Washington, DC is one of those places that you have to visit at least once in your life. That’s true whether you live in the United States or anywhere else in the world. No matter who you are or where you come from, when you walk down the streets and through the buildings you can feel the sense of power that exists within the small space that makes up the District. For many people who only have one day to visit the District, most of the day is filled with visiting only one or two museums, but there are so many other places. The trick, as in visiting any other major city, is in time management. Yes, that means waking up and getting an early start (something that not many of us do when we are on vacation), but your early day will be rewarded. I promise.
The first thing that you have to know about the District is not about a particular location, but rather how to get there. Anyone who has ever lived or worked around the District will tell you that, unless you want to spend a lot of time and money parking downtown, the best way to get around is by using the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro for short). For $14 (as of this recent trip), you can get an all day pass that allows you to travel as much as you want on the Metro system. Anywhere you want to get, they can pretty much get you there. For information and system maps, you can visit www.metroopensdoors.com. The price is well worth it.
To get right to the middle of the city, I always get off of Metro at the “Smithsonian” station. This places you, literally, right in the middle of the National Mall. The first thing to do is to look around and get your bearings. Look to the west and you see the Washington Monument, to the east you see the US Capitol. On each side of the national mall, you will find many of the major museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution (www.si.edu). For a museum geek, like me, this is heaven and you could literally spend days going through each of these buildings and seeing the amazing things found inside (dinosaurs, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, moon rocks, paintings by Monet, and the list goes on and on). The best thing that you can do if you’ve never visited the Smithsonian is to visit the “Castle.” This building is to the east of the station and is made of red brick. This is the main “visitor center” for the Smithsonian and you can get all of the information that you’ll need to find the museum that is right for you. My favorite thing to do is to walk around and look at the various building styles used for the museums. One of my favorites is the National Museum of the American Indian (nmai.si.edu).
The National Museum of the American Indian if found heading east from “Smithsonian” station on the south side of the National Mall. What you will immediately notice is that the building is completely different from most of the others. It’s made from gold-colored Kasota limestone that was brought from Minnesota. The area around the building is also a great place to relax and enjoy the sound of the water features that surround most of it, which were made to mimic natural rivers and waterfalls. When you are walking around the building, take some time to explore the fantastic pieces of Native American artwork that are found outside, such as totem poles and statues. It’s especially nice before the museum opens to go and sit next to the water. You almost forget that you are sitting in the middle of such a densely populated area, but there is another place that really makes you feel like you’ve gone to the wilderness (or around the world).
Continue to make your way east toward the US Capitol and you will find yourself at the US Botanic Garden (www.usbg.gov), a true gem that is not to be missed. No matter if you are a master gardener or only get your flowers from the florist down the street, this place will absolutely amaze you. From edible plants to cacti, jungle plants to orchids, endangered plants to beautiful sculptures, like I said, “this place will absolutely amaze you.” You could literally spend an entire day strolling and relaxing in this place, but there is a lot more to see.
If you have the time, try to get over to the US Capitol Visitor Center (www.visitthecapitol.gov) to take a tour of the Capitol Building. I will tell you that there will be a line, but the half-hour or 45 minutes that you will spend waiting is well worth it when you have the opportunity to see this spectacular, iconic building that has been the focal point of so much history. The tour is free, which is always good for those of us on a budget, and starts out with a film presentation. You then make your way to various areas of the building, while the tour guides provide commentary through a headset system. The museum inside the visitor center also has a lot of great information and items that you will want to take some time to see. By this point, you will be getting hungry and the options are numerous.
While I understand that that food stalls inside the various museums are tempting because of how close they are, they are EXPENSIVE. Go out on the streets and find one of the many food trucks that are found around the city. They have everything from sandwiches to vegetarian foods. All of the food, most of the time, is really good and better than anything you will find in a cafeteria. However, make sure to save room for dessert.
Pitango Gelato (413 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC) has a few shops located within the area, but this is one that I go to anytime I’m in town. Their gelato and sorbet are made with organic ingredients and have nothing artificial in them, and you can tell. All of the flavors are fantastic and it can be hard to choose just one. A combination that I really like is hazelnut and vanilla (you have the option of two scoops or three). My wife loves their vanilla chocolate chip. Also, try their espresso. You will be very pleasantly surprised by how good it really is (and you’ll have a caffeine boost!).
After you’ve enjoyed your gelato, make your way to the National Aquarium (1401 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC) (www.nationalaquarium.org) and you will find yourself under the sea. This hidden gem is not as large is its counterpart in Baltimore, Maryland, but you will really enjoy the exhibits. The exhibits are really well done and the staff is very helpful and informative, ready to answer any question that you have. The price is also very reasonable for something to do while in the District. You can also take your time and see the exhibits within the course of about an hour. Time VERY well spent. When you’re done, you will find my favorite museum right around the corner.
The National Museum of American History (americanhistory.si.edu) is a great place for any history fanatic, like me. You can find everything from Julia Child’s kitchen (a must-see for any foodie) to the desk that Thomas Jefferson used to draft the Declaration of Independence. There is a lot to see in the museum, so (like the others) you could spend an entire day just here. Make sure to do some research and determine what you really want to see. One of my favorite exhibits is one that is very somber and awe-inspiring. It is the exhibit featuring the Star-Spangled Banner (the actual flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814). To look at it is to truly look at the history of the United States and I believe, no matter who you are, at least one tear will be shed when you see it in person. As I’ve mentioned, this is not the only museum to see, particularly if you enjoy art.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery (americanart.si.edu) is a great place to see some fantastic artwork. From folk art to Presidential portraits, this place has it all. There are three floors in the museum and they are full of statues, paintings, carvings, photos, and the list goes on. I always enjoy checking out the latest exhibits because they are always changing and there is always something new to see. Just keep in mind, the exhibits usually do not allow you to take photographs.
I don’t know about you, but by now, the end of the day, I am starving and ready for a great dinner. Luckily, one of my favorite spots is just a short walk away. Go past the Chinatown gate and down a few blocks. There you will find a place where you can sit down and really enjoy a great meal, the Capitol City Brewing Company.
The Capitol City Brewing Company (1100 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC) (www.capcitybrew.com) has something for everyone. They have a wide selection of their house-made beers, but their food is equally good. My wife and I really like their burgers and each table gets a complimentary basket (as many refills as you’d like) of soft pretzels with horseradish dipping sauce, which is SO GOOD! You will not be sorry that you took the time to get here and your stomach will also thank you. You also have an easy walk to the closest Metro station (Metro Center), which is only a few block away.
Keep in mind, there is a lot more to do in Washington, DC, including the National Zoo, theaters, monuments, as well as a lot of other great restaurants to try. Hopefully I’ve given you some helpful ideas on how to start a trip to the District. One day can provide a lifetime of memories.