We now visit the USA in serious numbers but, curiously, we rarely set foot in the capital. 

To a native, however, Washington is the Mecca, a place of pilgrimage, a showcase of an exemplary democracy, a gallery of American values other than Coca Cola and Mickey Mouse. Tourism, after government, is the city's most important industry.

Washington is one of the world's great imperial cities. Its squint-white marble memorials and monuments, towering statuary, triumphal avenues, obelisks, shrines and stately edifices are every inch as majestic as those of Paris or Rome, Vienna or St. Petersburg.

Washington, or just plain DC, is a surprisingly un-American city, full of breadth, incised by wide boulevards, punctuated with circuses, partitioned by parks. A fifth of the map is shaded green. Washington's famous Mall is not a shoppers' paradise with branches of the Gap and K Mart, but a swathe of grass and gravel.

The prime reason to visit Washington is not to admire the legacies of a crumbled dynasty, or a long-decayed empire, but the trappings of at 21st century super state at the height of its powers.

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