EVERYBODY LOVES TO HATE Washington, and not just for its hotblooded politics. "A city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm," as John F. Kennedy memorably called it, our nation's capital has long been famous for the seediness of its street life and the mugginess of its climate. While Capitol Hill might have the market cornered on dysfunction, the rest of the city has undergone some serious self-improvement, with slick new condos cropping up on once desolate street corners, and brick-walled wine bars replacing boarded-up storefronts. As of the last census, the three richest counties in the country are in the D.C. area.
The city has always drawn visitors with its constellation of civic monuments and world-class museums, including the Smithsonian's nearly decade-old National Museum of the American Indian (which, incidentally, has one of the best museum cafes anywhere). The majestic memorials that fill up the National Mall were joined in August 2011 by the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. The capital is also stocked with the kinds of treats they don't cover in Social Studies classes—top-rate farmers' markets, modern American restaurants, like chef Ris Lacoste's Ris, and nightclubs that attract more than that tiresome crop of 23-year-old congressional aides.
Photos: A Visit to the Nation's Capital
The city's transition from blight to bling is everywhere in evidence. Much of the H Street neighborhood (aka the Atlas district), in Northeast D.C., was burned to the ground over five days of race riots in 1968. Now it is a major night-life destination, with DJ-driven bars, like Little Miss Whiskey's Golden Dollar, and destination restaurants. There's Smith Commons—part corner pub, part molecular-gastronomy tasting ground—as well as Ethiopic, husband and wife Samuel Ergete and Meseret Bekele's upscale alternative to D.C.'s traditional Ethiopian restaurants. Just a short drive up Florida Avenue, the U Street Corridor boasts Ben's Chili Bowl, home of the legendary chili dogs that have been scarfed by the likes of Bill Cosby and Nicolas Sarkozy; as well as Home Rule, a tiny treasure trove of eclectic housewares and knickknacks.
The power is palpable in a city where you might brush shoulders with a Supreme Court justice at the corner Starbucks. One need only kick back at the inventive Last Exit cocktail bar in Mount Pleasant, or tuck into some moules marinière at the bistro Marvin, on 14th Street, to remember that D.C. has what it takes to please alpha dogs and slackers alike.—Laura Moser
Fundraiser and political adviser, president of the Reiley Group
Locavoria // Union Market. This incredible local food market just opened last fall. All the foods the vendors are selling—from oysters to cheeses—are top-grade. 1309 5th St. N.E., unionmarketdc.com
Aeronautic Awe // National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Házy Center. The annex to the world-famous Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has terrific aviation artifacts, including the Discovery space shuttle. There's also an observation tower where kids can watch planes taking off and landing at Dulles. 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Va., airandspace.si.edu
Art Stars // The Phillips Collection. I know every nook and cranny of D.C., and I think my favorite place of all is the Phillips Collection. You can see Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party," Rothko abstracts and work from Jacob Lawrence's "Migration Series." 1600 21st St. N.W., phillipscollection.org
Reflection Point // The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial. It's an absolutely spectacular recreation of the Joe Rosenthal photograph of five Marines hoisting the American flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima. I once bought an apartment just for its view of the memorial. Northern edge of Arlington National Cemetery, nps.gov
Colonial Charm // Old Town Alexandria. The King Street area has some of the best stores and galleries in the region, from Patrick's, a one-stop home shop, to the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Western bank of the Potomac River, approximately 6 miles south of downtown D.C.
