By Lee Foster
Some of the best non-partisan news coming out of Washington, D.C., each late March-early April involves the blossoming of the 3,000-plus cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. 2012 marks the 100th year celebration of the cherry tree addition to the Washington, D.C., setting.
As if to parallel this surge in nature, there always seems to be a renewal in Washington’s memorials, attractions, hotels, restaurants, and theatres to delight a visitor.
Renewal of the Cherry Trees
Although Washington is a congenial place to visit at any time of the year, the late March-early April time of cherry blossom flowering is a special time. It is at this time that the heavy burdens of governance give way to the non-political joy of the flowering of Washington’s famous cherry trees.
The cherry blossoms are best experienced during a leisurely walk around the Tidal Basin, where views of the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument are fringed with cherry blossom tree frames. The weather can be sunny and warm or windy and chilly, so come prepared with comfortable walking shoes and adequate protection against possible cold, wind, and rain.
The pleasure of a walk around the Tidal Basin is that your perspective and the light change with each passing hour.
The cherry trees are a gift from Japan, beginning in 1912, commemorating the 1854 Treaty of Peace and Amity, officially establishing formal relations between the two nations. An alert travel writer with an eye for beauty, Eliza Scidmore, saw the blossoming cherry trees in Japan as a joyful springtime event. Eliza envisioned Washington with a similar springtime enhancement. She persuaded the wife of President Taft that this would be a good idea. A newly reclaimed area, the Tidal Basin, built to protect Washington, D.C., from Potomac River floods, was selected as the primary site for the trees.
Aside from a leisurely walk around the Tidal Basin, it is fun to view the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade on Constitution Avenue. Military honor guards from the various service branches and high school marching bands from around the country are the two main categories of parade entrants. A patriotic heart will be stirred when viewing the various military honor guards that kick off the parade. From the south side of Constitution Avenue, you can observe the military honor guards with the White House in the distance. As a slice of Americana, the parade has few equals. A high school marching band from Ohio might be followed by a Christian Academy band from the South, then a similar high school entry from New Mexico or Hawaii.
After the parade, a Japanese street festival, known as Sakura Matsuri, takes place on Freedom Square, near the White House. Aside from plenty of Japanese food, washed down with Sapporo beer, there is an afternoon of performances, ranging from taiko drumming to martial arts displays.
Everyone in Washington seems to have their spirits uplifted by the Cherry Blossom Festival. Restaurants get into the theme with cherry food and drink options, such as a cherry martini or a cherry turnover dessert.
Washington, D.C.’s Tourism Renewal
Washington is such a diverse and dynamic tourism destination that a visitor will find new enrichments available each spring.
The latest blockbuster new attraction is the new (2011) Martin Luther King Memorial. The MLK Memorial is on a four-acre site along the Tidal Basin, adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and on a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Sculptor Lei Yixin was charged with capturing the likeness, essence, and spirit of Dr. King. The centerpiece of the Memorial is the “Stone of Hope,” featuring a 30-foot stone sculpture of Dr. King. The Memorial is conceived as an engaging landscape experience to convey four recurring themes of Dr. King’s life–democracy, justice, hope, and love. Natural elements such as a crescent-shaped stone wall are inscribed with excerpts from King’s sermons and public addresses. America’s potential for freedom, opportunity and justice is the overall theme that suffuses the grounds.
Another major addition in recent years is the National World War II Memorial on the central axis of the Mall. This evocative and dignified memorial honors the 16 million Americans who fought, the 400,000 who died, and the millions who supported the war at home. WW II was a defining event of the 20th century. A simple statement at the memorial tells the story, “Americans came to liberate, not to conquer, to restore freedom and to end tyranny.” The WWII Memorial was hurried to completion because about a thousand of these aging veterans were dying each day.
The newest major non-memorial entity near the Mall is the Newseum, at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, on the north side of the Mall. The Newseum is dedicated to the art of newsgathering and to a better understanding of the role of the media in our lives. Full details are at www.newseum.org. Because of the angle of the building, afternoon light falls advantageously on the façade of the Newseum and lights the exhibits inside.
One memorable image-of-images is the Journalists Memorial, which honors, with their displayed portrait photos, 1,800 journalists who have died in their newsgathering pursuits. One exhibit shows an armor-plated truck used by Time photographers in Iraq until it was ripped apart by a mortar round and riddled with bullets. The photographers survived. You could easily spend a half day here. Artifacts to see include a segment of the Berlin Wall and the 9-11 exhibit, featuring a recovered TV transmission tower from the North Tower. The 9-11 exhibit also contains the poignant images of a news photographer, Bill Biggart, who raced toward the second tower and photographed it until the collapse of the tower killed him. His camera was found and his photos survived.
