Washington D.C. -- Our National Treasures

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Flag of United States  , District of Columbia
Sunday, March 21, 2010

I am not a fan of politics or most politicians.  For years the political mess I'd see in Washington D.C. literally kept me from wanting to visit the city -- perhaps for fear some of the mess would rub off on me.  Still, as a patriotic citizen I felt compelled to visit our National Capitol someday and see its well-known landmarks -- highlighted so often on television and in films such as National Treasure.  When a major medical meeting I wanted to attend held its annual conference in D.C. it finally seemed an appropriate time for a visit.  And I'm glad we finally went. 

Washington D.C. is a great and world class city that's well worth a visit (or two).  I can't think of any city in the New World that has more fascinating sites or exhibits than Washington.  No matter when in the year you visit, you'll not be alone  There are always thousands of tourists and student groups going through these historic buildings and exhibits.  By some estimates, 25 million visitors come to see the country's history here each year.

Dozens of guide books and websites exist which can walk you through the details of visits to Washington.  The purpose of this blog is not to go too deeply into the minutia of the city, but to briefly discuss those places we visited during our 8 days in town, and share with you some highlights we enjoyed and insights we gained. 

The National Mall

The National Mall is a rectangular area which forms the heart of Washington and which is a unit of the National Park Service.   Anchored on its east end by the Capitol building and on the west end by the Lincoln Memorial, it encompasses the land between Constitution and Independence Avenues.  This is the one place you absolutely must visit if you have only one or two days in town and its possible to spend weeks here and not see everything.  No matter how much time you have, its worth trying to take in as much history as you can.  This requires the use of your feet so if you're able, walk the entire stretch and explore its historic richness.

At the Center of the Mall is the Washington Monument.  Standing over 555 feet tall it easily is the most dominant structure in the city.  Built as a tribute to our first (and probably best) President, George Washington, the monument stretches skyward.  There's an elevator that takes you to around the 500 foot level and the views of the city from here are topnotch.  We were there on a rainy hazy day, but felt it still was worth our time.  On a clear day visibility is over 30 miles.  Admission to the monument is very limited and this is one activity you should have tickets to before you arrive in D.C, so be sure to arrange these tickets months in advance; these are free but need to be ordered through the National Park website (there is a small service charge).

Immediately west of the Washington Monument is one of the best designed and most thoughtful memorials in the city, the World War II Memorial.  Located beside and to some extend beneath the Reflecting Pool, it does a beautiful job providing an artistic overview to this tragic conflict in which over 400,000 American lives were lost.   There is much symbolism to the Memorial so take time to walk around its Plaza and explore both Atlantic and Pacific pavilions.  Study and pay respect at Freedom Wall on the west, decorated by the Field of Stars (4000 stars, each representing 1000 lives lost in the conflict).

On the northwestern end of the Mall is the cleverly designed and extremely moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The Vietnam War was certainly controversial, but the treatment and disdain shown our returning Vietnam veterans remains one of the great shames in our country's history; it seems this monument has done something to heal that wound.  The monument is mostly built below ground level and is characterized by large sheets of highly polished granite with the name of every serviceman killed or missing in action during the war etched on its glossy surface -- over 58,000 names in total.  The arrangement is not alphabetical, but an index of names is kept nearby so you can discover exactly where the name of the hero you're looking for is located.  Most touching are the small gifts to loved ones, notes of memory to friends, and the sight of Americans crying when they recognize the name of  the one they're looking for.  There's also two statues adjacent to the granite wall -- The Three Soldiers and Vietnam Women's Memorial, worth studying.  So take time to visit, reflect, and remember.

At the southwestern end of the Mall lies the Korean War Veteran's Memorial, a tribute to the "Forgotten War".  The monument features stainless steel statues representing a squad of soldiers in combat gear cautiously walking thru Korean terrain.  To their right is a wall of polished granite containing thousands of laser etchings of photos of troops who served in the Korean Theater.  Several people have actually found images of themselves or their loved ones on this wall.
I thought it was a cleaver Memorial.

At the western end of the National Mall is the huge Lincoln Memorial.  It's an elegant building and tribute to our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, a great man who by force of personality and will (and the aid of a large army) held the country together thru a horrific bloody Civil War.  The war succeeded in finally bringing about an end to slavery in America but it has taken over a century to reunify the country.  Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating man, one of the greatest thinkers and writers to occupy the office of the Presidency.  The White Marble statue of Lincoln which occupies his Memorial is among the finest I've ever seen, and seems to capture the contemplative pained essence of the man.  Be sure you read the pithy Gettysburg address and Second Inaugural address etched into the north and south interior walls of the monument and stop by the Visitor Center in the lower level of the memorial (many people miss this chamber because its a little hard to find).  Be sure also to visit the area on the steps of the Memorial where Martin Luther King delivered his powerful and moving  "I have a dream" speech.

