Sunday, March 1, 2009

Must See Tourist Attractions

For the first few years that you spend in DC, you will shift between tourist and tour guide. As time goes by, you'll find yourself developing your own tour itinerary of personal favorites that mixes iconic monuments with lesser known gems. Here is a list of places our guests usually find themselves when they visit us, along with a few hints and suggestions.
  • White House. You can't come to DC and not take the obligatory postcard photo but beyond that, there's not much to see. Keep in mind that there is no front and back (it was designed to have two fronts) so you may have to circumnavigate it to get the photo you're looking for. Tours for large groups are available through your congressman.
  • Capitol Building. I never get tired of looking at the Capitol dome. There are times living in DC where you turn a corner or cross a street and there it is... it takes your breath away. It is one of those things in Washington that doesn't get old for me. But beyond ogling at it from afar, we suggest getting a tour. The best way to do this is to contact your congressman and request one. Don't think this is an imposition. They have staffers who spend most of their time on constituent services, which basically means tour guide. Check your representative's website for information, where many have online forms to fill out. It is just that easy! Also keep in mind that a visitor center just opened on the east side of the Capitol that is worth seeing, especially if you aren't planning on taking a tour.
  • Lincoln, Vietnam War, and Korean War Memorials. All located together, this is a great 3 for 1 stop. Each, however, has its own feel. Surrounded by his two most famous speeches (some of which you may remember from elementary school) and the spot upon which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream Speech, you can't help feel the history and power of the Lincoln. The Vietnam War and Korean War Memorials are on either side of the Lincoln and ofter interesting counterpoints to how they honor sacrifice. Vietnam's minimalist design inspires a contemplative mood while Korea's literal design allows visitors to put themselves in the trenches. You'll have to make up your own mind which you like better, but most people prefer one or the other. Either way, since both wars are so recent, the feelings of you, your guests, and/or those around you are quite powerful. Consequently you may see letters and mementos, some of clear value and significance, left behind.
  • Washington Monument. Pope Sixtus V reerected ancient Egyptian obilisks in Rome to serve as navigational markers. Whether that was the intention of the Washington Monument by DC's planners or not, it can be seen from much of the city and is helpful when you're trying to get your bearings. But beyond being an imposing presence on the city's skyline, it also provides the best viewpoint. On the morning that you want to go to the top, go to the visitor center (east side of the monument) to get a free ticket. Keep in mind that this can be pretty popular in peak season, so plan to get there early. A good alternative to the view from the Washington Monument is that from the top of the Old Post Office Building. Located on Pennsylvannia Ave. (at 12th street), it is not as high or as iconic but at the same time, does not feature big crowds or require tickets. Similarly, the roof of the Kennedy Center offers a nice perspective over the Potomac, not to mention world-class talent and free performances every day at 6pm.
  • Jefferson and FDR Memorials, and the Tidal Basin. You've probably heard about DC's famous cherry blossoms. They were originally a gift from Japan in 1912 and planted around the Tidal Basin. Every spring (usually early April) they will bloom with beautiful pinkish-white flowers that only last for a couple of weeks, which makes planning a trip a bit of a challenge. There is also a festival that includes parades and kite shows. Less seasonal features of the Tidal Basin are the Jefferson and FDR Memorials. The Jefferson is a personal favorite of mine for its setting and architecture (inspired by Rome's Pantheon). Unfortunately, it is not visited by as many people as it should because nearby parking is somewhere between minimal and non-existent. However if you do make it there, be sure to enjoy the view through the cherry trees that allows Jefferson to keep a constant watch over the President in the White House. The FDR Memorial is hidden among the trees on the west side of the Tidal Basin. It is broken into four areas that each depict one term of Roosevelt's presidency. Note the symbolism of the water to accent turmoil, war, chaos, peace, etc. Also, be sure to visit during the day since the night time lighting is not sufficient to appreciate much of the text.
  • World War II Memorial. One of the newest, and certainly the most noticeable addition to DC is the WWII Memorial. If you haven't been to DC and walked the monuments since 2004, make sure you make time to do so. To be honest, I was among those that questioned how it would fit among the iconic Washington and Lincoln memorials. However, the use of water and white granite fits perfectly and does a nice job of honoring sacrifice, teaching history, and adding to our capitol city.
  • The Smithsonian. Face it, you won't come close to seeing everything. There are 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo, most of which are in DC. However, there are a few things working in your favor. First, all the museums are next to each other and second, they are all free. This allows you to hop in and out at will. For example, in one well planned hour you could drool over the Hope Diamond in the Natural History Museum, see the Wright Brother's airplane in the Air and Space Museum, and stand at the base of the actual Star Spangled banner in the American History Museum. And that doesn't even mention all of the great art and cultural museums... Finally, the Smithsonian also offers classes, seminars, and tours through their Resident Associates program which is worth taking advantage of if you're local.
  • Arlington National Cemetery. Cemeteries aren't everyone's idea of a good time but I don't find Arlington to be creepy or depressing. Reverent, peaceful, and beautiful are words that come to mind. Arlington came about as the practical solution to a Civil War problem. President Lincoln, needing a place to inter and honor the thousands of dead soldiers, chose the estate of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate General. Don't miss the Tomb of the Unknown and the changing of the guard ceremony,and the Kennedy grave sites (Robert, too). Adjacent to the cemetery is the Marine Corps Memorial (sometimes referred to as the Iwo Jima Memorial) which is worth a stop.
  • Library of Congress. In my opinion, this tops Washington's underrated attractions list. The main reading room is one of the most impressive interior spaces I've seen.
  • National Cathedral. Taking 83 years to build and completed in 1990, the Cathedral may be the last of its kind considering that the private funding and masonry skills required to build such a structure are no longer available at this scale. Built on the highest point of DC, the views from the towers are quite good on clear days but the true attraction is the building itself. Featuring thousands of unique sculptures and grotesques (commonly referred to as gargoyles), in addition to the beautiful stained glass windows, the National Cathedral is an interesting blend of old and new. Examples include a stained glass window containing a moon rock, a sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. (he gave his last sermon here), and a grotesque of Darth Vader. It should also be noted that many political and other dignitaries have been memorialized here, and President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, are buried here (among others).
Finally, a couple of general tips to consider...