The restaurant scene in Washington continues to mature, with chefs and owners creating their own signature American culinary offerings.
Bistro Bis may be the place to indulge in chunky, ample crabcake “held together by an angel’s whisper,” implying that additional ingredients beyond crab in a crabcake are seldom an improvement.
Zola, a lively restaurant inspired by the adjacent Spy Museum, is the place to investigate tuna tartar, followed by roast lamb, washed down by one of their numerous, good-value wines-by-the-glass.
Rosa Mexicano offers tableside preparation of guacamole, perhaps followed by the grilled shrimp in lime.
DC Coast is housed in an airy art deco treasure, a former bank. The spinach salad, followed by the fillet of duck breast, gets high acclaim.
The Tabard Inn is a cozy, dark-wood inn and restaurant with an appealing Sunday Brunch menu featuring items such as smoked trout and salmon.
If you are fortunate enough to have a place to cook for yourself in Washington, D.C., be sure to go to Maine Avenue and see the immense seafood market. There you can get Chesapeake Bay blue crab, which turn red when steam cooked. Fillet or even whole fish are available, from red snapper to rockfish. The entire fresh seafood panorama of the east coast fisheries is apparent, which is a feast for the eyes. You can find cooked shrimp and crab in the market as a tasty snack.
The theatre scene in Washington will surprise a visitor with its range. Typical of several exciting venues is Arena Stage, which presents provocative plays.
Visitors come to Washington, D.C., each April both for the natural renewal of the cherry blossoms and the cultural renewal of the capital’s tourism scene. The pleasure of visiting Washington in April appears to be at least one thing about which Democrats and Republicans are in agreement.
Washington, D.C.: If You Go
The overall tourism information site for Washington, D.C., is at www.washington.org. A Visitors Center at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW has maps and brochures.
By Lee Foster
The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is the latest of the epic attractions that keep unfolding in Washington, D.C. The city continues to renew itself as a visitor magnet, beyond its primacy as the capital for political decisions.
The MLK Memorial
The MLK Memorial is on a four-acre site along the Tidal Basin, adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and on a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
Sculptor Lei Yixin was charged with capturing the likeness, essence, and spirit of Dr. King. The centerpiece of the Memorial is the “Stone of Hope,” featuring a 30-foot sculpture of Dr. King.
The Memorial is conceived as an engaging landscape experience to convey four recurring themes of Dr. King’s life–democracy, justice, hope, and love. Natural elements such as a crescent-shaped stone wall are inscribed with excerpts from his sermons and public addresses.
America’s potential for freedom, opportunity and justice is the overall theme that suffuses the grounds.
DC’s Newer Memorials and Attractions
If you haven’t been to Washington, D.C., for awhile, there are a surprising number of newer memorials and attractions awaiting you, beyond the new MLK Memorial.
War, Native Americans, spying, women, and presidential politics are immensely interesting themes, especially when associated with Washington, D.C.
Major attractions and memorials devoted to these topics have opened in the nation’s capital in the last two decades, making Washington a more enticing travel destination than ever. Washington has an ever-changing set of alluring sights and experiences.
Getting Around by Bicycle
Getting around to see all these attractions and memorials has taken a new twist with the addition of the Capital Bikeshare (http://capitalbikeshare.com) system to the D.C. transportation picture. If a traveler thinks like a commuter, and makes 30 minute-or-less trips between docking stations, this self-serve bicycle system is superb, costing only $5 per day.
I picked up a bike near Woodley Station and rode it down the Rock Creek Parkway to Georgetown, leaving it at a docking station there. On another occasion, I picked up a bike on the Mall and traveled around. All 30-minute-or-less rides in this biking system are free, after the $5 daily fee. After 30 minutes, the cost goes up quickly, so don’t use this system for an all day bike. However, with more than 100 docking stations and 1,000 bikes in the system, I had no trouble finding a bike for each short commute.
If I wanted to rent a bike for a day, rather than use this commuter system, I would choose Bike and Roll (http://www.bikethesites.com/), about $35/day.
