A few weeks ago we were talking to a well-traveled friend-of-a-friend. He had been all over the world, but had never been to Washington DC.
I was a little incredulous: How can someone travel all over the world without ever visiting their own national Capitol – and why would anyone want to?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, since we will be traveling there soon, so here – for those of you foolish enough to believe that DC is a miserable city fit only for politicians, lobbyists, and families with young children – are a few of the sites in D.C. that I think every American should see.
The National Mall at night: Despite the sunny, blue-sky scenes you see in the pictures, I like the mall best at night when the darkness focuses your experience, making it more intimate. Two sites in particular MUST be seen at night to really be appreciated:
- The Lincoln Memorial is just another pile of carved marble during the day, but climb the stairs and enter the monument at night when it is bathed in a golden light. It seems somehow to come to life. As you read the familiar quotes inscribed on the walls, stop and listen to the voices of those around you as they recite those words aloud. The understanding of and sympathy for the human condition reflected in those words belies a wisdom far beyond that usually available to mere humans. . . there is hope.
- The FDR Memorial almost seems designed for night-time viewing, when its “rooms” can only be seen one at a time. The effect is to sequentially experience one of our nation’s periods of greatest challenge and change one event at a time. Ostensibly a celebration of the accomplishments of our 32nd president, it is more a monument to the strength and resiliency of the American people.
The National Mall during the day: A night-time visit won’t quite cover it, so plan to spend some time.
- Return to the Lincoln Memorial. Once again climb the marble stairs, but this time turn your back on Lincoln and instead look down on the mall as he might. Beyond the monument, the mall stretches out past the reflecting pool to the Washington Monument and beyond to the Capitol dome. This is, indeed, the “nation’s living room,” the place where we come together as a nation to celebrate and mourn, rejoice and hope, protest and pray. It is where Marian Anderson sang and Martin Luther King, Jr. told the world about his dream.
- The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is nestled out of sight behind a slight rise. It is a quiet, sacred space that takes whatever expectations, clichés, or political baggage you may have and cuts through them, leaving you with a profound sense of sadness and loss. It doesn’t matter whether you supported the war, opposed the war, or (like me) really don’t know much about the war, as you watch the wall rise with addition of the names of the soldiers killed in each year, all you feel is the horrible pain of an entire nation.
The National Archives: “The what?” you ask. The National Archives is where America’s “documentation” is stored. That sounds boring, but this enticing building hosts both a changing selection of fun and informational exhibits and a permanent display of our country’s uber documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These are it, THE basis for everything else in town. Sure you can read them online, but every American should actually see them. . . and then spend some time thinking about the men who wrote them and the meaning of it all.
The United States Capitol: Ok, I have to confess I haven’t been back here since the new security measures kicked in and I’m sure it is not as fun to tour now, but, really, there is something about actually being here that makes it worth the trouble. My favorite spot: the Old Senate Chamber where Daniel Webster and the other great orators of the 19th century shaped our nation.
The White House: Despite the current occupant and the need to arrange a tour far in advance, the White House has too much history to skip. You’ve heard of all these rooms and really should see them for yourself. By the way, after you do, will you let me know if the magnificent collection of contemporary crafts assembled by the Clintons is still on display?
The National Museum of American History: In this city devoted to politics, the Museum of American History reminds visitors that politics is just one element of the culture that makes this country what it is. It houses an amazing conglomeration of the stuff that symbolizes (for better or worse) who we are as a people. From Kermit to Einstein’s pipe to the turbines originally used in the Niagara Falls power station, it’s all here. . . or will be, once the renovation is complete next year.
The Great Falls of the Potomac may be the area’s best-kept secret. Here you can discover a Potomac River that would look familiar to George Washington – a river that is wild and seemingly untamable. As you watch the surging water you’ll think you have been teleported to Alaska, however, these falls are conveniently located about 10 minutes from the rental car return at Dulles airport.
Of course, I don’t ever have time to do all these things on every visit and I haven’t actually visited the White House since I was a child (poor planning during the Clinton years and a desire to deny reality since have kept me away).
Of course, there are many other sites I enjoy too. In a city packed with museums, galleries, and monuments, there is always more to see and never enough time to see it all.