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Two Days in Washington DC
Having not visited our nation’s capital since I was a kid I was truly excited when we were invited to a wedding just outside of Washington DC. We quickly decided to make it a very long weekend and planned a Wednesday to Sunday visit around a Saturday evening wedding. We planned to make the six hour drive on a Wednesday morning which would give us Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning to see as much as possible. On Sunday morning we would head home. As is usually the case when we plan a trip our eyes are always bigger than the map and I knew there would be much more to see than we could possibly cram into our time there.
We drove down with another couple, good friends that we travel with often, and as planned we left on a Wednesday morning. We wanted to avoid the morning rush hour traffic, which we did, but we knew we would be rolling into DC in the late afternoon during the heading home traffic rush. The drive from southern New England was uneventful, which is always good and as we got closer to Washington we plugged the “White House” into our GPS as our destination figuring we could squeeze in a few hours of sightseeing before heading to Sterling, Virginia where our hotel was located.
Driving in Washington DC is not something that I can recommend, especially at 5pm on a Wednesday afternoon, and despite the directions of our GPS we still managed to make a wrong turn but eventually wound up on Constitution Avenue heading directly toward the Washington Monument. As our GPS was taking us to the White House we turned up 15th Street and amazingly located a parking spot on the street. We knew we were close to the White House but as it turned out we were just a block away.
Have you ever visited Washington DC?
Early evening is a great time to be in Washington DC. As we walked toward the Washington Monument we dodged many a softball game on the Mall and this is a very active area with people running, biking, playing softball and of course the hordes of tourists. I was very surprised at the number of people out exercising but Washington DC is clearly attractive to a younger generation and they seem to be embracing and enjoying all that the city has to offer.
For Advance Tickets to the Washington Monument
From the Washington Monument we gazed in every direction like school kids on a field trip marveling at the sites around us and then headed off to the World War II Memorial and eventually down to the Lincoln Memorial.
When you look at a map of the Mall area of Washington you get an incorrect sense that everything is “right there” and close by. In reality, be prepared to do a lot of walking. Even though the public transportation system in the city is highly regarded and should be utilized, you will still do a lot of walking during you visit.
If you would like to go to the top of the Washington Monument now that the repairs from the August, 2011 earthquake are completed you will need to plan ahead. We tried to get tickets a month before our trip and they were already sold out. They do give out a limited number of first come first serve tickets each morning starting at 8:30 am but these tickets go very quickly.
World War II Memorial
The World War II Memorial is one of the newer memorials on the Mall having opened to the public in 2004. It’s a beautiful memorial with 56 granite pillars surrounding the WWII Memorial Fountain and a large plaza. The 56 pillars are inscribed with the names of each of the 48 states at the time of the Second World War plus the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Philippines. We took some photos and sought out the pillars containing the states here in southern New England and headed off to the Lincoln Memorial.
With the sun beginning to set Washington DC becomes even more beautiful as the city begins to light up. The view from the Lincoln Memorial back toward the Washington Monument is really an amazing site. The walk along the reflecting pool with Abraham Lincoln guarding one end and the Washington Monument at the other end is certainly more of the more beautiful strolls you can take around the city.
After chatting with the National Park Ranger at the Lincoln Memorial and with a feel for the layout of the city we set off for the evening to our hotel in Sterling, Virginia confident that we now knew our way around for the next couple of days.
Without getting into all of the details of our every step for the next two days I’ll give you the highlights of what was a very active and busy couple of days
They do not allow you to take much of anything into the White House except smartphones and small camera's that do not have a detachable lens. No backpacks, large cameras, bags, pocketbooks, etc., so be prepared. If you want to bring these items into the city with you, you can store them in the Smithsonian Museum (American History), which is right at the end of 14th Street and just 5 minutes from the White House. As you enter the museum the locker room is to the right. They have lockers of various sizes and they are free. We used this and it worked out great, as we did not want to leave cameras, pocketbooks, etc., back at the hotel.
White House Tour -10:30 am: Arrive thirty minute’s prior for security.
About four months before our trip we applied for a tour of the White House, which can be done through your Congressman’s website. It does involve a background check and it can take a few months to hear back so if you want to go into the White House plan ahead.
We had a great visit to the White House and while we did not see the President or the First Family we did get to see Bo and Sunny, the Obama’s two Portuguese Water Dogs. The tour is self-guided but there are secret service personnel in every room to answer questions. Plan on about an hour to go through the White House.
Recent changes to the rules now allow guests' to bring smartphones and small camera's to be used for still-photos as long as you are not interfering with other visitors enjoyment of the tour.
US Capitol Tour - 1:30 pm: Arrive thirty minute’s prior for security.
Like the White House we applied for a tour of the Capitol Building about four months prior to our visit. We decided to walk from the White House up to the Capitol with a stop in the American History Museum to gather a few things from our locker. Expect the walk to take about 30 to 45 minutes.
A guide leads this one-hour tour and the groups can be quite large with up to fifty people in each group. They do use headsets so you can hear your guide above all the hustle and bustle of noise. I was a little disappointed in the depth of this tour and if you want to see the Senate and House Galleries apparently you have to make yet another special request in advance, which we were not aware of. Despite my personnel disappointment the US Capitol is an amazing building with an interesting and storied history and is certainly worth touring.
