To See and Be Seen in DC
As capital cities go, Washington offers plenty of what you’d expect – and more than a few surprises
As capital cities go, Washington offers plenty of what you’d expect – and more than a few surprises
Among all the cities in the US where you might consider spending an extra few hours or even days, there would be a few iconic nicknames that instantly come to mind: The Big Apple, undoubtedly; the Windy City, certainly, perhaps Music City or The Big Easy or Tinseltown. One that might not immediately rise to the top of the list is the nation’s capital city.
However if your business travels take you to Washington, DC, you won’t regret extending your trip by a couple of days to take in everything it has to offer. The District is home to a wealth of historical and cultural treasures, not to mention some of the country’s most impressive architecture. Moreover, behind the marble façades and bronze statues, there’s a vibrant city that loves to throw a party almost all year long.
Herewith a few of our picks for what to see, where to see it from and how to make the most of your time in the city on the Potomac.
National Mall Memorials
It’s likely that much of your time will be spent in and around the National Mall. The nearly two-mile-long green space between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial is not only bordered by a superb array of museums but is home to a number of monuments. A stroll or cycle around the Mall provides a telling insight into the complex history of the nation. From the War of Independence and Civil War, to the World Wars, the conflicts of Vietnam and Korea and the civil rights movement, many of the events that have shaped the US are commemorated.
At the Mall’s center is the Washington Monument, the towering 555-foot marble obelisk that is the city’s most prominent landmark. Energetic visitors can ascend its 897 steps and be rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view. Tickets are required, but free; they’re available sameday at the Washington Monument Lodge on 15th Street.
To the east, in front of the Capitol, Civil War general President Ulysses S Grant sits on horseback facing the imposing Lincoln Memorial to the far west. Dedicated in 1922, the centerpiece of the multi-columned Greek-style temple commemorating the“Great Emancipator” is a huge marble statue of Lincoln. His Gettysburg address is inscribed on one wall, while at the top of the steps, the spot where Martin Luther King – himself immortalized in stone a short walk away – delivered his 1963“I Have a Dream”speech is marked. At the other end of the long, still Reflecting Pool – in which Forrest Gump took a dip in the 1994 film – is the Second World War memorial, added in 2004. To the south, two legendary presidents are remembered, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D Roosevelt.
Perhaps the most evocative of all is the Vietnam Veterans memorial. Maya Lin’s design consists of two adjoining gabbro walls sunk like gashes into the ground, inscribed with more than 58,000 names of troops who died. As you walk towards the center, the walls become deeper and higher so that the sheer volume of names becomes overpowering. Well-thumbed
books displaying names in alphabetical order allow you to pinpoint exactly where each one is etched.
The Mall is open 24 hours, with Park Service rangers on duty at memorials 9:30 AM – 11:30 PM; nps.gov; dcbyfoot. com; bikethesites.com.
National Museum of American History
Whether you’re into history, art, science or culture, Washington has a fantastic range of museums to choose from, a number of which line the National Mall. Many are part of the Smithsonian Institution, including the Natural History, American Indian, African Art, and Air and Space museums, the Sackler Gallery of Asian art and the Hirshhorn Museum of modern works, and most are free to visit.
I headed for the American History museum – three sprawling floors of national treasures broadly grouped around the themes of transportation and technology, lives, ideals, wars and politics. Exhibits include the original Star Spangled Banner that inspired the National Anthem, Thomas Edison’s light bulb, and the “whites only”Woolworth lunch counter at which four black students staged a sit-in in Greensboro, NC, in 1960.
Others range in gravitas from an 1833 slave ship manifest – with ages, heights and skin color noted – to the original Kermit the Frog puppet. The leather jacket Bob Dylan wore at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – the first time he went electric – and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves are also on display, along with Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.
Open 10:30 AM – 5:30 PM daily; admission is free; 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; americanhistory.si.edu
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
Also on the Mall, the National Gallery of Art houses a huge collection of works from the 13th century to the present. All manner of masters are on exhibit, but should you not have time to delve into its vast collection – or the weather is too nice to go inside – you can grab an art fix by strolling through its 6-acre sculpture garden.
