The once crime-blighted Washington DC now offers chic restaurants, hip bars and lively suburbs

It was the feeling of calm prosperity that shocked me. On a return trip to Washington DC, to see how the city has changed since I lived there in the mid-1990s, I had expected some differences but was blown away by the transformation.

Twenty-five years ago the US capital was a starkly divided city, with government workers and foreign diplomats living nervously beside blighted suburbs that made the District of Columbia notorious as the ‘murder capital’ of the country.

Today Washington has an unrecognisable air of safety and flourishing activity, where locals insist there are no longer any no-go zones and taxi drivers are happy to drive anywhere. Visitors who would once have worried about venturing into the wrong areas will now find shopping streets busy with families and young workers, and restaurants and bars packed with a mix of students, residents and tourists.

The pulse and dining options vary widely, as today’s visitor is actually coming to three distinct cities rolled into one.

The best known is the world’s ‘new Rome’, the federal capital made up of monuments, museums and the seats of government, all surrounded by the official buildings and lobbyists’ offices whose inhabitants support one of the US’s broadest ranges of upmarket restaurants.

Seats of power: Former Washington DC resident Peter Wilson recently returned to the U.S capital for the first time in 25 years and was ‘blown away’ by how much the city has transformed. Pictured is the imposing Capitol, which houses Congress

The Caribbean menu at Bammy’s is one of the more affordable, with options ranging from an excellent jerk chicken main course to a tasting menu of the chef’s favourites.

The second face of Washington is the normal working city, which has bustling suburbs lined with sports bars and eating houses.

The pandemic innovation of pavement canopies giving restaurants open-air tables has been retained in must-visit areas such as Adams Morgan and leafy Georgetown, adding extra life to the streetscape.

There’s also been a steadily rising Hispanic population, and locals say the most dynamic food trend is in Latin American cuisines ranging from Ecuadorian to Venezuelan. Try the Peruvian fare at Pisco Y Nazca Ceviche Gastrobar, near Dupont Circle, where a flight of three passionfruit, pomegranate and traditional pisco cocktails goes well with a sampler of delicious tostones – twice-fried plantains – and a main of crispy seafood.

The third side of Washington is one of the nation’s largest college towns, as universities such as Georgetown and George Washington bring a buzzing youth scene and bars such as the Takoda rooftop restaurant and beer garden in what was once a run-down area near the Anacostia River. Open until 2am at weekends, it has 15 beers on tap, moreish frozen cocktails and a good-value pulled pork sandwich.

A pass for a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus will get you around the city’s monuments and museums with little effort, but the best way to see them is on a guided bicycle tour.

The National Mall borders the main sites and is flat and easy to cycle, with surprisingly few interactions with traffic. Unlimited Biking, based in The Wharf, offers a three-hour tour around the area, along with electric bike and Segway options.

While the Lincoln Memorial marked its 100th anniversary in May last year, other monuments keep being created or updated.

Street life: The vibrant Adams Morgan district is a 'must-visit' area

Street life: The vibrant Adams Morgan district is a ‘must-visit’ area

'Today Washington has an unrecognisable air of safety and flourishing activity,' writes Peter. Pictured is 'leafy' Georgetown

‘Today Washington has an unrecognisable air of safety and flourishing activity,’ writes Peter. Pictured is ‘leafy’ Georgetown


One attraction not to be missed in Washington is the National Air and Space Museum. 

It has been undergoing a $1 billion overhaul since 2018 but the western side is now open, with the eastern flank due to follow in 2024.

The massive revamp included a serious rethink of the exhibits to try to appeal to a broader audience, with more attention given to the contributions of women and minorities to the history of flight.

The Wright Brothers¿ first plane at the National Air and Space Museum

The Wright Brothers’ first plane at the National Air and Space Museum

And while housing genuine treasures of aviation, such as the Wright Brothers’ Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 Command Module, it also takes a bow to popular culture with the inclusion of exhibits from Star Wars and Star Trek.

‘We had a vigorous discussion about whether we should be including Star Wars vehicles that can’t actually fly and things like Spock’s ears,’ said aeronautics curator Russell Lee. 

