Up until 2010, I’d never visited our Nation’s Capitol – Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia). Somehow during the past year, I’ve visited Washington not once or twice, but three times! The first two times was without Kathy, so I was excited to explore the city with my better half.
For those who have never been, I recommend you add it to your short list of places to go. Washington D.C. is so full of things to do, things to see, history, and culture, and the vast majority of it is free. All of the Smithsonian Museums are fantastic (and free), the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building itself, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the war memorials, Arlington Cemetery – all amazing and all free!
Not only that, but visiting Washington helped to restore my faith in the great country that is the USA. We may be facing tough times right now, but as a country we’ve been through much much worse – and we have persevered! Just ask guys like Washington and Lincoln if we’ve been through worse. Enough about our economy though – on to DC.
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is one of my favorite buildings. Technically it takes up several buildings, but the ‘main’ Library is the most impressive. If you’ve ever seen Nicholas Cage in National Treasure, you probably remember a scene where Nick is looking for clues in books inside the Library of Congress. Unfortunately the part of the Library where Nick is looking is off limits to visitors, but you can see into that part of the Library from a plexiglass-partitioned viewing area.
The Library of Congress was established in 1800, and very nearly met a disastrous end 12 years later during the War of 1812, when the British burned the Capitol building and most of the Library with it. Thomas Jefferson saved the Library by selling his entire book collection – 6487 books total – to the library in 1815. You can read the details on Wikipedia here – Library of Congress on Wikipedia.
What I enjoy so much about the Library of Congress is the incredible architecture and design both inside and outside of the building. I think it’s the most impressive building in DC – except for perhaps the Capitol building itself. I’ll let my pictures do the talking.
The United States Capitol
There’s an underground corridor from the Library of Congress to the United States Capitol Visitor Center. It’s the easiest way to get from one to the other as it travels under the street, plus in my experience the security is less of a hassle as not many people take the corridor.
A Note About Parking in Washington D.C.
Parking in the city can be very expensive. Parking garages can cost you more than $20/day easily. That being said, there are places you can park for cheap or even free.
- Capitol Hill Neighborhood – Free for 2 hours and only a couple blocks from the Capitol Building and Library of Congress.
- On the National Mall – Free for 3 hours, but only during certain days/times.
- On Potomac Parkway behind the Lincoln Memorial – Free for 2 or 3 hours
- Street Parking north of the mall is $2/hr – much better than parking garage rates!
Of course parking outside the city and using public transportation makes the most sense if you have the time.
You can’t bring food or drinks into the Capitol building – and that includes water bottles, so leave nice water bottles in the car. I rely on water fountains, and there are plenty of water fountains around D.C. (and plenty of restrooms too, for that matter).
The US Capitol building has a relatively new visitor center that was built after the September 11 attacks. The visitor center is very well done, and includes an excellent cafeteria, as well as a small museum area that covers the history of Washington D.C. and the Capitol Building itself.
You can get tickets to tour the US Capitol in the visitor center area, and both times I’ve toured I was able to get tickets within 15 minutes of the next tour. The tickets are free, and you can reserve them ahead of time on the U.S. Capitol site.
On the day Kathy and I visited, there was no line at all. I was able to walk right up to the counter, and get tickets for the next tour which conveniently started in 10 minutes. Prior to the tour there’s an inspirational video that overviews the challenges our government faces trying to govern the various different people and states in the United States of America. It’s very well done, and a good start to the tour.
The tour continues with headphones so that you can hear your particular tour guide. The last time I came through there were dozens of groups, but this time there were only a few. The tour guides fill you in with tidbits about everything you’re seeing. Generally interesting stuff, but if you want to know more spend some time on Wikipedia or read some of the plaques downstairs in the history of the US Capitol exhibit.
The Capitol Building is very impressive to say the least. The Rotunda (under the center dome) is giant, and full of some of the finest detailed art I’ve ever seen. Constantino Brumidi, an Italian/Greek American artist painted many of the murals and paintings inside the US Capitol, and even has corridors named after him. Brumidi also painted the famous Frieze of United States History inside the dome, which is so well painted that it actually looks more like it’s carved.
We also got to see the ‘old’ US Supreme Court chambers – the Supreme Court now has its own building of course. The Senate meeting chambers (at least the entry to them), the corridor to the speaker of the house (Nancy Pelosi at the time), and the National Statuary Hall Collection.
