RECOMMENDATIONS AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
Named for America’s first president, Washington is a beautiful city with impressive buildings on wide tree-lined streets, grassy parks, museums, art galleries, and historic monuments. See government at work in Supreme Court sessions and Senate debates. Visit the icons that symbolize the American heritage: the Declaration of Independence and the Lincoln Memorial. Tour the White House, one of the few residences of a head of state open to the public. Retire for respite in trendy Georgetown with its wealth of shops, cafés and restaurants.
Recommended Pacing: Washington, the nation’s capital, is one of those cities where you could spend a lifetime without seeing it all. To skim the highlights would take two or three days; to do it some justice, plan on a week.
Getting around Washington is fairly easy using a combination of walking, the Metro system, and (we recommend) Tourmobile Sightseeing, whose buses connect major landmarks via several interconnecting routes through the city and out to Arlington National Cemetery. Unlike many of the tour companies where you travel with a group and have an allotted time at each sightseeing venue, with Tourmobile, which is affiliated with the National Park Service, your ticket is valid for the entire day (9:30am to 4:30pm) and you hop off to visit the places that interest you, spending as much time as desired and then hop on the next bus that comes along. (Buses are approximately thirty minutes apart.) Tickets may be purchased with credit cards (MC, VS) at certain stops where there are ticket booths, or if you have cash or traveler’s checks you can embark at any stop and purchase tickets on board. (For pricing and information, www.tourmobile.com, tel: 888-868-7707. Note: Inquire about their two-day pass and know that they also offer an evening, twilight tour.) Each bus is staffed with a park service representative who provides interesting and informative narrative about Washington’s landmarks.
We give you the major sights in a natural order so that you can plot them on a detailed city map. Our selection is just a sampler of all there is to see and we suggest that for exploring Washington in depth, you purchase a comprehensive guidebook on the district.
Sightseeing in Washington focuses on The Mall, a vast sweep of lawns that stretches from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Bordering its eastern end are the magnificent museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institution, while its western section presents a vast area of parkland interspersed with famous memorials.
The Capitol Building is home to the Senate and the House of Representatives. It distinguishes a district of Washington D.C. referred to as Capital Hill. When the houses are in session you can see democracy in action either by making your own way round or taking a guided tour. Either way requires a ticket to enter, which can be obtained on the east side near the Supreme Court. Contact your senator or congressman for a special gallery pass. (1st Street NW between Independence and Constitution Avenues, 202-225-6827.www.aoc.gov) Interesting to note, standing proud in the middle of Capital Hill, located at the corner of 7th and D Streets, is a popular Washington restaurant, Monocles, still owned by the same family who 50 years ago stubbornly refused to relocate. A pretty, soft, yellow clapboard building, it is easy to spot as it contrasts dramatically with the regal architecture of the government buildings that surround it!
Behind the Capitol you can watch the justices of the Supreme Court in action in this gleaming white building by sitting through an hour of oral argument. If time is pressing, opt instead for a three-minute slot amidst a throng of rotating visitors. Lines for tickets are often long. When the court is not in session the building is still open. (1st and E. Capitol Streets NW, 202-479-3030.www.supremecourts.gov)
The adjacent Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, is located in what was D.C.’s first public school. The collection started with 5,000 books and has grown to millions of volumes housed in three buildings of which the Jefferson Building, modeled after the Paris Opera House, is the most interesting. (1st Street and Independence Avenue SE, 202-707-5000.www.loc.gov)
The museums collectively called The Smithsonian are named after James Smithson, an Englishman who never visited the United States but left a $500,000 bequest to “found an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Your first stop should be the visitors’ center in the turreted Smithsonian Castle to collect a comprehensive map and a daily calendar of events. Depending on your interest, you can easily spend a day in each of the institution’s museums. There are also four gardens that neighbor the castle, which, depending on the season, offer a serene respite from the rigors of sightseeing. In the spring, the rose garden is breath taking.
