At least once in a lifetime. Like Denver, Washington, D.C., has a population of about half a million. Like Denver, it has museums in the plural, a zoo, and a mass transit system. But there the similarities stop. If Denver is a true city, and we like to pride ourselves on this, with all the accoutrements of high and low culture (ethnic restaurants, purse snatchers, classic theatre and symphonies, outrageous hotel prices, ballet and skateboarders), then Washington is a super city, a megalopolis. The greater Washington area is home to nearly 6 million, and as they move to and fro on business or pleasure, they expand opportunities for the service and entertainment industries. The sheer volume of choice, a cornucopia of possibilities, is one major reason to visit. The second, of course, is because it’s the nation’s capital.
Irreplaceable treasures abound: the Declaration of Independence, the Hope Diamond, the only Leonardo daVinci painting in the Western Hemisphere, monuments honoring departed leaders and warriors. Representatives from foreign governments, international tourists and businesspeople flavor the atmosphere with a medley of cultures and a hint that something important just might be occurring right next to you. For those two reasons, everyone should visit Washington at least once in a lifetime. Unfortunately, many Americans limit their experience to a quick drive past the Capitol and White House, a dash into the Lincoln Memorial, and a hot dog from a street vendor next to the Mall. Don’t use this approach. Washington deserves your consideration, and your feet deserve some time to be propped up and rested as you watch the human parade go by.
Allow yourself as many days, or weeks, as you can spare. And this is one vacation for which advance study pays off. Plot and prioritize your destinations. If you’re into art, plan to do those first. If government’s your interest, line up reservations and contacts for tours of the White House and Congress. If you’re like me and want to sample everything, you’ll still benefit by a quick perusal of the tourist-type Web sites and grabbing a map as soon as you arrive. Choose one or two prime attractions a day, and DO NOT PLAN TO DRIVE A CAR. Unless your group is large enough to qualify to hire a bus, you’re better off walking, taking the Metro subway or waving down a taxi when you’re too weary to take another step. Then pare the contents of your bag down to a bare minimum; swap your heels for a sturdy pair of sandals, tennies, or walking shoes; grab a bottle of water; and off you go.
Fortunately, most of the “mustsees” are clustered near the Mall. By starting at one end, you can circle and see the Lincoln, Vietnam, Washington, World War II and Korean War Memorials in one swoop. You can make a short detour on this circuit to view the White House from near or far, depending on what’s happening politically at the time. It should be possible to include the Jefferson and FDR Memorials, but you need to be a very hardy hiker or take a taxi, tour or Metro to get there.
Do allow time for emotions to flood you. Depending on your personal history, at least one of these sights is sure to bring you to the brink of tears. It’s common to see an aged man grasping a cane with one hand and a younger family member with the other, or two reunited service buddies, or a woman brushing the names engraved on the Vietnam wall, as they treasure their private memories.
Don’t worry about the price of admission at many of the national museums and galleries. Take the Smithsonian series of 15 striking edifices in Washington housing art, history or scientific treasures. Thanks to the generous bequest of a British naturalist named James Smithson, who never actually visited the United States, as well as federal taxes, there is no entrance fee. The Smithsonian would be impossible to get through in a lifetime, let alone a vacation, so don’t even try.
DO sample whatever is closest to your and your companions’ hearts, as well as what’s open. The Smithsonian is undergoing a rotating renovation, and not all facilities are open. On my last visit, in spring 2007, the American History and Arts and Industries buildings (which house Julia Child’s kitchen) were closed. Offsetting this were the availability of the two newest members — the Museum of African Art and the Museum of the American Indian.
A number of other entrancing choices are in the Mall or downtown area.
Don’t miss the National Gallery of Art (either east or west building, again, no fee) and go down to the “concourse level” to the Cascade Cafe. This is simply because of its wonderful, mesmerizing cascade water fountain that pours from ground level down a series of stone steps in a never-ending cycle that for some reason seems to soothe small, fretful children.
My personal favorite pastime is the International Spy Museum, where visitors from toddlers to 90-year-olds test their potential as spies while unknowingly soaking up centuries of history. For my $16, I spent four hours browsing, crawling through a ventilation duct, decoding messages and generally pretending I’d been reincarnated as an intelligence agent. The facility’s cafeteria has good food and outstanding prices.