The National Statuary Hall Collection is interesting. It’s full of dozens of statues of famous and important people from American History, as is much of the US Capitol building. Each state sends 2 statues to the Capitol of their most famous or historically significant people, so in total there are 100 statues in the Capitol building. California has Ronald Reagan and Junipero Serra for example.
The US Capitol is well worth your time, and even if you only have a couple hours to visit Washington D.C., I recommend you visit the Capitol building.
Lunch at Teaism
Teaism was featured in Rachel Rays $40 dollars a day show and for good reason. The food is excellent and inexpensive too. Lots of the items can be ordered a la cart, and I especially like the Na ‘an with mango chutney, the sweet potato salad, the tempura veggies, and the bento boxes. The ginger limeade is fantastic too.
After a very satisfying lunch, we weighed our options for the afternoon. We only had the one day in D.C. and we wanted to make the most of it. On my last trip the line to the National Archive was giant and I hadn’t seen the Smithsonian National History Museum, plus Kathy wanted to see Georgetown. So much to do and so little time!
The National Archives
The National Archives contain all the documents from the history of our country. The most significant of these documents includes the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These 3 documents are kept in an incredibly secure (and dimly lit) area and are individually protected in bulletproof, laser-guarded cases.
It’s a bit awe-inspiring to stand in front of the actual documents that created and govern our country. They still contain the signatures of our nations founders – although they’re a bit faded at this point – but still visible. I would highly recommend a visit to the Archives if there isn’t a huge line.
The Smithsonian Natural History Museum
I’ve been in several Natural History Museums, including the San Diego Natural History Museum, and I’ve found most of them to be excellent, however none of them compare to the Smithsonian! The extensive displays are so well done – they’re both informative and interesting at the same time – and the Museum is so extensive, that I didn’t even make it upstairs!
Some of the exhibits change over time, and when we were there we saw the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef (unbelievable!), African voices, Discovering Rastafari, the Hall of Paleobiology (Dinosaurs), the Sant Ocean Hall, and much much more. You could literally spend a couple days in each of the Smithsonian Museums, at least if you’re a plaque reader like we are.
We only had a few hours at the Natural History Museum, as unfortunately it closes at 5:30pm. We’ll have to go back as they have the Hope Diamond on display for the next year, and I still need to get upstairs! As it was approaching dinner time, we decided to head to Georgetown.
Georgetown is centered around Georgetown University, and is full of shopping, fancy eateries, and upscale homes. It’s only a few miles away from the National Mall, but as we decided to go at exactly 5:30, we were bombarded by rush-hour traffic. Seems like an obvious thing to most people, but when you’re not working an 8-5 job you tend to forget about little things like rush hour – woops!
At any rate, we made it to Georgetown, found a place to park, and headed out onto the town. While the main drag has its appeal, it’s really mostly just an outdoor mall, full of stores such as J. Crew, Anthropologie, Victoria’s Secret, Restoration Hardware, and so on, along with chain eateries like Chipotle, Uno Chicago Grill, and Domino’s Pizza.
If you can look past the chain stores, there are a nice collection of fancy restaurants, and a beautiful waterfront park with views across to the Watergate Complex and the Kennedy Center. We were getting hungry, and I was craving fish tacos (picked that up in California), and I found a place called the Tackle Box, which calls itself Washington D.C.’s first and only lobster shack. It was clearly very popular as there was a huge line. It’s counter-service only (no tip required!) and the food was very good. There’s nothing like some grilled fish tacos at the end of a long day!
The Lincoln Memorial
While we were exhausted, Kathy was very disappointed that we hadn’t seen the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool. We took Potomac Parkway south from Georgetown, which runs right behind the Lincoln Memorial. Even better, there’s free parking right on the Potomac Parkway within a quarter mile of the Memorial, so it was easy to park and walk over.
The Memorial was stunning as always, and surprising full of people, even though it was nearly 9oclock at night. We went up in the Memorial and paid our respects to Lincoln, then took a walk around the reflecting pool and admired the new WWII memorial. On the way back we visited the Vietnam War Memorial, then listened to a very quiet ranger giving a talk back in the Lincoln Memorial.
All in all, we had an incredibly full day – sorry for the long post! Again, I’d say that Washington D.C. is well worth a visit, and if you have more than 1 day, you’ll get a lot more out of it. I’ve seen about 6 of the Smithsonians now, and they’re all excellent. The Air & Space Museum is especially impressive – and a big hit with the kids.
Until next time, happy travels!