Visitors can’t help but gape when they first glimpse the majestic lobby of Willard InterContinental Washington, DC. Bathed in gold and blue splendor, the luxurious hotel just two blocks from the White House shines brightly with its fresh coat of paint and updated look. But the momentous history of the hotel remains, and oh, if these halls could talk. They’d whisper about celebrities and world leaders, writers and risk-takers.
Willard InterContinental Washington, DC, opened its doors two centuries ago and has been a key location for dealmaking politicians ever since. In fact, nearly every U.S. president since 1853 has spent time there. President Abraham Lincoln even stayed 10 days in the hotel with his family before his inauguration in 1861.
Built in 1818, Willard InterContinental Washington, DC, began as a modest guest house but quickly became one of Washington’s most important addresses. The hotel welcomed countless illustrious guests who sought its proximity to important landmarks, like the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall. Amelia Earhart attended a ball there in 1931, and Martin Luther King Jr. prepared his “I Have a Dream” speech there in 1963. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced Washingtonians to their first mint julep in the hotel’s Round Robin Bar (today the bar serves more than 20,000 mint juleps a year). President Ulysses S. Grant was a frequent guest who coined the term “lobbyist,” when referring to the gaggle of individuals stationed in the lobby requesting favors from him.
“This place has been a stopping point for those who make history,” writes Willard historian Marie Carr. To learn more about its legendary guests, check out the hotel’s History Gallery located near the F Street entrance.
Today, guests will find Willard InterContinental Washington, DC, brighter and more beautiful than ever, thanks to DC artist Maggie O’Neill, who designed the sparkling interiors. Last summer, O’Neill unveiled renovations of the Peacock Room, Crystal Room, and Peacock Alley, and they look even more remarkable decorated for the holidays. “We’ve been recognized as one the best decorated hotels in all of the North America,” says Ernie Arias, the hotel’s area vice president of commercial. “This year, our decorations will remain true to our classic style, with some new looks.”
The season kicks off with nightly entertainment by Christmas carolers throughout December. The groups perform in the lobby from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. “There’s a schedule online, and we will have some new holiday activities in our bar,” adds Arias. The “over-the-top holiday” packages, Arias says, allow guests to stay overnight in a presidential suite and experience an exclusive shopping experience at the Charles Schwartz jewelry store in the lobby.
Some of the classic rooms offer panoramic views of the city, but the suites are something special. The most exclusive is the Jenny Lind Suite (named for the American opera singer who stayed here) on the top floor with portholes on the turreted ceiling. The sunken tub area has a round window overlooking the Washington Monument. Some suites are named for U.S. presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams, and the Oval Suites are inspired by the White House’s Oval Office.
Dining at Willard InterContinental Washington, DC, is truly a grand occasion, especially for afternoon tea in Peacock Alley and the new Tea Room. Café du Parc has a continental menu designed by Chef Gyo Santa who was trained at Le Cordon Bleu Paris and has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants throughout France.
While the Willard is one of the grandest hotels in the country, its staff is also one of the most gracious and welcoming. Arias says dozens of staff members have been with the hotel for more than 30 years. “If you’ve worked here only 10 years, you’re a newbie,” he laughs. “Although the Willard has been a Washington institution for over 200 years, we are ever evolving. We stay current with the trends and services we provide our guests.”
It’s always been a place to see and be seen. To make your own grand promenade, walk from the F Street entrance through Peacock Alley to the lobby off Pennsylvania Avenue. You’ll pass by the elegant peacocks painted on the walls, your feet sinking into sumptuous carpets and eyes drawn to the ceiling adornments in blue, white, and gold, while crystal chandeliers turn your face aglow. It’s old-school glamour and perfect for photos.
Be sure to stroll across Pennsylvania Avenue and 16th Street to admire the U.S. Capitol dome. Then continue to President’s Park to see the magnificent National Christmas Tree and National Menorah (December 2–January 1). Follow the Pathway of Peace to inspect the 58 evergreens decorated by each American state and territory. Perhaps Willard InterContinental Washington, DC, will become your annual holiday headquarters, for a festive meal or unforgettable staycation.
Feature image courtesy Willard InterContinental Washington, DC
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