‘But in the end we decided that those shows had helped to fire the imagination of generations of pilots and engineers, and that including them would connect with a lot of visitors.’

One thought-provoking addition tucked away on a display shelf is the toy kit of balsa wood and tissue paper that the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, used as a boy to make model aeroplanes as he dreamed of one day flying.

Spock's ears from the original Star Trek on display

Spock’s ears from the original Star Trek on display

The Korean War Memorial gained a new wall of remembrance in July 2022, and this trip was the first time I had seen the massive stone tribute to Martin Luther King Jr, a stirring sculpture unveiled in 2011.

The Mall already boasts The Capitol and an amazing range of museums, and with sterling lagging against the dollar, it is a relief that the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, offers free entry. The biggest challenge is planning itineraries carefully if you want to make the most of the 21 museums and galleries and the National Zoo.

It’s a mistake, for instance, to turn up to the Museum of African American History and Culture and expect to take it in quickly. Staff warn that it is packed on Fridays and at weekends, especially in summer, and that after queuing to get in it takes three hours to take in the slavery exhibition properly, so it cannot easily be included in a day of visiting several museums.

You also need to book in advance if you want to ride the elevator to the observation deck atop the Washington Monument.

An alternative is to opt for the view from the Old Post Office Tower at the intersection of 12th Street and Pennsylvania Ave, NW. It has shorter queues, free entry and a glass elevator. While its observation deck, at 270ft, is barely half the height of the 554ft Washington Monument, it still offers excellent views because a 1910 law restricted buildings in DC to 130ft, or about 11 storeys.

That limit gives the city a more human-scale feel than New York and brings a sense of cohesion to regenerated areas such as the Navy Yard district.

The Thompson Washington DC hotel, which opened in the former naval shipyard area in 2020, capitalises on its excellent sight-lines with a rooftop cocktail bar that looks over the Anacostia River, and a first-rate restaurant called Surveyor, offering classics such as chunky Maryland crabcakes and New Orleans barbecue shrimp.

A downtown hotel option for political junkies is the Hotel Zena, where the lounge walls are covered in political campaign badges and images of feminist icons such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Rooms cost from about £210 a night (

The streets of Washington are awash with political colour and history that is free to sample. Black Lives Matter Plaza is a two-block-long mural on a pedestrianised stretch of 16th Street near the White House that became a permanent fixture after Donald Trump ordered police to clear the street of protesters in 2020. There is not a lot to see, but it is worth a quick visit.

Martin’s Tavern, on Wisconsin Ave, the liveliest shopping street in Georgetown, has more interesting tales. Booth 1 is where JFK worked on his inauguration speech, Booth 3 is where he proposed to Jackie and Booth 2 is where Richard Nixon often ate meatloaf.

Above is Hotel Zena, 'a downtown hotel option for political junkies'

Above is Hotel Zena, ‘a downtown hotel option for political junkies’

Rooms at Hotel Zena cost from about £210 a night

Rooms at Hotel Zena cost from about £210 a night

Staying in the Watergate Hotel’s Room 214, which was used in 1972 by Nixon’s henchmen when they broke into the nearby Democratic Party office, costs about £1,300 a night. But if it is not booked and you ask politely, they will let you see the room, which has been decorated with 1970s binoculars, a manual typewriter and a reel-to-reel tape recorder ( For another angle on that scandal, an eight-minute taxi ride from the hotel will take you to the car park at 1816 North Nash Street where reporter Bob Woodward met his contact ‘Deep Throat’ for the secret briefings that would bring down Nixon. Look for the marker outside.

The city’s most historic hotel, the Willard, just down the road from the White House, has a tiny museum in its lobby – it is free to visit, but a tip to the staff will go down well.

Lincoln signed over his first presidential pay cheque to the hotel to cover an unpaid bill, and 102 years later Martin Luther King Jr sat in the lobby making final edits before delivering his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

It was in this lobby that Ulysses S. Grant, president from 1869 to 1877, gave a lasting name to the influence-peddlers who even today help to keep Washington’s restaurants and bars so busy. Banned by his wife Julia from smoking cigars in the White House, Grant often retreated for a quiet smoke and a brandy in the Willard, where he came to deride the self-promoters who bothered him as… lobbyists.