Here are some of the newer blockbuster Washington attractions:
The National World War II Memorial
Set at a choice location in the center of the Mall, the World War II memorial, with its fountains and pillars, honors both the European and Pacific theatres of engagement.
When the memorial opened, there was an enormous public outpouring of emotion for an era during which exerting American power in the world was not an ambivalent matter.
This evocative and dignified memorial honors the 16 million Americans who fought, the 400,000 who died, and the millions who supported the war at home. On one wall there are 4,000 stars, each representing a hundred young men who died.
World War II was a defining event of the 20th century.
A simple statement at the memorial tells the story. “Americans came to liberate, not to conquer, to restore freedom and to end tyranny.”
Many poignant comments carved into the stone make this a sobering site of reflection on the vast worldwide struggle that WWII represented.
The WWII Memorial was hurried to completion because about a thousand of these aging veterans were dying each day. It is likely that you will see veterans in wheel chairs paying their respects, pushed around the site by their families, with new generations learning about the long ago struggles of their grandparents.
The National Museum of the American Indian
Because the mandate of the museum is to portray all the original peoples of the Americas, a visitor will become acquainted here with the Mayans of Mexico as readily as the Sioux of South Dakota.
The Mitsitam Cafe at the museum features an interesting range of Indian foods from five regions in the Western Hemisphere.
Housed in a striking building where flowing curves rather than rectangular boxes define the space, the Museum is a breath of fresh architectural air in the Washington scene. The sheathing of the building with Kasota limestone also introduces a building stone seldom seen in Washington.
When you enter the building, the first impression is of exquisite canoes and kayaks, made of reeds and animal skins. Here you can engage an actual Native American docent for a guided tour of the collections.
The life ways, history, and art of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere are on display.
A resource center includes genealogy research to determine who might have Indian ancestry.
Landscaping around the structure emphasizes the native environment of the Chesapeake Bay Region, plus the hardwood forests, wetlands, and meadow lands of other Indian habitats in the Americas.
The International Spy Museum
The International Spy Museum is the world’s first public museum to explore the craft, history, and contemporary role of espionage.
Spying has been a fact of life, of course, since the era of the Trojan horse, of course. One fascinating document on display is George Washington’s letter authorizing spying on our British adversaries.
Spying in the last hundred years, especially from World War II to the present, is the main thrust of the museum. The clandestine operations of both the KGB and the CIA are highlighted, including extensive interviews with actual spies.
The gadgets of spying are arrayed in fascinating detail, such as a lipstick pistol, a through-the-wall photo device, a James Bond-like vehicle, and listening bugs that gradually became ever more miniaturized.
The importance of spying in the outcome of world events can’t be overestimated. On display is one of the famous German Enigma devices that Hitler believed were sending secure information, but whose code was cracked, hastening the end of WWII in Europe.
Beyond gadgets, the skills of the spy craft are emphasized, including observation, analysis, surveillance, and disguise. An effort is made to involve the viewer in the museum, challenging the observer to ask, “Do I have what it takes to be a spy?” The spectrum of motivations that energize spies range from greed to patriotism to the thrill of it all.
Women in Military Service For America Memorial
The Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery recognizes the often unsung contributions of service women from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq War. This is the first memorial to the more than 1.8 million women who have served or are serving in the U.S. armed forces. The granite and glass structure opened in the fall of 1997.
Qualified women who voluntarily register have a slide show display of their photo, name, and military record in the computerized database. Deceased service women can be registered by their families.
An interesting aspect of the memorial is that a visual record of a randomly selected woman is projected on a large screen at all times, so the story of service becomes known to others. The aim is to capture history and the personal stories of the individual women, told in their own words. This record of service can be accessed by any citizen and by scholars for all time. Each registrant is invited to record her most memorable moments when serving as well as the data of name, rank, photo, etc. Women can go back to their record and augment it whenever they wish.
Many photos and artifacts of women in the service are gathered in a Hall of Honor celebrating those who have served with particular distinction or achievement. Overall, the facility is meant to be a living memorial rather than a static wall or statue.
Lorraine Dieterie, a volunteer from Michigan, showed me the facility.
“So many times women who register tell us, ‘But I didn’t do anything important,’ ” she said. “This memorial shows them that someone cares, that what they did was important.”
The design is a half-arc near the entrance to Arlington Cemetery. On the roof of the building the words of notable military women are etched in glass. The sun projects these thoughts on a granite wall while crossing the sky each day.
