Friday, May 18, 2018

Washington DC on foot, part 1

Washington DC. One of the rare big cities that you can explore for days, with kids in tow, without a car… Which is good, because the cost/headaches of parking are certainly discouraging, and public transportation isn’t an option in some cases. We found ourselves trailing Roberts recently to a conference in the Capital, and set out to see what we could see during our long weekend there.

Day 1: National Mall from the Capitol to the Potomac

It is only about 2.5 miles from one end to the other, but add on getting there, the various meanders, and a couple of side trips, and I estimate we walked at least 6 miles. From the hotel we headed to the US Capitol building, admired the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and Capitol Reflecting Pool then headed west.

While we weren’t exploring any of the museums on this particular visit, we did have our National Parks passports with, and the boys wanted to work on a Junior Ranger program. The easiest way to jump right into it is to contact the National Mall and Memorial Parks ahead of time to request a booklet; that way you won’t be walking from visitor center to bookstore to info station searching for the brochure. If this isn’t an option, your best bet is heading to one of the 5 ranger stations (see map mentioned in resources listed at the end of part 2 for locations). Stamping your passport can also be a challenge; while some monuments/memorials have info stations & bookstores that have the stamp, others do not. Some kiosks were closed, others didn’t have certain stamps. Tip: keep a list of which monuments etc. you visited and then make a stop at the Washington Monument Lodge – they have ALL the stamps.

The Mall is lined with national attractions: the Smithsonian Museums of American History, Natural History and National Air & Space Museum, among others. We haven’t visited any of them as of yet (although we did make it to the much larger Udvar-Hazy Center, which I definitely recommend as the more expansive sister museum of the National Air & Space Museum), with the idea that the boys will be better able to appreciate them when they are a little older. However we admired each grand building as we passed, discussing what was housed there and generating ideas for future trips.

From the 555 ft. tall Washington Monument (which remains closed for repairs) we turned north towards the White House. To request a WH tour, visitors must contact their state reps at least 3 months before travel. Even then it isn’t guaranteed you’ll get a ticket; we’ve tried three times, unsuccessfully. However depending on who is accompanying you, it might be worth walking up to Pennsylvania Avenue to get your photograph of the iconic building, before going over to the White House Visitor Center on the east side.

The visitor center is open from 7:30am until 4pm daily (except January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25), and admission is free. Visitors can explore an interactive touchscreen tour of the White House, view over 90 artifacts from the White House collection and a 15 minute film, and shop at the White House Historical Association retail store. Tip: Leave the pocket knives, food and water bottles at home to make it through security, or split your party in two – one group takes all the backpacks and walks over to take in the view of the White House from the north lawn while the other explores the Visitor Center. We made sure to stop at the Boy Scout Memorial just across the street from the visitor center, near the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion. You'll also encounter the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail which traces the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake.

Disappointed to see the Boy Scout Memorial in disrepair

After the obligatory selfies with the White House we circled the Ellipse and headed to the World War II Memorial. The day had heated up some (90°+ already!) and we stuck to the shaded trails while exploring the Constitution Gardens, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the DC War Memorial to completely circle the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Tip: this portion of the Mall is open 24 hours/day, so if you want to beat the heat schedule your visit for late in the evening and enjoy the atmosphere without the crowds.

The boys were starting to slow their gait, so we crossed the street and lingered in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial bookstore, enjoying the AC and browsing the titles acquiring ideas for books we would like to read. Once they had perked up we entered the MLK Jr. Memorial, studying the quotes engraved in the memorial and enjoying the view over the Tidal Basin. This is the National Mall’s first memorial dedicated to an African American, and to a nonpresident. Behind the Stone of Hope (MLK’s image) are two blocks that represent the Mountain of Despair; the piece was carved by sculptor Lei Yixin.

Continuing around the edge of the water (which just a month ago had been awash in cherry blossoms) we soon arrived at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Up until now we were more familiar with FDR’s cousin Teddy: from our visit to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in NYC, his work in the field of conservation, and from reading books such as A Splendid Savage. This made it more interesting to tour the five outdoor “rooms” with their statues, quotes, water features and plantings, and I feel as if I learned a great deal. Overall the feel of the Memorial was more of a secluded corner of some extravagant botanical gardens, unusual for one of the more expansive memorials in the area.

At this point we called it quits, however we returned to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on Day 3 of our Washington DC stay. Only another ½ mile further, the circular, open-air domed structure is my favorite architecturally of the National Mall Memorials. Located opposite from the MLK Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin, it is a popular spot while the cherry blossoms are blooming, but not as crowded on a warm Sunday morning. While touring the cool interior my thoughts drifted to our visit to Jefferson’s Monticello a few years ago, parallels drawn between the domes and columns of the two structures…

To be continued...

(Part 2 of Washington DC on foot: Ford's Theater, the Old Post Office Tower and the International Spy Museum)

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