The highly dysfunctional United States Capitol occupies the eastern end of the National Mall.  Despite how poorly its occupants perform, it may well be the most beautiful building in a city of beautiful buildings.  Its majestic dome is well know from newscasts and is capped by the huge statue of "Freedom".  The Capitol dome was to be the 4th terrorist attack target on 9-11.  United flight #93 was crashed into the fields of Pennsylvania by brave citizen warriors. 

Most people's trip to the Capitol begins at its Visitor's Center, a beautiful recently completed subterranean complex on the eastern aspect of the Capitol that features interesting exhibits and plays an fine film about the history of America and the role of the Capitol building.  Our visit began at the office of our Congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose staff gave us a thorough tour of the Capitol after which we had time to visit and meet with the Congresswoman, an experience we greatly enjoyed.  She is a charming and engaging women who I think is one of the few people in D.C. doing a good job.  If you ever go to D.C., we recommend you get in touch with your Congressperson -- their staff will help you arrange for tours of the Capitol, Library of Congress, Supreme Court and the White House.

The Capitol houses our federal government's legislative branch which is divided into two entities, the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Both have chambers that can be visited.  We were lucky enough to get into the House chamber gallery, the site of many Presidential State of the Union addresses.  Between these chambers lies the magnificent Rotunda, a beautiful dome. The architecture is lovely.  Statues are every and most are terrific.  Many historic original paintings decorate the walls of the Rotunda.  Your schedule will be modified depending on the political activities at the Capitol.  For example, our visit to the Rotunda was delayed because President Clinton was giving a speech there.

Further to the east of the Capitol building lie the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court.  Tours of these are available at select times so check if you want to visit them.  The Library of Congress is supposed to be especially beautiful but we did not have the opportunity to view its interior.  The United States Botanical Garden Conservatory is on the southwestern side of the Capitol.  While we there it featured a beautiful (but temporary) display of exotic orchids, as well as its permanent exhibits of tropical and desert plants and a large variety of the world's flora.  Its a nice place to spend an hour strolling thru the beautifully landscaped gardens.

The Smithsonian Museums

The Smithsonian is the largest museum in the world.  There are almost twenty Smithsonian Museums in D.C., most centered on the east end of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and Capitol.  One could spend months visiting the many Smithsonian museums and not see it all.  We had time to visit a few and would like to share the following observations.

Start your visit to the Smithsonian Museums at the Castle, the oldest of the buildings completed in 1855.  This building now provides an overview of the Smithsonian complex and features sample exhibits

The most visited of the Smithsonian museums (and possibly the most visited museum in the world) is the National Air and Space Museum.   As you enter, you will be given the opportunity to touch a moon rock -- harvested by the Apollo astronauts (where else can you have this opportunity?)  In the same entrance hall you will find original Mercury and Gemini space capsules, as well as the historic Apollo 11 capsule, Columbia, which safely returned Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins to the earth after their moon landing. A separate exhibit hall features many artifacts of our Apollo program, including the suits Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong wore on their historic moon landing.  Another wing features the original 1903 Wright flyer, the first powered aircraft to ever fly (Kitty Hawk, North Carolina).  The story of the Wright brothers is chronicled in detail and is truly fascinating.  Also on display is the Spirit of St. Louis which Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris.  Dozens of aircraft showing the commercial and military evolution of flight are also to be seen and the complex features an IMAX theater and planetarium, as well as an enormous gift shop.  I love exploring this kind of stuff and can't strongly enough recommend a visit to the Air and Space Museum.  A second Air and Space Museum is found near Dulles airport (Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center) which we did not have time to visit.

Another great museum is the National Museum of Natural History, which you likely will recognized from Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.   There are thousands of great exhibits, notably the Hope Diamond, the largest blue diamond in the world.  Be sure to enjoy the charging African bull elephant in the entryway and great collection of fossilized skeletons in Dinosaur Hall.  Also there is a chamber with an assortment of butterflies thru which you can walk and enjoy the beauty.  They often land on guests -- a special treat!

The National Museum of American History has intriguing displays of our culture and history, with tons of artifacts and rotating exhibits.  Our favorites included the First Lady gown collection, Lincoln display (including his top had and coat), Julia Child's kitchen (yup, the whole thing, pots and all), Archie Bunker's chair, the Fonzie's leather jacket and Dorothy's ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.  A special hall features the huge flag that inspired our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.

We lunched at Mitsitam Cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian which is well know for its menu featuring Native American dishes, such as bison, maize, etc.  Very tasty.  We briefly visited some of its exhibits and admired its architecture.  The design was very reminiscent of the Museum of Civilization which we enjoyed last summer in Gatineau, Quebec (across the River from Ottawa).