The FDR Memorial
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial celebrates the president who led this country through the Depression. The memorial has an open-air design that flows through four distinctively designed galleries. Each section interprets different phases of his Presidency through murals, waterfalls, and larger-than-life statues of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The FDR Memorial, which opened in 1997, amounts to a touching, highly-personalized recollection of the inspirational messages that Franklin Delano Roosevelt embodied.
Etched on red granite in several outdoor “rooms” are the uplifting and inclusive thoughts of this articulate man. His most famous quote may be, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Many of his other utterances in these meditative alcoves reflect the cohesiveness that our 32nd president projected.
A large statue of Roosevelt, with his dog Fala, suggests the gregariousness of this likable man.
A wall of small sculpted squares shows his many programs, especially from his First 100 Days, benefiting a dispirited America. Sculptures of a bread line of men, of the rural poor, and of a man listening to a reassuring fireside chat remind a modern visitor what it was like in the 1930s, when 30 percent of the workforce was out of work.
This outdoor monument borders the Tidal Basin, with the Washington Monument visible across the water.
The quiet dignity of the monument evokes a reflective, meditative feeling, heightened by memorable quotes and a vision of hope and compassion in troubled times.
The Vietnam War Memorial
The Vietnam Memorial is the most ambivalent of the memorials, a kind of negative space, carved out of the ground rather than set on top of it. This was not a glorious war inspiring statuary as uplifting as the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. No, there is a small bronze of three soldiers, called The Three Soldiers, and another Women’s Memorial, depicting women nurses, but mainly there are just the 58,195 names carved in the polished, black, granite slabs, indicating the personal tragedies that were the result of this stalemated conflict, which never had its Victory Day. The Vietnam Memorial attempts to separate the humanity of those who served from the issue of U.S. policy in the war.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial
On the Mall the Korean War Veterans Memorial serves as a counterpoint to the nearby Vietnam War Memorial. The memory of those who served in Korea is immortalized in 19 stainless steel, armed figures advancing across rough terrain. Faces of unidentified military personnel etched on a black granite wall mix eerily with the mirrored images of the patrolling soldiers.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial, which opened in 1995, shows combat troops advancing alertly across a field. Their vacant faces have a shell-shocked look, suggesting the horrors of war. Their windblown ponchos recall the harsh weather.
These 19 figures are reflected on a black marble slab, bringing the total troop number to 38, the parallel area in Korea where the fighting took place.
The polished marble wall also displays the nameless faces of actual support people who contributed to the combat effort.
Unlike the Vietnam War Memorial, which sought to list every name, the Korean War Veterans Memorial attempts to portray thousands with each face. The U.S. had 1.5 million Korean War vets.
The Korean “police action,” a U.N. effort, lasted from 1950-1953 and took the lives of 53,000 Americans, roughly similar in tragic dimension to the 58,000 death-toll of the Vietnam War.
The motto of the monument can be read on the granite wall: Freedom is not Free.
The presence of the Women in Military Service for America attraction in Arlington, immediately adjacent to Washington, plus the excellent regional subway system, makes Arlington as congenial a choice as Washington for a base of operations.
Arlington’s Crystal City has numerous chain hotels, some less costly than those in Washington, D.C. The Clarendon, VA, district boasts over 25 ethnic restaurants, such as a Vietnamese favorite, Nam Viet, where a tasty meal is also affordable.
This northern Virginia area of Prince William County offers some excellent nature hikes if you need an antidote to memorial viewing.
Close in, you can make a 1.3-mile forested walk and bird-watching excursion around Theodore Roosevelt Island. If you rent a car, you could hike in Prince William National Forest and also visit Manassas, the first battlefield of the Civil War.
With these newer attractions, Washington continues to re-establish itself as a tourism destination, which is why more than 20 million visitors arrive each year. Included in the Washington mix is one of the most-visited museums in the world, the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian and its sibling, the Udvar Hazy Air and Space Museum near the Dulles airport.
Washington, D.C’s Newer Monuments: If You Go
For Washington, D.C., information, contact the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corporation, www.washington.org.
Some Memorials are administered by the National Park Service. See ww.nps.gov/nacc.
The Women in Military Service for America Memorial is managed by a foundation of the same name. See www.womensmemorial.org/.
By Lee Foster
A visit to Washington, D.C., can be an invigorating experience for anyone at anytime.
