Trip Report: One week in spring in Washington D.C.

I keep postponing this review of my trip to Washington D.C., really for a couple of reasons. First of all, life got in the way. While I was in D.C., I sold my condo and had to quickly plan a move upon my return (I still don’t have a full complement of furniture at my new place!). Secondly, there was so much to see and do in D.C. that it is hard to really process everything now that I am back home.

Due to the latter, this could easily turn into a tome. I’d rather keep things short(er) so I will summarize the trip based on what I learned and a few highlights. If you enjoy the photos, here is a link to all the photos I took on this trip: D.C. Trip April 2017

Day 1

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My first morning in D.C. I walked over to the Tidal Basin area and walked around there, viewing the cherry blossom trees and monuments. The most impressive was the MLK memorial.

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I walked the basin in a counter-clockwise direction from the Washington Monument side, which at the end of my walk, put me near my next stop: the Holocaust Memorial Museum.  I spent as much time as I could there, before claustrophobia and overwhelm set in. The main exhibition was not only emotionally moving, it was also very crowded, which added to the intensity of the experience.

After this, I visited the Hishorne Museum. It was recommended due to a special exhibit there by Yayoi Kusama. However, the timed entries were sold out for the day so I just wandered the rather underwhelming regular exhibits and sculpture garden.  At least it was free. This leads me to my first big lesson: when visiting Washington D.C., it is a good idea to plan ahead. The special exhibit here wasn’t the only place I wasn’t able to visit due to pre-arranged timed entry tickets being required. The National Museum of African American History was the most extreme example as they were booked out through July(!).

In the evening, I participated in a nighttime memorials walk. Starting at the Washington Monument, this walk visited all of the war memorials between there and the Lincoln memorial, where we parted ways. Both the Vietnam memorial and the Korea war memorial were particularly intense. The Vietnam memorial because of the way it hides in the dark at night. You can’t even see it until you are right up to it, then you see the sheer number of names on this wall and can’t help but feel overwhelmed. The Korea war memorial is just eerie in that it is a large area with life-sized soldiers situated so that no matter where you stand, one is looking directly at you.

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Day 2

I met some colleagues from the Internation Downtown Association (IDA) for coffee at La Colombe coffee. Not really a “vacation-ey” thing to do, but it was nice to meet some folks whom I’d worked with remotely from Seattle over the years. This was the first place I’d noticed coffee on tap (though I discovered upon my return to Seattle, that this is a thing at Starbucks as well… is that new?).

After coffee, I visited the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum (two museums under one roof, both pretty incredible collections). This was one of the top highlights of my trip. My favorite was a special exhibition that required some time to sit and experience, Moving Portraits by Bill Viola. They also have a great atrium (Kosgod Courtyard) for chilling out in, worth a visit in itself.

The evening was dedicated to the Lincoln Assassination. I first visited the Ford’s Theatre historic site, then crossed the street to see the Petersen House where he passed away, along with several floors of exhibits in a museum/visitor center next door.  After the site visit, I participated in a night walk where an actor played a detective solving the case. Tickets to all of these are available through the Ford’s Theatre website. Honestly, while it was entertaining, adding in the walk was overkill.

At the end of the walk, I made my way to the Vietnam memorial to try to get a stencil for a friend who had a family member memorialized there, only to find I didn’t have a pencil on me(!). At least I was able to take a photograph for him.

Day 3

My timing couldn’t have been more perfect for a planned day at the capitol. It was pouring down rain all day. I took my first D.C. subway ride to get there from the hostel. It was no problem finding my way around that system and the trains were frequent and fast. I made it to the capitol with plenty of time to spare before my appointed time for a tour with our state representative’s intern. I highly recommend this way of seeing the capitol, by the way. I had a personal tour at a specified time rather than having to wait with the hordes of large groups lining up for tours. While the intern was still learning his way around (ours is a newly elected representative after all), it was still a delight to have that personal touch. (Hot tip: cheap eats are to be found in the cafeteria in the basement of the Longworth Building).

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Post tour, I visited first the Library of Congress. It was more of a museum than I realized but some interesting exhibits. I was also able to peek into the library reading room (no admittance unless you are doing research and arranged it ahead of time). Next, I visited the Supreme Court and sat through a lecture in the courtroom. I felt bad because I started to nod off during the lecture. I think the dark stormy weather and all the walking I’d been doing caught up with me that afternoon. After grabbing a quick bite, I headed back toward downtown and called it a day.

Day 4

Day four was a Saturday. Being crowd-averse, probably my biggest mistake in timing was going to the Air and Space Museum on a weekend(!). It was still very interesting but was absolutely packed with kids and families. I did start off the day on a quieter note, however, being the first guest of the day in the Old Post Office Building tower (the building is a Trump hotel but the parks service still manages the tower). Another planning failure: this would have made a great day 1 stop as it offered a great overview of the city from up above.

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I also dropped by Smithsonian Castle on the way to the air and space museum. It is a decent stop in its own right with a small coffee shop and some exhibits. Nothing like what you will see in the many larger Smithsonian museums, but still a nice place to whet your appetite while you wait for the main attractions to open.

Back to the air and space museum… this museum highlights everything flight related, from the original Wright Brothers plane on display there to military jets and modern space travel. There is a lot to see. Note that much of it is geared toward kids but it’s worth it to be able to lay eyes on some of the historic artifacts. I especially liked seeing the first powered aircraft capable of flight as it represented the dawning of a new age of travel (for us humans, at least).

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My next stop that day was the National Archives. This is where you can view the founding documents of our nation. It was also a very popular spot (tip: you can stand in line but they also offer timed entries if you arrange them ahead of time). There are some interesting exhibits inside but what most people come to see are the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. These documents are hundreds of years old and degraded to the point of being nearly unreadable but I still felt that it was a special obligation to see them once in my lifetime.