National Zoo is located several miles north in the Woodley Park area of D.C., close to where we were renting an apartment for the week.  It is an attractive but small zoo featuring some 400 animal species but is best known for its Panda exhibit.  We spent the bulk of our time here watching the two pandas.  The zoo is nice but to us not as interesting as, say, the San Diego Zoo or even the Los Angeles Zoo, but there is no admission charge and its a fun place to go if you're traveling with children.  On weekends it seems that most of the families in D.C. are at the zoo.

The National Archives

The National Archives is our nation's record keeper.  Its an elegant old building which houses the documents created in running the government.  Its an interesting place to see for many of the great photos and displays, but is the one place in the world where you can see the founding documents of our country.  You can see actual copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  They are old and faded, but it was exciting for us to actually see these important documents.

White House
This is the home of the leader of the Executive Branch of our government, the President of the United States.  A beautiful and iconic building with spacious lawns and gardens, it is under extensive security -- remarkable even in a city that is extremely security conscious.  Tours of parts of the White House are available when the President is not in residence. Reservations can be made but these may not be honored if the President is in the White House.

Tidal Basin

This huge tidal reservoir is located south of the Lincoln Memorial.  Beside it are two Presidential monuments, one to Thomas Jefferson and one to FDR.  It is also home to hundreds of cherry trees, a gift from the people of Japan, which provide an awesome sight when they're blooming.  This area is especially focused on during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.

The Jefferson Memorial is architecturally and conceptually almost as impressive a structure as the Lincoln Memorial.  It is a beautiful tribute to one of our most important and influential Presidents, Thomas Jefferson.  I'm a big fan of Jefferson's brilliance and eloquence, and I enjoyed strolling thru the Memorial and reading Jefferson's beautiful prose etched on its walls. 

I was less impressed with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial which pays tribute to this important President, who lead our country during the turbulent Great Depression and Second World War.  The memorial is divided into 4 outdoor "rooms", each with a them relating to aspects of FDRs presidency.  The symbolism and sculptures are nicely done and the setting is lovely.  Its definitely worth the walk or drive to the Basin to see the Jefferson and FDR memorials.

The National Cathedral -- our National House of Prayer --  is removed from the main downtown congestion and takes a little effort to visit.  But it is a truly impressive church of comparable beauty to the finest European cathedrals.  Taking almost a century to build, it was only recently completed.  If you enjoy walking through spacious churches with high Gothic arches and beautiful stained glass, I can not recommend a visit here highly enough.  We were lucky enough to be there when a choral group and small orchestra were rehearsing for an Easter performance.  The sounds in the cathedral were heavenly! 

If you have time, stop by Ford's Theater and see some of the history surrounding the site of President Lincoln's assassination.  Part of the theater, which pertains to the President's slaying, is not under the Park service.  Walk across the street to the Petersen house for a tour and see the bedroom where President Lincoln died.

Some Things to do around Washington

No visit to the D.C. area should be considered complete without a visit to Mount Vernon,  the beloved home of our great -- perhaps greatest --  President, George Washington.  He was reluctant to take charge of our Revolutionary Army against the British, but he lead our troops to victory during a long and difficult war for Independence.  Similarly, he was called on to serve the country as our first President, an offer he reluctantly accepted and an office in which he served with great distinction and honor.  Many in America wanted to make him their King but he wisely saw the importance of individual freedom and self-governance, and graciously declined.

Mt. Vernon was Washington's home from 1783 until his death in 1799.  There is a grand visitor center featuring a film on Washington's life.  From here you walk uphill and soon at a distance you will see the familiar home and estate.  The home has been restored to the Colonial period and much of it contains Washington's original furniture.  You will get into a (often long) line for a house tour, which is well worth doing.  Like 80,000,000 guests before you, you walk a defined path thru the home and at various points costumed actors will educate you about the features of the home.  You will see the Large Dining Room, the Parlors, kitchen, bedrooms including the master bedroom where Washington slept and ultimately died.  You will see his sword and one of his prized possessions, the key of the Bastille, presented to him by General Lafayette.

After you are done spend some time exploring the yard.  Enjoy Mt. Vernon's wonderful views of the majestic Potomac River.  Explore the gardens and outbuildings.  Visit George Washington's grave-site.  It will be a memorable experience.

Arlington, Virginia, lies directly across the Potomac River from D.C. and effectively is an extension of the city, though Virginians like to think of it as theirs.  The Pentagon is located here, as is Arlington National Cemetery.  At the National Cemetery you can find Eternal flame burning near the graves of President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie.  Nearby are the graves of brothers and Senators Bobby Kennedy and Ted Kennedy.  A very moving experience is to visit the Tomb of the Unknowns, with its dignified Changing of the guard ceremony.  The cemetery also features Arlington House, former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  As a spite to Lee, Federal soldiers were buried on his property during and after the war.  There are dozens of memorials and shrines in the Cemetery, but you will be most impressed by the tens of thousands of gravestones -- the high price of protecting our freedoms.  A reminder that Freedom is not free.

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