For a citizen of the world, wherever one’s native country happens to be, an encounter with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum celebrates global accomplishment. Landing on the moon was truly one giant leap for mankind. Touching a moon rock at the Air and Space Museum, as all visitors can, is as close to an extraterrestrial thrill as we are likely to get. A knowledge that the intercontinental ballistic missiles on display from both the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R. were never fired in anger lets all families in the global village rest a little more easily each night. Air and Space is one of the most-visited museums in the world, attracting about nine million of the total 20-plus million annual visitors who come to Washington, D.C.
For a young U.S. citizen, the trip can be an initiation into the magnificent democratic experiment that is America. When standing before the actual Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, at the National Archives, much of what a young citizen learns in school becomes suddenly tactile. I had the pleasure of initiating my own children, Karin and Paul, in these rituals.
For an older U.S. citizen, a visit to Washington can be a time of renewal. I remember lingering before the Vietnam Memorial, gazing at the name of my best high-school pal, George O’Toole. A volunteer offered to do a rubbing of the name on a special piece of white paper, framed in black, as a kind of memorial to take home. Rubbings are given to the grieving parents, contemporaries, and children of the war dead. The monument has the virtue of personalizing the private losses of Vietnam, listing every name, allowing the participants to attempt to come to terms with that sad era.
The first impression of Washington is that it is indeed an imperial city, deliberately laid out with an eye toward monumental grandeur rather than business or efficiency. The other imperial city that comes to mind by comparison is Beijing. Pierre L’Enfant’s grand design for Washington called for wide boulevards and ample green, open space, showing “magnificence enough to grace a great nation.” The height limit placed on buildings, keeping them below the height of the Capitol Building, lends a human scale. The solidity of the marble and granite structures, many executed with a 19th-century sense of large salon-type space, lends a regal air to the setting.
Moreover, the city is easy to comprehend. The Tourmobile around the Mall can transport you at ground level to see all the principal sites. Once you’ve got your bearings, the speedy Metro can take you, underground, to numerous destinations in minutes.
The price of a visit to Washington is also relatively modest, partly because the main attractions, the memorials and the 19 Smithsonian museums, are free.
Washington at the outset of each new political administration is an especially hopeful place. Indeed, the peaceful transition of political power, in the most powerful country on earth, is one of the most important ideals that Washington offers the world. There is hope and there is contradiction, as there always will be.
What is most striking about the Washington Monument and the memorials is their simplicity and understated dignity. All can be viewed without obstruction along the Mall, the park-like green swath in central Washington that serves as a national commons.
George Washington’s Monument is a marble obelisk, said to be the world’s tallest, freestanding, masonry structure, held together only by its own gravitational force. The Washington Monument is a masterwork of simplicity in its conception.
Abraham Lincoln’s Memorial is an ennobling Grecian temple. White-marbled Lincoln sits, larger than life, both figuratively and metaphorically. Surrounding him are inscriptions of his powerful, monosyllabic orations, such as The Gettysburg Address.
Thomas Jefferson stands in bronze, surrounded by columns. One thinks of President John F. Kennedy’s famous quote at a state dinner for the assembled Nobel Laureates of America, “Never has Washington, D.C., seen assembled such genius in one room, except on those occasions when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
The Vietnam Memorial is the most ambivalent of the memorials, a kind of negative space, carved out of the ground rather than set on top of it. This was not a glorious war inspiring statuary as uplifting as the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. There is a small bronze of three soldiers, called The Three Soldiers, and another Women’s Memorial depicting women nurses, but mainly there are just the 58,195 names carved in the polished, black, granite slabs, indicating the personal tragedies that were the result of this stalemated conflict, which never had its Victory Day. The Vietnam Memorial attempts to separate the humanity of those who served from the issue of U.S. policy in the war.
By contrast, the World War II Memorial is a feel-good recollection of a time when the virtue of decisive American action in the world was never in question.
The newest memorial is the one honoring Martin Luther King. The MLK Memorial is on a four-acre site along the Tidal Basin, adjacent to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and on a direct line between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Sculptor Lei Yixin was charged with capturing the likeness, essence, and spirit of Dr. King. The centerpiece of the Memorial is the “Stone of Hope,” featuring a 30-foot sculpture of Dr. King. The Memorial is conceived as an engaging landscape experience to convey four recurring themes of Dr. King’s life–democracy, justice, hope, and love. Natural elements such as a crescent-shaped stone wall are inscribed with excerpts from his sermons and public addresses. America’s potential for freedom, opportunity and justice is the overall theme that suffuses the grounds.
