Saturday, April 30, 2005

Hitchhiker's Guide to Washington

Being an explication of known and unknown sites and attractions in our nation's capitol, as recorded by a former resident and frequent visitor.

A friend of mine from Nashville is going on vacation to Washington DC next week, and asked me for a few touristic recommendations. Once I got started, I couldn't stop. So here's a long essay on the subject. Feel free to add your own sugestions.


Washington DC is lousy with museums -- and most of them are free since they are part of the taxpayer-financed Smithsonian Institution. Here are a few ideas:

The insect zoo (now brought to you by Orkin, which cracks me up) is in the National Museum of Natural History, which is right off the Mall. (It's one of the domed buildings close on the Capitol end -- the other is the old wing of the National Gallery.) Other popular things there include the giant taxidermied elephant in the rotunda (which I remember seeing when I was in elementary school), the gems and minerals exhibit (including the "cursed" Hope diamond), and the Dino bones.

The Air and Space museum, across the mall from there, is the most popular of all the Smithsonian museums, but it's generally really crowded and last time I was there the exhibits seemed a bit tired. It was planned/built in the early 1970s when space exploration was in vogue, but I don't think it has been maintained very well. Supposedly they began a major remodel recently, so it may be improving.

The museum of American History is interesting, although a lot depends on what exhibits they have going on when you're there. They used to have a history of computing exhibit, but I haven't been there in a while so I don't know if it still exists or is worth seeing. It also used to have a massive pendulum that swung from the roof to the basement. I believed they still have this but may have shortened it substantially to make more exhibit space.

There are a ton of lesser-known museums that might be interesting depending on your taste. The National Postal Museum is surprisingly interesting (and convenient, since it's right across the street from Union Station, which is worth seeing in its own right.) The National Building Museum is also supposed to be good, although I've actually never been in it. (Although I think that's the building that my parents took refuge in when I was 6 years old or so and we got caught in a massive storm downtown.) The National Museum of the American Indian is brand new, and definitely interesting. (Although it's not exactly like a traditional museum -- more like a freeform stream of conciousness.)

There are also some well-regarded private museums. The Holocaust Museum is supposed to very good, but I've never been. (It always seems like a bit of a downer when you're sightseeing with friends, which is usually how I see these things lately.) The International Spy Museum is also supposed to be good, but you have to pay admission and make reservations. (Didn't know about the reservations thing last time, so we only got as far as the gift shop.) And the Corcoran Gallery of Art was another frequent field trip in grade school, but since I haven't been there in years I'm don't' recall many details.

Other stuff:

An architectural gem that I only discovered last year when I went up for the archives training is the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Notice that the carvings of American cherubs are all engaged in useful professions, not lounging around like those lazy European cherubs of yesteryear! The main reading room alone is pretty spectacular -- but maybe that's just my affinity for libraries showing through.

It's worth it to take a walk around the reflecting-pool end of the mall, where you can see the Lincoln memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, and the new WWII memorial. Unfortunately there's no Metro right in this area, so you either need to walk down from the Smithsonian stop or walk in from Foggy Bottom or another stop further inland. Despite having lived in DC for the bulk of my life, I have never actually been up the Washington Monument. The last several times I tried, it has been closed -- first for restoration, and then for landscaping and security upgrades. Last October it was still closed, but maybe if your lucky it will be reopened by now.

If you want to do some more walking, the Korean War Memorial, the FDR Memorial, and the Tidal Basin/Jefferson Memorial are all between the reflecting pool and the river. (There's a good map of all the sights in the "monumental core" right here. A lot of these green spaces around the mall were covered by "temporary" buildings during WWII to house the growing ranks of government bureaucrats. These "temporaries" ended up lasting for decades -- my grandfather worked in one for years.

Arlington National Cemetery is interesting, but perhaps a bit ambitious if you're traveling with a kid. Things to see are the changing of the guard, the Kennedy gravesite, and the cemetery itself. It was built around Robert E. Lee's family house during the civil war after the government took the land to spite him for leading the confederate army. One of the first 20 or so gravestones down the row from the house is Somebody Packard (forget his first name), who is one of my ancestors. He was in a unit from Maine and died in one of the battles in Virginia. This is not in the tour books, but I figured I'd throw it in for your edification.

Don't imagine you'll want to do much of this with a kid in tow, one interesting place to go hiking is Roosevelt Island (in the Potomac -- you can walk there from the Roslyn stop if you don't mind dodging traffic and taking a long detour to get across an unfortunately-placed highway. Or you can drive to it on the GW parkway.) The island is mostly made up of wooded trails, but in the middle is a slightly bombastic monument to Teddy Roosevelt featuring a massive statue of the man himself. Another good hiking place is Great Falls, where the Potomac crashes down across the fall line. The Virginia side includes the remains of an old canal that bypassed the falls, with massive walls blasted out of rock, as well as the more spectacular view of the falls. The Maryland side is a smaller backwater, but also has the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal, a restored canal with a hikable towpath that runs along the Potomac from Georgetown (in DC) to Cumberland, MD. (Despite the name, they never quite made it to Ohio.)

Another place I haven't been in years but is probably a good stop is the National Zoo, which is located a ways from downtown but is convenient to Metro. The National Cathedral is another very cool stop, although it is pretty much inaccessible via MetroRail. But you can take a bus or drive pretty easily. I was last there in College when we filmed a documentary on eclesiastical needlepoint that featured staff experts at the cathedral.

If you want to see a movie in an "old school" huge screen movie theater, you can go to the Uptown in Cleveland Park, which is one of the few survivors of the era of great movie theaters. Other interesting places include the Avalon in Friendship Heights, which is an older theater that was preserved by a citizens group (sort of like the Belcourt in Nashville) and now shows arty films. The AFI Silver Theater in downtown Silver Spring is another old theater that has been fixed up, although I haven't been in it yet.


As I mentioned, my grasp of the DC restaurant scene is a bit shallow since I haven't actually lived there full time in years. But here are two places I've eaten at recently that were pretty good. Both are in the Maryland suburbs, since I tend to spend most of my time in the Takoma Park/Silver Spring/College Park orbit when I'm home.
  • Woomi Garden According to the Koreans who share my mom's church building, this restaurant in Wheaton is one of the best Korean restaurants in the area.
  • Samantha's Tiny Salvadoran restaurant in suburban Silver Spring, and a favorite of my parents.
I'm also crushed because I was going to recommend Haussner's, a family tradition in Baltimore that had been around since the 1920s. Unfortunately, it appears that it closed in 1999 and its massive art collection has been auctioned off. In addition to hundreds of paintings and Maryland specialties like fried soft-shell crab, they had a giant 800lb ball of twine that had been amassed by saving the string from napkin deliveries. Despite the German heritage of the restaurant, I remember my Grandfather mispelling his last name (Dichtel) as "DICKTELL" when making reservations to ensure correct pronunciation.