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TRAVEL: Easy DC; Take a break at the seat of the US government.

Byline: IAIN MAYHEW

IF you've taken a bite out of the Big Apple, been bowled over by the Windy City and had a mojito in Miami's Little Havana, isn't it time you tried some of America's other great cities?

This week Mirror Travel visits four destinations that make great short breaks, whether you want to shop - the pound is still strong against the dollar - see the sights or simply chill out in top-value restaurants. Have a nice stay...

HERE in front of me is the seat, quite literally, of modern America. Abraham Lincoln, his craggy face hewn out of white marble, appears deep in thought as he grips the arms of a throne-like chair.

This is the Lincoln Memorial in Constitution Gardens, Washington DC, and to my right I can just about make out the flat roof of the White House, while behind me, past the Washington Monument, is the huge domed building on Capitol Hill which is a beehive of Congressional corridors, Senate offices and Supreme Court chambers.

The squat, sinister Pentagon building is just across the Potomac river to the left, next door to the Arlington military cemetery where the headstones of some 250,000 US war dead march downhill to the Eternal Flame marking John F Kennedy's grave.

Standing here amid the symbols of the world's most powerful nation is quite overwhelming and not a little scary. And yet the feeling is strangely familiar.

Some years ago I remember walking across Moscow's Red Square and having exactly the same sense of treading the duckboards of history. Here was Lenin's tomb, flanked by the graves of communist leaders tucked under the Kremlin wall. I strolled across cobblestones glass-smoothed by the May Day parades of tanks and missile carriers which showed that this too was once a centre of world power.

It's an ironic thought, but then Americans don't really do irony. For example, on the side of Lincoln's Memorial here in Washington are quotes from his famous speeches such as the Gettysburg Address. But if I had been black - one of America's "poor and huddled masses" - when the memorial was unveiled in 1922, I'd have been crammed into a roped-off, Blacks Only area to watch the event.

To its credit, Washington set up Howard University, the first in America to enrol negroes, in 1867. But official segregation was reintroduced in 1920, banning blacks from entering all public buildings.

It wasn't until 1963 that Martin Luther King was able to make his famous "I have a dream..." speech on the very spot where I am standing now.

How ironic is that. Anyway, irony may not be top of your list when you come to Washington DC. It is a city of monuments, memorials and museums. Of broad avenues, stunning buildings and leafy parks. Here's how to make the most of this fascinating city.

WHAT TO SEE

Washington's main sights are all within a brisk stroll from the National Mall, the heart of the city. It runs for some two miles from Capitol Hill to the Potomac river and contains, with a few diversions here and there, the US Capitol, the US Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the Washington Monument, while the White House just a short walk away.

One of the best ways to get an overview of all this is to take a $20 (pounds 11) DC Duck Tour (www. historictours.com/washington).

Pick up one of these converted amphibious vehicles from the city's grand and gaudy Union Station and it will take you on a drive along the main avenues before splashing into the Potomac for a brief cruise.

The renowned Smithsonian Institution - founded by a Brit - has 15 museums which are all free and house some amazing treasures.

The badly-charred Apollo 11 command module, which astronaut Neil Armstrong used to make the first moon landing in 1967, stands in the foyer of the National Air and Space Museum.

Hanging nearby is the flimsy flying machine which Wilbur and Orville Wright used for the world's first powered flight - which lasted all of 12 seconds in 1903.

Across the Mall in the National Art Gallery you can feast your eyes on an incredible collection of paintings by Canaletto, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Monet and Warhol.

Other museums are dedicated to sport, the Holocaust, Native American art and, of course, in a city rooted in political intrigue, an International Spy Museum (www.spymuseum.org).

It costs a hefty $13 (pounds 7) to get in, but it's worth every buck. The most interesting exhibits are from the Cold War period, with tiny guns disguised as lipsticks, invisible ink writing kits and even a phone hidden in a shoe.

There are poison-tipped umbrellas, bugging devices and a painful-looking capsule containing a knife, razor and screwdriver marked "Rectal Tool Kit". Ouch.

Ford's Theatre (www.fords theatre.org) is worth a visit. This was where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Today it is more of a museum than a theatre, with some interesting artifacts including the Derringer pistol used by the assassin John Wilkes Booth and a piece of Lincoln's bloodstained coat.

You'll also want to see the White House - if only for the picture opportunity.

WHERE TO EAT

After all that sightseeing, you'll be hungry and Washington has some of the best restaurants in the US (all those Congressional expense-account lunches keep the standards high). Your best bet, though is to head to Georgetown, a delightful leafy area of 200-year-old houses, boutiques, bars and restaurants.

Have brunch at Clyde's on M Street, an atmospheric bar-restaurant, then trawl the shops before dinner at the Cafe Milano on Prospect Street. This is a favourite of Bill Clinton, Brad and Angelina and other celebs.

It's not badly priced either - a good pasta meal for two with wine should cost you no more than $40 (pounds 21).

THE SHOPPING

The Georgetown flea market is worth a stroll, with some chic - and kitsch - pottery and handicrafts. Or browse the city's funky home decor outlets, located in the U Street neighbourhood. One-off gifts will dazzle in stores like Home Rule and Go Mama Go!

Vastu and Muleh are more cool contemporary. Millennium Decorative Arts will delight the nostalgic shopper, with homeware, clothing and bric-a-brac treasures. Ruff N Ready stocks pre-1950s pieces for DIY assembly.

Miniature fanatics will love the mini home furnishings at the Washington Dolls' House.

And bargain hunters should try the outlet malls in Maryland, which include Arundel Mills just 10 minutes from Washington-Baltimore airport.

WHERE TO STAY

I stayed at the Hotel Helix (www.helixhotel.com), a cosy little place with a lively bar on Rhode Island Avenue, about a 20-minute stroll from the National Mall. If you want to push the boat out, try the new Four Seasons in Georgetown (www.fourseasons.com).

THE BEST

On my last day I returned to Constitution Gardens to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It consists of a black wall, some 250ft long, etched with the names of 60,000 men who died during the conflict.

I watched several men, perhaps not the lean, mean, fighting machines they once were, as they took rubbings of the names of fallen comrades from the wall.

It is a moving place and a visit will remain in your thoughts for some time. There is a Korean War Memorial nearby and the Second World War monument. How long will it be before an Iraq War memorial joins the others?

GETTING THERE

The city is served by Washington Dulles or Baltimore- Washington airport. Each has direct British Airways flights from Heathrow.

British Airways Holidays offers three nights from pounds 619 per person, based on departures during November. This includes return scheduled flights from Heathrow with three nights, accommodation only, at the Helix. The price is based on two adults sharing. For reservations visit www.ba.comor call 0870 243 3406.

CAPTION(S):

IMPOSING: The Lincoln Memorial' ETERNAL: Kennedy's grave' HISTORIC: The Apollo 11 space capsule' DOME OFFICE: Washington's Capitol Hill' DREAM DATE: Martin Luther King speaking
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 30, 2006
Words:1336
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