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.