The collection primarily showcases modern and contemporary American works – Louise Bourgeois’Spider, Roy Lichtenstein’s House I and Mark di Suvero’s Aurora are among the standouts – but international artists such as Spain’s Joan Miro and Britain’s Barry Flanagan are also represented. Nature lovers will notice everything from Lebanese cedars and Japanese snowbell to Dutch elm and Southern magnolia in the pretty grounds. There is a café with an outdoor terrace for summer people-watching.
Opening hours vary depending on season – check website. Admission is free; between Seventh and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue NW; nga.gov
It’s fitting that Pennsylvania Avenue, the street that leads from the Capitol to the White House and that has provided the setting for so many global news events – from presidential parades and funeral corteges to protest marches – is the home of this superb museum dedicated to the history of the media. Newseum tells the story of journalism from its earliest days to today’s mammoth multimedia operations.
The varied galleries cover nearly 250,000 square feet across seven levels. The News History section displays five centuries of newspapers in chronological order – taking in everything from the 1649 death sentence passed on Charles I to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. The 9/11 gallery features the mangled antennae from the World Trade Center’s North Tower alongside a wall of global covers reporting the attacks, and the final pictures taken by Bill Biggart, a photographer who died in the wreckage. More than 2,000 news gatherers who have died on the job are honored in the Journalists Memorial.
Other exhibits include eight sections of the Berlin Wall, Richard Reid’s shoe bombs, and the world’s largest collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs. The Today’s Front Pages gallery provides a snapshot of the day’s global headlines. Fun gifts from that well-known oracle of truth, The Onion, are on sale in the shop.
Open 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM daily; Admission is $22.95 plus tax; 555 Pennsylvania Avenue; newseum.org
The National Archives is where the nation’s most hallowed documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights – are kept. They’re displayed in the grand – and grandly titled – Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, which features two murals depicting various Founding Fathers.
The documents are faded now – and housed in humidity-controlled, bullet- proof display cases to prevent further deterioration – but it’s a pleasure picking out the names of the signatories and the“unalienable rights”that still guide American law and government. Also on display is the Magna Carta – a precursor to the Bill of Rights – while the 1,100 records in the Public Vaults exhibition include materials from the Watergate and JFK assassination investigations.
Open 10:00 AM – 7:00 PM daily; free admission; between Seventh and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue NW; archives.gov/nae
A City of Celebrations
No matter what time of year you visit DC, there is a very great likelihood you will be surrounded by a celebration. There seems always to be festivals, concerts, parades or other national or city-wide events.
Of course, there are famous occasions that attract visitors from around the nation, and even the world. The National Cherry Blossom Festival in late March through early April, the White House Easter Egg Roll, Memorial Day Weekend events, and lots of summer festivals.
Independence Day always draws huge crowds. (If the Mall is your destination during this celebration, be prepared for jammed Metro trains and zero parking.) More than 100 marching band units step out at noon along Constitution Avenue for the Fourth of July parade. Musical groups entertain from mid-afternoon until evening when the National Symphony Orchestra and an all-star line up of guests perform.
But if you’re a frequent visitor to DC, you’ve likely already discovered lesser known events worth considering.
Passport DC: Travel around the world without leaving DC for the entire month of May. Passport DC celebrates international culture with more than 50 embassy open houses. Tour select embassies and learn about the culture and customs of countries from all over the globe. May 1 – 31.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival: One of the National Mall’s best-loved events, each year during the last week of June and the first week of July this festival rolls out the red carpet to celebrate one of the world’s many cultures. This year’s celebration showcases Peru’s colorful community with music and dance, markets, textiles, food and more.Visit festival.si.edu for details.
The Capital Fringe Festival: From July 9 to 26, the 10th Anniversary Fringe Festival will see more than 500 performances of theater, dance, music, poetry and puppetry at unique venues around the city. Each year, the Fringe lets more than 120 artists connect with the community through creative, edgy, contemporary performances. Find out more at capitalfringe.org. BT