Across the Potomac, at the Arlington National Cemetery, the full force of war and its aftermath sober the visitor. More than 300,000 soldiers are buried here, in straight rows, as if at attention both in death and life. Both President Kennedy and the Unknown Soldier are honored with eternal flames. One recalls at Arlington, the former estate of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, that the Civil War was the nation’s bloodiest conflict, costing the lives of 600,000 young men, more than the total of all our other wars up until now.
Congress and the White House
Seeing Congress in session is a thrill as lawmakers deliberate the questions of the day. A tour of the Congressional building also has its minor moments of revelation. Under the Great Rotunda of the Capitol Dome is the painting, among other paintings by John Trumbull, depicting General George Washington resigning his military command, turning his then absolute power back to the elected civilian authorities. No General has had an opportunity to give a Republic a gift of similar magnitude. What if George Washington had decided at that point, as some had urged him, to become King or Dictator? What a different course the country might have taken.
Note the American touch at the original entrance of the Capitol, now the hallway outside the old Supreme Court Chambers. The American touch is in the pillars. The designers decided that the motif should be cornstalks with an ears-of-corn top, not just a copy of some Greek or Roman design. There were parallel urges to re-invent government and pillar design. The old Supreme Court Chambers is one of those Washington places resonant with history. It was here that John Marshall, in 1803, affirmed the principle of Judicial Review, a new concept. Here, in 1857, the Court issued its Dred Scott decision, declaring that a negro was a piece of property, so inflaming the North that the Civil War seemed all but inevitable.
A tour of the White House formerly took visitors to more rooms than you might expect. However, security concerns now make White House tours uncertain, so check on the changing status of this possibility prior to your visit. The house became “White” because of the white paint used to cover the burned portions after the British torched the place in the War of 1812.
The Smithsonian and Other Cultural Institutions
The Smithsonian, sometimes affectionately portrayed as “the nation’s attic,” is, in itself, reason enough to visit Washington. English chemist James Smithson bequeathed his fortune in 1846 to the United States to found “an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Little could he have imagined the scope of today’s Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum complex, with 19 separate entities. Several major institutions are but parts of the Smithsonian and are worlds unto themselves.
The National Air and Space Museum celebrates something special that began in the 20th century–man’s ability to fly. The realization of this dream has transformed our lives and our images of ourselves, including our sense of the planet. Ponder all the exhibits in the main Milestones of Flight hall, starting with the Wright Brothers’ first powered plane at Kittyhawk. Proceed to the planes, satellites, and orbiting vehicles used in manned space probes. Some 23 galleries depict the evolution of aviation and space technology. Be sure to see one of the four wide-screen IMAX films. The film To Fly, for example, captures how the idea of flight stimulates our imagination and transforms our sense of distance, shrinking the planet.
The National Archives presents, besides the critical documents establishing the nation, the main statement that held it together, the Emancipation Proclamation. At the Archives, the Perot Foundation, lead by the Texas maverick, has managed to put in a copy of the Magna Carta, suggesting the lineage of the Constitution.
The National Gallery of Art has the resources of both its permanent collection and its impressive temporary shows. Exploring its permanent collection, you can seek out the century or painter of your choice. I. M. Pei’s striking, angular design of the East Wing building of the National Gallery, housing modern art, is an art work in itself. Pei’s triangle design is a fresh and welcome contrast with the basic, rectangular boxes with rotundas that have been the traditional, appropriate architecture for Washington institutions.
The National Museum of American History shows the original flag that flew through a night battle at Fort Sumpter. A young attorney named Francis Scott Key saw this star-spangled banner and penned a song that became our national anthem. While roaming the cavernous Museum of American History, one becomes aware, more than at any other Smithsonian institution, that the Smithsonian has a self-reported 139,000,000 major items to display. About one percent are on view at any given time, so anticipate some refreshing surprises on return trips to “the nation’s attic.”
The National Portrait Gallery preserves in paintings the likeness of all the presidents. If museum fatigue sets in, a good lunch stop is the Wright Place cafe at Air and Space, set in its own glass-enclosed hangar.
The National Museum of the American Indian salutes the first Americans of both hemispheres in all their cultural diversity, celebrated both in the objects on display and in the the culinary items on the museum cafe’s menu.
A further recommended rest stop is Union Station, also called the Union Passenger Terminal, a marble-floored and rotunda building indicating both current Amtrak rail and past rail prominence in American history. Over 120 shops and restaurants at Union Station invite you to linger.