Freer Gallery of Art (The Smithsonian): The Freer has an outstanding collection of Asian art as well as one of American art including works by John Singer Sargent and James MacNeil Whistler. Open daily year-round 10 am – 5:30 pm. Closed December 25.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (The Smithsonian): Magnificent ancient Chinese paintings, bronzes, and jade carvings collected by Arthur Sackler and generously given to the nation. An underground corridor connects to the adjacent museum of African Art.
National Museum of African Art (The Smithsonian): As you might expect, this delightful little museum contains thousands of masks and carvings alongside everyday pieces such as stools and headrests.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (The Smithsonian): The Hirshhorn looks rather like a stone donut and houses Joseph Hirshhorn’s extensive collection of modern art. Statues by Rodin, Calder, Moore, Matisse, and others line the circular hallways overlooking the central courtyard. In front of the museum, a sunken sculpture garden displays some exquisite stone and marble masterpieces.
National Air and Space Museum (The Smithsonian): This most popular museum chronicles the history of aviation from early flight through modern rockets. Planes and rocketry hang from every rafter as you stand and marvel at the Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, Amelia Earhart’s Vega, and much more. Sensuround movies in the IMAX theater take you on a virtual-reality tour of flight.
National Museum of the American Indian (The Smithsonian): Tells the stories of the diverse tribes and provides the most intriguing piece of architecture on the mall-rough-hewn and curvilinear the building resembles the walls of a canyon.
National Gallery (The Smithsonian): The east building houses a portion of the nation’s collection of 20th-century art. The west houses European and American paintings and sculpture from the 13th to 19th centuries including three Vermeers, Whistler’s White Girl, and Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. Beside the National Gallery is a Sculpture Garden full of large pieces of the most fanciful creations.
National Archives (The Smithsonian): Behind the Sculpture Garden you find the National Archives, built, as Herbert Hoover said, to “house the most sacred documents of our history.” It’s home to the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, all encased in bronze-and-glass containers sealed with helium. Every night these charters of freedom are lowered 23 feet below ground into a vault!
Natural History Museum (The Smithsonian): Anything and everything-fossils, minerals, and more. View the 45-carat Hope Diamond, once owned by Louis XIV. Marvel at the length of Diplodocus in the Dinosaur Hall and relax in the IMAX theater to enjoy a really big nature film.
American History Museum (The Smithsonian): Everything you ever wanted to know about America’s past seems to be displayed here. Objects range from the original Star Spangled Banner to Archie Bunker’s chair. It’s a fabulous collection with some highlights being the first ladies’ ball gowns, a Conestoga wagon, the reconstructed Titanic radio room, and a reconstructed portion of the White House. You could spend days studying the exhibits.
A self-guided tour of the White House, home of the nation’s President, gives you a chance to view the Green, Blue, and Red Rooms, the State Dining Room, and the East Room. The West Wing containing the Oval Office is not part of the tour nor are the family quarters. Visit by timed ticket mid-March to Labor Day and in December (available at White House Visitors’ Center). At other times of the year no tickets are needed. Avoid the lines and write to your senator or congressman for VIP tickets. (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, 202-208-1631.www.whitehouse.gov)
Just steps away from the Washington Monument, the Holocaust Memorial Museum serves as a national memorial to the many millions who were persecuted by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945. The Museum seconds as a research center with a library, archives, an interactive learning center and any one can enter, take advantage of the resources as well as view the special exhibits. To visit the permanent exhibit, The Holocaust, requires a reservation. A limited number of same-day tickets are given out at the museum daily starting at 10 am. These are for use during a specific time period; for use that same day. However, it is possible and well worth the small handling fee to get tickets in advance-call 800-400-9373. The exhibit is incredible, stirs emotions and will take approximately three hours. To personalize the experience, upon entry, you are issued an identification card with the wrenching story of a Holocaust victim. Follow the history of the holocaust from the rise of the Nazis to power, through the chilling reconstruction of life in the concentration camps, past photographs of victims, through the stories of resistance, and finally to the liberation of the camps. Extremely moving are the recorded narratives of actual survivors. (14th Street and Independence Avenue, 202-488-0400.www.ushmm.org)
A magnificent view of the district presents itself from atop the 550-feet-tall marble obelisk of the Washington Monument-the world’s largest building with no internal structure that is held together by the earth’s gravitational pull. It is no longer possible to walk up the structure, one must take the elevator, but there are times when one is permitted to walk down! A limited number of same day tickets are given out first thing each morning. Avoid the lines by paying a small service charge to obtain advance tickets from Ticketmaster (see your local listing).
