The US Capitol Plaza in Washington is quiet on a Sunday morning.

Mention the United States and most South African tourists think either New York or Disneyland… but some new options are opening up now that South African Airways is flying direct to the American capital, Washington, D.C.

A team of marketers from D.C. (that’s what they call it there) was recently in South Africa to talk to local travel agents and journalists about the attractions of the city as a destination in its own right, or as part of a tour, including the “big name” places like New York.

SAA flies into Washington’s Dulles International Airport and, from there, there are plentiful local transport connections (subway and taxi) to get you into the city and from then on elsewhere… for instance New York is just a two-and-three-quarter-hour train ride from D.C., says Elliott L. Ferguson II, president and CEO of Destination D.C., the official convention and tourism corporation for the city.

“People can visit both D.C. and New York and either fly into or out of Washington or New York, which SAA flies to.”

Ferguson says D.C. is a “definite change of pace” after the frenzy which is New York.

“We have a really beautiful city, which has only around 700 000 residents (because most commute in during the day to work from Maryland and Virginia)… and we have miles and miles of beautiful streets and parks.”

Apart from being home to the nation’s government and the place where Barack Obama hangs his hat for most of the year, Washington boasts some of the best museums and galleries in the US, if not the world.

One of those is the National Air and Space Museum, part of the world-famous Smithsonian Institute. It features some of the world’s important and historical air and space craft, including the Boeing B-29 Superfortress which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; a replica of the Apollo lunar landing module and, its most recent acquisition, the Space Shuttle.

Theresa Belpusi, vice president of Tourism and Visitor Services at Destination D.C., says there is a host of other museums, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the International Spy Museum as well as the Newseum, which is dedicated to the history of journalism.

There are many monuments across the city, because Washington “takes history seriously”, says Ferguson. Included is the strikingly simple enormous granite wall erected as a memorial to those Americans who died in the Vietnam War and whose names are inscribed there. Every day, people gather there, to remember.

Belpusi says the city is also “bike, walker and runner friendly” with safe and accessible routes for all of those pastimes.

Ferguson says people from D.C. sometimes do “get a bit tired” of people telling them that the best places to eat are in New York.

“While I’m not saying New York doesn’t offer great dining experiences, I must point out that D.C. has been acclaimed for its restaurants, both in their quality and variety…”

Belpusi says Washington also offers a good jumping-off point for tourists wishing to explore other iconic American cities which, for a country the size of the States, are comparatively close… places like Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Says Ferguson: “We think that Washington D.C. is definitely a destination which should be on the radar for South Africans.”

l - Saturday Star