Get your walking shoes on. Be realistic about how much you and your group want to walk. Parking and public transportation access isn't always optimal at many of the most popular spots. Make sure you consult a map beforehand if there is any doubt because distances on the Mall can be deceiving. It is quite easy to point to a monument and say, "It's not that far to the..." Case in point, it is over a mile from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and almost 2 miles to walk all the way around the Tidal Basin.

There are many tour mobile types of companies to choose from, many in the $10-30 price range. Another option that we enjoyed with our families in town was the hiring of a private tour bus. Again, there are many to choose from and so long as you have a large enough group, the price per person can be rather reasonable. Besides keeping your friends/family together, it is great to be able to customize the itinerary to cater to your group's interests.

Monuments at night. Consider going to the monuments at night, especially the marquee ones. The crowds are down considerably which makes parking easier and lessens the chance of getting mauled by tour buses full of 8th graders. Plus, the lights on the white surfaces of the White House, Capitol, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and WWII make them that much more majestic. Keep in mind, however, that some monuments are poorly lit and don't do well at night, most notably FDR.

Do your homework. Many of the monuments and attractions are littered with symbolism and personal stories. Some of this you can figure out and some of it you can't, but the more you know, the more interesting your visit will be. I highly suggest taking a tour, talking to a guide, or reading up on the sites before you go. It'll make you a more engaged tourist and more educated tour guide.

Obviously these lists are highly subjective so depending on your interests, you should also consider:
  • Supreme Court. Don't forget the third branch of government! Certainly worth a photo op outside those magestic columns, seeing the Court in session is the real attraction. Unfortunately for locals, the Court's schedule isn't set to provide for those of us with jobs. But if you're in town on vacation, make sure to check the website for information.
  • Pentagon 9/11 Memorial. It is not the easiest to get to because of security reasons but is a very well done tribute to this tragic event.
  • Air Force Memorial. Rising above the horizon like a plane taking off, it offers another great venue to look over the city.
  • Botanic Garden. It might not be a must see for everyone, but it'll probably be on your way, it is extremely well done, and it is a great natural respite from all of the history and culture you'll be digesting in DC. It is also a nice place to warm up and/or dry off on those cold and stormy days.
  • Ford's Theatre. See separate post.
  • Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Where your money gets made. Learn manufacturing techniques, anti-counterfeit measures, and see what it would be like to be Scrooge McDuck.
  • Mt. Vernon. About 20 miles from DC, see where and how our first president lived.
  • Old Town Alexandria. If visiting Mt. Vernon shows you what an 18th century plantation is like, Old Town will remind you of 18th century town-life.
  • Rock Creek Park. When you need an escape to nature, find DC's answer (it is twice as big) to New York's Central Park.
  • Great Falls. Combines a historic site with breathtaking natural beauty.

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