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Museums, Memorials and Presidents: Washington D.C.

No visit to the east coast of the USA would be complete without a trip to Washington D.C. and it was a big part of why we chose to ride the east coast of the US. Along with New York City (which is the next place we will be!), Washington D.C. is one of the places that we have always wanted to visit but never really had the opportunity to until now. The city is the home of the President, seat of the government and capital of culture. The District has some of the most recognisable landmarks and everyone had told us just how much there is to see and do in the city, but until we got there we hadn’t understood what that meant. We spent 5 very full days walking around the city, visiting museums and taking tours, and even then we barely scratched the surface.

Fun fact about Washington D.C. is that their license plate reads ‘Taxation without representation’ because as they aren’t a state, just a federal district (it is the District of Columbia) they have no voice in the country’s politics. There is no representation for D.C in the senate or in congress but they want this to change, hence the ‘End Taxation without representation’ plates on newer cars!

We had arranged to stay with a Warmshowers host for a week and they lived just outside of the city centre in the oldest neighbourhood of the district, Georgetown. It is a very safe, quiet and upmarket part of D.C. with the Vice President, the Clinton’s and various other retired politicians living in the surrounding neighbourhood. We enjoyed wandering the lovely streets and saw the National Cathedral too (Can you see the Darth Vader grotesque on the edge one of the towers?). Georgetown was a nice contrast to the chaos and museum-like feel of the downtown area.

Manola, from Italy and her husband Steve, from the UK, were amazing Warmshowers hosts and we shared a lot of BBQs, walks and conversations with them. We felt so lucky to have found such an awesome couple to spend our time in Washington with and every evening they would give us even more recommendations for the next day. We could have spent so much longer there!

The National Mall is the centrepiece of Washington D.C. running from the Capitol building and Supreme Court at one end to the giant Lincoln Memorial at the other. The 3km park has museums flanking each side of the grassy park to the Washington Monument and then memorials of presidents and important events (ie: wars) leading to the reflection pool in front of Lincoln at the far end. Even after seeing it in the media, nothing beats actually seeing the mall in person and being overwhelmed with how impressive it is. We took a free walking tour to gain a deeper understanding about the monuments and the meanings behind them, which was interesting and educational.

The Washington Monument – Probably the most iconic of the Washington Monuments. Construction started before the civil war and when it resumed after the war ended they had to get the stone from a different quarry, hence the colour change from about 1/3 of the way up. It lies on the intersection between the Capitol and the White House. To this day no buildings in Washington are allowed to be built taller than this monument.

World War 2 Memorial – The newest of the war memorials sits half way between Washington and Lincoln, but is sunk into the ground to not impede the view of either. The two American ‘theatres of war’ are memorialised, the Pacific and Atlantic, with the 50 states represented on the surrounding pillars in the order in which they joined the union.

Vietnam war memorial – In contrast to the WW2 monument, which feels fairly jubilant and victorious the Vietnam Memorial is much more austere. 58000 names carved into 2 black granite walls that slowly descend into the earth make this memorial one of the least adorned, but one of the most poignant.

Korean War memorial – In the 3 years of the Korean War the US lost nearly as many troops as it did in the 16 years of the Vietnam war, so this memorial is another one that has no celebratory overtones. Wherever you are within this memorial at least one of the statues will be looking at you which makes it feel quite haunting. The images carved into the granite slabs behind the statues are all taken from photos donated by loved ones of lost troops.

Lincoln Memorial – Likely the most revered of American presidents Abraham Lincoln gets debatably the most impressive memorial. The 16ft tall statue of the man that presided over the civil war and ensured the union stayed together, and later went on to abolish slavery, sits in its own personal throne room flanked on either side by his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg address and his second inauguration speech.

Martin Luther King Jr – The only memorial that isn’t for a president or a war. The statue itself intentionally looks unfinished, symbolising that the work of the man himself remained unfinished due to his assassination.

