WASHINGTON — Pierre Charles l'Enfant was a French-born architect-artist-engineer whose father had worked on Versailles when George Washington asked him to design our nation's capital. Just to make sure of attaining the proper level of stateliness and splendor, he borrowed Thomas Jefferson's maps of major European cities before sitting down to his drawing board.
What grew from his sketches is a city with all the beauty and grandeur one could hope for, its broad and majestic avenues, green malls, reflecting pools and tidal basins set in place with all the care of a Renaissance master's cartoon for a major work.
The living spirit of a country and its capital is everywhere: parks and plazas almost heroic in size and reach; magnificent memorials honoring our most illustrious leaders and heroes; museums and galleries surely among the world's finest; architecture of almost Athenian brilliance.
Myopic developers have occasionally made their scars with an unseemly hotel or office building. But from L'Enfant's blueprint a city has blossomed handsomely on the Potomac, one of which we can all be enormously proud, and none should fail to visit.
Here to there: United, American, TWA, Continental, USAir and Northwest will fly you to Dulles or National airports. Good bus-limo service from either, plan a half-hour from National, 45 minutes from Dulles except during rush hours.
How long/how much? No fewer than five days for a first-timer with across-the-board interests. Lodging prices are on the expensive side except on weekends when many hotels lower rates and toss in extras. Surprisingly good dining at moderate cost, not counting the ritzy or power-lunch places.
A few fast facts: Late spring and fall are best times for a visit, avoiding summer crowds and heat-humidity that will soak your seersucker. Fine bus-Metro system with 75-cent rides, block tickets for less.
Getting settled in: An excellent comfort-location value for this town is Hotel Washington (Pennsylvania Avenue at 15th Street; $96 double), an Italian Renaissance structure that faces the Treasury Building and White House. Hand-carved furniture and ornate decor in huge lobby, bedrooms a mix of styles, rates to jump at year-end.
Harrington (11th and E streets; $58) caters to families and young folks with neat but nothing-fancy rooms, some with five beds, a small and sometimes hectic lobby. Getting a little long in the tooth, but location just off Pennsylvania is near perfect for sights.
Bed 'n Breakfast Ltd. (Box 12011; (202) 328-3510) has rooms in homes all over town in the $40-$75 double range. These could be great for short budgets or long stays.
Regional food and drink: Cooks in this city advance to chef status or die on how well they prepare Maryland crab cakes, one of life's absolute delights when prepared with care and devotion. You won't find a menu without them and other Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Shore delicacies.
The local accent is on American food well-prepared, the likes of shrimp, duck, salmon, trout, superb soft-shell crab, even an American-made blue chevre that we found excellent. Good American and foreign wines everywhere, a local craving for Boston's Samuel Adams lager.
Moderate-cost dining: Old Ebbitt Grill (675 15th St.) is the sort of place you long for, old-fashioned without being ersatz turn-of-the-century tacky, polished brass, gas lights, marvelous feeling of the old Washington. Practically on White House lawn, fine menu, crab cakes delicious.
The Wayfarers (110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria) is the area's most ancient tavern, two centuries of serving the best of American and English fare. In a typical Alexandria house of old timbers, lovely green patio out back, excellent seafood and duck, steak and kidney-oyster-mushroom pies, pheasant with wild mushrooms and juniper berries.
Fitch, Fox & Brown (Old Post Office Building) has been at it since two Harvards and a Yalie met and decided to enter the restaurant business in 1905. Bright-eyed blonde Mary La Spada now holds forth for the long-gone trio, making sure that anything that comes out of the kitchen or across the green-marble bar will satisfy. Straightforward menu, springtime colors throughout, a colorful and happy place. Restaurant Hunan in same building is good spot for spicier-than-Szechuan lunches, dinners.
Other good bets are Clyde's of Georgetown (3236 M St.) or Bullfeathers (Theodore Roosevelt's watered-down expletive), one at 410 1st St., the other 112 King in Alexandria, solid American menus at all three.
Going first-class: Short of writing a book, how do you possibly convey the historic and cultural impact the Willard Inter-Continental (1401 Pennsylvania Ave.; $180-$255) has had on Washington since opening its doors in 1850?