Getting the best out of Washington DC

The last leg of my “America 2012″ trip was spent in Washington DC and if you believe nothing in this world is free, read on…

But first, let’s get one thing out of the way.  Washington DC is NOT in the state of Washington, a mistake that many people make.  The state of Washington is up on the north west (i.e. left) corner of America, Washington DC is a city that lies on the East coast of America.  The DC stands for ‘District of Columbia’ and the city is the capital of America.  It is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States Congress and is therefore not a part of any U.S. state. It is a federal district rather than a state.  The part which I am SURE you already know is that it was named after the great George Washington (who I met recently, see that blog post here!)

If you’re short of time when visiting Washington DC, don’t stress – it is really easy to see a lot in a very short time.  There is a tree-lined strip of land in the centre of the city called “The National Mall” with the stunning Lincoln Memorial at one end and the beautiful Capitol Hill at the other. Jam packed in the middle of these two are many great American landmarks and museums.  The best thing is, you don’t have to worry about entrance fees or buying tickets.

The Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

The Abraham Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial

Some info from Wikipedia:

The building is in the form of a Greek Doric temple and contains a large seated sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and inscriptions of two well-known speeches by Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The memorial has been the site of many famous speeches, including Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 during the rally at the end of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The Lincoln Memorial is a hugely impressive building and you don’t grasp the scale of it until you are standing at the bottom of the stairs gazing upward.

Once you’ve tackled the stairs and stand inside, you’ll see that the statue is huge and quite intimidating.  There are LOADS of people milling around and many tourist groups taking photos so it’s quite hard to get a photo for yourself.  You need to be patient…

The Washington Monument

Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial looking back at the National Mall, the tall, white Washington Monument can be seen for miles around and stands almost in the middle of the Mall.

The Washington Monument as seen from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

This huge obelisk was built as a monument to commemorate the first American President, General George Washington. It is made of marble, granite, and bluestone gneiss, is both the world’s tallest stone structure and the world’s tallest obelisk, standing 169.294 m (555 feet 518 inches).  It is currently closed to the public while damage from an earthquake and a hurricane are assessed.

Just next to this huge monument is the WWII Memorial which is a collection of pools, fountains, dedication columns and bronze star-studded walls remembering all those who lost their lives in the war. Quite sobering.

Standing at the National WWII Memorial in the middle of the National Mall

The White House

If you stand with the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial directly behind you and look left, you will see, at a distance, the White House.  A truly AMAZING site.  The White House ranked second on the “List of America’s Favorite Architecture” in 2007.  I tried to have tea with Mr Obama but unfortunately he couldn’t make it.  Maybe next time…

The White House

It was here that I spotted the not so secret, secret service (If you look at the photo below, underneath the word “Police”, it says “United States Secret Service”.

The not-so-secret, Secret Service

Obviously, there is a VERY high police presence around this area but you still get stunning views of the White House in all its glory.  I was very pleased to have seen it.

The Capitol

Walk straight ahead with the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial behind you, and you will eventually arrive at Capitol Hill.  The main building, called simply ,”The Capitol”, is built in the distinctive neoclassical style and is really quite beautiful.  It is the official meeting place of the United States Congress. I was lucky that I saw it on a gorgeous, sunny day and its white-washed walls stood out all the more against the bright blue sky.

The Capitol Building

If you walk around the back of it and into the Capitol District, you will find many impressive buildings to photograph.  I had no idea what I was photographing until I read the sign next to the building and discovered it was the “Library of Congress”.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States of America. It is made up of four buildings here, as well as another called the “Packard Campus” in Virginia and is the largest library in the world by shelf space and number of books. Pity I didn’t have time to go inside…

The Museums

Ten of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution (a group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government) are located within the National Mall. The most amazing thing is, they are all completely free.

