Washington is steeling itself for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration on Jan. 20. Hotels have long sold out, and space on residents' floors is going by the square foot.
But visitors have reason to be excited. They'll be on hand for a historic moment and they'll have the opportunity to visit a dynamic city that's been shedding its stodgy reputation in the last decade. Even with a light wallet, you can still find plenty of cheap and unusual ways to enjoy the District.
Indeed, the last 10 years have been good ones for D.C. Sure, it's gentrification, but little by little, neighborhoods are reclaiming their vitality as young professionals buy and restore the city's trademark row houses. Even with a Starbucks seemingly on every other corner, there are enough local haunts for the authentic flavor of Washington -- populated by a mix of ambitious young do-gooders, immigrants from everywhere and D.C. natives -- to sing out.
The city is well-served by Metro, Washington's user-friendly subway system, but officials have said that trains may be overloaded during the inauguration. Visitors will have better luck on foot: The city is small and manageable, and its buildings' low heights (nothing is taller than the Capitol) and architectural details make for an aesthetically pleasant journey.
Washington's most dynamic areas lie northwest of the Capitol. Dupont Circle is one of the most popular hangouts among young embassy and think-tank staff who work nearby. The surrounding streets -- particularly Massachusetts and New Hampshire avenues -- are crowded with dignified embassies. But if it's too cold for a walk, stop in at Kramerbooks, a proudly independent bookstore that specializes in the latest treatises by Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, and one of the few places in the city that's open all night Fridays and Saturdays.
For a break, head to Teaism, a local chain with unusual, Asian-influenced food and a variety of teas. Or visit the Tabard Inn, south of the circle: A glass of wine buys a seat in one of the most charming and tranquil sitting rooms in town.
About six blocks north of Dupont is Adams Morgan, the District's party zone. The neighborhood is clogged with clubgoers every weekend and is often the site of alcohol-abetted brawls, but it's also host to a variety of people and cuisines. Eat cheap, Israeli-style sandwiches at Amsterdam Falafelshop, or boogie to reggae at the Ghana Cafe. During the day, Tryst, a popular cafe, is the place to drink a mocha, play a board game and people watch.
Adams Morgan might be Washington's most diverse neighborhood, but the U Street Corridor is right up there. Formerly the city's "black Broadway," U Street suffered a major decline after the 1968 riots. But about a decade ago, small businesses began to pop up, and the street now boasts several funky boutiques and small restaurants.
Revelers took over U Street on election night, and it's likely to be the place to be during the inauguration too. The epicenter could be Busboys and Poets, a 14th Street bookstore cum coffee shop cum restaurant celebrating black history and political activism. Some of the city's best-known clubs are also in the neighborhood. The Black Cat, one of Washington's oldest and biggest concert venues, will be honoring "people's empowerment through art, film and music" on inauguration night.
Farther east on U Street are several Ethiopian restaurants; Washington is home to one of the largest Ethiopian populations outside of Addis Ababa. Dukem Restaurant is one of the best in town and frequently offers Ethiopian music and a traditional coffee ceremony.
The inauguration itself will take place at the National Mall, where you can take in a passel of free monuments and museums, though most will be closed on Inauguration Day. Many are bound to be overrun with tourists during the rest of the week, but you'll also find some underappreciated gems too.
The ice skating rink outside the National Gallery of Art is one treat. Surrounded by sculptures by Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder, skaters can take advantage of the frigid temperatures of an East Coast winter. Southeast of the rink is the U.S. Botanic Garden, a large, glass conservatory at the base of Capitol Hill that is home to 4,000 tropical, subtropical and rare plants.
At the other end of the Mall, hard against the Potomac, is the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The center's Millennium Stage hosts free performances at 6 p.m. daily and will be holding a special celebration featuring Aretha Franklin and other performers on Jan. 19, Martin Luther King Day.
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Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave. N.W., www.kramers.com
Teaism, 2009 R St. N.W., www.teaism.com
Tabard Inn, 1739 N St. N.W., www.tabardinn.com
Amsterdam Falafelshop, 2425 18th St. N.W. www.falafelshop.com
Ghana Cafe, 2465 18th St. N.W., www.ghanacafe.com
Tryst, 2459 18th St. N.W., www.trystdc.com
Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. N.W., www.busboysandpoets.com
The Black Cat, 1811 14th St. N.W., www.blackcatdc.com
Dukem Restaurant, 1114 U St. N.W., www.dukemrestaurant.com
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden Ice Skating Rink, 7th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W. www.nga.gov/ginfo/skating.shtm
U.S. Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Ave. N.E., www.usbg.gov
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. N.W., www.kennedy-center.org
A ringside seat at history
Go online for complete coverage of the 2009 presidential inauguration.