While DC’s Metro isn’t perfect for tourists, it was pretty darn great at facilitating most of our trips to and from the most popular tourist sites. Some, such as the Mall, Arlington National Cemetery and Georgetown aren’t directly connected by Metro, but for the most part, so long as we were ready and willing to walk, transportation around the city was seamless. The stations were reasonably clean, easy to navigate, and rider friendly with electronic ETA signs at each platform (we did find it rather odd that instead of using pre-programmed announcements at each stop, however, that the driver had to personally declare each stop). It didn’t hurt that the stations were aesthetically pleasing as well, with grand, curving archways that channelled European train stations instead of the more typical dreary, underground bunker-style.
DC Metro Station
We purchased a weeklong short trip pass for $26.40, which covered all of our travel on the Metro. When we received the passes, we had to wonder if there would ever be a time when our current Prime Minister would ever appear on any Canadian subway ticket.
President Obama on the Metro pass
On Thursday morning, we allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in until 8:30, and then stopped at Starbucks for a leisurely coffee and the space to share the teacake we had picked up at the farmers’ market the day before (it was a start to our day of inglorious eats, to say the least). Having sufficiently awakened ourselves, we headed to our first stop of the day – the White House Visitor’s Centre.
As previously mentioned, we weren’t able to secure a White House tour, which was disappointing, but as we found no shortage of other activities, was slightly easier to swallow. As a result, we ended up at the Visitor Centre, which we found to be in dire need of a complete overhaul. While we didn’t mind the aged facility, we couldn’t believe the sad nature of the exhibits, which ranged from a DVD on repeat, cardboard cutouts, and modest information panels on the history of the rooms and the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As the Capitol Visitor Centre just had their renovation (to include, among other things, interactive electronic touch screens and 3-D models), I hope the White House Visitor Centre is next in line.
White House Visitor Centre
I will say that we did enjoy the part of the video that we stayed to watch, which provided a glimpse of the rooms we would not be able to see in person, and that the gift shop was one of the most affordable that we had seen.
We eventually made our way towards the actual White House, about a block away. While approaching the building, we encountered a group of police officers who had started to block off the intersection leading into the patrolled grounds. We didn’t have long to wonder why they were doing this, because after the crowds had been ushered a fair distance back from the road, the President’s Motorcade, complete with police escort, several SUVs and an ambulance, passed by, as the crowd cheered and waved.
President Obama’s Motorcade
It blew my mind how logistically complicated it must be to systematically close off the streets where the President would pass through, but Mack was probably right in his assessment that POTUS’s handlers likely have it down to a science.
The top of the Ellipse, right by the Christmas tree, was the closest we were able to get to the White House. We agreed that it was a little anti-climactic, and as some have said, partly because of the prescribed viewing distance, was definitely not as grand and breathtaking as the monuments and memorials in the Mall.
The White House
At the White House (sadly, this shot is better than the one a fellow tourist took for us)
Our next stop on our tourist mishmash was the National Museum of Natural History. For whatever reason, I had it in my head that this was the site of 2006’s Night at the Museum. Apparently I was sleeping during the movie because although the sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, was filmed in several of DC’s museums (including Natural History), the setting of the first film was the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
National Museum of Natural History
At any rate, we made it a point to be out of the museum in less than two hours, even though the air conditioning was a welcome refuge from the escalating midday heat. We saw the Hope Diamond, the Dinosaur Hall (including examples of Albertosaurus and Edmontosaurus), and my favourite, the elephant in the rotunda (that sounds like it could be the start of a joke…).
Elephant in the Rotunda
By the end of our brisk museum tour, we were ready for some lunch. As we were planning on visiting Union Station next (primarily to compare it to Grand Central Station), we thought it best to defer our hunger until we reached that building.
The architecture of Union Station is grand, and we loved that the halls mirrored the look of the underground Metro stations. These arches were more magnificent, however, benefiting from illumination by natural light.
It wasn’t until we explored Union Station further that we discovered full-scale restaurants and cafes outside of the food court area, but that day, we were content with a fairly inexpensive meal. I’ve also never before encountered so many free samples outside of a farmers’ market or Costco – the fast food outlets were competing with each other, doing their best to capture the tourist vote. My choice of a basic plate of teriyaki chicken with rice and vegetables ($5.99) from Sakura Japan turned out to be surprisingly good, with a portion size that could have easily fed two people.
We then shopped for a bit (well, when I say “we”, I mean I led, and Mack followed), where I found the perfect garment store for me – White House/Black Market, whose primary business is selling white and black clothes. I spent way too much money on a dress, but hey, the pockets and the fit were too good to pass up!
We had noted the National Air and Space Museum down as a potential time bridge to other Mall activities, and after Union Station, we had exactly half an hour to explore it before closing. We powered through it, and were only able to take a brief look at some of the incredible aircraft and space vehicles housed within. It is the Smithsonian’s most popular museum, and even with our concise visit, we were able to see why – the germ and power of discovery is inherent, and it doesn’t hurt that the museum holds an IMAX theatre, and some of the most visually astounding displays we had seen yet.
National Air and Space Museum
This section was closed, as staff were setting up for a private function – how cool would that be?!
We had broken our “one museum per day” rule, and paid the price. We took a break on one of the many benches along the Mall, and thought seriously about not partaking in the walking tour we had planned on joining. We both knew, however, that guided tours by locals provided some of the best insights into the city, and so we picked ourselves up and somehow managed to get to the site of the DC By Foot on time.
DC by Foot
The tours are led by eager volunteers and are free of charge, but tipping is encouraged. Our tour guide was a retired teacher who, based on his demeanour, really missed teaching. He was a little overenthusiastic in the beginning, but thankfully, mellowed out by the end, and was a great source of enlightening and humorous information.
On the tour (one of Mack’s favourite pictures captured on the trip)
The two hour tour led us to the monuments and memorials we had already seen and photographed on our second day, but was one of my highlights of the entire trip, as it furthered my appreciation for the city, and provided a lot of helpful context. I highly recommend taking the tour, preferably near the beginning of your visit to DC.
Washington Memorial at dusk
At the Lincoln Memorial (thank goodness for sneakers…)
We ended the tour at the Lincoln Memorial, and decided to wait out the darkness to see the Washington Monument and Lincoln and the Korean War Veterans Memorials in their full night glory. The latter was particularly haunting, with the semi-lit gaze of one soldier always aimed at the viewer.
Washington Monument and Capitol at night
Lincoln Memorial at night (loved how he was illuminated)
Lincoln up close
In dire need of dinner, we asked the tour guide for a restaurant recommendation. He took one look at our “youthful” selves said we should head to Georgetown, site of “hip” establishments, and said the walk was about 1 mile. We believed him, and set out for Georgetown. Though we may or may not have taken a wrong turn, when we realized the distance between us and the twinkling lights of the “hip” waterfront eateries was much further than we were prepared to go, we knew limping to the Safeway in the Watergate complex would be the more realistic option for food.
Along the water
Sandwich and Stouffer’s FTW!
Absolutely exhausted, we retired early to gear up for our last full day in DC.
You can read Mack’s Day 4 recap here.