As a government teacher I am very passionate about the workings of our government. The last time I visited our nations capital, Washington, D.C., was 10 years ago with a couple of friends. My family and I decided to take a few days and revisit this great city! This was a fantastic opportunity for me to get psyched up to go back to school in August and get my students excited about how our nation’s government works. I should first say that, if you can possibly avoid it, DON’T go to D.C. in the summer. It’s bloody hott, with a double t, and you will need to do a lot of walking around to fully take in all DC has to offer. Should your limited free time find you with summer being your only option, as it is with me, then don’t let it hold you back. I flew into Reagan National, which I recommend over Dulles. I got a great view of the city flying in!
Where to Stay:
Georgetown is a historic neighborhood to the west of downtown DC. It’s conveniently located on the DC circulator bus line to take you in and our of downtown to see the sites, though there is lots to see right in Georgetown. We stayed at Georgetown Suites which is located directly off M Street and close to the circulator. They were also running a summer special, so it made the price real affordable. I would highly recommend it if you are traveling with your family and need more space, plus a kitchenette. If you’re just traveling solo, finding a place closer downtown is probably more advisable.
Things to Do and See:
I wanted to focus on the three branches of government, so one of my main goals was to see the White House, the Capitol Building and the Supreme Court Building. To be able to tour the White House you need to arrange a tour of the East Wing in advance with your respective Congressmen. These can sometimes be denied, based on availability, so the second you know you are traveling to DC, and you want to see the White House, get on the horn with your representative. We were fortunate that a friend of my cousin actually works in the Executive Office of the President, so not only did we get a tour of the East Wing of the White House but we were able to come back later that night and get a tour of the West Wing. Photos galore are permitted in the East Wing but unfortunately not in the West Wing (where the oval office is), for obvious security reasons.
I should start by saying that it can be massively inconvenient to visit the White House, due to the rules and regulations. Women cannot bring purses in, or bags of any kind, and for the West Wing tour you cannot wear tourist attire (ie. no shorts). You need to have ID in addition to your reservation ticket, so pockets are a must. I had to resort to iPhone photos inside the East Wing. You will be sent a guide by whoever organizes your tour…here is a tip: Read It! There are no, repeat no, lockers of any kind to place your things should you come unprepared. The nearest lockers are at Union Station. Aside from this, it really is worth it! As we came in, who should pop by to say hello but the first family’s two Portuguese Water Dogs, Bo and Sunny. You’ll have to excuse their rear view, and the blurriness. They were really booking it to get outside 🙂 Bo is the second one with the white paws.
We passed through the Green Room…which was sometimes used as a private dining room, but is now a reception/meeting room.
And the Blue Room…which is another reception room.
And the Red Room. Each room had different art and a different style of furniture.
The story of Dolly Madison, wife of our third President James Madison, saving the beloved portrait of George Washington as the British came to burn the White House during the War of 1812, is the stuff of legend. While servants begged her to flee Washington, she refused until the portrait was taken down and safely out of reach. It hangs in prominence today in the White House.
Here we see the State Dining Room, much smaller than expected, considering it supposedly seats 150 people, using rounded tables.
Later on that evening, on our tour of the West Wing, we were able to see the Roosevelt Room, with the two portraits of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, the Oval Office, walk by the Situation Room, and catch a glimpse of the Rose Garden. President Obama was returning in the Marine One helicopter from Dallas that night, so that was really cool! The oval office was much smaller than you might imagine. The one place we were allowed to take a picture was in the Press Room. Call me Press Secretary Colleen! That’s the Press Room right there at the bottom right of the photo where the awning is. The flag is lowered half staff, as were all the flags of the federal buildings, in honor of the 5 officers who were shot and killed in Dallas, TX. You may even notice the sniper up there to the left of the flag, whose was monitoring the grounds as Marine One comes back in. Yikes!
