Sunday, July 21, 2013

DC Destinations

I lived for about three years in Washington, DC. Although I decided to transfer to back West Virginia, I have periodically made both business and pleasure trips to DC. During the time I was a resident of DC, I played “super-tourist” and tried to do as much as possible while there, and continue to make the most of my visits to our nation’s capital. As such, I have my own recommendations when people ask about what to see and do in DC.

I try to promote some of the lesser-known attractions, because they aren’t as crowded as icons like the Smithsonian museums, the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the National Zoo, etc. All of the aforementioned landmarks are nice places, and everyone should try to see them at least once, but sometimes you must weigh, for example, whether the time spent in line to go up in the Washington Monument (when it is not closed due to earthquake damage, as is currently the case) is worth the view you get from the eight extremely small windows near the top.

This is why I steer folks to the tower at the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The large openings at the top of the tower provide a panoramic view of the entire area. It isn’t quite as tall as the Washington Monument, but you can get a better understanding of “the lay of the land”—with much shorter lines. It is also an interesting old building with a huge atrium.

Speaking of interesting old buildings with huge atriums, the National Building Museum is beautiful. Original built as an office building to handle pension benefits for Civil War veterans, this red brick structure has interesting architectural features both inside and out. Plus, they have fascinating exhibits related to design and architecture. You can walk inside for free, but they charge a small admission fee (currently $8 for adults) to go into the exhibit areas. [Note that this admission is a lot less than some of the new private attractions charge, such as the Newseum, the Spy Museum, the Crime and Punishment Museum, Madame Tussaud’s, etc.]

My favorite building of all is still free—the Library of Congress. I highly recommend this shrine to learning! This place is fantastic, whether you are in the breathtakingly beautiful main building in the front, or gazing down on the round library reading room in the back. The exhibits housed there are always engaging, with permanent displays like the Gutenberg Bible as well as traveling exhibitions.

Another impressive edifice is the National Cathedral in northwest DC. This non-governmental building rivals the majestic cathedrals in Europe, but with an emphasis on America. It even contains a stain glass window featuring a piece of moon rock.

The museums of the Smithsonian are fantastic, and I highly recommend all of them (including the new annex of the Air & Space Museum at Dulles Airport and the Postal Museum next to Union Station). However, there are a few other museums that are well worth visiting, and may not be as crowded or (because of their smaller size) as intimidating. The headquarters of National Geographic magazine always maintains entertaining and educational displays. Ford’s Theater is a great place to learn about Abraham Lincoln. The National Archives contains great exhibits beyond just the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The U.S. Botanical Gardens have all sorts of plant life, and the warm greenhouses can be a nice place to visit in the winter.

There are also some great art galleries on the mall and around town. Of the ones on the mall, I think it is fun to walk the tunnel between the National Gallery of Art and the East Building. However, I’m partial to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery near the Verizon Center. I also like the beautiful old mansion housing the Renwick Gallery near the White House. The nearby Corcoran Gallery has a small admission, but a great collection.

Just outside the Beltway are a few other lesser known attractions—the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at nearby Greenbelt, Maryland and the National Rifle Association’s museum come quickly to mind (regardless of whether you agree with everything the NRA does politically, the quality of their exhibits tracing America’s history is top-notch). Of course, a trip down to Mount Vernon is a great way to honor our first president.

Washington also has a large number of interesting statues and memorials. Most folks know about the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, but the newer FDR and Martin Luther King memorials are also interesting. My favorite statue is probably the larger-than-life bronze Albert Einstein, gazing down at a large map of the universe on a marble floor, in front of the National Academy of Sciences.

Einstein is located near the famous memorial to the war in Vietnam, which is quite a moving experience as you descend through the thousands of names killed there (often seeing items left at the memorial in tribute to those lost). However, I think the troops on patrol at the Korean War Memorial on the other side of the reflecting pool is the best of the war memorials—even better than the new WWII memorial or the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon. However, if you get the chance to see the Iwo Jima Memorial near the top of Arlington Cemetery at night, I highly recommend it. In fact, I think the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials are best viewed after dark.

Few people know about the statue of Teddy Roosevelt, located on an island named after him in the Potomac (across from the Kennedy Center, another interesting place). From the Virginia side of the river, a bridge allows pedestrians and bicyclists to access what seems to be a wild, forested island, but it opens into a large clearing with a towering statue of “T.R.” surrounded by some of his most famous quotes. It seems fitting that this rugged outdoorsman commands a thickly forested island that prevents his statue from seeing the surrounding urban environment.

Another way to escape the urban environment is to visit Great Falls National Park, on either the Virginia or Maryland side of the Potomac. Just upriver from the bridge carrying I-495 over the Potomac, the river makes its final plunge down to the tidal regions of the Chesapeake Bay. The woods, rocks, and whitewater makes one think they are somewhere in the rural mountains, instead of just outside the District of Columbia boundary.

Finally, one of my favorite destinations in the DC area might not be as thrilling for others, but I find it fascinating. There is a park at the end of the Reagan National Airport runway, where lots of people like to gather and watch the airliners fly over their heads—a rare view indeed! These are just a few of the many unique tourist experiences in our nation’s capital! What are your favorites?

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