Sunday, April 01, 2012

Proper Capitalization: A Seth Saith Travel Guide to Washington, DC

All photos by Seth Arkin; please do not use without attribution
An old friend recently told me he would soon be visiting Washington, DC for the first time, on a vacation with his wife and daughters.

As I've known him since kindergarten, this means neither of us went on our 8th grade class trip to the nation's capital. But I've been there four times, strictly for pleasure, first on a family vacation in the summer of 1977 and subsequently in 1993, 2001 and 2008.

So without pretending to be the most current or comprehensive source of capital planning information, like I've done when friends were heading to San Francisco and London, I thought I'd put together some suggestions of things to see and do in Washington, DC.

While my recommendations are slightly custom-tailored based on what I know about my friend, the information should be beneficial to any Mr. Smith going to Washington.

Most of what I cite is fairly obvious and largely echoed by the Top 10 Washington, DC guidebook, as well as Yahoo! Travel's list of Things to Do in Washington, DC. But to do all that I mention--let alone other worthwhile attractions and activities--could easily fill a full month of sightseeing, so for a 3-4 day trip, my foremost suggestion is that my friend's family (or anyone) prioritize their time around the 3-4 sights of primary personal interest, particularly to the kids.

In other words, no one should take my listings as a constitutional declaration--one had to expect some capital 'pun'ishment--but rather as some personal insights from which one can make their own amendments.

Plus, like any great tourist city--and despite the mostly negative connotations of the word "Washington" and challenges of crime and economics faced by its citizenry, the U.S. capital is truly an A+ tourist destination--Washington is a phenomenal place to plan to do one thing, discover some intriguing diversion along the way and derive qualm-less pleasure from calling plenty of audibles.

I should note that while many of my suggestions are based on my own experiences, I have cited some additional attractions I have not personally visited. Also, my focus is on sightseeing as I'm not equipped to provide much guidance in terms of lodging, dining or shopping. But in 2008 I enjoyed my stay at the wonderfully-located and relatively reasonably-priced Phoenix Park Hotel, walking distance from the Capitol Building. Though I can't cite specifics, I favorably recall the on-site Dubliner Pub and believe it should be fine for kids. The AAA TourBook also highlights the Old Ebbitt Grill (675 15th St. NW), which has existed since 1856 and is around the corner from the White House (not its original location).

And now, without further filibustering, here is:

Seth Saith's guide to enjoying a monumental inaugural visit to Washington, DC

I thought a map might be a helpful place to start and found this one on Click to enlarge.
Map copyright

Transportation Notes

- Washington Metro subway system - My friend asked me about Washington's subway system, so I'll address it upfront. The DC area, or "Beltway," has an excellent rapid transit system and the Metro can be an economical way to reach the National Mall (i.e. main tourist) area from Reagan National Airport or outlying area hotels. Within the central tourist area, the Metro will not likely come into play, unless visiting the Phillips Collection (DuPont Circle stop) or the Pentagon. The Washington Metro is one of the more architecturally attractive subway systems I've seen, so may be worth a look for that reason alone. The Union Station metro station would likely be your best option in that regard. Metro website

- Union Station - Unless you are reaching the capital by train, you probably won't need to utilize the venerable old station designed by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham and opened in 1907. But the main hall (shown at left) is rather lovely and much history has passed through these halls, so it's worth a peek if you're nearby. Union Station website

Main Attractions

1. National Mall
- No, you won't find a Macy's, Foot Locker or Sbarro at this mall; rather it is simply America's front lawn. Most monuments, museums, memorials and buildings tourists will visit in Washington are either on the Mall or its perimeter--with many listed below--but regardless which sites one chooses to explore, spend some time simply strolling around the mall. As you watch the hordes of tourists from around the world, and congressional staffers on lunch break, think about all the history that has happened here, from inaugurations to protests to the March on Washington. And spend some time reflecting at the Reflecting Pool, between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments. - National Park Service National Mall website

2. U.S. Capitol Building - Regardless what one thinks about the happenings inside its chambers, the Capitol stands not only as a global beacon for democracy, but one of the world's most beautiful buildings. Appreciate it from a variety of external angles, including perhaps within the adjacent (and free) U.S. Botanic Gardens, but plan ahead--or wake early--if you want to see the inside. The Capitol Visitor's Center on the capitol's east side (away from the Mall) is now the main entrance and has some exhibits, but only a limited number of same-day tour passes are available. You can try booking a tour online, but they seem to be full through April. Otherwise, an act of Congress--or at least a Congressperson--is required. How to book a tour 