One institution just north of the cultural/political complex of central Washington should also be visited. This is the National Geographics Explorers’ Hall, at 17th and M streets. Explorers of all ages will enjoy the displays here. A visitor leaves with the same feelings of wonder and new information one has after reading an issue of National Geographic magazine.
Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Washington presents a visitor with one of the vital performing arts scenes in the country. I could recount my experiences, but the content of your trip will be different. However, the venues remain the same.
If at all possible, try to attend one of the major events at the Kennedy Center. This is one of the nation’s great performance stages.
As a counterpoint, in this city that lives for politics, consider a night of political satire at Capitol Steps. Their cute motto is “Who Put The Mock in Democracy?” The performance consists of musical skits satirizing the political players of the day. A program note quotes the first President Bush as saying, “Capitol Steps makes it easier to leave public life.” The skits are hilarious, especially if you are following the Washington politico scene carefully.
For a classic arts evening take in the Shakespeare Theatre, one of the great Shakespeare companies of our time.
Finally, the rich offerings of temporary exhibits at the major Washington institutions could almost be considered a “performing art.” Check the calendar at the Washington tourism website noted at the end of this article or peruse the local papers during your visit. There is always an amazing array of cultural offerings. For example, during one visit, I thoroughly enjoyed several hundred George Catlin paintings at the Renwick Gallery. Catlin captured the American Indian of the Great Plains circa the 1830s before their culture was destroyed by the invasion of settlers. Catlin’s many green landscapes of the pristine prairie countryside are also moving.
Fine Dining in Washington, D.C.
Fine dining in Washington adds much to a traveler’s pleasures in our nation’s capitol. Here are five restaurants that I have enjoyed:
DC Coast offers a range of exciting tastes that complement the service and the elegant salon-like room in which the restaurant is located. The restaurant emphasizes “three coasts,” meaning the east, west, and gulf coasts. The Malpeque Oysters are served with an ingenious ginger ice topping. The Chinese Style Lobster is first blanched and then stir-fried with a pleasing peppery sauce before being re-constructed and served on a bed of crispy flash-fried spinach.
Café Atlantico is a bright, lively venue showing how thoroughly food preparation has gone beyond cliché categories to taste creation. The menu features a “Latin dim sum” menu on weekends. Try a cluster of their inventive combinations, such as Tuna Cevice With Coconut, Duck Confit With Passion Fruit Oil, and Quail in Latin Spices. Patrons often start the meal with made-at-your-table Guacamole, scooped up with plantain chips.
The Old Ebbitt’s Grill, from 1856, is a comfortable dining saloon, where a cross-section of Washington locals and travelers gather in plush green velvet booths. The interior décor emphasizes dark mahogany wood, wood duck decoys, and pastoral hunting scenes. Among the appetizers, the Hot Crab and Artichoke Dip strikes the perfect balance, preserving both tastes. Proceed to the Cannelloni di Casa, a rolled up pasta with spinach, ham, and cheese. The American Farmhouse Cheese Sampler, served with wedges of apple, is a refreshing dessert.
Café 15 offers a French flair at the Sofitel Hotel in the downtown area. This is a leisurely, fine-dining experience when budget is not an issue. Start with the Sauteed Sea Scallops, served with black truffles, or the Sauteed Frog Legs, which come with an Alsatian ravioli. A well-chosen Cabernet would then do justice to either the Black Angus Tournedos with Port wine juice or the Medallions of Venison with red wine juice. Only a butter knife is required to cut this tender meat. Café 15 emphasizes such piece de resistance perfections as baking all its bread on premises not more than three hours before it is served.
The Neighborhoods: Georgetown
If you have time to visit one neighborhood, beyond the Washington core area, go to Georgetown.
The brick architecture of the small but fashionable Georgetown houses is a treat to see. Architectural controls have preserved the neighborhood. You can see where John F. Kennedy lived as a Senator, at 3307 N Street, or where his widow stayed after the assassination, at 3017 N Street.
Locate yourself at M and Wisconsin streets, the hip center of this milieu for the moneyed, intellectual, social, political, and youthful elite. Make your way there especially on crazy nights, such as Halloween, or at times of major celebration. Georgetown is home to both the trendsetters of Washington and the students from Georgetown University. To sample the local fare, try a dinner of grilled swordfish at The Third Edition. Then walk or drive the “Embassy Row” on Massachusetts Avenue.
