The place to start sightseeing in Washington DC is The National Mall, a grand open area between the Lincoln Memorial (image above) and the United States Capitol.
The Capitol is an imposing building, the meeting place of the U.S. Congress. Guided tours are available and you see the Crypt, the Rotunda, and National Statuary Hall after viewing a 13-minute movie. Close-by is the U.S. Botanic Garden, a living museum dedicated to the aesthetic, cultural, economic, therapeutic and ecological importance of plants. The indoor/outdoor gardens have become a place of respite and research.
A dozen free Smithsonian museums flank the National Mall and you need to see more than one in this walkable mosaic of art, science and history. An excellent starting place is the Smithsonian Castle where there are information booths staffed by local experts. Pick up a map and get some advice about how to make the most of your time at the world’s largest museum complex.
Our favourite is the National Air and Space Museum, the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft. The museum tells heroic stories and explains scientific principles with actual objects and the latest in technology. Highlights include Charles Lindbergh’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis; the Wright brothers’ original 1903 flyer; a lunar rock sample; and astronaut space suits. These plus many other exhibits, a planetarium and an IMAX theatre make this museum one of the most popular in the world.
The most recent building on the Mall is the National Museum of the American Indian which expresses the diversity of culture, language, history, tradition and futures of indigenous peoples of North and South America, but we found it less interesting than expected.
The same cannot be said about The National Gallery of Art which consists of two major buildings and a six-acre sculpture garden. Highlights include the only Leonardo da Vinci in the Western Hemisphere; Impressionist canvases by Monet, Degas and Van Gogh; and some startling modern pieces.
Once past the African elephant in the foyer, the National Museum of Natural History has an irresistible collection of 127 million items including dinosaur bones, ancient Egyptian mummies, and the storied Hope Diamond.
But museums aren’t the end of the story. We see the White House, the Washington Monument, the Constitution Gardens, Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln Reflecting Pool, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Any of these would be a major attraction in most cities; here they overwhelm and inspire beyond my comprehension.
We spend considerable time at the National World War II Memorial reflecting on the more than 400,000 Americans who died in the conflict and acknowledging how well this country does its memorials. It is late in the evening before we take the Metro back to our hotel.
We pick up a rental car today so that we can travel further afield. We had tried to make an advance reservation to do a Pentagon tour but our only available day was fully booked, however, we start the day by driving out to the world’s largest low-rise building which has more than twice the floor space of the Empire State Building and see it from the outside.
Arlington National Cemetery, where more than 250,000 American servicemen and many notable Americans are buried, is nearby. Among the most frequently visited sites in the cemetery are the grave of President John F Kennedy, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and Arlington House.
Robert E. Lee and his wife lived in Arlington House for 30 years. Lee left in 1861 when he resigned his US Army commission rather than take up arms against his native Virginian state. The cemetery was established in 1864. Guided and self-guided tours are available of the cemetery and the house.
It seems a good idea to go on to Old Town Alexandria while we are closeby. This is an historic town dating back to 1749. It was an important colonial port and today its cobblestone streets, colonial houses and churches, museums, shops and restaurants try to recapture some of that atmosphere. We visit Gadsby’s Tavern Museum where George and Martha Washington and Thomas Jefferson were regular visitors.
There are other historic places such as the Lyceum, a city historical museum; the bronze sculpture of The Confederate Soldier; and the Torpedo Factory where torpedoes were manufactured during both World Wars. Today the building houses the studios of many artists. The waterfront area is being redeveloped and what has been achieved to date is quite impressive.
After walking around the town and eating in one of the many restaurants, we drive out to 101 Callahan Drive where we visit the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. This amazing building was built in the 1920s as a memorial and a museum highlighting the contributions of Freemasons to the United States.
Old Town Alexandria has shown us the delights of its past so we are inspired to check out Washington’s oldest section. Georgetown was founded in 1751 and was not incorporated into Washington DC until 120 years later. It is popular for its high-end shopping and dining, quaint 18th-century rowhouses on cobblestone streets, waterfront harbour, and Georgetown University. Many of Georgetown’s streets are lined with tall, old trees and quaint 200-year-old buildings.
Dumbarton Oaks is a highlight of a visit here. The mansion houses an extraordinary collection of art and the gardens are delightful. Georgetown University Main Quad has the huge National Historic Landmark of Healy Hall while behind this is Old North built in 1795, where Abraham Lincoln gave his speech in 1861 to Union soldiers stationed here.
North from here in the Dupont Circle neighbourhood is the Phillips Collection, where a wonderful array of Impressionists and modern masterpieces from Renoir, van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse can be seen. We finish our day at the hugely impressive Kennedy Centre which presents the latest musical and theatrical productions, jazz concerts, family performances, and a free open air rooftop terrace. There are three main performing spaces: A Concert Hall, an Opera House and the Eisenhower Theatre.
TOP IMAGE: :Lincoln memorial, Washington DC, USA. (By Monica Volpin, via Pixabay)
ALL OTHER IMAGES: (By Phensri Rutledge)