IT’S funny how your favourite city may not be your favourite for walking in. Jakarta is a great city, infinitely interesting and to any writer with the energy of a purring kitten a source of endless, compelling material. But you really cannot walk anywhere much in it because of the smog and the traffic. Similarly, the biggest American cities, Los Angeles most obviously, assume that while people may walk on treadmills for exercise, everybody travels by car.
This is often true even in small-town America. Recently, I stayed in a resort in Florida, on the Gulf Coast, where there was no coffee shop or grocery store within walking distance. Absolutely everyone there except me had a car. By chance, there was a Hilton hotel nearby and it was there I took my sustenance, though of course walking in the verdant grounds of the resort was a great pleasure.
The best walking cities, like London and Istanbul, are ancient, densely populated places with an abundant architectural inheritance and a grand scale. Large swaths of London and Istanbul offer you a new architectural treasure around every corner. Not to mention, in their centres, countless coffee shops that whisper intrigue, and bookshops galore. Of course they have their grimy bits too.
Perhaps the most exquisitely beautiful city in the world is Kyoto. But its temples are too dispersed to travel around by foot.
But I want to offer you, dear reader, an inside tip. The great neglected walking city is Washington, DC. Altogether, Washington is a great city. More so even than New York (another metropolis designed for the foot- bound) and certainly more than London or any Asian city, Washington effectively is the capital of the world. More decisions affecting more people are mediated in Washington than anywhere else. A lot of people understand that. But it is also, culturally and ambulatorily, an exquisite and neglected gem.
It’s not neglected by Americans, of course, who come there in great numbers to see its monuments, and to celebrate and learn something of their national story.
Americans have a perhaps unfair reputation in many parts of the world for being a little loud as tourists. But the Americans who commit tourism in Washington have a higher purpose in mind and generally comport themselves with dignity and good humour; they display in spades what former Age editor Michael Gawenda once memorably called ‘‘ the great American friendliness’’. Generally Americans are at their best when they are a little earnest. A pilgrimage to Washington is as close for millions of Americans as it gets to a pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims.
It’s easy to miss the beauty of Washington unless you look for it systematically. The Mall and the Smithsonian are designed for walking. Americans commemorate their history superbly. Washington is full of real history as well as beautiful, created monuments to history such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam and Korean war memorials. But there are many other Washingtons to explore.
There are dozens of galleries throughout the city. Every block seems to host a Starbucks or Caribou or some similar coffee outlet, with plotting and scheming always under way. There are superb districts around Dupont Circle with that dignified old American architecture and finely manicured streets. There are walks among the cherry blossoms by the Potomac River, seafood restaurants in abundance, funky Hispanic areas such as Adams Morgan. There are cobbled streets and arts and crafts, antiques and secondhand bookshops in Old Town Alexandria. And you can get across town on what must be one of the best and easiest subway systems in the world.
There are broad avenues that reward every negligent stroll with a triumphal statue celebrating American history. I should direct you to Sheridan Square, where a Civil War general I claim as a distant relative, an extremely violent but personable cavalier, sits tall on the biggest steed I have seen.
It’s one of those cities, like London, New York or Hong Kong, where even if you don’t have any particular business there you can feel the energy pulsating out of the pavements. It has four splendidly distinct seasons, from a sub-zero winter to a baking summer and the charm of the cherry blossom in spring.
I have the sense that foreign tourists don’t visit Washington as much as they might. It’s a gem, hidden in plain sight.