Washington DC

Food
DC's West End lies within an easy stroll of the White House, so there are plenty of opportunities for "power dining" among the area's officials, lobbyists - and visitors alike. The Old Ebbitt Grill's Oyster Bar is rightfully renowned, has an authentic Victorian interior, and being two blocks from the White House was a favourite of presidents past.

For something a bit more Southern in flavour, Georgia Brown's is a local favourite, serving Carolina gumbo and the kind of southern-fried chicken that doesn't come out of a bucket. The Lafayette Room at the Hay-Adams Hotel has an astounding view across Lafayette Park to the White House. Nearby Dupont Circle has plenty more upscale eateries to choose from, and choices more diverse than steak or ribs.

If suits and silverware don't appeal, head down to the Waterfront for a fish-straveganza at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, a genuine DC tradition. The Potomac River empties into the Chesapeake Bay so you can expect a host of fantastic shellfish both fresh and cooked. Seafood restaurants line the wharf, meaning you can snack on freshly caught crabs while yachts cruise along in front of the DC skyline. The nearby Cantina Marina is hugely popular on the weekends, serving up a beach bar menu and atmosphere. Alternatively, inside the Mandarin Oriental is CityZen, run by acclaimed chef Eric Ziebold and renowned for its world-class menu.

After a hard day's sightseeing on the National Mall, The Source, a Wolfgang Puck creation, at the Newseum is a welcome respite. Belly up to the bar for Asian-inspired nibbbles or feast with friends on mouthwatering entrees. Anything with pork, duck or lamb is a winner. After something more casual? You might be tempted to try one of DC's indigenous hot-dogs, the half-smoke. This half-pork-half-beef chimera is served smothered in onions and chilli sauce, and is sold by most of the street food stands. Locals know the real deal can be found at Ben's Chili Bowl on vibrant U Street, the centre of a neighbourhood that has become a hotspot for Ethiopian cuisine and for nightlife.

If you're visiting the eastern side of the Mall, consider a walk through the residential splendour of Capitol Hill towards Barracks Row, a street unfrequented by the common traveller, and full of eateries buzzing with political and gastronomic discourse. Café 8 is a fixture for the locals, offering celebrated Turkish food that won't break the bank. On the other side of the U.S. Capitol is DC's Union Station, which is a fine piece of architecture in itself but features B. Smith's, a soul food favourite for visiting celebrities and politicos.

Culture
DC is, when it comes down to it, a glorious fabrication. Constructed as a federal oasis on the banks of the Potomac, free from the influence of state government, full rein for its urban planning was given to up-and-coming architect Pierre L'Enfant. What gradually took shape was a living national monument, a city that revolved around, and drew its bustle from, the process of government.

The heart of this conceit is the National Mall, a two-mile-long stretch of inner-city parkland featuring not only the centre of government, but the country's most prestigious cultural treasure chest, the Smithsonian Institution. Not one museum but a sprawling collection of art, natural history, technology and anthropology, the entire east end of the Mall is taken up with museums displaying its collection, all of which are free to enter.

Like Berlin's Museum Island or the Museumsplatz in Vienna, the Smithsonian Institution is one nation’s assertion of cultural sovereignty. Its architecture is suitably grandiose, and its collections suitably global: from the National Museum of Natural History’s notorious Hope Diamond to the National Gallery of Art's priceless Vermeers, Monets and da Vinci. The National Air and Space Museum catalogues American success with the Wright brothers' original 1903 Flyer, and the Apollo 11 command module.

Not entirely unfairly, the Americans are known for their whole-hearted patriotism, and with a collection of national monuments like those that make up the western end of the National Mall, it's easy to see why. They paint a poetic picture of sacrifice, unity and idealism, and serve as a breathtaking introduction to the American psyche. Recommended is a wander around the monolithic carved statue of President Lincoln that watches over the Reflecting Pool and the obelisk of the Washington Monument beyond to the seat of government.

Just north of the Mall is Penn Quarter, hub of tourist activity and location of many a historic site including Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated and performances of classic American plays continue to this day. It also contains a number of DC's more progressive museums, chief among them The Newseum which over seven floors catalogues the development of the press in America from the basic freedom-of-speech rights enshrined in the Constitution – on display two blocks away at the National Archives. Highlights include a gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, an interactive newsroom and a gallery of the day's international newspaper front pages.

