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D.C. after dark is a blazing beauty

At 8 on a recent summer's eve, a small group of people gathered on the steps of the Capitol to watch the setting sun paint the sky in hues of dark blue and vivid pink.

The sinking of the sun set off a chain reaction. Floodlights snapped on along the National Mall. The Washington Monument, between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, was one of the first buildings aglow, floodlights training up the great obelisk's length. In back of it, looking like a miniature Greek temple, the Lincoln Memorial shone stark white.Dan Bailes, who owns a video production company and lives in the Capitol Hill district, stood at the top of the Capitol steps. "This is a show I never get tired of," he said, gazing upon the Mall.

It's easy to see why.

The city becomes a blazing beauty as the buildings that make up the district's skyline light up. Lit by thousands of lights, Washington becomes a truly illuminated city.

The Mall, so busy that afternoon with visitors scurrying between the National This Museum and the National That Museum, becomes tranquil at this hour. Joggers find their paths clear of tourists, most of whom have vacated the city's core via the subway to slumber in nearby hotels. But to the patient traveler, the city is just beginning to reveal another, softer, dimension.

Though most of the museums close their doors at 5:30 p.m., one need not set foot indoors at night to appreciate what the buildings hold. The ornate ceiling of the Capitol's rotunda, for instance, is lighted during the evening and can be seen through the long windows of the building's dome.

Nearby on Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court Building - so imposing by day - becomes even more monumental at night. Washed in stark white light, its columns soar high above the building's steps to vanish in the milky shadows that cling to its triangular roof.

Several blocks away, Union Station is abuzz with nocturnal activity. The cavernous Beaux Arts-style building is easy to visit at night, thanks to the Metro subway stop within it.

A recent renovation breathed life back into Union Station and the area surrounding it. Besides the subway stop and an Amtrak station, the place holds about 125 shops, including the Nature Company, a Victoria's Secret and, appropriately, The Great Train Store, which sells everything from shot glasses with trains etched in them to videotapes on steam engines.

Union Station's Metro Concourse holds about 30 international fast-food restaurants as well as a nine-screen movie theater. You can get everything from a fresh pastry to a taco here, wash it down with one of a variety of international beers, then head for the movie theater to catch the latest release.

Its Main Hall, with its soaring 96-foot barrel-vaulted ceilings, boasts a good selection of restaurants and cafes. Among them is America, which spreads itself over two levels and offers an extensive menu of dishes brought back from across the United States. You'll find muffalatas, a New Orleans specialty, as well as such common fare as pork chops and mashed potatoes.

Close by, on Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill, tourists mingle with locals at ethnic restaurants and small bars that dot the street. Some diners opt to eat al fresco by streetlight, trading exhaust fumes for the chance to dine and drink under the sky.

Taverna The Greek Islands (307 Pennsylvannia Ave.) is crowded with patrons craving the restaurant's Greek specialties - lamb stew, moussaka and kebabs. Nearby, Slick Willie's (319 Pennslyvania Avenue) offers burgers and pizza in a relaxed setting.

Down Pennsylvania from the Capitol building, skateboarders make use of the flat cement of Freedom Plaza, which bears an inlaid map of part of L'Enfant's city plan. From the plaza, visitors can gaze down Pennsylvania Avenue for an uninterrupted view of the Capitol, which juts into the city's darkening skyline like a white, domed hill.

The Old Post Office Building looms diagonally across the street from the plaza. The building's three lowest levels hold an array of shops and a food court, but after dark, visitors would do best to scale its 315-foot clock tower. The second-tallest structure in D.C., it is perhaps best-known for the eagle-eye view it offers of the city.

Perhaps the best view of the city at night is from the top of the Washington Monument, which rises more than 555 feet from its perch on a small bulge in the middle of the Mall.

During the day, tickets are required for the free elevator ride to the top of the monument. But from 8 p.m. to midnight (April through Labor Day), it's first-come, first-served.

Visitors crowd around the tiny windows at the top of the structure, moving from one to the next as they use maps above the windows to identify the buildings below. Many of the structures are easily identifiable - the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, perched on the banks of the gleaming Potomac River. The red sandstone of the Smithsonian Institution Building on the southwest Mall makes the "Castle," with its Gothic Revival spires, easy to recognize. The reflecting pool at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial catches the light from the massive structure in which Lincoln sits, throwing it back in shimmers off its still surface.

Two memorials made more poignant by the dark lie near the Lincoln Memorial. Footlights illuminate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as visitors stroll past, some of them searching the wall for a particular name, their eyes brimming with tears.

Across the reflection pool at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, statues of soldiers are bathed in brilliant light.

Nearby on the Potomac, the Jefferson Memorial shines in the white light. Earlier in the evening, the sun had forced its rays through its pillars to create a masterpiece in mauve.

Washington at night has much more to offer, of course. Georgetown's restaurants lure with elegant dining and casual bistros, and the windows of its brownstones are warmly lit from within. Chinatown offers Asian delicacies at its restaurants, and the clubs that dot the district are just beginning to rock.

Do all these things and more, but only after your illuminating nocturnal tour.