Franklin D. Roosevelt & Eleanor Roosevelt – The first disabled president held office during WW2, and he actually spent 4 terms as president! Both him and his wife (plus his dog, Fala) were loved by the people. Famous for many inspirational quotes including, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

Jefferson Memorial – Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, but was generally quite disillusioned with the pageantry of presidency. He even said himself that he didn’t want to be remembered as the president on his tombstone and would never want his own memorial. So… when FDR personally requested his memorial in the 1930s they built it on the other side of the tidal basin, away from the rest of The Mall, but in direct sight of the White House and treasury.

We walked around the outside of The White House (foreigners currently aren’t permitted to take tours inside), saw the protesters on the north side of the house and even witnessed a motorcade taking the Vice President into the house. Whilst it’s quite an iconic building, it is surprisingly small especially when you think how large Buckingham Palace is and the visitor centre gave us an insight into what life is like inside the famous dwelling.

Some of the most important documents in the USA are housed in the National Archives – The Declaration of Independence, along with The Constitution and Bill of Rights. These old pieces of paper are massive and some of the text is illegible now with how much the ink has faded over the years, but they are kept in a secure vault and they’re doing their best to preserve them. As such photos aren’t permitted in the Rotunda, so no pictures of the originals we’re afraid but here’s a replica that you could buy in the gift shop! We also saw a real life senator, Mike Lee from Utah give a talk about the Declaration of Independence and how he feels it has now deviated from those first aims. We enjoyed both hearing a senator speak and a chance to sit down on a comfy seat with air-con for an hour!

Washington D.C. has 17 free museums and a zoo as part of The Smithsonian Institute. Interestingly the Smithsonian was founded in the 18th Century when an English scientist named James Smithson left his entire fortune to the United States, a country he had never visited and with the intention of starting the Institute for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” It’s fair to say that the Institute has realised his vision and the museums hold an overwhelmingly huge amount of information, more than can be taken in during a single visit. We looked around the Smithsonian Castle, the first building that housed some of the various artefacts that started this great institution and where we saw Smithson’s tomb.

Again, we won’t write about every single museum in detail because this blog would be as long as The National Mall if we did, so we’ve selected and captioned a number of our favourite photos from each. (The internet is your friend if you want to know more about anything we’ve mentioned below!).

National Museum of African American History and Culture: This new museum is a real insight into life in the US as an African American. It documents the history of the African American culture from the slave trade into the civil war era and right up until the current day.

National Air and Space Museum: Ben was like a child on Christmas Day during our visit (we even had to go back a second time to finish the exhibits we didn’t see the day before!) but for good reason. There is so much to read and learn about space and air travel, we could have spent the full 5 days just here. (Ben wishes!)

National Air and Space Museum (Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Centre): We travelled 35km outside of the city on two buses and a metro to get to this former airport but it was worth it a hundred times over. The Blackbird Jet and Discovery space shuttle were the real highlights. It is hard to get your mind around the fact that these things actually went into space and flew faster than the speed of sound!

National Museum of Natural History: Similar to the museum in London it houses mammals, ocean creatures, fossils, dinosaurs and insect life in lots of engaging displays and hands on activities. It was also full of kids (summer holidays innit).

National Museum of the American Indian: There was an exhibition about The Inka Road on display and how could we not visit this!? It was really interesting reading about life in the Andes of South America, which felt really familiar to us and made us feel almost homesick!

Five days went really fast, we averaged 16km of walking each day and were very glad of the free circulator buses that took us into the downtown area and back to Georgetown. We spent our final day in D.C. at Manola and Steve’s apartment because we were exhausted and couldn’t handle any more touristing! That said we’d happily go back to Washington D.C. as there is more we’d like to see and do, but not yet. New York City is our next destination and there’s plenty more tourist sights and adventures to be had. Vamos a la manzana grande.

Until next time,

Steph and Ben

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