Singh is a writer and editor in Washington, DC, whose work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and New York Magazine online. She writes on US travel destinations at American Detours.