Published: August 18th 2009August 18th 2009
July 29 - August 4, 2009
It had been over twenty-five years since we spent any time in DC, so we were really looking forward to our trip. However, we never guessed we would enjoy it so immensely and consider it to be one of our favorite vacations. It’s the best city in the world for a “fun education,” and it makes history daily!
We flew into Reagan National Airport around 3 p.m. on Wednesday and took the Metro directly to our hotel, the Washington Grand Hyatt. When I say directly, I mean directly because the Metro central station is located below the hotel! Instead of a $30 cab ride, we each spent only $2 for a Metro ticket. When we reached our stop (in about 20 minutes), all we had to do was go up two escalators and we were in the lobby of the elegant Grand Hyatt. Our room was equally elegant, large, and beautifully appointed, and after settling in, we were ready to get out and explore.
We started with the world’s natural and cultural wonders beneath the dome of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History on the National Mall. Tens of
thousands of artifacts and specimens tell the story of the earth and its evolution into the planet it is today. Among our many favorites during our three-hour visit: the newly-constructed Hall of Mammals, with its dramatic interactive displays, and the Gem and Minerals Hall, with the 45-carat, deep-blue Hope Diamond, largest of its kind in the world. As we would find to be the case in nearly every museum we visited, we could have stayed a full day in just this one. However, they closed at 7:30 p.m., so we walked over to Five Guys (where President Obama lunches) for dinner of really yummy burgers.
Thursday morning began with coffee and newspaper in our room, after which we walked a block to board the double-decker Open Top Sightseeing bus operated by Gray Line. The entire route encompasses 30 stops throughout the D.C. area where you can hop on and off. We selected seats on the top deck, of course, where we had unobstructed, 360-degree views of the city and its attractions. Included on the itinerary were the major museums, buildings, and monuments in downtown D.C., as well as the National Cathedral, Embassy Row, Naval Observatory, and Georgetown.
early afternoon, we had made the entire loop, getting off twice at Arlington National Cemetery and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. At the cemetery we took a trolley tour of this most hallowed burial ground of our fallen military, visited Kennedy’s tomb and the eternal flame, and also watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The American Indian Museum is impressive architecturally and technologically and brings the Native American people's history and culture to life. The restaurant, however, is what really impressed us! The Mitsitam (meaning “let’s eat”) Native Foods Café offered a Native-inspired menu from throughout the Western hemisphere. The food is delicious, healthful, culturally appropriate, and it's is the best place to eat on the Mall.
Our next visit was next door at the National Air and Space Museum, the most-visited museum in the world. Many of the most famous air and space vehicles in history are found here, including Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 space capsule. I also particularly enjoyed a special exhibit of Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean’s paintings. Bean, a University of Texas graduate, went into space while I was at
UT. I remember that for a donation to charity, I could sign a poster that would be put on microfilm and carried into space with him. In addition, since I also paint, I am fascinated by his unique techniques, materials, and style. Each painting contains parts of his space suit and moon dust worked into the paint. He also uses his space boots to texture his canvases.
We enjoyed the many exhibitions, including an IMAX film about fighter pilots, until the museum closed at 7:30. We grabbed a bite at the museum cafeteria before taking a fun pedicab ride back to the hotel and calling it a day.
Around 9 in the morning of our third day, we took advantage of the Open Top Sightseeing Bus again (the ticket is good for two days) and rode it to the White House Visitor Center. After watching an excellent film about the White House, its history, architecture, and its occupants, we walked about two blocks to the South Lawn of the White House for photos. About a dozen people had gathered to snap pictures at this very picturesque spot along the South Lawn fence, when suddenly the female policeman began
yelling over and over, “No more pictures! Vacate the area!” I needed just one more shot, so I surreptitiously (I thought) snapped one as I was walking away, only to hear that same policeman angrily shout, “I told you no more pictures!” as she menacingly began to walk toward me. Bill positioned himself between her and me, as I scurried off. Later we learned that either Michelle Obama or one of the Obama girls had come outside to walk the dog. About 5 - 6 minutes later, tourists were allowed back to the fence. Later, when I checked my digital photos, indeed, right there in the middle of that clandestine photo were Michelle and Bo, the First Dog.
I shopped at some of the souvenir kiosks near the Visitor Center, and we had some ice cream before taking a cab around 11 a.m. to what was to become one of our favorite experiences of the trip: the Newseum. It is the world’s most interactive museum, where five centuries of news meet up-to-the-second technology in 14 galleries and 15 theaters on seven floors. We had expected to spend a couple of hours here; instead, we stayed until it closed—about 6
Washington Grand Hyatt
Lokking down into the atrium from our tenth floor room
hours—and could have stayed 6 hours longer. Enjoyable and educational, it is definitely a must-see. Opened only a year ago, state-of-the-art technology makes newspapers of the past 500 years accessible, as well as current news from more than 500 newspapers around the world. Its Wolfgang Puck restaurant, where we lunched, is excellent as well.
