This is a city that was created to impress. The dominating template is the Parthenon - soaring Ionic columns, acres of marble and stone, with a dash of Renaissance by way of massive domes and elaborate statuary. If you squint, you could be forgiven for thinking that you might actually be in ancient Rome.
AFTER New York, probably the world's most famous movie set has to be Washington, DC. So much so that when you finally come upon the White House - sedately prim and proper on its vast patch of surprisingly dull garden and lawn - a part of you can't help but think that it looks a bit small and, well, ordinary. Especially if you've just watched, on the plane trip over, Olympus Has Fallen, in which North Korean terrorists storm the White House with missiles and bombs.
This curious cinematic quality permeates much of the city. Part of it has to do with the awareness that this capital city of the free world is, for all intents and purposes, probably the most important 176 square kilometres on the planet. Every single political and economic decision that's made here has a ripple effect on the rest of the world.
In fact, it's probably not much of a hyperbole to assert that there hasn't been a city this important since the days of ancient Rome.
Central Washington is dotted with buildings designed on a monumental scale. This is a city that was created to impress. The dominating template is the Parthenon - soaring Ionic columns, acres of marble and stone, with a dash of Renaissance by way of massive domes and elaborate statuary. If you squint, you could be forgiven for thinking that you might actually be in ancient Rome.
In many ways, though, Washington, DC is a city transformed. It was not always this pristine. Locals remember a time when it was considerably grittier and crime was endemic. At one stage, it held the dubious honour of being the murder capital of the United States. Many neighbourhoods were no-go zones. But still, people came and they stayed. This after all, was the nation's capital and there was, and still is, an idealism that the world could be changed for the better, one star-spangled banner at a time.
The Reagan years began the social shift as prosperity and peace returned to the country. The city began cleaning up as the gangs moved out and the yuppies moved in.
Eventually, the civil unrest and war demonstrations that marked so much of the 1960s and 1970s slowly gave way to a mood for gentrification. The area around Dupont Circle, for instance, was run down, its fin de siècle mansions long since abandoned to criminals and drug abusers. These days, it's a major stop on the Metro underground train line with radial spokes leading to the swanky Park Hyatt, the Ritz-Carlton and Palomar hotels.
It helps that, for better or worse, security is considerably tighter. There are X-ray and bag inspection checkpoints in every major public institution. The main arterial roads around the White House are now permanently closed to vehicles, while water bottles aren't allowed into the US Capitol building.
Not that any of this has kept the tourists away, and they keep coming. Some hope for a chance to catch a Presidential motorcade zoom by, or perhaps a film crew prepping for the next scene of Scandal, or another Hollywood blockbuster in which aliens blow up the White House (again). Still others come for a photo-op and leave suitably impressed and comforted by the scale of the city's political ambitions.
Rain or shine, the museums (all free) and all the major attractions along the National Mall are jammed. In March and April each year, the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin burst with vivid pink blossoms while the night skies explode into day with the Fourth of July fireworks.
And later, when you're safely home and scrolling through the endless Instagram images of Lincoln and white stoned piles, you might remember most of all a faint stirring in the heart. And even if you're not American, you'll be surprised to recognise it as patriotic fervour. For all its grandiose posturing, the ability to stir up such emotions may well be the Washington's grandest achievement.
Washington, DC recently came in ninth in a poll of America's most car-congested cities. Which means, taxis are great for getting back to the hotel after dinner, but during rush hours, take the Metro or walk. Or, if you have a sense of balance, rent a bright red Capital Bikeshare public bike for around US$7 a day and take advantage of the almost 90 km of bike lanes that wend their way around the city.
Where to stay
The wonderfully restrained Tony Chi-designed Park Hyatt (www.parkwashington.hyatt.com) is within easy walking distance to Georgetown's boutiques and the Dupont Circle Metro. For breakfast, you must have their lip-smacking fried chicken, fried egg and Southern biscuit. The Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com/washington) is set close to the Smithsonian museums, while an overhead pass provides a shortcut to the Tidal Basin for the memorials to Thomas Jefferson,
Martin Luther King Jr, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For more intimate lodgings, the recently opened Capella (www.capellahotels.com) is just lovely, not least for its canal views and its stunning rooftop pool.
What to see in a hurry
For the time-pressed tourist, it helps to know that the major sights are all conveniently laid out along an east-west axis. At the centre is the Washington Monument, its tall obelisk silhouette currently shrouded behind scaffolding.
To the north is the White House, and to the south, the Tidal Basin, the latter anchored by the elliptical bulk of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
To the east of the National Monument is the National Mall lined by the incredible treasure trove of the Smithsonian Institute's museums including the Smithsonian Castle, the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History.
From here, it's a quick walk past the Reflecting Pool to the US Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.
The expanse to the west of the Washington Monument is considerably less congested. Here, the focus turns towards the past, a quietly moving tribute to America's fallen heroes. The gracious stretch of the Reflecting Pool is bookended by the grandiose Greek theatre of the World War II Memorial, and the simple majesty of the Lincoln Memorial and architect Maya Lin's evocative Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
What to do
Do the monuments, of course. Or work off the jetlag kinks with a US$11 yoga class at Yoga District (www.yogadistrict.com). When monument fatigue hits, it's time to rebalance in Washington's leafy forests with a horse trail tour at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center (www.rockcreekhorsecenter.com). The historic Howard Theatre - reopened last year after a 32-year absence and US$29 million renovation - is the perfect venue to catch indie and R+B musicians in full swing. If you love Julia Child, know that her entire kitchen is now in the basement of the National Museum of American History (www.americanhistory.si.edu). And on your way to the airport, carve out an extra hour to see the space shuttle Discovery at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center (www.airand-spacesi.edu).
Where to eat
Catch a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (www.drafthouse.com) while sipping local craft beer, pesto pizzas, and fried pickles with buttermilk ranch dressing. Hop into the rental car and head to Annapolis where piles of steamed Chesapeake crab and iced Miller Creek beer and communal tables rule at Cantler's Riverside Inn (www.cantlers.com), but if huge perfectly charred steaks are your thing, then settle into the clubby setting of the Grill Room (www.capellahotels.com).
Where to shop
If the pristine boutiques lining M Street NW and Wisconsin Avenue leave you feeling a little like being at a factory outlet (though we love the Jack Spade branch), then perhaps a more leisurely afternoon at the Mosaic district in Merrifield (www.mosaicdistrict.com) and Bethesda Row (www.bethesdarow.com) will tickle your retail bone.