We moved on the next day to a private tour of the US Capitol Building, given by a summer intern in the office of US Representative Mark Takai, of Hawaii, who sadly passed away just yesterday from pancreatic cancer. We passed through the tunnel that the representatives use to get to the Capitol, which was pretty neat. Each representative gets to select artwork representing their state to line the tunnel.
We were able to see the original Supreme Court chambers, where such important cases such as Marbury vs. Madison and Plessy v. Ferguson were heard. Men like John Marshall sat in these chambers.
We were unable to see the current chambers of either the House of Representatives or the Senate, as the House was in session, but we did see the original Senate chambers which was quite ornate and impressive.
The dome of the Capitol was under repair, but we did get to see the famed Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco by Greek painter Brumidi. Notice Washington drapped in the purple robe (symbolizing royalty). Under Washington is Freedom, or Columbia, representing war. Washington is surrounded by 13 maidens, representing the 13 colonies. You can learn more here. Washington would have cringed at this, as he hated people treating him like a king or a god, but it sure is beautiful!
There are many statues throughout the Capitol but only two from the state of Alabama, and interestingly enough they are both women, Rosa Parks and Helen Keller. Makes me wish I was from Alabama!
There was a massive gun control rally going on on the Capitol steps the day we were there. Right there in the middle is where the new President will be sworn in, January 20, 2017.
From the Capitol building we took the walkway to the Library of Congress, which was an absolutely stunning building. Here they have the original Gutenberg Bible and a recreation of the Jefferson Library. Thomas Jefferson is primarily responsible for the Library of Congress. There were two neat exhibitions on display when we were there. One on the Progressives (in particular Jacob Riss) and the other was on early settlement of America and Spanish exploration.
You also want to see the Supreme Court building, completing our Branches of Government. The Supreme Court building is directly next to the Library of Congress and they have great orientation lectures given throughout the day by members of the judicial staff. You can’t take photos directly inside the court chambers but I was able to take a few just outside. Didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me you can see basically everything from the outside, but that is a mandate from Chief Justice John Roberts, and who am I to argue with him really.
The Supreme Court will hear between 80-120 cases every year, out of the some 8000 requests they receive. These cases mostly involve constitutional issues and interstate conflicts. The chief justice will sit in the middle right under the clock, with the others (current 7 of them) flanking him on either side based on seniority. Quite an impressive room!
Flags, Memorials and Museums, Oh My!
There is no shortage of museums to visit while in D.C., so don’t try and hit them all in a short visit, but I do have a couple of favorites you should prioritize. The National Museum of American History is a great place to start. The first floor covers technology and innovation, a great collection, but my favorite part is the pop culture. They have a collection of first ladies fashions, dresses worn by the First Ladies on inauguration night.
Michelle Obama’s gown…Beautiful!
Be sure to catch the history of America at war, and the exhibit on the Star Spangled Banner flag. You can’t take pictures of the original flag that inspired Francis Scott Key’s song, which was to become our national anthem, as he watched the flag flying over Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812. There is a quite serious guard in the room with the flag, so don’t even try 🙂 There is, however, a great art piece outside the exhibit. It put me in mind of my favorite version of the song, sung by Whitney Houston years ago (see below).
No one sings it like Whitney, do they?! <3
The National Museum of the American Indian is also top notch. You can spend hours just on the top floor, looking through all the history of treaties which will sadly make you realize just how despicably America has behaved towards Native American peoples. There is currently a great exhibit on Hawaiian natives and the annexation of Hawaii, which was fascinating. It’s a newer museum, and one you definitely want to visit. There is a great cafe there, which serves typical cuisine. Try the blue corn corn bread, you’ll thank me later! It also has one of the most unique architecture of any of the museums in D.C., with the exception of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in September of 2016.