Add to the list as you are able such gems as the Corcoran Gallery, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Arlington National Cemetery and the National Archives (yes, it has exhibitions, films and interactive displays).
Whew! Ready for a rest? Sorry, no time. You’ll surely want to consider dropping by some non-museum attractions. Actually one of these is a place to shop, have a snack and relax: Union Station, the central point for the Metro subway as well as the terminus for the trains that still serve the East Coast, a magnificent Beaux Arts landmark. The lowest level holds a food court with a wide array of regional, national and international dishes. I prefer the first or second floors, however, where the wait staff in several restaurants allow me the luxury of service.
Then opt for browsing the unusual stores inside rather than the Ann Taylor and Gap that are also found in Denver. Some feature items with political slogans (“Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote … Republican/Democratic,” take your choice); others have handicrafts from Appalachia and India.
Oh, and by the way, while you’re there, try the Metro. A subway ride is an experience in itself and costs less than $2. Hop on board to visit one of the nearby neighborhoods. Visitors get so overwhelmed by the array of major attractions, they easily forget Washington isn’t just the Mall and the Capitol. But there are real neighborhoods that true residents call home. These have their own enticements worth exploring.
Dupont Circle, north of the Mall, is my favorite. On the streets radiating from the circle itself, businesses burst forth, and down side streets snuggle unique ethnic eateries. Here you’ll find a bead shop, an independent bookstore, there a salon next to an ice cream shop, then an import concern. The hodge-podge works, and people seem to be enjoying life and one another at all hours. This is definitely an urban neighborhood, with walkable sidewalks and a number of architectural gems casually preserved from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, as well as places like the Textile Museum and Phillips Collection.
Embassy Row branches out from here with headquarters for some 150 nations. A bit farther north lies Adams-Morgan, a medley of ethnic restaurants, multicultural boutiques and businesses and night-time activities. Then arc to the southwest to find Georgetown, perhaps the best known.
Crowded with 18th- and 19th-century townhouses sporting sparkling painted brick and trim, the area’s architecture is another reminder of the nation’s early history. Structures on main streets have been converted into shops and restaurants, the ones you frequently see as locations in films about power politics and intrigue. Foggy Bottom, between Georgetown and the White House, next to the Potomac, is a mixture of offices, apartments (including Watergate), George Washington University and the JFK Center for the Performing Arts.
Finally, on the list of see-if-you-can, the White House, U. S. Capitol and Library of Congress. The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library and spreads over three blocks. The buildings themselves, especially the Thomas Jefferson Building, with sculptures and marvelous mosaics, along with exhibitions and displays, make them additional national treasures. Guided tours are available.
Security has tightened for all government facilities since 9/11, and the White House and U.S. Capitol are no exceptions. However, they ARE open. You just need to follow the rules. The Capitol is open to the public for guided tours only. Visitors must obtain free tickets for tours, first-come, first-served. Call (202) 224- 4048 for information.
Public tours of the White House are available for groups of 10 or more people. Requests must be submitted through one’s member of Congress and are accepted up to six months in advance. For the most current tour information, call (202) 456-7041.
• Washingtonians are nearly universally hospitable and willing to point out a direction to a wondering, wandering visitor. In some areas of the city, vested helpers stand near Metro stations to help you to your destination.
• A cost-conscious budget hotel in the heart of the city, not luxurious but clean and with constant opportunities to meet fellow tourists in the lobby and adjacent reasonably priced restaurants, is Hotel Harrington, 436 11th St. N.W., (800) 424-8532, www.hotel-harrington.com. Rooms fill up completely, so book early.
• Take all the money you’ve saved on rooms and spend it at an inimitable restaurant like the Bistro D’Oc, right across the street from the Ford Theatre. Wonderful French food from the Languedoc region, including several prix fixe dinner selections until 7 p.m. for $22, which includes a glass of wine.
• For a flavor of life in the neighborhoods and lives of the residents, try reading Pulitzer-Prize winner Edward P. Jones’ collection of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children.
• The main and official tourist Web site is www.washington.org. Browse this before you go
By BONNIE MCCUNE