Wow, so Washington was a whirlwind. The US capital is a glorious city largely made up of monuments, memorials and museums. We visited last month (June) and had 4 full days there but it was a bit of a squeeze to fit everything in! However, we managed to see the bulk of attractions on our list. Initially I was a bit worried that we would struggle to find things to do that appealed but actually, that wasn’t a problem.
Our first stop was Georgetown. We walked here on the afternoon of the day we arrived, along the hugely wide river Potomac, making the Thames back home look a poor effort indeed! Georgetown was littered with old quirky buildings filled with restaurants, convenience stores and shops. It’s a pretty neighbourhood (more like a blooming large town to anyone from a smaller country!) situated right next to the river. This being my first trip to the US, I was immediately shocked by the sheer space and size of everything – England in comparison must feel like a dolls house to visiting Americans!
After our walk to Georgetown on our arrival day, we sought out our local tube station. We found that buying a SmarTrip metro card and topping this up daily using the machines in the station was the most cost-efficient way of travelling for us. The average trip one-way was around $2 (off-peak). To get through the turn-stiles you had to ‘tap’ the card, very much like an Oyster card in London. We found the Washington metro system easy to understand once we’d got the hang of it and I downloaded the app on my phone which I’d really recommend doing!
The Smithsonian Museums
First things first, there’s a lot of them (19 in total I believe?!) and the 2 that we visited were big, so just a word of warning – don’t underestimate the time it may take you to wander round. They’re great to visit and particularly so if you’re on a budget because all are free to enter and enjoy! Donations are left to your discretion.
The National Air and Space Museum
Now this was a cool museum. Aircraft of all shapes, sizes, decades and designs hung from the ceiling and it’s also home to a tiny piece of moon rock – that you can touch! Not only this, but a Planetarium too! I’d never been inside one before so immediately jumped at the chance to watch ‘Journey to the Stars’ narrated by the one and only Whoopi Goldberg. It was one of three different screenings offered within the planetarium, each of 25 minutes in length costing $9 pp, and no need to book in advance. The visuals appeared on the screen of the dome and the tour of the stars began…spectacular sights danced across the dome immersing us in space, it truly was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The only thing I would say was that I got a bit dizzy half way through! But otherwise a good experience 🙂
- Be aware of security checks. As is with a lot of attractions now, they take place upon entry.
- The only food available here was Mcdonalds, located within the museum, in the food hall. Due to this, the queue’s were huge!! And there wasn’t enough seating for everyone. So if fast food and elbow fighting don’t take your fancy, I suggest taking something with you. Having said this, if you’re willing to pay over-the-odds for a chicken burger and some chips (sorry, fries…) there are food stalls dotted along the National Mall. Another alternative, also pricey but providing you with indoor seating, is a cafe located in the Smithsonian Castle.
- Busy busy busy. As you can imagine, this museum is a hugely popular destination for school trips especially, and by the afternoon there were dozens of coaches arriving with pupils.
National Museum of Natural History
This museum was HUGE; with many different exhibits and maze-like rooms that went on forever, you could easily spend a whole day there. I found the animal section particularly impressive as you see all kinds of species and figures looking all so real. You feel as though they’re all suddenly going to come alive like a scene out of the ‘Night at the Museum’!
They also have a gallery displaying 83 fine art photographs capturing the best of nature. I was actually going to skip this section but my dad dragged us in and I’m glad he did because they were truly breathtaking images.
This museum isn’t part of the Smithsonian family but it came highly recommended in the USA Lonely Planet travel guide. You do have to pay for entry and at $14.95 + tax for a youth ticket and $24.95 + tax for an adult, it is quite a pricey museum – but in my opinion it was well worth the fee.
Immediately you’ll see a long line of roughly 30 front cover newspaper articles presented behind glass at the entrance of the museum. All front pages are that of the day you visit and just provide you with a general idea of what’s going on in America that day – what the big stories are. I enjoy keeping up on the news and thought for tourists especially, this was a nice touch.
This museum is very interactive and the bulk of information is presented through objects, TV recordings and photographs associated with the event or taken at the time. The museum’s exhibits include the Berlin Wall, the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, the FBI, coverage of news stories across the world throughout the decades, missing reporters, and music – among others.
