Washington, D.C. in 5...

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Published January 14, 2009

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Let’s face it, almost everything about D.C. seems monumental when a new President comes to town, but as you walk and ride the Metro trains around, keep in mind that history comes in unexpected and often fun shapes and sizes.

5. Black History Two Ways on U Street

Start a morning by emerging from the U St./Cardozo Metro stop at 10th and U to see the African American Civil War Memorial, anchored by a statue depicting black servicemen who served in the Union Army. Note the detail in the faces and uniforms of the infantrymen and lone sailor. The statue’s encircled by a wall of honor with the names of 200,000 black soldiers as well as thousands of Hispanic and white servicemen. Head next to the African American Civil War Museum (1200 U St. N.W., 202-667-2667), not in the Masonic lodge looming over the statue, but in an intimate two-room storefront near 12th and U. Almost whimsically stuck in among photographs of black soldiers, musket bullets, and other artifacts is a life-size cardboard cutout of Barack Obama. A few feet away is the museum’s somber highpoint, a reproduction of the Emancipation Proclamation flanked by actual shackles used to transport slaves.

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History of another kind simmers off 13th and U at Ben’s Chili Bowl (1213 U St. N.W., 202-667-0909), black owned and operated since 1958. Plant yourself on one of the dozen red cushion-topped stools at the counter (show up by 11 a.m. to beat the rush) and order a Ben’s Original Chili Half-Smoke ($4.95), a hot dog that’s split and topped with onions, mustard, and chili and served with potato chips. If you can’t tell if it’s the mustard or chili that’s spicy—the counter staff will contend that it’s neither—-order another without mustard. Don’t miss the printout taped on the juice machine: “Who eats free at Ben’s: Bill Cosby/The Obama family.”

4. Spyware and Shoe Leather

You can barely turn around in Washington without bumping into a free museum, so why pay for one? At the International Spy Museum (800 F. St. N.W., 202-393-7798, $18) the answer mostly lies in the initial exhibits. Shoes, you’ll be reminded, have often played a pivotal role in espionage: you’ll spy a Maxwell Smart-like shoe with a heel transmitter and boots with dress-shoe bottoms that helped downed soldiers blend in with civilians behind enemy lines. Exhibits and interactive kiosks sprawl across five buildings, but the must-see is one of the three Aston Martin DB5’s used during the filming of the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” Every few minutes the car’s multiple license plates and three-pronged tire slashers revolve, the front machine guns roar, and in a moment worth the price of admission, that handy armored shield slides up from the trunk to protect the back window from gunfire. Alas, photography’s not permitted in the museum. The funky gift shop has unusual and inexpensive souvenirs (handcuff key chains or lipstick pens, $4).

3. Beefs and Empanadas

Baby blue, plum, and lavender-painted buildings clue you in to the fact that Adams-Morgan doesn’t take itself too seriously. Walk up 18th Street, keeping an eye out for the purple-windowpaned jazz club wickedly calling itself Madam’s Organ, which sits next to Tryst Coffeehouse (2459 18th Street NW, 202-232-5500). Like a furniture showroom, but with taste, Tryst has communal and single tables, couches, and chairs interspersed and turned every which way, enabling either crackling conversation or solitary loafing. And the coffee’s good, too ($3.72 for a 16 oz latte). Across the street, three stools, a counter, and kitchen are all there is to Julia’s Empanadas (2452 18th St. NW, 202-387-4100), all baked, all $3.41. The Chilean-style beef version is the favorite and there’s usually a creative vegetarian option on the menu.

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Continue up 18th to the intersection of Columbia and Adams Mill Roads to the Adams-Morgan Festivus Pole. A departure from the stark aluminum model suggested by “Seinfeld’s” Frank Costanza, this square red pole is bound by four large white boards covered with post-its and written “grievances” stapled-on that are read aloud every Saturday and Sunday at noon. They range from the resigned: “My Ex is doing much better than me” and “The IRS is sucking away my boyfriend’s time,” to the head-scratching: “The Parking Garage!” “The poor fish!”

2. Respects to Abe and Fallen Heros

Okay, this one’s obvious to anyone who’s seen a movie set in the nation’s Capitol, but few experiences on earth compare to slowly mounting the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and having Abe slowly fill your vision. The “No sliding down banisters” sign at the top of the stairs may mar the austerity of the moment, but you’ll quickly get it back as you hang a left to read the Gettysburg Address etched on the wall. Towards the end of the address, fix on the phrase “a new birth of freedom,” which figured into the end of Barack Obama’s announcement for the presidency and is also the theme of the Inauguration.

Head back down the stairs, turn right, and walk to Virginia. Just do it. How often can you say you walked across a state line? A manageable 15-minute stroll over the Arlington Memorial Bridge takes you almost directly to Arlington National Cemetery. After seeing the JFK gravesite, stop by Robert F. Kennedy’s grave nearby; its stark simplicity will rock you on your heels. Also visit the tomb of Mary Randolph, the first person known to be buried at Arlington, and walk to the front of the Robert E. Lee house for an unparalleled view of the JFK gravesite and the monuments of D.C. If you don’t have the fortitude to walk back, duck into the Arlington Cemetery metro station.

1. Torpedoes and Trinkets on the Potomac

If Georgetown and Adams-Morgan had a child it might turn out like nearby Old Town Alexandria – stately, but sporting a laid back vibe. The antique shops, boutiques and restaurants on King Street appear to multiply as you draw nearer to the riverside wharf. The key attraction on the waterfront is the three-story Torpedo Factory (105 N. Union St., 703-838-4565), which manufactured torpedo parts during both world wars and is now an art center, which might be handy if you owe someone custom-made jewelry. The building still has the clinical feel of the factory as well as a couple torpedoes casually displayed on the first floor.

An Old Town visit is ideal on the day you fly out as it’s only two Metro stops from Reagan National Airport, so take the opportunity to fill your pockets with last-minute souvenirs. With trinkets a cut above the ubiquitous patriotic tee-shirts and key chains, America (113 King St., 703-838-9650) stocks offbeat keepsakes including a “Hail to the Chef” apron and an Obama million dollar bill on sale for just 99 cents. A sign of the times, perhaps? If you can’t find a souvenir right for you, a unique one might already be in your pocket: Metro ticket machines are selectively spitting out commemorative passes with a mug shot of the 44th president.

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