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Insider: Washington, D.C.

Robert Wright

Photo: Robert Wright

You've never had as much fun in Albany, Springfield, or Tallahassee as you have in New York, Chicago, and Miami, right?Lots of capital cities hardly ever seem to cut loose, squelching a visitor's search for fun with a sense that Mom and Dad are always home. And none has sustained this stuffiness as effectively as Washington, D.C. — until now. There's a new administration and the nation's capital suddenly has a new attitude. With dozens of sophisticated hotels and restaurants, sleek nightclubs, and worldly boutiques, this former dowager has become the self-assured life of the party — without forsaking its sense of responsibility to the nation, of course. Here's what not to miss in the revitalized Washington.

Washington's hippest address, the Hotel George (15 E St. NW; 800/576-8331 or 202/347-4200, fax 202/347-4213; doubles from $350) attracts a fashionable, sometimes famous crowd — the 'N Sync boys, Alanis Morissette, Grace Jones have been spotted in the swank Bistro Bis bar — but doesn't make a fuss about it. Though artist Steve Kaufman's neon silk-screen rendition of a dollar bill gets redundant (the original in a lobby lounge, copies in every room), the stylish furnishings do not.

The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C. (1150 22nd St. NW; 800/241-3333 or 202/835-0500, fax 202/835-1588; doubles from $450) opened last October in the West End (a tony neighborhood between downtown and Georgetown) with 300 luxe rooms. Guests have access to a serene Japanese garden with waterfall, plus unlimited use of the vast Sports Club/LA gym (look for CNN talkmeister Larry King on the treadmill). A second Ritz-Carlton opens in Georgetown early next year.

You don't have to be in town on business to relish the St. Gregory Luxury Hotel & Suites (2033 M St. NW; 800/829-5034 or 202/223-0200, fax 202/223-0580; doubles from $120), which offers high-speed Internet access in every room and, for guests on the top three floors, free evening snacks and cocktails from a full bar. Another plus for biz (and leisure) travelers: solicitous staff (they actually call guests to inquire whether there are any needs left unmet).

Also on the horizon: new properties from the Kimpton Group and Mandarin Hotels, both slated to open by 2003.

Book lovers and die-hard keepsake hounds, get thee to the Library of Congress. There you can take the city's most rewarding tour (in the Jefferson Building alone, one of three structures that house the library, browse the 6,487 volumes of Thomas Jefferson's personal collection, and behold one of the world's three perfect vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible). Best of all, get your very own free, photo-emblazoned library card, which endows the holder with reading room privileges good for two years. For the card, head to the Madison Building on Independence Avenue, room LM140; you'll need a driver's license, a passport, or another government-issued photo ID. Call 202/707-8000 for tour times.


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