Chef and owner of D.C. restaurants Jaleo and Minibar
Culinary Discovery // Toki Underground. This tiny ramen bar in the H Street Corridor is helping revive a D.C. neighborhood that was once dead. Try the Toki classic. 1234 H St. N.E., tokiunderground.com
Written Proof // National Archives. I pride myself on being the only guy with an accent on the board of the Foundation for the National Archives. I love spending the morning at the Archives—it's astonishing to see all the documents that created the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 700 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., archives.gov
Secret Gardens // Hillwood Estate. This big mansion was once owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post Cereal fortune. Her former estate, now a museum, is a wonderful place to get lost. It has lots of great art, beautiful gardens and the biggest Fabergé egg collection outside of Russia. 4155 Linnean Ave. N.W., hillwoodmuseum.org
Ribs to Remember // Rocklands Barbeque. The original Rocklands Barbeque, in Glover Park, is a very intimate restaurant with one big table in the middle of a small room. The ribs are the best around—just plain awesome. 2418 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., rocklands.com
Natural Beauty // The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to Great Falls National Park. A few times a year, my family and I like to walk the Chesapeake and Ohio canal from Georgetown to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It's an absolutely incredible place where you'll almost always see someone canoeing down the waterfalls. 9200 Old Dominion Drive, McLean, Va., nps.org
Corporate consultant and lobbyist, Washington hostess
Refresher Course // Jefferson Hotel bar. Quill, the piano bar at this boutique downtown hotel, is a great place to meet up for a coffee or cocktail. There are lovely couches and it's always quiet. 1200 16th St. N.W., jeffersondc.com
Old-School Opulence // The Bombay Club. Just on the other side of Lafayette Park from the White House, the Bombay Club isn't at all trendy, but it serves the best food in town, with really comfortable seating and impeccable service. 815 Connecticut Ave. N.W., bombayclubdc.com
Cozy Cuisine // The Source. Right behind the Newseum is a nice Wolfgang Puck restaurant where you can warm up. Ask the chef for the brown rice with Asian vegetables and tofu in soy glaze—it's not on the menu but he'll whip it up any day. 575 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., wolfgangpuck.com
Night Lifeline // 14th Street. This has become a really trendy area to go out in. I particularly like Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, a great little spot with an unusual scene. There seem to be more beautiful people every time you walk in. 1612 14th St. N.W., pearldivedc.com
Wild Child // Washington Harbor Ice Rink and Georgetown Public Library. Take the kids to the new skating rink in Georgetown. Then you can warm up at the library, which was just renovated after a fire a few years ago. Ice Rink: 3000 K St. N.W., thewashingtonharbour.com; library: 3260 R St. N.W., dclibrary.org
The Salon Artist
Political economist, president and CEO of American Council for Capital Formation
Continental Pleasures // La Chaumière. You never know whom you'll see at this cozy French inn across the street from the Four Seasons in Georgetown. It's a great gathering place and it's my French wife's and my neighborhood favorite. 2813 M St. N.W., lachaumieredc.com
Town House Party // The Florida House. I hold my monthly salons at the Florida House, a wonderful old townhouse owned by the Florida State Society. You can see the Supreme Court out of one window and the House of Representatives out of another. 1 2nd St. N.E., floridaembassy.com
Run-In Grounds // National Mall. I run marathons around the world. No course comes close to the National Mall. One early morning in the 1990s, I passed Bill Clinton surrounded by Secret Service agents. From the Capitol to Lincoln Memorial, nps.gov
French Connection // Paul Maison de Qualité. This French brasserie is my favorite lunch spot on "K Street." They always know exactly what I want: I walk in and they start making my vegetable sandwich. 1000 Connecticut Ave. N.W. , 202-524-4860
Wonder Wall // Henderson Castle. One of the unknown historic monuments of Washington, Henderson Castle—or the wall that surrounded it, which is all that remains today—defined the city's Gilded Age. Mary Henderson, the wife of a Missouri senator, built this castle at what was then the northern boundary of D.C., and is now the center of the thriving Adams Morgan neighborhood. 16th Street and Florida Avenue Northwest, nps.gov
Plus Don't Miss…
Food Trucks D.C.'s food-truck scene has never been more robust. Grab a mobile bowl of pho outside Union Station, or a Korean taco in McPherson Square. foodtruckfiesta.com // Tabard Inn Gorge on the best brunch bread basket in town and then repair to one of the funky rooms in three converted townhouses right off Dupont Circle. tabardinn.com // Darryl Carter boutique Part housewares shop, part design studio in a converted row house in Shaw. darrylcarter.com // United States Holocaust Memorial Museum A thorough look at one of the most horrific chapters in modern history. ushmm.org // Renwick Gallery Perhaps the most conquerable of all the Smithsonians, this small but delightful museum of American arts and decorative crafts is a sea of calm. americanart.si.edu // Lorien Hotel & Spa Unassuming elegance in the heart of Old Town. lorienhotelandspa.com
A version of this article appeared January 19, 2013, on page D9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Washington.