Library of Congress
From the US Capitol there is a tunnel that takes visitors underground to the Library of Congress. To be honest this wasn’t high on our list of must see sites but we were so close that we decided to head over via the tunnel. This turned out to be a good decision as there was literally no one but us in the tunnel, which was a nice change of pace from the hordes of tourists that are always in DC. Once in the Library of Congress the beauty of the interior was a welcome surprise. This was easily the most beautiful building we would see during our stay in Washington DC. The interior of the library reminded me of the grand palaces of Italy and I’m not sure the photos do it justice.
Library of Congress
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
With some of the finest museums in the world here in Washington, and they are all free of charge, you would be remiss if you did not spend some time in any of the Smithsonian Museums.
The Air and Space Museum is just down the Mall from the Capitol and the Library of Congress so after our visit to the Library we headed straight for this amazing tribute to American ingenuity and innovation.
All I can say about the Air and Space Museum is do not miss it. There is so much to see here that you could easily spend all day, two days for that matter, just in this one museum.
Even if you aren’t an aviation junkie seeing the actual Apollo, Mercury, and Gemini Space Capsules and the Spirit of St. Louis was quite a thrill.
Smithsonian Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian American History Museum
With a few hours still to kill before our 7pm dinner reservation at the Old Ebbitt Grill we decided to spend it in the Smithsonian American History Museum. This is another great museum that takes visitors on a trip down memory lane. The highlights here included seeing the First Ladies inaugural gowns, Dorothy’s ruby red shoes from the Wizard of Oz, an exhibit on the World’s Fair including a vintage Ford Mustang, the giant flag that flew above Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner and so much more.
Again, as is a common theme with all of the Smithsonian Museums you could spend all day in just this one museum. But, as we got closer to our dinner reservation time we hurried across the street to a wonderful dinner in the historic Old Ebbitt Grill. Founded in 1856 the Old Ebbitt Grill is considered to be the oldest saloon in Washington DC. After dinner we walked across the street to see the White House all-lit up at night and it really is a beautiful site to see. A short walk had us back to the Federal Triangle metro station and on our way back to our hotel.
This concluded our first full day in Washington DC. We did a lot of walking and saw some amazing sites. The weather was beautiful for this time of year, early June, and we looked forward to seeing more.
American History Museum
Smithsonian Natural History Museum
Smithsonian Natural History Museum
With no scheduled tours on tap for Friday we had the day to explore at will. We started the day with a metro ride to the Smithsonian stop and a visit to the Natural History Museum. This was high on my list of places to visit in DC and we spent a couple of hours going through the museum. They have a number of exhibits on animals of the world, marine life, dinosaurs, gems, ancient Egypt, the evolution of man and of course the stunning Hope Diamond. Plan on at least a couple of hours in each of the Smithsonian Museums, possibly longer depending on how much time you have and your particular level of interest in each museum.
Just across the street from the Natural History Museum is the National Archives so we headed there for a look at some of the most historic documents in the history of America.
Natural History Museum
You can get advance tickets to the National Archives to avoid waiting in line at: https://www.archives.gov/museum/visit/reserved-visits.html
There is a $1.50 fee.
There are many must see sites in Washington DC and I consider the National Archives to be one of them. In addition to many of our nation’s most cherished documents this is where the original Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights are housed. Getting into the National Archives involved the longest wait time we had during our visit but it was worth the effort. Let me stress that these are the original hand written documents that our forefathers established for America. Enough said!
When traveling with friends/family and splitting common expenses it is often cheaper and more efficient to take a taxi.
Arlington National Cemetery
After a Lengthy visit to the National Archives we started to mosey down the Mall toward the Washington Monument with the intent of visiting Arlington National Cemetery. It didn’t take long before we realized we would be better off not walking so we tried to find a bus but wound up just taking a taxi. This turned out to be a good move as our driver took us right to the cemetery entrance. The cost of the taxi divided by two was very reasonable and it wound up costing us less than it would have to take the bus.
Arlington National Cemetery has to be one of the most revered and sacred pieces of property in our vast country. The list of those interred here reads like a who’s who of American history; John F, Robert and Edward Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, General Omar Bradley, William Rehnquist, Abner Doubleday, President Howard Taft, boxer Joe Louis, astronauts Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, and the remains of the Space Shuttle Challenger Crew are just a few. Needless to say the cemetery is the final resting place of countless American hero's who gave their lives for their country.
Arlington National Cemetery
Day 2 1/2:
Giant Panda Mei Xiang
Following our visit to Arlington we had to head back to the hotel to attend a pre-wedding meet and greet. It was a long couple of days in DC but we managed to see a lot and with a few hours the next morning before wedding prep we decided to go to the National Zoo if for no other reason than to see the Panda’s, which none of us had ever seen. The zoo has a great variety of animals including lions, tigers and bears and a great orangutan exhibit. Like all of the other exhibits in DC the National Zoo is free but they do charge a hefty $22 for parking.
The highlight at the zoo was certainly seeing Mei Xiang, the female Giant Panda and her cub, Bao Bao. The cub was asleep in a corner while we were there, which made getting a good picture of her difficult but it was exciting never-the-less to see the family of Giant Panda's.
If you are planning a long weekend in Washington DC it is a wonderful place to see some of the most historic monuments, buildings and museums that this country has to offer. Be prepared to do a fair amount of walking and don’t be afraid of using the metro, which is clean and efficient. With just two or three days you will not see everything so pick your sites and save those you can’t get to for your next visit. If you would like to see the White House, US Capitol, and go to the top of the Washington Monument plan ahead as these popular sites require advanced tickets and/or background checks.
I hope you enjoyed this long weekend in Washington DC and found it helpful in planning your own trip to our nations capital.
© 2014 Bill De Giulio