National Museum of the American Indian
You don’t want to miss the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s free, as many of the things in DC are, but I recommend booking passes to the Permanent Exhibit, particularly if you are traveling between March and August. There are timed passes into the museum to prevent crowding. Leave yourself a couple of hours to see this museum, trust me. You will find yourself sitting for a good half hour listening to the voices from Auschwitz. I think I spent an hour and a half on the top floor alone. Book burning – Holocaust Memorial Museum
There is also the Natural History Museum, the Newseum, and the International Spy Museum which are all well done and tons of fun, should you have the time! The Newseum has some great artifacts, like pieces of the Berlin Wall. It’s a truly unique museum. The Spy Museum has a fun simulated spy mission, great for kids and adults! Below is an old photo from atop the Newseum.
You must also see Ford’s Theater and the Peterson House museum, where Abraham Lincoln was shot and later died. We got to see a short play telling the story of that fateful day.
A Must: Tour the Washington Monuments
Washington DC has many beautiful monuments commemorating our former leaders and fallen soldiers. The absolute best way to see these is all lit up at night by taking a night bus tour. There are several options but I recommend On Board Tours. They take you around the city, seeing the Capital, a walk past the White House, then on to the monuments. The tour highlights the Washington Monument, but the first monument you get off to see is the Lincoln Memorial. When we got to the Lincoln there was a massive candlelight vigil happening to protest organ harvesting in China amongst the Falun Gong for their political and religious ideological differences with the dictatorship there. It was a beautiful thing to witness, silent and peaceful. If you want to learn more, go here and sign the petition! Here you will also see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean Memorial, which are beautiful and eery, but hard to photograph at night. There is just silence and reverence as you walk along the Vietnam wall, designed and built by a talented architect, Maya Lin, whose family immigrated to China, fleeing Mao Zedong and his regime.
The WWII is a fairly newer monument, and as my grandfathers and many of my great-uncles are all veterans this was especially meaningful to me.
The FDR memorial is one of my favorites, and a great commemoration of the New Deal and how it helped people survive the Great Depression.
The beautiful MLK memorial is just a short walk from the FDR Memorial and is just…well…awesome! Look close and you will notice that his eyes are looking askance towards Jefferson across the basin, LOL. Bad Jefferson…keeping your slaves and having a black mistress whom you had several children by all the while writing your Declaration of Independence.
But we can’t forget the Jefferson memorial, which is truly beautiful. Thomas Jefferson was one of my favorite founding fathers, next to James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
Where to Eat:
So let’s get down to it! Where can I grab a good meal in DC? Once again, there are no shortages. In Georgetown I recommend Martin’s Tavern. John F. Kennedy used to frequent this establishment, as have many of of our nations’s leaders. When JFK was a senator he use to read his newspaper every morning there, and he chose to propose to Jacqueline Bouvier, a young journalists, in what is today called the proposal booth, LOL. We made it a point to reserve this booth, and the cute little old waiters with napkins over their arms were extremely attentive. We had fried green tomatoes, which were out of this world. I also had the pot roast, while my folks enjoyed the oysters and crab cakes.
Fried Green Tomatoes at Martin’s Tavern
Old Ebbit Grill is frequented by White House and congressional staffers, as it but a block or two from the White House. It’s been around since 1856 and considered to be the 2nd oldest saloon in D.C. The decor is a wide collection of americana memorabilia. I highly recommend the Bacon Horseradish Glazed Meatloaf, double yum and so so unique! The arugula and blackberry salad was also refreshing. My folks recommended the crab cakes there over those at Martin’s Tavern.
I also highly recommend Woodward Table, which is not far from Ebbits Grill. It’s got an upscale southern cooking sort of feel. I enjoyed a country ham and peach flatbread, which was delicious! They have other interesting options, like fried summer squash blossoms, and something called a “hot mess” which is basically just fried chicken, biscuits and gravy.
Whether you are an American or a visitor to our nation’s capital from abroad, I hope everyone will take time to see this fabulous city! You can’t help but get a sense of the patriotism and wonderful history to be seen there.
Buen viajes, gnomies!
Ever been to Washington, DC? Let the gnome know what you enjoy about this city!