Practically in the shadow of the Washington Monument is the incredible World War II Memorial that opened in 2004. Honoring the over 16 million who served, the over 400,000 who died and the millions who supported the war effort from home, symbolic and dramatic columns ring a magnificent pool and fountain. Four thousand imbedded gold stars represent the 400,000 lost lives. Quite beautiful, the memorial has quickly become a popular and favorite place to gather and settle for a rest or picnic!
A short walk paralleling the reflecting pools from the World War II Memorial through the park, finds you at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a curve of polished black granite etched with the names of those who died (or are missing in action) in the Vietnam War. Visitors stare at the row upon row of names, trace with their fingers looking for a loved one or comrade, and leave notes, flowers, and mementos. Just across the reflecting pool is the Korean War Veterans Memorial depicting 19 soldiers on patrol.
Standing guard at the western end of The Mall, the Lincoln Memorial honors the memory of Abraham Lincoln who led the country through the Civil War. The statue of Lincoln at its center is 19 feet tall. Interesting to note, it was sculpted by Daniel Ford who opened the first school for the death and he sentimentally positioned Abraham Lincoln’s hands to “sign” A and L. Ford also carved on the back of Lincoln’s head the name of his opponent in battle, R.E. Lee. The 36 columns represent the states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. Murals depict scenes from his life and inscriptions from the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural address are etched in marble. Challenge your kids or friends to find the typo-“Future” was wrongly carved as “Euture”, but, after-the-fact, too costly to redo!
Banded by park and water and located along the famous Cherry Tree Walk near the National Mall is the stunning memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Be sure to stroll through the over 7 acres and the sequence of four outdoor rooms depicting the achievements of this president and his time in office. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial has many wonderful sculptures and a ten-foot sculpture depicting our 32nd President.
With a sweep of the Potomac at its back is the 19-foot-high statue of President Jefferson housed in the Jefferson Memorial. This striking and beautifully positioned memorial is a fitting tribute to a man who should be recognized for a multitude of achievements. Thomas Jefferson was a political philosopher, architect, musician, book collector, scientist, horticulturist, diplomat, inventor, in addition to being the third President of the United States.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is one of the country’s most splendid performing spaces. Overlooking the Potomac River, six theaters offer everything from opera to dance. The best way to tour is to attend a performance (free performances are offered daily in the Millennium Theater at 6 pm) or you can wander around on your own. Next door is the Watergate Building, the site of the 1972 break-in that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
Home to Georgetown University, exploration of Georgetown with its picturesque residential streets, fabulous shops, and plethora of inviting restaurants is a must. Enchanting and charming, Georgetown has a character all its own-it is almost like a village within the big city. Walk along M Street, the heart of the shopping area. Stroll down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath or hop aboard a canal boat for a one-hour trip. From Wisconsin Avenue (also a shopping street) turn down any of the streets between N and Q to elegant side streets (there are mansions at Q and 31st).
Take the Tourmobile to the Virginia side of Memorial Bridge to Arlington Cemetary. The most stirring sight, apart from the graves of President John F. Kennedy and his family, is Open April – September daily 8 am – 7 pm, rest of year daily 8 am – 5 pm.the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, watched over by guards who change on the hour (and half hour April to September) with great ceremony and military precision.
A splendid day trip from Washington is a visit to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. Sitting in an 8,000-acre estate overlooking the Potomac River, it is located 16 miles south of Washington (about half an hour’s drive or reached by the Tourmobile April to October). George Washington inherited Mount Vernon from his grandfather in 1754 and lived there from 1783 until his death in 1799. Much of Martha and George’s original furniture is in the home. Outbuildings contain the kitchen, smokehouse, and wash house, and there’s a splendid 35-acre garden. (703-780-2000www.mountvernon.org)