3. White House - I'm told I did see the inside on our family trip in '77--lunch with the Carters as well?--but I haven't taken a tour since. Tour requests must be submitted through your member of Congress at least 21 days in advance. So you might have to settle for an exterior photo and an interactive tour online. How to book a tour

4. Lincoln Memorial - Honest Abe, what you can see on the back of a penny or $5 bill is worth shlepping to the east end of the Mall to see in person. Take the time to read the Gettysburg Address adorning the walls of the monument. website
5. Museum of American History - General references to "visiting the Smithsonian" may fail to fully convey that the Smithsonian is actually 19 different museums--some not even in DC--plus a Zoo and research centers. Defer to the kids' interests, but I like this one for its pop culture paraphernalia such as Archie Bunker's chair and the M*A*S*H signpost. But beware that some prime stuff such as Dorothy's Ruby Slippers, a Kermit the Frog puppet, Muhammad Ali boxing gloves and a Bob Dylan leather jacket won't be  on view until the American Stories exhibit opens on April 12 (seemingly switched from April 5). There is also a temporary gallery dedicated to the Museum of African American History and Culture while that building is under construction, with an exhibit on Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello. - overall Smithsonian website; Museum of American History website

6. National Gallery of Art - This is the best art museum in America without an admission charge and the only one where you can see works by both Raphael and Da Vinci. I especially like the Impressionism gallery where Van Gogh and Gauguin are paired off in perpetuity. Start with the main building but if time allows also see the I.M. Pei-designed East Building. NGA website

6a. National Sculpture Garden - With all the walking you'll do in Washington, within museums and out, places that provide a perfect respite will prove particularly nice. This wonderful sculpture garden just to the west of the National Gallery (of which it is part) features many splendid works of art set around a central fountain. Sit and give your feet a rest--and when you're ready to rise, give your eyes a treat. website

7. Library of Congress - Nowhere in America is any more storied--rimshot, please--nor has an interior any more resplendent (main lobby below). Free hourlong tours are offered Monday thru Saturday and are quite worthwhile. Library website; tour information

8. Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) - The most somber of all memorials on the Mall, the Wall can be a bit tricky to find. It's within a cluster of trees north of the reflecting pool, about 80% of the way down toward the Lincoln Memorial. Even for those with no direct connection to the war in Vietnam, this monument listing the names of those lost in battle is tremendously moving and surprisingly artful. website

9. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum - Other than possibly Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, this is the best Holocaust museum I've encountered. More than 10 years since my only visit, I still recall how stridently the wall text takes the United States to task for not intervening sooner than it did, despite this being a publicly-funded museum adjoining the National Mall. website

 10. Newseum - Ostensibly, the "news museum" focuses on journalism, but with strong permanent exhibits, intriguing special exhibits--a current one focuses on Presidential Campaigns and the Press--and multiple theaters/videos, the Newseum just as evocatively serves as a timeline of historical events. Its artifacts and media pertaining to Watergate are especially compelling, as is the 9/11 Gallery. Newseum website

11. U.S. Supreme Court - The highest court in the land is open to visitors to tour on weekdays, with courtroom lectures and even the opportunity to hear oral arguments available if you time it right. Visitor info; tour info; oral arguments page

12. National Air & Space Museum - A Smithsonian museum that tends to be popular with young boys of all ages given its plethora of old spacecraft and airplanes. Its collection also includes an original Star Trek production model of the USS Enterprise. website

13. Ford's Theatre - It was here that on April 14, 1865 an actor named John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. With its most recent renovation completed to commemorate Lincoln's 200th birthday in 2009, the theater stages a full slate of performances, but is also--along with the Petersen House across the street, where the President would die the next morning--a National Historic Site under the auspices of the National Park Service. Tours are conducted daily; the classic musical 1776 runs through May 19. theater website; park service website 

14. Washington Monument - Due to damage sustained in an earthquake last August, the monument remains closed, so you won't have to decide if it's worth the long climb to the top (there is also an elevator). When it is open, you have to get same day, timed tickets or can reserve in advance here. But for for now, although you won't be able to miss seeing it and should snap some photos, you needn't plan much time around it. website 

15. Arlington National Cemetery - With row after row of simple white headstones, the military cemetery provides much room for contemplation. Notable sights include the Tomb of the Unknowns, the graves of JFK and RFK, the Marine Corps War Memorial modeled after the Iwo Jima photograph and the Arlington House, which was the home of Robert E. Lee. Cemetery website; Arlington House website