For both world citizens and U.S. citizens, Washington, D.C., is an exciting place to visit.
Washington, D.C.: If You Go
For Washington, D.C., information, contact the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corporation at www.washington.org.
By Lee Foster
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C., is already one of the most popular museums in the world (more than 9 million visitors per year), but it has only been displaying about 10 percent of its collection.
That unfortunate situation has now been corrected, with the opening of the spectacular new branch of Air and Space known as the Udvar-Hazy Center. The new branch is near Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, west of the capital.
About 200 aircraft and 135 spacecraft from Air and Space’s treasured collection (about 80 percent of overall holdings) are allocated to the new display facility. One example of the special craft to be seen is the Blackbird, a spy plane that was the fastest and highest-flying jet aircraft ever built.
Air and Space’s problem on the Mall was obvious. There just wasn’t enough room to display properly the collection. The new facility consists of a handsome, large, hangar-type building with seven acres of floor space and a ceiling height of 103 feet, allowing for creative positioning of this vast flying collection.
The new center is named after a generous benefactor, a Hungarian immigrant named Steven Udvar-Hazy, who made a fortune in the aircraft leasing business and donated $65 million for the new facility.
AVIATION AND SPACE HISTORY
Telling the history of aviation and space flight is the mandate of the new facility. This visitor’s initial impression is that the center has both the artifacts and the state-of-the-art display technique to accomplish the mandate.
As mentioned, the Lockheed SR71 Blackbird is perhaps the most extraordinary artifact in the entire display. Built as a large, sleek, spy craft, the Blackbird eluded detection or capture with impunity over hostile Soviet territory by flying high, flying fast, and posing as a formidable and invisible black predator against the dark of the night sky. A special black paint on the craft, making it very difficult to detect with conventional radar, prompted the name Blackbird. Sophisticated cameras in the Blackbird could capture an image the size of a telephone booth from a high altitude.
The period 1974-1981 was part of the Cold War era when the Blackbird flourished, before satellites took over many of these information-gathering tasks. The Blackbird was designed to fly at 3.2x the speed of sound, over 2,000 miles an hour, at an altitude of 80,000 feet, restrained only by the 950 degree temperatures allowable on its titanium hull. This fastest “air breathing” jet engine craft ever built holds the transcontinental aviation speed record, just 64 minutes from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
Another famous or infamous airplane on display is the B29 Superfortress Enola Gay, the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Critics of the Smithsonian requested that the display focus more on the horrific effects of the bomb drop. However, the Smithsonian saw its role as interpreting the technological prowess of this propeller-driven bomber, including such innovations as a pressurized cabin for the crew and advanced radar capability.
Space exploration enjoys its own adjunct hangar at the new facility. The most prominent exhibit is the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Seeing the shuttle up close can’t help but remind a visitor of the other clone shuttles and their plight, including the Challenger and Columbia disasters, which lost both the crew and the craft. Enterprise was the first of the shuttles and saw service as a test vehicle, but never actually made it into space.
The historic time line of development in many aspects of aviation can be better understood as a visitor peruses the setting. The Dash 80 prototype that led to the workhorse Boeing 707 passenger plane is an example.
An ongoing American inventiveness in aircraft components is a constant theme. The lyrical side of aircraft development is also shown, such as a 640-pound aerobatic vehicle known as the Pitts Little Stinker. An Air Concorde plane testifies to the failed visions of some commercial aircraft ventures.
The oldest aircraft on display is Samuel Langley’s 1903 Aerodrome. The newest aircraft is the next-generation Lockheed-Martin 35B Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
Different areas of the hangar have thematic clusters of craft, such as Business Aviation, or aircraft from various eras of military conflict, such as Korea and Vietnam. The Cold War section, for example, shows hardware associated with the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The design of the cavernous facility is particularly pleasing. Airplanes and spacecraft are displayed on the floor and also staggered at two airborne levels, allowing a visitor to see them soaring or gliding in a realistic manner. A viewer can see them from ground level or from skywalks and ramps up to four stories high.
The opening of the new museum in December 2003 coincided with the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, emphasizing to visitors the speed with which airline and space technology developed. It took only 66 years from man’s first flight at Kitty Hawk to man’s first footstep on the moon.
UDVAR-HAZY CENTER: IF YOU GO
The Udvar-Hazy Center is at 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway in Chantilly, Virginia, near the Washington Dulles International Airport. Admission is free. Website is www.nasm.si.edu/museum/udvarhazy.