At the National Air and Space Museum, you can see the ORIGINAL Wrights Brothers’ aeroplane (remember I mentioned this in my last blog article)…

The original Wright’s Brothers aeroplane

There are lots and lots of aeroplanes hanging from the ceilings…

Anything aeroplane related can be found at the National Air and Space Museum

There are GIGANTIC space shuttle engines, astronaut outfits, control panels, monkey suits (America sent 2 monkeys into space) and even bits of the moon.

Gigantic Space Shuttle Engines

You can even see Apollo lunar modules…

The Apollo Lunar Module

You can watch movies, play interactive games, walk through cockpits and much more.  A complete adventure for adults and children.  I absolutely loved it!

The National Museum of the American Indian was fascinating.

The National Museum of the American Indian

I had no idea there were so many Indian tribes.  I watched a free movie which was a good introduction but there was still so much to see. How the tribes lived, how their customs and traditions shaped their lives, how they hunted, how they made their clothes, how they made their shelters, there was so much to learn. The life size models and exhibitions made everything more realistic and I was genuinely sorry I didn’t have more time for this museum.

They have a great (albeit expensive) buffet restaurant which offers native-inspired cuisine.  Their menu lists Tamales, roasted turkey, grilled salmon, homemade seasonal soups, buffalo burgers, Indian fry bread, a seasonal variety of aqua fresca and desserts.  The cafe also does a chilli hot chocolate – try it if you dare…

The National Gallery of Art was incredible.  I love art and I’ve been to some of the best art galleries in Europe and this one came close to being my favourite. They understand that visitors might not have a lot of time so they provide a map which contains a selection of their most famous pieces. They are called “What to see in an hour – East Building” and “What to see in an hour – West Building”.  Both are available at the entrance and save a LOT of time.  This museum is HUGE and having a little focus really helps.

I saw Raphael’s “The Niccolini Cowper Madonna”, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait” and Claude Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral, West Facade”.  I was in my element!  The Monet collection is the largest I’ve ever seen.

National Gallery of Art

The museum itself is a long narrow building and there are three huge atriums spaced out along the length.  With either beautiful fountains, trees and mosaics or marble benches and huge skylights, they are all tranquil and calming and provide a perfect area to pause before finding that next masterpiece.

And if all that wasn’t enough, I had just enough time for another food tour in Eastern Market, an area just behind Capitol Hill.  It was run by “DC Metro Food Tours” and was just one of many tours that they offered.  Eastern Market is a popular area for artists and the markets there offer everything from food to paintings, from jams to bags and even home-made crafts.  Eastern Market is the longest running public market in DC.

The impressive interior of the Eastern Market building

We tasted pickled cabbage, smooth creamy cheese, sweet baklava, spicy hot dogs, dried turkey sausage and much more.  It was a bit tight walking around the market AND tasting food but of course, we made a plan.

Preparing some cheese for tasting

The fresh fruit and vegetables all looked so tasty and the whole indoor hall was a mass of bright colours and delicious smells both savoury and sweet.

A mass of colours and smells

Heading back on the train that day, I thought about the last 2 months that I’ve spent travelling in America.  What an adventure I’ve had.  Toronto (Canada), Springfield (Massachusetts), Richmond (Virginia), Indianapolis (Indiana), Chicago (Illinois), Daytona Beach (Florida), Troy (Illinois), St Louis (Missouri), Virginia Beach/Norfolk (Virginia) and finally Washington DC.  I’ve seen so much, done so much, spent quality time with people that I haven’t seen in a long time, rekindled friendships and viewed a side of America that I didn’t know existed.

While it will always remain a controversial country, it is wonderfully diverse and this makes travelling around it an endless adventure.  A mix of cultures, traditions and beliefs, sights, food and people – it’s truly a world in one country.

Goodbye America – until next time…

A big thank you to Becky and Adam for hosting me in Washington DC and for the use of your Metro card.  I couldn’t have seen your nation’s capital without you.

The Smithsonian Institute
For details about all the museums that are part of the Smithsonian Institute, visit their website

The Official Tourism Website of Washington DC

The National Gallery of Art

The National Air and Space Museum

The National Museum of the American Indian

DC Metro Food Tours

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