One of our favorite exhibits in the Newseum was the awesome "G-Men in the News," which highlighted the relationship of the FBI and the media through 200 amazing items of evidence from some of the FBI's biggest cases: Patty Hearst's rifle, John Dillinger's death mask and guns, the electric chair used to execute Bruno Hauptmann (Lindbergh baby's kidnapper), the Unabomber's gun, Robert Hanssen's personal "spy" tools, J. Edgar Hoover's desk, and many more.
The Newseum closed at 5 p.m., but we knew the National Museum of American History was open until 7:30, so we headed there. This Smithsonian museum is often called “the nation’s attic” because of its three million pieces of Americana heirlooms, but we had only enough time to visit the first floor exhibits, which included Julia Child’s kitchen and the wonderful “America on the Move” exhibit of the sights, sounds, and
sensations of rail and road transportation in the U.S. from the mid-1800’s forward. I particularly enjoyed seeing the 1903 Winton, the first car to be driven across the U.S., and learning the story of that trip.
The first thing the next morning, Saturday, we walked two blocks to Ford’s Theater, where we waited in line for free tickets to tour the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. A museum downstairs displayed, among many other memorabilia, the clothing he was wearing and the gun used by John Wilkes Booth. We then went into the theater itself for an impressive description of the events of that night by a museum attendant while we viewed the presidential box as it looked that night. We then visited the Peterson House across the street, which is where Lincoln was taken after being shot and where he died some 10 hours later.
We lunched at what was to become our favorite restaurant, the Capitol City Brewing Company, located diagonally across the street from our hotel. Following lunch, we took boarded a D.C. Trails bus for a five and one-half hour visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and gardens. En route, we traveled through Old
Town Alexandria and its incredible architecture, cobblestone streets, and rich history sites. One such place was the preserved 1785 Gadsby's Tavern, where Washington, Adams, and Jefferson dined and where Washington announced he would be a candidate for president. At Mount Vernon, we watched an introductory movie about Washington and the history of Mt. Vernon before exploring the forty beautiful, wooded acres overlooking the Potomac River. We strolled to his refurbished, 14-room Georgian home, which is surrounded by wide lawns and fine gardens as well as slave quarters and barns, Washington’s and Martha’s tombs, and a slave burial ground.
The line to tour the inside of the house had about an hour wait, so we chose to spend our time more efficiently by touring the new museum and education center featuring 25 state-of-the-art galleries and theaters that reveal the fascinating story of George Washington's life. Of course, no museum about Washington would be complete without his famous false teeth, and indeed, there they were in all their primitiveness. It is said that in all of his pictures his mouth is closed, and he looks grim-faced, as if he were in pain. Truly he must have been. The dentures were not
wooden, as we learned in grade school, but instead consisted of a base of pure lead! (I don’t know why he didn’t get lead poisoning.) Into the base were inserted real teeth from humans, horses, and donkeys. Despite good dental hygiene, he had started losing his teeth in his twenties after being treated on different occasions for smallpox, dengue fever, and malaria with mercurous chloride, which destroys teeth. His two inaugural addresses were extremely short—only two paragraphs—it is said because it hurt so much to talk with the dentures in his mouth. We saw an amazing video re-creating how the bulky false teeth were made.
We returned to the Grand Hyatt about 6 p.m., in time to grab dinner at our new favorite restaurant, the Capitol City Brewing Company, across the street. After dinner, the same tour company (and the same driver!) picked us up for a four-hour evening tour of our nation’s capitol building and the spectacular monuments and memorials illuminated in the twilight. We stopped for photos at the Capitol, the White House north portico, Washington Monument, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the World War II, Vietnam, and Korean War Memorials, plus the incredibly inspirational U.S. Marine Corps
War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, depicting one of the most famous incidents of World War II.
The next day was Sunday, and the forecast was for severe storms in the D.C. area, so we decided to stay inside and underground by taking the Metro from the basement of our hotel to the Metro stop in Union Station’s basement. Washington’s Union Station is more than a transportation hub; it is also an upscale mall and entertainment center. We used the Internet, shopped in many of the 50 retail stores, and then saw the Jim Carrey movie “Funny People” in the nine-screen theater complex. When we finally surfaced above ground about 4 p.m., the skies had cleared, and we took a cab to the National Museum of American History to finish our visit. However, the 3 ½ hours we had before it closed were still not enough time to see everything we wanted, and we would have to return the next day. So, when it closed at 7:30, it was back to the Grand Hyatt and back to the Capitol City Brewing Company for dinner.
Day six began at the National Geographic Society Explorer’s Hall, which
we thoroughly enjoyed. The current exhibits (which change every 4-6 months) were both related to topics close to our hearts. The first, “Lions and Leopards,” included stunning video footage and intimate fine art prints from Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who have spent twenty years living with and documenting these fabulous cats in Africa. The other was a Kodachrome exhibit of "The American Tourist in Europe." Both exhibits were outstanding, and we thoroughly enjoyed the two hours spent here.
