Washington DC: An All-American Experience

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The cradle of American history,Washington,D.C., is a city of national treasures, historic monuments, leafy parks, and refined eateries. A city of superlatives where history is fun and politicians are put on display.

Partly familiar, partly refreshingly different,Washingtonis a city of multiple personalities. There is monumentalWashington, from the white marble of the Capitol area and the statue-lined halls of Congress to the gleaming columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Tour these famous sites and be reassured that democracy is alive and well in the country, reason enough to come to Washington,D.C.

There is sophisticatedWashington: stylish coffeehouses, exquisite restaurants, attractive gift shops, charming boutiques and antique stores galore in this city of “manageable size and marvellous beauty.” Thanks to the World Bank, and numerous embassies, it’s no surprise that the D.C. area has a global side. Besides a myriad of ethnic cuisines, you can enjoy an array of cultural centres, art exhibits and embassy events from around the world.

And there is green, family-friendlyWashington: a city of thousands of parkland acres, stunning gardens, cherry trees, and home to the beautifully landscaped Zoo. And there is a river, too. “I know of no other capitol in the world which stands on so wide and splendid a river”, Henry James once observed. The city’s most obvious attractions are concentrated around thePennsylvania Avenue, the grand boulevard connecting the White House and Capitol Hill. The White House is currently the most protected building in the world — and given the events of Sept. 11, it’s easy to understand why. Until further notice, White House tours have been suspended except for school groups and organized military and veteran groups. If you can, take a peek from the outside or visit the White House Visitor Centre for a video presentation.

A must-see for anyone visiting Washington, The United States Capitol is an enduring monument to all the freedoms and ideals that Americans hold dear. This is a building of powerful symbolic presence in the 20th century imagination, associated with all manner of political events from the American Civil War to the Watergate investigations. And “the outlook from the Capitol is unsurpassed in the world”, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously proclaimed. Wander over to the Old Senate Chamber, where legislators met 100 years ago. Walk to the Statuary Hall just outside the House of Representatives and see our country’s most esteemed leaders. Be sure to touch the shoes of Will Rogers’ statue for good luck!

Stop by the congressional dining room and try the famous navy bean soup. If you visit during the congressional session, you can watch the government in action. Hear about President Washington andJefferson’s Capitol Hill connections. “Meet” the noted and notorious including John Philip Sousa, Emily Briggs, and J. Edgar Hoover. If you are in town when the Supreme Court is in session (Oct-late April) you can even watch a case argued. Prepare for a long queue, though, especially if there is a crisis or a scandal on the agenda.

Admiring the exquisite architecture of the Library of Congress is a quintessentialWashingtonexperience. The heart of the Library, the domed Main Reading Room in particular, is sure to take your breath away. The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress was founded in 1800, when the nation’s capital was relocated toWashington. The library houses more than 115 million items on approximately 532 miles of bookshelves in three buildings. The buildings – the Thomas Jefferson (1897), the John Adams (1939) and the James Madison (1980) – are located on Capitol Hill and connected to each other and to government buildings by limited-access underground passageways used by the Library and Hill employees.

Just across the Potomac River, The Memorial Bridge leads directly to theArlingtonNationalCemetery. More than 250,000 service personnel and their families are buried inArlingtonCemeteryon the 612 acres of the rollingVirginialand along the river. The most visited site is the grave of John F. Kennedy, marked by the eternal flame and flanked with concrete walls bearing quotes from JFK speeches. Buried alongside the 35th president are his wife, Jacqueline, and two infant children. Moving in its stark simplicity is the nearby grave of the president’s brother and attorney general, Robert Kennedy, assassinated in 1968. A simple white cross marks the site.  Other notables buried in Arlington include U.S. President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft; Civil War veteran and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.; boxing champion Joe Louis; and Pierre L’Enfant, who designed Washington, DC.

A 20-minute walk from the Visitors Centre is the Memorial Amphitheatre, site of Veterans Day observances, in which the president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, just east of the amphitheatre. Here, a sentinel of the Third U.S. Infantry maintains around-the-clock vigil. Every hour during the day and every two hours at night, the guard is relieved in a brief, solemn ceremony. And then there are museums. Nowhere else in the world will you find such enormous and diverse collection of art and inventions. Within the city, there are more than 40 other museums besides the Smithsonian’s, and these include the National Gallery of Art, the country’s oldest modern art museum.

The Smithsonian’s collection of nearly 141 million objects spans the entire world and all of its history, its people and animals, both past and present. The sprawling institution comprises 14 museums (the opening of theNationalMuseumof the American Indian in 2004 will bring that number to 15) with 10 of them on the National Mall.

NationalMuseumof American History deals with everyday life in the American past and the forces that helped to shape the national character. At the third floor, the American Presidency exhibit explores the meaning of the presidency by studying those who have held the position. While here, don’t miss the opportunity to look at the first American flag to be called Old Glory (1824). Downstairs, on the second floor, the huge original Star-Spangled Banner is exhibited. This is the very flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became theU.S.national anthem in 1814.

If you still have time, here are some of the favouriteWashingtonadventures: Take a twilight walk to the top of the Capitol steps for a fabulous view of the city. Visit Ford’s Theatre, site ofLincoln’s assassination. Research your genealogy at the National Archives. Attend mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Tour the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (yes, they do print dollars here).Visit the Castle that houses the crypt of James Smithson, founder of the Smithsonian. Window shop in historicGeorgetownneighbourhood comprising quaint, narrow streets and lovely mansions. Or for a perfect night out, debark at Union Station for a non-stop mega shopping/ dining experience.

For out of town trip Old Town Alexandria is a mecca for history lovers. This charming colonial village is only eight miles fromWashington, located on the west bank of thePotomac River. Walk the cobblestone streets and brick sidewalks, visit the Carlyle house, and roam the many antique stores on King and Cameron streets. Better yet, visitMount Vernon, just another eight miles away along theGeorge Washington Memorial Parkway. (Parkway is the major commute route into the city, but also a national park where one can observe the beautiful scenery.) Facing the Potomac River, George Washington’s estate stands today as it did whenWashingtondesigned the mansion and landscaped the 500 acres surrounding his home.Mount Vernonwas designed to be a self-contained community, complete with farms, outbuildings and guest areas.

A visit includes tours of the home, the gardens, the farm buildings and the graves of theWashingtons.Mount Vernonis a history lesson, and though it’s often crowded with tourists, it is a must-see. Plus, the setting is spectacular–Washingtonchose really well. There is so much more to do and see inWashington,D.C.than described here. Whatever your plans and itinerary, bring a comfortable pair of shoes, a camera and a curious mind. And, have fun. You are guaranteed to leave the city with stars in your eyes.