Feeling finished with lines and crowds for the day, I went out to eat at a somewhat fancy fusion restaurant and finished the day with another stop at the Kosgod Courtyard (hot tip: make sure there are no special events in the courtyard before settling in… I got kicked out after about five minutes due to a private event that they were setting up for).

Day 5

Initially, all I had planned for day 5 was a trip to Arlington Cemetery followed by a show at the Kennedy Center. Having more time than I thought, I ended up doing some significant neighborhood exploration as well. Arlington cemetery was a peaceful place to get away from the crowds. There were a lot of tour groups making their way through, but they were easy enough to get away from. The only really crowded spot was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where groups wait to watch the changing of the guard.

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Other worthy stops here, included the Kennedy family plots (including JFK’s grave, of course), the Arlington House with great views and historic context (it was once the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee). I also ran across some unexpected surprises like markers for those who died in the space shuttle disasters.  All-in-all, a great place for some peace and tranquility while honoring those who have passed.

Once I was tired enough from walking the grounds here, I took a break in the form of a subway ride, heading to Dupont Circle. I didn’t spend a lot of time here but it was interesting to get a feel for different neighborhoods. They had a busy farmers market open that day and lots of people were out on the circle reading and enjoying coffee. After visiting a recommended bookstore, I headed up the street to Adams Morgan. Adams morgan seemed mostly dominated by brunch-goers at this time of day. I passed by a recommended coffee shop but as I was neither hungry nor in the need of caffeine, I kept walking.

Right around this point, I remembered reading an article about a statue nearby. This was said to be the most vandalized monument in D.C. and, as I still had time to kill, I made it my mission to visit this statue and the park where it lived.

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After finishing up an exploration of this park and it’s many desecrated monuments, I wandered back to the hostel for a nap before heading out to that evening’s concert.

The concert was a real treat. First of all, it was at the Kennedy Center, an impressive space to say the least, with incredible views from the patio and a well-appointed interior. It is also next to the Watergate Hotel, which of course has it’s own notorious ties to recent American history.

The act that I saw was a band of talented teen artists led by Matthew Whitaker.  It was an incredible show and highlighted some great up-and-coming talents. Mr. Whitaker was a day shy of sixteen but really brought the house down. You can see the full show here: https://youtu.be/1OQ7OMK4FHA

After a walk through Georgetown and a late dinner of Pho, I headed back to the dorm and crashed.

Day 6

The only real touristy thing I did on my last day was to visit The Newseum. Short on time, I only managed to quickly browse through each section. It was interesting to see the history of news coverage and some of the artifacts they had accumulated. However, I wasn’t able to take advantage of the interactive elements of the museum, which I think is where it probably shines most. This was due to another planning mistake I made: making work-related lunch plans instead of breakfast (or coffee) plans. Like the meeting with the IDA folks on day 2, it was great to meet our colleagues at the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (a group doing similar work to my employer in Seattle). However, by the time lunch was over, I only had two hours in which to do my planned exploration for the day before The Newseum closed. In addition, I found out the Newseum tickets are good for two days. Too bad I was leaving for home in the morning!

I will say, that lunch was pretty amazing, though. And my host was even kind enough to treat.

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Some things I learned on this trip…

Washington D.C. is extremely walkable.

This itinerary involved a lot of walking (12.5 miles average per day, or just over 20km). Someone who really likes to see a lot while traveling could see and do much more than I did if they are willing to take a taxi, rideshare or use public transportation more often than I did. That said, D.C. is very walkable. It is largely flat and streets are laid out in a number/letter grid that is simple and easy to navigate. Sidwalks are large and crossings generally pedestrain-friendly.  I felt like I knew my way around within minutes of venturing out on to D.C. streets for the first time.

Washington D.C. is can be affordable as a tourist

My spending was less than $100 per day. This includes everything I spent during the trip and other trip-related expenses: airfare, hotel, eating out every single meal, museum admissions, transportation, etc. My biggest overall expense category was dining as I ate out for every meal (it adds up, even if you are eating at quick-stop eateries). If someone were being particularly frugal, I bet you could get that down to less than $50 per day by grocery shopping. Some key factors for me keeping costs down included:

  • using airline points to pay for airfare – I accumulated this through a credit card sign up bonus
  • staying at a hostel for cheap lodging (10-bed dorm) – I stayed at the D.C. Hostelling International location.
  • taking advantage of free activities – most sites and museums in D.C. are free, during this trip, I took advantage of the following free activities:
    • Tours of the capitol and related sites: Supreme Court, Library of Congress
    • National Archives
    • Museums (the only museum I paid for was the Newseum)
    • Arlington Cemetery
    • Evening performances at The Kennedy Center

Hot tip: when you need a break, hotel lobbies make a great place to relax, read and grab a cup of coffee away from the crowds. Since I stayed in a 10-bed dorm in a hostel and am someone who needs my alone time, this was my M.O. during this trip and nobody ever questioned whether I was a hotel guest or not. 

Washington D.C. is a great place to learn (or refresh your memory) about American history.

The mixture of sites, and the various perspectives you will get from them really weave a rich tapestry depicting American history and our place in the world (both good and bad). You get a sense of the historic and ongoing struggles of minority populations and of our struggles to figure out who we are as a nation of not just one but many people, many of whom still struggle from historic injustice.  You are reminded that America is one nation among many and that being a good neighbor matters (and that our choices have consequences beyond our borders). You get a sense of government as not something imposed on you, but at the very least, something you can engage with. You get a sense of the vigilance necessary to stave off hatefulness and fascist thinking, and of a delicate system hanging in the balance. You get a sense of broken promises, yet also enduring dreams.

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

 

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