Washington DC

There is a joke that goes around the US about DC – the Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington DC. This wasn’t for any religious reasons. They couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.

DC is as disparaged as Canberra.  It is the capital, full of politicians, lobbyists and bureaucrats.  And every unpopular decision is blamed on the Capitol.  We felt right at home.  DC is also an incredibly beautiful and verdant city (well at least around Capitol Hill and the Mall). 

This is a city people visit to learn something or to stare at monuments to power and loss. It is most of all an earnest place.  It also has a loveliness where you can walk across its breadth, with wide-open avenues, old neighbourhoods and beautiful water views. It was designed by a Parisian, Pierre L’Enfant, and it still feels that way.  You can always see the sky – the buildings can’t be higher than Lady Freedom, atop the Capitol nor, as a general rule higher than the width of the street they front (although in some cases, I can’t see this – but the streets are very very wide).  DC has more than two dozen free museums.
Below, looking from Lincoln Memorial towards the Capitol…
…and from the Capitol towards Lincoln Memorial.  This constitutes what is known as The Mall, and on either side of The Mall are the Smithsonian museums.
The vista down Pennsylvania Ave, towards the Capitol.  Even though the streets are wide and the main streets able to carry three lanes of traffic, congestion in DC is the worst in the country.  During peak hour, many of the main avenues represented a parking lot – both ways.
We stayed in Dupont Circle, a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with some historic homes and foreign embassies as well as a variety of ethnic restaurants. This neighbourhood appears to be the heart of DC’s nightlife, based on our walk through Dupont one evening. I have surmised that the Dupont Circle community is popular with gays and lesbians – all good as they do not tolerate bad food and this place has a lot of dining options, many al-fresco. There are lots of high-rise apartment buildings and many American row houses. The Circle itself is a gathering place with park benches, grass and a unique fountain in the centre – on one particular evening, locals were enjoying an Indiana Jones movie of the big screen.  Summer in DC is perfect for enjoying evening outdoor activity with its warm and still humid evenings.
As an orientation of the city, we rode the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus to get an appreciation of the things that DC has to offer (but our experience with DC was not as good as SF in this regard). Nevertheless, we did appreciate how spread out DC is.  We also realised how tough it is to be a tourist, walking in humid and stifling heat, to make sure we see as much as we can in the short time we have. 

This city has a lot of tourists – Americans coming to pay homage to their great capital and see those buildings that they see on TV news items.  Interestingly, the White House, sorry to say, was not as impressive as the mystique that had been built up in our minds.  Then again, maybe monument and heat fatigue had set in. We marvelled at the snipers on the roof.  The Whitehouse was once open to the public, but alas, since 9/11, this is not the case now.

The Washington Monument had a lovely covering of scaffolding as it underwent restoration after the 2010 earthquake.  You can see this monolithic stone tower from all over town.

Our time in DC was limited and spent this time well by popping into one of the outstanding museums, strolling through the gardens around the tidal pond and inspecting many of the iconic monuments that say more about America than a slab of concrete and rock ever will.

The Capitol is a beautiful place. It is more than just a house full of politicians and hangers-on, it is a monument to people who have made a significant contribution to the US (Hall of Statues).  It is almost a shrine to noteworthy achievement. We went on a tour of the building and, being foreigners, we also managed to get a pass to the gallery (usually you need to make arrangements with your local representatives) and watched the place in action — or inaction as the case was in the Senate that day.  The Statue of Liberty would fit inside the dome of the Capitol (but not on her stone plinth).

The statue below is Lady Liberty, who sits atop the Capitol.  She faces east so that the sun never sets on her face…

…and this is where the Pres takes his oath.  It used to be on the other side of the Capitol, but that was changed by Reagan, who wanted to face California (his home state) when he took the oath.  It has remained on this side since…

 …and the cupola of the Capitol, which would fit the Statue of Liberty within.

The best way to see most of Washington’s monuments and museums is to stroll down the Mall and around the pond.  The Mall is a greenway with the Capitol at its head and lined with treasure by way of the Smithsonian museums all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. There’s a lot to see and you do need to prioritise.

At the west end of the Mall is a dark low wall that may be the most powerful memorial to loss in the world. Veterans and relatives come to remember loved ones and mates which make up the 58,000 names engraved in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. For everyone else, to walk down the long, long chronological list of the casualties is to grasp the consequences of war, without fanfare or hubris. Located not far from the Vietnam Memorial, is the Korean War Memorial, an equally beautiful and poignant memorial, a reminder about the ravages of war.

Although the Lincoln Memorial is just one of DC’s many monuments, the larger-than-life Abe is also among travellers’ favourites. History buffs would enjoy the man’s powerful words from his two famous speeches, the second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address, which are all etched into the memorial’s opposing walls.

DC’s largest memorial — the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial – contains a statue of FDR’s wife, Eleanor, his Scottish terrier, waterfalls, reflecting pools, a line of unemployed Americans and FDR himself, among granite rock features. This memorial provides a retrospective of Roosevelt’s years – the walk through the park is to gain an appreciation of the man and the times.

Thomas Jefferson, another beloved US president, is memorialised in a monument along the picturesque tidal basin. While Lincoln (in his memorial) sits, TJ stands tall, though I believe that  the statues of both men are just 7 metres.

Finally, Martin Luther King Jr Memorial was stark, but poignant, with a vast selection of inscriptions around the walls, commemorating significant quotes he made during his time as an activist for human rights and equality.

The National Air and Space Museum is reportedly the second most visited museum in the world. Attracting somewhere around nine million people each year, the museum contains a trove of celebrated aircrafts, including Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Villa, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and Wilbur Wright’s Wright 1903 Flyer. But there are a large number of additional aircraft and the this exposition celebrates the all things about light, right through to the Apollo missions (Apollo 11 capsule is also on display) and space exploration in general. 

The Wright Bros were actually bike builders…and this is one of the last remaining Wright bicycles…

Should we have spent more than 3 nights here?  To enjoy this city and its monuments and museums properly, an extra day or two would have been worthwhile, especially as we over exerted ourselves and felt worse for wear.  But we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the national capital of the great country, US of A.

God Bless America.

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