Day 3 in DC: Capitol Adventures

While we found most of DC to be accessible regardless of home country, the reality is that arranging tours of two of the most high-profile attractions are easier as a US citizen. We did our best to try “back channels” to obtain a White House tour, but without a Congressional or Senate representative to turn to, we were out of luck. The same was true for advanced tour tickets to the Capitol Building.


As a result, directed by our fallback advice from the guidebooks that recommended waiting in line an hour and a half before the Visitor Centre’s 8:30am opening, we arrived at the nearly empty grounds of the Capitol at 7:30. Unlike the Washington Monument, however, not only did the Capitol website not provide any details as to when and where to line-up, it also did not have any visual placards or signs positioned at the centre to orient tourists. We approached one of the security officers, who directed us to the west entrance of the centre, but as not a single person was around, we doubted his instructions.

Site of our waiting game

At about 8, the east side of the centre (each end was equipped with their own security checkpoint) started to draw a crowd, but it turned out that those individuals had already been granted tickets for a specific timed tour. Reassuringly though, at around 8:15, schoolchildren started to arrive in herds, and dutifully joined the line behind us.

While we waited for the doors to open, we watched curiously as one of the security guards methodically combed the grasses by the stairs, every 10 minutes or so. The motive behind his actions was explained when he pulled out a water bottle and a pack of snacks, sneakily stashed there by one of the teachers supervising a group of youth (food and drink, including water bottles, are not allowed inside the building). The guard immediately directed the gentleman to dispose of the goods. One would almost think the greenery isn’t worth planting for the temptation it allows.

When the doors opened, we passed through the security check, and down a set of stairs into chaos. Blinded by the dozens of brightly colored t-shirts worn by school groups (to allow for easy identification and round-up), there was again a lack of signage to direct those without tours arranged in advance. We eventually found our way to a line on the west side of the building, and were told that any tickets uncalled for would be distributed on a first come, first served basis. It turned out I owed an apology to the external guard, and after another half hour of patience, we were awarded with tickets to the 9am tour.

Lady Liberty (the statue atop the dome)

The Capitol tour started with a 13 minute film titled “Out of Many, One”, which, although sounded cheesy and unnecessary at the outset, was a reasonably well-produced film that provided a good introduction to both Congress and the building itself.

Film completed, we were ushered by an enthusiastic, trivia-minded guide through select hallways of the Capitol. Apparently tours are shorter in the spring and summer due to the higher demand, but we didn’t notice. Highlights included: finding out that each state has two statues of prominent figures in the Capitol (and if we had a home state, we would have been craning our necks to find them too); the “whispering room” where words spoken were “magically” amplified (similar to the “waterfall” spot in the Alberta Legislature); and seeing the artwork underneath the great dome, and the surrounding pieces lining the room directly underneath. While it wasn’t as awe-inspiring as the Vatican, it was neat to be able to tour such a prominent landmark.

Room beneath the great dome

Great dome

The guide encouraged us to take advantage of the fact that both the House and the Senate were in session that day, and obtain passes to enter the galleries. This was one area where international visitors had an advantage over domestic visitors – all we had to do was request the passes directly from the respective desks located in the same building, while domestic visitors had to travel to their state representative’s office contained in a separate facility across the street.


We ended up at the House Gallery. Sadly, the number of tourists in the Gallery outnumbered the politicians on the floor – the credit card regulation bill was up for discussion, and only three members, staff, and guests were present. We stayed only long enough to watch the acting speaker likely put in his lunch order with numerous aides, then headed to look at the newly renovated Capitol exhibit. Because we had the benefit of a verbal tour, most of the displays were superfluous by that point, but for those unable to obtain tickets, would have provided good background on the history and politics of the building.

Before lunch, we quickly explored both the Library of Congress and Supreme Court buildings, located just across the street. The Library was unexpectedly stunning, with several notable exhibits, including a recreation of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. Mack thought the Library’s “virtual passport” program was pretty innovative, allowing visitors to create an account and access files they have “downloaded” at home.

Inside the Library of Congress

Unfortunately, we had just missed a guided tour of the Supreme Court, meaning that we were not able to see inside the courtroom itself. That would have been the only area of interest, as the exhibit in the basement was unimpressive.

A model of the courtroom

For lunch, we consulted my food map and jointly decided that we wanted to venture off the tourist path to Jimmy T’s Place. The walk to the restaurant was nice, shaded and quiet, and punctuated with charming storefronts and houses.

