Destination Wednesday: D.C. It Like A Pro

By Sharyn Alden

Of all the many, many things Washington, D.C.., is, the one thing it’s not is boring.

The capital is hands-down one of the chicest cities on the Eastern seaboard. Chock-full of grand hotels, swank bars and restaurants, it’s where you go to rub elbows with the hoi polloi.

But if you think D.C. is only for trendy people with teeny dogs, you haven’t been to Adam’s Inn.

Like a volcano, D.C. periodically erupts with visitors. Lodging can be hard to find at rates that won’t squash your budget.

Adam'sIn that regard, the 27-room Adam’s Inn is a keeper. Named not for John Adams or John Quincy Adams but for the Adams Morgan section of town (the place to go for trendy restaurants, galleries, and boutiques), the inn is an amalgamation of three connected townhouses built in 1912.

A few years back I tried the inn because of the price; now I come back because of the atmosphere and the eclectic international clientele. It’s a big homestead with a sprawling front porch and zero pretentions.

The tradeoff for the inn’s unbeatable prices and location is the sparseness of its accommodations. Some rooms have private baths, but others have shared bathrooms down the hall. Single shared-bath rooms run $99 -$169 a night, including breakfast. (These are not normal D.C. prices.) Add $10 a night for each additional person.

Ford's 1
Still draped in period splendor, the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre.

More good news: Ford’s Theatre is up and running again. The National Historic Landmark originally built in 1833 as a meeting house for the First Baptist Church of Washington is open for visitors and the occasional play.

Walking into the 661-seat theatre for a recent performance of Driving Miss Daisy, I immediately spied a large “No Firearms Allowed” sign. The irony was not lost on me. After all, this is the Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

While the production was very good, there was a sort of ghostly reverence for what had transpired 150 years ago in the right-hand box high above the stage. The production addresses civil rights in the 1960s, and the recorded voice of Martin Luther King giving his “I Have A Dream” speech reverberated through this famous theater in a haunting way.

Next year, during the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, you can not only view Booth’s derringer and young Tad Lincoln’s play sword from the theatre’s permanent collection, but more artifacts that were inside Ford’s Theatre the night the president was shot, including some of Lincoln’s personal items. That exhibit runs March 23-May 25.

Speaking of exhibits, I can’t get enough of the International Spy Museum. It’s the real deal – the world’s first and only museum dedicated to international espionage.

There were crowds when I first wandered through the museum’s five buildings shortly after they opened in 2002, but the public’s fascination with spies has exploded and the museum is looking to double its 20,000-square-foot size.

The museum takes visitors deep into the world of disguises, miniature cameras, hidden pistols, dead drops, lock picks, listening devices, clandestine photography, suitcase radios, and cipher machines.

In the “debriefing room” upstairs, people are asked, “Have you ever wondered if you could be a spy?” They then select a cover from dozens of profiles and memorize a false name, age, country, reason for visit, planned length of stay, occupation, and place of birth.

The exhibits are excellent. “Poetry of Secrecy” tells a story from D-Day. When the BBC aired the first line of Paul Verlaine’s poem, “The Long Sobbing of the Violins of Autumn,” on June 1, 1944, it was a signal to the Resistance that the Allied invasion was at hand. That line alone spurred more than 1,000 attacks behind enemy lines.

One disguised door takes visitors down a winding corridor where they’re introduced to celebrity spies like the actor Marlene Dietrich and the singer Josephine Baker. There’s a photo of famed chef Julia Child stretching out in a bunker when she worked for the OSS.

On my visit, I was taken aback when someone wearing a navy-blue uniform and sporting a Special Police badge asked my name and why I was taking notes. I immediately handed over a business card and told him my name.

“This isn’t your name; this isn’t where you live,” a disguised museum worker said. It took me several minutes to realize he was checking people’s covers, and I had pitifully failed the test. “You wouldn’t make it as a spy if you handed over your business card,” he explained.

Apparently I’m not alone. Only about half of the people the officer approaches stay in character and answer with their cover.

From one sort of cover to another, since 1976 Kramerbooks and Afterwords Café in Dupont Circle have been luring local literati.

Kramerbooks isn’t big. The latest titles are packed – literally – in the store’s one and only front window, and its tiny aisles and haphazard shelving makes you wonder how anyone can find anything – though based on the ringing cash registers it’s not a problem.

Kramerbooks is not a place where you sit around in an cushy chair thumbing through Leaves of Grass. I’ve never seen more than a couple of chairs here, and they’re usually hard-backed – and taken. Still, day or night the store is packed – sometimes so packed, with so many locals talking books, you wonder if anyone works in this town.

If you wake up in the middle of the night wondering what books Kramer’s just got in, you’re in luck. The store is open 24 hours on Friday and Saturday.

After staring into a sea of books, head to the restaurant at the back of the shop. Afterwords has a full lunch and dinner menu, with the smoked trout and cucumber sandwich ($15) or Chesapeake oyster po’boy ($15) highly recommended.

Ah, food. With its very own Metro station, Eastern Market is DC’s largest, most established and most popular outdoor-indoor market. The huge brick building housing most of the food vendors was built in 1873, but fire destroyed much of it in 2009. You wouldn’t know it; the newly built structure looks appropriately aged.

The draw here is the extraordinary combination of handmade goods, clothing, jewelry, art, fresh produce, meats and other foods. Eastern Market also has a weekend flea market featuring artists from around the world and comestibles from from a five-state area.

Every time I run across something I bought from the Eastern Market years ago, I remember why boredom is out of the question in this lively, ever-changing city. And I remember something else, too: I  love D.C.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, based in Madison, Wis.

Photos from Washington.org, Time, Adam’s Inn, Wikipedia, and the author.