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Indulge in election fever at D.C.’s political hotspots

SmarterTravel

November is abuzz with election fever, and Washington, D.C., is the center of the political action. The nation’s capital is ripe with political history and lore, as well as the home of today’s law-making. If you’re excited for soapboxes, policy-making, and heated debate—either current or historical—a quick trip to the nation’s capital may be just what the doctor ordered to cure your November mania.

The seat of government and political history

The U.S. Capitol is the heart of our country’s political machine, and once again the building is open to tour groups. Tickets are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, starting at 9 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays. People line up well before opening time, and you might want to arrive early to ensure you get a ticket amid the school groups and tour buses. On a recent Friday, tickets sold out around 11 a.m., but chilly midweek days will begin to see fewer tourists. Leave any snacks or bottled water in your hotel or car because you can’t take them inside the building and there’s no place to check a bag.

The tour takes you through the Rotunda, the Old Senate Chamber, the Old Hall of the House, and a small museum. Don’t expect to see someone famous in these halls; everyone is conducting business in the sections off limits to tourists. What you will see is many statues of deceased statesmen. However, when Congress returns to session after the election, you can request gallery tickets from your senator or representative so you can watch actual congressional proceedings.

Down the street, the Supreme Court also allows visitors within its hallowed chambers. When the Court is hearing arguments on select Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, you can queue up to watch hour-long sessions or to peek in for just a few minutes. For the current schedule, visit the Supreme Court website. As with the Capitol, lines form early, especially for the more interesting cases. On days that the Court is not sitting, guests can hear lectures in the courtroom or view the exhibits on the ground floor.

Literary political buffs may wish to visit the Library of Congress and the National Archives. The Library of Congress’ guided tour mainly highlights the beauty and architecture of the building. If you’re not interested in that, skip the tour and go on your own to the “American Treasures” exhibit. You’ll find a changing display of documents, such as books from Thomas Jefferson’s library and original political cartoons.

The National Archives is the Holy Grail for political buffs because it houses the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, an original copy of the Magna Carta, as well as other historic documents. Be prepared to wait in line, both to enter the building and to see the famous works. The “Public Vaults” exhibit offers interactive displays as well as additional examples of the Archive’s collection, such as the Emancipation Proclamation. The exhibit impresses guests with how real it can make history, as well as with the incredibly neat penmanship of our founding fathers.

An easy walk from the Archives is Ford’s Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. When the working theater is not in rehearsal or having a performance, visitors can go up to the second-floor balcony and peek into the box where Lincoln was seated. Downstairs, a small museum chronicles the events of the time. Across the street, you can also tour the Petersen House where Lincoln breathed his last and investigations into his murder were conducted.

Power lunches and stargazing

The District’s restaurants and bars are the settings of historic moments and present-day deal-making. Choose your lunch or happy hour wisely, and you can join a long list of famous customers or spy a policymaker across a crowded room.

For power lunching, make a reservation at the Oval Room. The upscale bistro sits catty-corner to the White House’s public gardens, and the atmosphere is laden with important conversations. The waiters, clad head-to-toe in black, hardly say a word—you’d think they were retired Secret Service men and certainly able to keep a secret. Diners in suits carry briefcases and talk business, either in the small bar or in the main dining room. If you spot a politician, keep mum—this is not a place for autographs.

The 701 restaurant offers a more relaxed atmosphere for stargazing, though you’ll still want to trade your tourist sneakers and jeans for business-casual attire. It’s across from the National Archives and Department of Justice. You may not recognize your fellow diners, but you can bet there are more than a handful of lawyers or government employees surrounding you.

A drink in this town can put you smack in the annals of history, or at least seated nearby. You’ll find three such spots not too far from the White House itself. The Willard Intercontinental Hotel has housed soon-to-be presidents on the eve of their inaugurations since the mid-1800s. It’s where Ulysses S. Grant coined the term “lobbyists” for the bothersome folks who asked for favors while he enjoyed a drink in the Willard’s lobby, and where Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced Yankees to the mint julep. At the hotel’s Round Robin bar, ask for the “All the President’s Cocktails” menu, so you can order the favorite drink of your favorite president.

The Old Ebbitt Grill is one of the city’s oldest saloons, though it’s no longer at its original location. You may find some White House staffers or even some Secret Service agents relaxing at one of the restaurant’s four bars during happy hour. The Off the Record Bar at the Hay-Adams hotel is located in a dimly lit, red-walled basement room. It’s the perfect place for an intimate conversation in a corner or to slink down in one of the oversized chairs. Not surprisingly, it’s a favorite of journalists, as well as politicians and White House staffers. To add a lighter touch, the management has hung caricatures of visiting dignitaries and politicos on the walls.

A political night out

After a hard day of touring and power lunching, you might want to wind down with a show. D.C. has two political comedy troupes that will have you rolling in the aisles as they make fun of the country’s political climate.

The Capitol Steps present their show of political humor every Friday and Saturday night in downtown Washington. Tickets cost $39 through TicketMaster. Many of the performers used to be staffers for the House and Senate, so they have the inside view of the people and institutions they satirize.

Gross National Product has recently extended the run of its political comedy revue in the District’s Warehouse Theater. The troupe will be out of town through November 12, but will return to its regularly scheduled Saturday-night performances at 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $30 with a two-drink minimum.

Depending on how the November elections turn out, you might be in need of a laugh or two.

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