A new American president will be sitting in the Oval Office in January. Alexandra Carlton travels to Washington, DC, ahead of the election and scopes out where the real powerbrokers hang out.

Maybe it’s the House of Cards effect. Perhaps it’s the ludicrous but wildly entertaining sideshow that is Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. Or maybe, having endured our own (comparatively short) federal election campaign, we simply want a distraction. Whatever the reason, Australians have a fascination with American politics. 

The centre of all that power, intrigue and scandal is the capital, Washington, DC (District of Columbia). There’s no shortage of big-gun political destinations for visitors to this history-heavy city on the banks of the graceful Potomac. The imposing Capitol building, complete with its impressive dome, is home to the US Congress and open to visitors; the Lincoln Memorial, which is inscribed with the text of the great emancipator’s Gettysburg Address, is stupendous in its majesty; and when you stand in front of the White House, flanked by Secret Service officers twitching the triggers of their machine guns, the smell of power is stronger than the fragrance of the city’s famous cherry blossoms.

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But as any Washingtonian will tell you, the city’s true power elite – the faceless, suited-up consultants, strategists and lobbyists – make their deals beyond official corridors, over a house-smoked salmon and bagel breakfast at the restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel or while jogging around the tulips and pansies scattered along the National Mall. And then there are the tucked-away monuments, museums and government departments that rarely make the guidebooks but locals love, each adding a few stanzas to the songbook of one of the world’s greatest democracies. Here’s how to do Washington, DC, like you’re on the Administration’s payroll.

Where to eat and drink 

Seasons at Four Seasons Hotel Washington, DC

“The Obamas love eating out and they’ve done so much to revitalise the city’s food scene,” says one DC local. “These days, a lot of business is done over food. You literally break bread with people.” Bread is obliterated every weekday morning over power breakfasts at Seasons restaurant at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. Vernon’s shrimp and grits is a spicy way to start the day – former president Bill Clinton’s adviser, civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, asked for it so often that they put it on the menu. It’s a people-watching paradise – keep an eye out for Secret Service and other security detail scoping the room. They don’t walk around wearing armour or packing obvious heat but you’ll know them by the discreet earpieces and tiny law-enforcement lapel pins. Where they go, you know someone important is about to follow.

Things to do in Washington DC

1789

Bill Clinton recently dined off the elegant Limoges dinnerware at 1789 with his old friend, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who lives just a few blocks away. “They were pretty low-key – except for the security detail – and they came in the front door like everyone else,” says an insider. Things were a little more eventful when the Obamas stopped by – they had their own food tasters. Once the dishes had passed muster, it’s likely the President and First Lady dined on local produce such as Shenandoah lamb, “day boat” (meaning fresh off the boat that day) scallops and local heart-of-palm salad prepared by executive chef Samuel Kim.

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POV at W Washington, DC

A man was seen hurling dollar bills over the edge of the railing of rooftop bar POV, just for kicks. Makes sense – this is, after all, a town where money is cheap and power is the real prize. However, save your own dollar bills to pay for a rich Dark ’n’ Stormy to sip while the sun sets over the Washington Monument and try to guess if your fellow drinkers are “elephants” or “donkeys”. Hint: insiders say Republicans are overwhelmingly red-wine drinkers, while Democrats prefer white and it’s the GOP that racks up the really big booze bills.

Good Stuff Eatery

President Obama loves proper American fast food – so much so that he took his economics team out for cheeseburgers, shakes and fries at Good Stuff Eatery. They were nutting out the finer details of the debt-ceiling negotiations in 2011 at this retro-themed burger bar a few blocks from the Capitol.

Things to do in Washington DC

Martin’s Tavern

Former president John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier under the classic dark-wood panelling; the Bush family always sits at table 12; and Malia Obama was recently spotted at Martin’s Tavern enjoying a late-night dinner with school friends. The crab cakes are a stand-out.