After a quick lunch at the Stars and Stripes Cafe in the American History Museum, we began yet another visit to this repository of American treasures, finally ready to move on, after a total of 12 hours here on three different days. We greatly enjoyed the many high-tech videos and media displays in the museum. I don't always take time to watch videos in a museum, but Bill loves them. By taking the time to watch dozens of them with him in this museum and others, I learned how much information I had been missing!
It was mid-afternoon when we left the museum, so we decided to take another look at the Korean War and Vietnam Veterans Memorials on the
National Mall to get a daylight view of them. Both memorials eloquently commemorate the soldiers' sacrifices and evoke strong emotion from visitors. One 8-year-old boy was collecting autographs from veterans, so Bill proudly signed his book.
Our next adventure was unplanned because we had not known how much time we would need to complete our American History Museum visit. Fortunately, we had time for the International Spy Museum, which houses the world's largest collection of international espionage artifacts on display to the public. Our adventure began on the third floor, where we were assigned a cover identity and then confronted with the real world of spying in a briefing film. Next came the School for Spies to examine gadgets from buttonhole cameras to lipstick pistols and to test our skills to see if we're cut out to be secret agents. Through interactive displays and videos, we learned about Soviet double agents, the role of carrier pigeons in spying, Hollywood's contribution to disguise techniques, and played spy games. My favorite exhibit was the two-foot wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States, which was given in 1946 by Soviet school children to America's man in Moscow, Averell Harriman.
Mr. Harriman hung the seal in the ambassador's office for six years until Ambassador George Kennan discovered a "bug" microphone in a cavity of the plaque in 1952. The Soviets had been listening to everything that went on in the ambassador's office for six years, after using innocent children as conduits!
Again, we stayed until the doors closed at 7 p.m., not expecting to have had such fun with the intrigue and deception, heroes and villains, history and technology of the International Spy Museum. More importantly, we learned that there are more real spies in Washington, D.C. than in any other city in the world!!
Dinner was again, you guessed it, at the Capitol City Brewing Company. Our favorites have been the Reuben sandwich (best we’ve ever tasted) and the Pentagon pear salad.
This was our last day in D.C., so we packed in the morning, checked out, and left our bags at the hotel because our flight didn’t leave until 6 p.m. and we had a full day of sights near the hotel planned. First, we visited Madame Tussauds to meet her collection of celebrities, historical figures, and politicians. After watching a fascinating video about the
painstaking process of creating the figures to be exact replicas, right down to the eyeball irises, we proceeded to meet the Obamas, Clintons, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Tom Cruise, the Kennedys, many of our presidents and military leaders, Oprah, Joan Rivers, Babe Ruth, Larry King, and dozens more. The likenesses were unbelievably accurate, and we had loads of fun taking photos alongside.
We briefly visited the beautiful St. Patrick’s Church en route to lunch at the Spy City Café nearby. St. Patrick's Church is the oldest parish in the Federal City of Washington, D.C., founded in 1794 to minister to the needs of the Irish immigrant stonemasons building the White House and the U.S. Capitol. It continues to serve the needs of downtown Washington. The stained glass windows, many marble statues, and altar are beautiful.
Our final three hours in Washington before departing for the airport at 3:30 were spent at the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum. These two Smithsonian museums are located in the stunningly-refurbished Old Patent Office Building (where Lincoln held his inaugural ball) and not on the Mall, so they are not as well-known; however, they are true American treasures. The National
Portrait Gallery is like America's family album--a huge one that holds 15,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc. of men and women who have significantly contributed to the history and culture of the U.S. Portraits are arranged in chronological order beginning with the Founding Fathers and leading to the present. It's a complete pictorial lesson in American history! And it's much more fun to learn history through portraits.
Sure, Europe claims more than its share of fine art, but no one should overlook the US! The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the country's only museum dedicated to art and artists of the United States, containing nearly 40,000 works by over 7,000 American artists. The art spans over 300 years from Colonial quilts to 21st century art glass.
Again, we didn't have enough time to do justice to these two collections. Around 3:30 we had to walk back to our hotel, pick up our luggage, and proceed to the basement to catch the Metro to Reagan National for our flight home. We couldn't have picked a better hotel than the Washington Grand Hyatt. It was beautiful, conveniently located atop the main Metro station, near great food, and within 10 minutes walking
distance of the Capitol and 5 minutes of the White House. As an added bonus, service was courteous and prompt. It's truly at the top of our list of favorites.
What a fantastic trip! We have visited over 80 countries, and have been in the capital cities of most of them, but we can truly say that our U.S. capital is the best! We were on the go for seven days from opening hours (9 a.m.) to closing (7:30 p.m.), and yet we barely brushed the surface of the many incredible aspects of the stirring monuments, museums, culture, classic architecture, and history that are Washington, D.C. There are countless exciting and memorable places to visit, and most of them are free. Many of the museums and other attractions have been updated into the high-tech, multi-sensory present with interactive galleries and media displays. I know I learned more about American history than I did in high school and college combined!. Visiting our nation's capital is a truly great experience.
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