In September last year, the Washington Monument – that imposing, vaguely Egyptian obelisk a stone's throw from the White House – re-opened after nearly a decade of drama. In 2011, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake rocked the nearby town of Mineral, Virginia, and caused the Monument to fracture in multiple places. It closed for repairs, then reopened two years later. Then it closed again, in 2016, for elevator fixes and a security upgrade. A possible "soil contamination" delayed things further, but it finally launched with a "state-of-the-art elevator" that is, for now, touch wood, ferrying passengers up and down in 60-seconds.
The view from the top is excellent. It is also instructive. Washington DC is a beautiful city but it is divided in an unusual way that becomes clear from 170 metres up. Close at hand, around the base of the monument, is "Washington", a collection of white neoclassical buildings meant to evoke the Roman Empire, and which constitute the heart of American governance. "Washington" is temporary, changing like the tide as new parties and administrations sweep in and out.
Beyond these buildings is, by contrast, what the locals call "DC." Think radiating streets of neat brick row houses, apartment buildings, miniature estates – some of them embassies – and dwellings dating so far back they're listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Unlike Washington, the DC part changes gradually, though these changes are more profound. For much of the 20th century it was markedly segregated, for instance, with black residents clustering in the inner city and white residents driving in to work from surrounding suburbs. These days, the inner city has become more diverse.
"People now call DC home rather than coming in during the day and then leaving," says Nick Bernel, co-owner of The Pub and the People, a neighbourhood watering hole in Bloomingdale. "Any time you see an empty lot, it's being developed."
I first visited Washington in 2002 and was awed by the Smithsonian museums lined up along the Mall. These days, though, it is the DC part that draws me back as a traveller, an eclectic mix of restaurants, bars and cultural events that makes the city one of the most appealing in the country.
Down the road from The Pub and the People, where you can play a board game with a stranger over pints of beer, is a yellow, Victorian-style row house. It is a prime example of how DC is stuffed full of unexpected surprises for inside is 7DrumCity, a honeycomb of rehearsal studios for up-and-coming musicians.
DC's vibrant live music scene with venues such as 9:30 Club, Songbyrd Music House and Pie Shop is, according to a 7DrumCitystaff member, "a lot more community orientated and accessible" than the scene in other cities.
Perhaps because this is the last place you'd expect to find such a scene. A DIY underground is flourishing. DC Public Library has even established a DC Punk Archive of posters, recordings and zines to help preserve its history.
A noticeboard at 7DrumCity is papered with upcoming gigs, including for Australian bands such as King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Then there are the "house shows," secret events in private basements. You have to make friends to find out about those.
Another neighbourhood that is transforming even more radically than Bloomingdale is Ivy City. Once known for "drug problems and illegal dumping," according to The Washington Post, and for "rat infestations and decrepit streets," it is now home to a burgeoning alcohol district.
Jos. A. Magnus & Co. Distillery makes bourbon and whiskey, Atlas Brew Works offers beers with titles such as Dance of Days and NSFW, and City Winery, around the corner, features a concert venue, restaurant and a massive roof-top garden, not to mention the on-site winery in a former nightclub.
At Republic Restoratives, a women-owned, partially crowdsourced "community distillery" in Ivy City, I stand in a chic glass tasting room sipping an Old Fashioned made with Rodham Rye, named in honour of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Resistance comes in many forms.
There are numerous neighbourhoods in a state of constant renewal – Adams Morgan, with its bustling nightlife, and the H Street Corridor, with an annual festival attracting 150,000 people – and there is an ongoing dialogue about the negative effects of gentrification. ("It's cool for you to be there when we're not open, but now we're open," I watch a bar owner tells a homeless man who is camped on his stoop.)
Meanwhile, one area that has transformed so completely it almost beggars belief is the District Wharf. The famous fish market remains, with its rows of lobsters and unmistakable odour, but "the forgotten quadrant," as it used to be nicknamed, changed utterly in 2017 with the opening of a $2.5 billion entertainment quarter along the waterfront. Focused around a 6000-seat music venue called the Anthem, this area somehow manages to avoid the feeling of a sterile strip mall that often accompanies these kind of manufactured neighbourhoods.
On the evening I visit, people are roasting marshmallows over fire pits, while others are ordering tacos from a cantina and then gathering to observe the ducks. I stop in at Tiki TNT – "Make rum not war" is scrawled down a chimney stack – and grab a Zombie cocktail before retiring to the terrace. Whoever decided that DC needed a Polynesian tiki bar on the Potomac River was, it turns out, absolutely correct.
Before reaching the District Wharf, there is one part of "Washington" I do stop to see. This past May, the International Spy Museum reopened after expanding into a huge building on L'Enfant Plaza. Dedicated to all things espionage, it is a remarkable mixture of fun and the deadly serious. I am assigned a secret identity (Peyton Jacobs, a dancer) before encountering exhibits about Morten Storm, who spied on radical Jihadists in Yemen and "seductress spies." James Bond's gun of choice is here, the Walther PPK. So are displays about waterboarding and Osama Bin Laden. Children play games alongside panels laying out the subterfuge of CIA agents.
Make what you will of the museum itself, but it feels like a good metaphor for the city around it. Washington DC will always be divided, split between government and peoples' actual lives. But for the first time in years, those two sides also seem to have found a way of coexisting.
FIVE OF THE BEST BARS IN DC
PRESENT COMPANY PUBLIC HOUSE
Housed in a converted fire station, DC's oldest, Present Company Public House is by the same team behind The Pub and the People. Americans are not always great at making "pubs," but these guys get it. Terrific food and a cosy atmosphere lit by green library lamps. See presentcompanydc.com
DACHA BEER GARDEN
This is hard to miss: look for the giant mural of Elizabeth Taylor in the neighbourhood of Shaw. Created by two friends who found themselves unemployed during the Great Recession (as Americans call the 2008 Global Financial Crisis), this is one for a low-key Sunday afternoon. See dachadc.com
Cabanas, shuffleboard, corn hole, a parking lot covered in AstroTurf: Hook Hall has it all. This German-style beer hall has become a local sensation for its warm and friendly outdoor patio. See hookhall.com
TIKI ON 18TH
There is something delightful about the absurd presentation of cocktails at a tiki bar, so much so, the actual drink seems irrelevant. But Tiki on 18th, in Adams Morgan, offers an excellent Mai Tai. See tikion18th.com
After nearly five years of construction, the Imperial is less a single bar than a complex spread over three connected buildings. The main draw is a restaurant headed by Russell Jones, but a cocktail bar in the basement, called Dram and Grain, is like a speakeasy by Bruce Wayne: dark, moody and very glamourous. See imperialdc.com
Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Destination DC.
Qantas offers flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Washington DC, with a transfer in San Francisco. See qantas.com
An excellent option in "Washington," the Eaton DC offers well-appointed rooms (with turntables and record collections) from US$149 a night. For "DC," it is hard to go past The Line, a chic establishment in Adams Morgan, housed inside a converted church. Doubles from US$268 a night. See eatonworkshop.com; thelinehotel.com/dc