For a more artistic experience, head to Adams-Morgan. The DC Arts Center hosts a rotation series of high-calibre local artists, while the surrounding streets are covered in murals and feature plenty of import shops and record stores to browse around.

Nightlife
Unsurprisingly, downtown DC is populated with working stiffs who long at the end of the day for a beautifully mixed cocktail. Bartending has become an artform in the nation’s capital and there’s a lot of choice. From the fanciful “Salt Air Margaritas” at modern Mexican Oyamel to the made-to-order mixology at The Passenger, it is easy to drink one’s way up 7th Street NW between E Street and Massachusetts Avenue, and hard to stop after just one or two.

DC is also home to a fantastic jazz scene, where as a boy, Duke Ellington earned his chops on the numerous jazz bars of U Street. This is where Washingtonians come to relax in bars just the right side of trendy, and listen to fantastic live music. America loves its microbrewing, and the ChurchKey beer house on 14th Street boasts 555 labels (with 50 on draft). The place is packed during happy hour.

As for music clubs near U Street, the city's most popular is the 9:30 Club (whose doors open at 6 p.m.) which scores world-class acts on a nightly basis. At Marvin, a Belgian-American restaurant inspired by Washington’s favourite soul son Marvin Gaye’s time in Europe, dinner recedes into a DJ’s beat. The rooftop lounge attracts a chic set. Former (and present) Marxists will appreciate Busboys & Poets, a café-bar that hosts regular beatnik recitals and political "discussions". However, it's jazz where this neighbourhood really excels, and the historic Bohemian Caverns in a basement on 11th Street features local jazz, genuine quartz walls and tables of petrified wood.

If all that jazz isn't to your taste, DC has a vibrant bar and club scene split into two major sectors: one is populated by the well-heeled locals, the other by the younger alternative crowd. Dupont Circle is regarded as the centre of DC nightlife, with numerous bars and clubs leading directly off the Circle and plenty more in the streets surrounding it.

Bars like the Big Hunt with its safari theme and open-air rooftop cater to the singles market, while the Lucky Bar is the requisite Irish pub full of college kids and yuppies. The Eighteenth Street Lounge, owned by electronica act Thievery Corporation, hosts a weekend bossa-nova shakedown, while Ozio purports to be a cigar bar but actually turns out to be a swanky four-level dance club.

The antidote to all this swank is to be found in Adams-Morgan. Treasures such as Bourbon (with its 150-whiskey selection) and the aquatic Reef bar are not difficult to dig up. When you’re ready to dance, Habana Village offers salsa lessons all night and mojitos to cool you down.

Shopping
Leave your shoulder pads at home along with the misconception that Washington DC doesn’t have great shopping. So ‘80s. These days there are several neighbourhoods all reachable by the city’s clean and efficient Metro system that offer distinctive retail therapies. Choose from teeny boutiques, funky galleries, American classics and outlets. In Georgetown, smaller shops, from internationally known retailers to one-of-a-kind boutiques dot the main thoroughfairs. Not only will you find standard preppy fare such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Ralph Lauren, but a burgeoning selection of upmarket designer and vintage stores along M Streets at Wisconsin Avenues NW.

For some funkier shopping, 18th St in Adams-Morgan hosts a boho selection of import shops (stocking handmade Tibetan arts and crafts), vintage boutiques (such as Meeps) and combination record and bookstores. This is the vibrant hub of the city's youth, with the occasional mural brightening the area. The streets around Logan Circle have recently carved out a name for themselves as home to DC's small-scale boutiques, particularly U Street with its quirky collective-run jewellery shops and eco-friendly fashion houses. Around here you will also find the city's high-end contemporary art scene, full of galleries hoping to sell you work by up and coming DC artists.

DC is indeed a fine destination for the prospective art buyer. Georgetown also plays host to a number of successful contemporary galleries, including the Anne C. Fisher Gallery, in which the owner also practices her main occupation, psychotherapy. But for an altogether different experience, DC's Eastern Market is held up on Capitol Hill and features a rotating array of antique dealers, and local artists, as well as the usual produce and packed lunches and a weekend Farmers' Market.

Friendship Heights claims the most robust mix of high-end department stores and bargain retailers.

Fly direct with Virgin Atlantic into Washington Dulles

International Airport from £399 for departures between 25 October and 16 December 2011 or between 25 December 2011 and 31 March 2012 when booking on or before 31 October 2011. See virginatlantic.com to book and for full terms and conditions.

Follow us: @virginatlantic and share your Washington DC tips with #toptipDC