So charming!

Our next stop was the Newseum, something Mack had been looking forward to for some time. Next to the museum, on cushy Pennsylvania Avenue, was the Canadian Embassy. It looked great on the outside, with grand stone columns, but inside, all we had access to was an underwhelming photo display and several maps detailing U.S.-Canadian trade.

Canadian Embassy in DC

We did notice a difference in patron make-up at the Newseum, primarily, we were sure, due to the $20 vs. free ticket price – a stark lack of children! The building was beautiful, which can be assessed from the outside – six levels with glass panels typically reserved only for office complexes. The natural light flooded the museum with optimism that matched the ideal of the endless possibilities of journalism.


Front pages of newspapers from all over the world

There was simply too much to see – exhibits detailing the history of the newspaper, media coverage of 9/11 (including a display of one of the fallen satellite towers from one of the World Trade Centre buildings), the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall (including a section of the wall itself), and the hunt for Lincoln’s killer. The Newseum was definitely built with a new generation in mind – there were countless interactive displays and computer screens all over.

Section of the Berlin Wall

9/11 exhibit

Newseum balcony (Capitol in the background)

Mack particularly liked the photo exhibit capturing both amateur and professional shots of President Obama, in the campaign and in his first days in office, and I was drawn to the Pulitzer Prize exhibit, showcasing photos that have won the prestigious prize since its inception.

President Obama photo exhibit

Pulitzer Prize exhibit

We left the museum at closing time in dire need of rest. Like a marathon, we probably should have built up our walking stamina prior to the trip – between the early mornings and countless miles, we were exhausted. We recuperated at Starbucks (where I saw this amusing sign – why not have a “customer of the month”?).

Ready to tackle the last leg of the day, we took the Metro back to Foggy Bottom with the intention of visiting the supermarket to pick up goods for breakfast, but even better, had unintentionally timed our trip to coincide with the weekly FRESHFARM Market at Foggy Bottom!

I wrote about how great the “neighbourhood” farmers’ market is a few weeks ago, but I’m still entranced by the idea of a small, but varied number of vendors, gathering together on a weekly basis in a strategic, high-traffic location. In this particular instance, the market was in a small park just behind a Metro stop, next to a hospital, on the greater George Washington University Campus, and surrounded by walk-ups. How great would it be to be able to pick up needed groceries, on the way home from work, directly from producers without having to make a weekend trip to a market potentially far from home?

Browsing at the market

We marveled at the array of spring produce (remember, it was still snowing in Edmonton when we left), including strawberries and asparagus, and toured the other vendors that included a baker, bison and chicken farmers, and a Mexican food stand.

The best thing about FRESHFARM Markets (they operate several within the DC area), is that in each location, they support a non-profit agency in that neighbourhood – in Foggy Bottom’s case, it is Miriam’s Kitchen, an agency that provides homemade meals to homeless men and women.

We couldn’t resist picking up some strawberries (they were unbelievably ripe) and a lavender teacake to share for breakfast the next day.

Our market purchases

After dropping off our market goodies at the hotel, we headed by foot to our dinner reservation that night – Founding Farmers (with a name like that, how could we resist?).

We ended off the night continuing to push our pedestrian boundaries by walking over to the Watergate complex and The Kennedy Centre.

With all of the spin-off “Watergate” terms now ubiquitous to describe various scandals – political and pop culture alike, and all the infamy associated with the site of Nixon’s downfall – the seemingly everyday, concrete-toothed complex was remarkably unremarkable.


The photo actually captures one of the apartment buildings – we only realized later that the break-in happened in the office building within the complex

Next door was the stunning Kennedy Centre. It was built to honour John F. Kennedy, and is, in fact, a “living memorial”. As he was a great supporter of the arts, the Kennedy Centre hosts free concerts every night, which are open to the public.

Plane over the Kennedy Centre

It is a building meant to be seen at night, the gold-tone columns illuminated, and the portico offering a romantic stroll along the serene Potomac.

Kennedy Centre

Mack and me

The interior was a sight to see as well (with some additional TV glee as well – the Kennedy Centre was the setting for part of an episode of The West Wing). Between the lush, regal red carpets, forever ceiling and crystal chandeliers, it is definitely a performance hall fit to pay tribute to a fallen President of the United States.

Kennedy Centre interior

We returned to our hotel, utterly spent. Thankfully, the following day allowed for a slightly later start – almost enough time for our feet to forgive us.

You can read Mack’s Day 3 recap here.