Enjoy D.C. by moonlight. You can bring the kids or have a grown-up getaway. Whichever you choose, we'll guide you to the best.
Cassandra M. Vanhooser

Long, blissful evenings rank among summer's sweetest gifts. We live for the hours of leisure when the workday ends, the heat abates, and the stars come out to play. Few Southern cities offer more abundant nightlife than Washington, D.C. It's not a stay-up-all-night city or a roll-up- the-sidewalks-at-5 p.m. small town. No, this city is more of a sophisticated lady, with enough cultural treasures, restaurants, and activities to fill a lifetime of summer nights. Whatever you like to do, you can find it here. From star-studded events to back-alley music clubs, D.C. offers the ultimate entertainment package.

We know tackling a big city can be intimidating, especially one with so many options, so we've mapped out three itineraries to help you get started. The first makes for a dreamy spectacular you'll never forget. The next is a more casual, blue-jeans-and-big-fun kind of night, while the third presents a kid-friendly format for those with family in tow.

ITINERARY #1

The Lap of Luxury. Check in to the Willard InterContinental Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue; 1-800-827-1747. Just two blocks from the White House, this 12-story Beaux Arts grande dame hosts stars from every realm--U.S. Presidents, A-list entertainers, foreign heads of state. Rates drop in August, with packages starting at $229. For a less expensive alternative, stay at Hotel Monaco at 700 F Street NW., another architectural beauty. Weekend rates can fall as low as $149; shop around for the best deal. Call (202) 628-7177.


Divine Dining. Fine restaurants downtown and in the Georgetown area cater to theatergoers, but few do it with the aplomb of chef/owner Robert Wiedmaier at Marcel's; 2401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW., (202) 296-1166. For $48, you get a three-course pretheater meal (5-6:45 p.m.) featuring to-die-for French-Belgian cuisine. Entrées include items such as roasted chicken and pan-seared Norwegian salmon, though the menu changes frequently.

After dinner, a chauffeur provided by Marcel's will whisk you into a Presidential-style limo for the drive to the Kennedy Center, then bring you back after the performance for no extra charge. You're even welcome to postpone your dessert until you return. Then you can savor your sweets while listening to the enchanting Alex Jenkins tickle the ivories on the baby grand in the restaurant's wine bar.

On With the Show. You can't help but feel a ripple of excitement as you approach the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This oasis of culture stands as a memorial to the slain President, offering about 2,500 performances each year, including selected shows presented free daily.

A summer highlight at the center is the Tony Award-winning musical The Producers, which runs through August 22 (ticket office, (202) 467-4600). The 2004-2005 season begins in earnest in September, with opening nights for both the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera.

No matter which performance you choose, you'll feel like royalty as you walk the red carpet and sip Champagne in the Center's Grand Foyer, which holds the 7-foot bronze bust of President Kennedy. After the performance, take the elevator to the Roof Terrace for one of the most spectacular views of D.C.

Not Sleepy Yet? Head to the Willard's Round Robin Bar for a nightcap. Activity surrounds the circular mahogany bar, but you'll want to secure a seat by the window so you can watch Washington go by. The power elite are so often seen here that some refer to this as the "other Oval Office." If you pick up a snippet of Beltway gossip, be sure to call us.

 

ITINERARY #2

Sweet Dreams. For both style and value, check in to the Hotel Helix at 1430 Rhode Island Avenue NW., (202) 462-9001. Located just off Logan Circle, this hip hotel with vibrant colors and pop art caters to a younger crowd. We can often find weekend rates for around $119, unheard of in this budget-busting town.


To the Coast. The District boasts numerous hot spots where young professionals gather after work, but you'll launch your evening at DC Coast at 1401 K Street; (202) 216-5988. Many of the city's lobbyists, lawyers, and PR gurus work along this famous corridor, shaping the nation's political agenda. Cool off with a Bellini martini ($8.95), a concoction of Champagne, orange vodka, and white peach puree. If you're hungry, snack on "Buffalo" Crispy Fried Oysters or Salmon Tartare served in a martini glass ($11 each).

Moonlight and Monuments. Several companies offer two-to-three-hour nighttime tours of the monuments. Old Town Trolley Tours of Washington start at Union Station at 7:30 p.m. and cost $28 per person. Don't need a guide? Plot your own personal tour.

Dine Alfresco. Many restaurants in the up-and-coming Penn Quarter neighborhood offer patio dining. You'll love Zaytinya's Mediterranean atmosphere and moderately priced, appetizer-size dishes featuring the flavors of Lebanon, Greece, and Turkey. They don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait, especially on weekends. Other favorites with outdoor seating include Jaleo, Poste Brasserie, and TenPenh.

Jazz Up Your Night. Music fills this great city, but jazz aficionados love the legendary Blues Alley Jazz Club at 1073 Wisconsin Avenue NW. in Georgetown (call (202) 337-4141 or www.bluesalley.com). You can sit so close to the action in this dark, intimate nightclub that you can actually touch the stage. Ticket prices, which can be expensive, vary according to the artist. The last show starts at 10 p.m., which may make it hard to squeeze in all we have planned. Other clubs stay open later, including favorites such as HR-57 and Twins Lounge. If you're not familiar with the city, hail a cab, and save yourself some headaches.

Out Late? If you're hungry after a night spent exploring the city, Ben's Chili Bowl at 1213 U Street NW. is the place to be. Their specialty: the Chili Half-Smoke ($3.95). A cousin to the hot dog, the plump sausage is split, grilled, and topped with mustard, onions, and chili. It goes down best with a thick, creamy shake.

 

ITINERARY #3

Pools Rule. Make sure you choose a hotel with a swimming pool. The newly refurbished Holiday Inn on the Hill at 415 New Jersey Avenue NW., has one on the roof, a welcome way for kids (and adults) to expend energy and enjoy the ambience of the city. Summer rates start at $119. Call (202) 638-1616.

I Spy. The Smithsonian's National Museums of Natural History and American History offer extended summer hours, as does the National Zoo. But we recommend the International Spy Museum at 800 F Street NW. (call (202) 654-2853). Watch imaginations soar as your children crawl through air ducts, test their wits on spy games, and decipher cryptic codes. The museum stays open until 8 p.m. from April through October, with the last ticket sold at 7 p.m. Admission is $13 adults; $12 seniors, military, and students; $10 ages 5-11.

Dinner and a Dunk. The ESPN Zone offers a perfect dining option for high-energy clans. The food is basic and the service can be slow, but the kids can play some hoops while you wait. If yours is not a sporting brood, opt for dinner and a movie in Washington's fabulous Union Station. The food court here offers enough choices to satisfy even the most finicky eaters in your family.

Splash Down. After dinner, return to your hotel, and unwind by the pool. You can join in the fun or stretch out on a chaise longue and watch as the kids wear themselves out.

For more information: Contact the Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corporation at 1-800-422-8644 or www.washington.org.

This article is from the August 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.

More...