Jimmy T’s Place

When you’re tired of rubbing shoulders with the Beltway heavyweights, duck into this hidden Capitol Hill gem. It’s a greasy spoon – chipped Formica tabletops, mismatched mugs – and you’ll get a bowl of yoghurt and fruit plus a coffee for under $5. You probably won’t spot a president or senator but perhaps their interns, who make for more interesting eavesdropping.

501 E Capitol Street SE; +1 202 546 3646

Where to stay

The Hay-Adams

The motto of this heritage DC landmark built in 1928 is “nothing is overlooked but the White House”. They mean it. Stay in one of the luxurious south-side rooms overlooking Lafayette Square and you’ll not only sleep on the most comfortable pillows imaginable but also wake up to views of the snipers that routinely patrol the White House roof barely a block away – a sight that’s both comforting and uniquely disquieting. The hotel boasts a rollcall of exemplary guests: the Obamas stayed here for a fortnight before officially moving into the real deal across the street; and former president Jimmy Carter often stopped by for a chat with the barman at the hotel’s storied basement bar, Off the Record. If you’re in town at the right time, you’ll find the nation’s political hacks straggling out of the hangover Sunday brunch after the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Or you might even catch one or two VIPs atoning for their ruthlessness with the only power greater than their own at St John’s Church across the street – every sitting president since James Madison has spent time on its historic pews.

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The Mayflower

Like most luxury hotels in DC, The Mayflower is a riot of opulence: creamy marble, gilded cornices and sparkling chandeliers. But while other venues can feel buttoned-up, this DC institution feels like it’s loosened its tie and kicked off its heels at the end of a long night. Perhaps it’s the bawdy backstory: disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer reportedly entertained prostitutes in room 871; JFK was said to house his mistresses in suites whenever the First Lady was out of town; and Bill Clinton was photographed embracing his favourite intern, Monica Lewinsky, at a campaign event in 1996 – she was sequestered in the then-$5000-a-night Presidential Suite three years later for interviews before her former boss’s impeachment trial.

Things to do in Washington DC

What to see and do

Frederick Douglass’s house

One of the best things about Americans is that they like to talk. If you’re lucky, at the 19th-century hilltop home of famed former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, you could be joined on a tour by older African-American visitors who will volunteer their own stories of growing up in a country that was desegregated only as recently as the 1960s. You can’t put a price on that sort of real-time history lesson.

Supreme Court of the United States

If the president is the face of the nation and Congress the fists, the Supreme Court – the third branch of the US government – is its cool, calm head. No tour will ever let you see the president in action in the Oval Office but the public can sit in on the nine justices (currently eight after the sudden death of flamboyant Associate Justice Antonin Scalia) questioning counsel at oral arguments from October to April – a must for democracy junkies. Make sure you get there well before the allotted time, as the security checks are almost as thorough as an airport’s.

Things to do in Washington DC

US Department of the Interior’s Interior Museum

Don’t expect the queues you’ll inevitably encounter at the Smithsonian or the Capitol when you tour the museum of this tucked-away federal department that is responsible for the country’s natural resources. You’re more likely to be one of just a handful of visitors at the Interior Museum, as it doesn’t rate a mention in many guidebooks – which is a shame. With more than 6000 objects of cultural significance, including 1940s Ansel Adams photographs, paintings of the Oklahoma land rush of the 1890s and engaging dioramas, it’s a hidden gem. The museum is open on weekdays and pre-booked tours are held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Catoctin Mountain Park

DC is flanked by bucolic Virginia and Maryland, which have some of the prettiest farmland and forests in the country. Catoctin Mountain Park, just over an hour’s drive into Maryland, isn’t the most famous hiking territory in the area but it does contain Camp David, the secretive presidential retreat established by Franklin D. Roosevelt. It has played host to every president since, as well as state dignitaries from around the world. You can try to find it among the thick beech, birch and hemlock trees but if you ask for directions at the park’s visitor centre, expect to hear something along the lines of “If you see a sign saying ‘Go back’, ‘Do not enter’ or ‘Do not take photographs’, I’d strongly advise you do what it says.” 

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