- It contains one of the better catering halls. What’s great here is that there’s a relatively large food area which operates like a school canteen. It provides a nice selection of food from burgers, pizza and pasta to a fresh salad bar.
- Again, this museum is extremely popular with schools.
- It’s bigger than you think. This museum operates over a number of floors and is bigger than you initially perceive so make spare a good few hours to see everything.
The trolley tour sights
A great way to see as many attractions/points of interest (as in any large city) when you have a limited amount of time is of course, to hop on a bus tour (or something of the like) – and we did just that! We used ‘Old Town Trolley Tours’ and were very impressed. The tour guide was a local man who’d lived in and around Washington D.C. his whole life, and referred to himself as ‘Dancing Mike’. He was a friendly and engaging tour guide with tonnes of knowledge. Furthermore, what I really valued was his enthusiasm for his ‘hometown’ and the fact that he didn’t make you feel as though he’d delivered the same tour 500 times. Our tour was only a few hours long, so we only spent on average 20/30 minutes at every stop but there are longer tours available for those wanting to thoroughly explore every attraction. We stopped at the following places:
The US Capitol Building
The Capitol building is home to the United States congress and is an extremely elaborate complex and certainly nice to look at. However, the best thing about the visit was the view of the National Mall because you can see right down to the Washington Monument. On the gloriously sunny day that we visited, it was a lovely sight.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
If I’m honest, Thomas Jefferson was not a man I knew much about prior to this tour. Sure, I’d heard of him but who he was exactly and what role he played in America’s history, well, I didn’t have a scooby. Thankfully though, ‘Dancing Mike’ did have a scooby and told us all about his involvement in the Declaration of Independence (essentially the principal author) and why he was elected as the third president of the United States.
The memorial itself certainly had the wow-factor and was probably my favourite in terms of the architecture of the building – dome-like with pillars, and it’s position – right on top of the Tidal Basin with a fantastic view over the water and of all the pedalos 🙂
Abraham Lincoln Memorial
The Abraham Lincoln Memorial too, was not a sight to be sneezed at! The famous Lincoln-sitting statue did not disappoint and was certainly as dominating and dramatic as the photographs I’d seen. Certainly, Lincoln has an extraordinary view of the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool before it, which has been cleverly designed so as to honour its name and ‘reflect’ the Washington Monument upon its surface. On the clear, blue sky day that we visited, it made an excellent photo.
Vietnam War Memorial
In comparison to the other memorials we saw, this and the Korean War Memorial were different. Different in the respect that they were quiet; less noise, less bustling crowds, less selfie sticks. Perhaps because the victims’ names were displayed? Perhaps because there lay fresh flowers? Perhaps because some visitors were alive when the wars occurred and have memories of the time? Both felt eerie and I noticed that fellow tourists were definitely more moved and respectful at these memorials. In fact, we passed a family huddled together by the wall at the Vietnam Memorial reading a letter and crying – perhaps for the loss of a relative? It was a humbling experience.
Now this memorial really blew me away. Fountains of water star as the centrepiece and truly it is a magnificent sight. As ‘Dancing Mike’ said “The effect water can have on a memorial is truly fantastic, and no example is better than this.”
For fear of boring you further, I will only briefly mention the other sights we visited: Arlington National Cemetery, the US Marine Corps War Memorial, the US Botanic Gardens, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Theodore Roosevelt Island, the White House and the Washington Monument itself – it was a busy trip!
Where to eat
We hadn’t really planned anywhere to eat as we figured we’d take the ‘walk around and wander in’ approach. Although, this actually proved not as easy as expected because staying in such a large and famous city, a lot of establishments were very expensive and others, not so inviting. We did however find a nice, welcoming (and affordable!) Italian place near to where we stayed called Piola. It served good pizza, pasta and salad and that was all we were really after! We also had pizza from the takeout chain ‘Dominos’ on one night and let me tell you, their menu is far more extensive in America! They not only offer pizza, but pasta and salads as well! I was blown away hahaha
To conclude, from my short time in Washington I came to the conclusion that it’s an historic city in the truest sense of the word, and one that never forgets to honour its past.