16. Phillips Collection - This is an excellent art museum highlighted by Renoir's masterpiece Luncheon of the Boating Party (left), so I've made a point of getting to it on my last two Washington visits. But it's not on the Mall, making it harder to get to than the National Gallery and there is an admission charge for those over 18. website

17. Jefferson Memorial - This might be the most beautiful monument in Washington and well worth a photo op, but is a bit out of the way and its memorial plaza adjoining the Tidal Basin is currently closed for renovations (the memorial itself if open). website

18. The Pentagon - Between 9am-3pm on weekdays, tours are conducted of the world's largest building, which serves as the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense. Tours must be requested between 8 and 90 days in advance. The Pentagon is located in Arlington; take the Metro to get there. To request a tour 

19. National Archives - Especially if the kids have studied the Constitution, it might be interesting for them to see it, the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta here. National Archives Experience website 

20. Nationals Ballpark - It looks like the Nationals might finally be good for the first time in Washington, and their stadium is first-rate. Its unique exterior was inspired by that of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. If you can't get to a game, ballpark tours are also available. Nationals website; game schedule; tour info 

21. Diplomatic Reception Rooms, Department of State - Used for official functions hosted by the Secretary of State and other high level government officials, these rooms within the State Department are open for pre-arranged weekday tours at no charge. The rooms hold a premier collection of 18th century American furniture, paintings and decorative arts. website; tour information

22. Museum of Natural History - I've never been to this Smithsonian museum, but it seems to offer much for those who enjoy dinosaurs, geology and the like. The famed Hope Diamond is a highlight of the collection and among their ongoing exhibits is one on Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt. website

23. Smithsonian Castle - The headquarters of the Smithsonian Institution is housed in a beautifully unique building prominently positioned on the Mall. Worth a quick look inside, where an exhibit on the Smithsonian is housed. With free entry, its location can also provide a handy restroom option. website 

24. Washington National Cathedral (website) and/or Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (website) - Two of the largest and most ornate churches in the United States

25. Watergate Hotel and Office Complex - There is nothing here that the public can access--the hotel appears to still be amidst a renovation and the state of the office building is unclear--but I know my friend wouldn't mind at least snapping a picture. Getting there looks like it can be a challenge on foot, and perhaps not worth the effort. Wikipedia

Performing Arts Venues

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - Created as a living tribute to President Kennedy, the center holds an array of theater and arts performances. website

Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA - A rare--and terrific--production here of Kander & Ebb's The Visit is what actually prompted my Washington visit in 2008. website

Ford's Theatre - See #13 above

The National Theatre - A venerable venue that seems to have some nice free programs for kids on Saturday mornings. - website

Warner Theatre - Generally a concert venue. website

Tours and Neighborhoods

Washington Walks - website

Trolley Tours - website

Georgetown Neighborhood - Wikipedia; historic district website

Embassy Row - Wikipedia

More Memorials

World War II Memorial - website

Korean War Memorial - website

FDR Memorial - website

MLK Memorial - website

Gandhi Statue - online info

Albert Einstein Memorial - Wikipedia

DC Memorials website

Additional Museums and Attractions

Hirshhorn (Art) Museum and Sculpture Garden - website

American Art Museum - There's a current exhibit on the Art of Video Games - website 

National Postal Museum - website

International Spy Museum - website

National Museum of Crime and Punishment - website

Frederick Douglass Home & Historic Site - website 

National Museum of African Art - website

Freer Gallery and Sackler Gallery - Smithsonian museums focusing on Asian Art - website 

National Museum of the American Indian - website 

FBI Headquarters - no tours presently offered; tour website 

National Zoo - website

Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum - website 

Folger Shakespeare Library - website

Franciscan Monastery - website 

National Museum of American Jewish Military History - website

National Portrait Gallery - website

A Bit Beyond DC

Alexandria, VA - website

Mount Vernon - George Washington's home- website 

Baltimore, MD - The Inner Harbor, Baltimore Museum of Art, Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, National Aquarium and fine seafood restaurants make Baltimore worth a sojourn if you can't find enough to do in Washington itself - website

1 comment:

Seth Arkin said...

My cousin Karen, who has long lived in the DC area, also suggests the following:

- The 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon
- The Udvar Hazy Air and Space museum near Dulles airport
- Manassas Battlefield National Park
- The National Zoo to see the Pandas
- The Bureau of Printing and Engraving where the money is printed