Day 4 in DC: Brush with Barack

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.

Road blockade

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…).

Dinosaur Hall

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.

 Union Station

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.

Teriyaki Chicken

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!

Vice-Vice President?

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 Memorial

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.

Day 2 in DC: Conquering the Mall

We followed up our early departure with our earliest start on our weeklong itinerary (if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a planner – perhaps too much so, but it’s hard to fight the tendencies). We managed on our second day to see all the Mall had to offer, and though the distance between some of the monuments and memorials were shorter than I was led to believe, the cumulative amount of walking we did that day was extreme – I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Until I started researching the attractions, I had no idea that you could physically enter the Washington Monument and take an elevator ride to the top – I really thought it was just something to admire from the outside. Much like many of the other tours in DC, however, tickets had to be obtained to partake in the tour. My one failing in planning this trip was starting too late – by that time, all of the advanced tickets available for our time period had been snapped up, which left us with one option – queuing for day-of tickets.

Guidebooks stressed the need to begin lining up as early as 7am in peak season to ensure a ticket. While we didn’t make it for 7, we were pretty darn close, and reached the Monument ticket office at quarter after. Though Mack was unconvinced that there would be other “crazy tourists”, there were about a dozen people ahead of us in line.

At the Monument!

It was a decidedly cool morning, but in hindsight, a nice reprieve from the humid afternoons that were to come. As the ticket office wouldn’t open until 8:30am, Mack had time to search for a Starbucks, using his handy Blackberry Google Maps application, and with the breakfast he brought back, made our wait a little more leisurely.

Mack on the Berry (photo #1)

When tickets started to flow, we were fortunate enough to snag passes for the very first tour that day at 9am. We explored the base of the monument before the tour, and from that vantage point, glimpsed two other attractions we would see later – the Lincoln Memorial and the White House.

Mack at the Monument

Yes, it was pretty cool to the touch

We joined our second line up that day when we saw that a line to enter the monument had formed. The affable security guard kept us entertained while we watched the Park Rangers set up shop for the day. We were glad we had the foresight to head to the line early, as the school groups started arriving – in hoards. These groups – hundreds of school children together – would converse en masse at all of the tourist attractions we would visit over the next few days. It’s definitely a hazard of visiting during the end of the school year, and worth avoiding if you’re planning a trip to DC.

Just after 9, we were waved through the doors, a security check, and eventually, ushered into the elevator. The fast-talking, good humoured Park Ranger that led us up was a fantastic guide, and helped make the Washington Monument one of our most memorable moments during our trip. He explained a bit of the history, teased us about looking down, and prepared us for the view we were about to take in. Although the viewing level wasn’t open-air, it was a great way to get visually oriented to the layout of the Mall so early on in our trip.

White House

Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial

World War II Memorial, Reflecting Pool, and the Lincoln Memorial

It got even better on the elevator ride back to ground level – partway down, the Ranger slowed the elevator down, shut off the lights, and through the windows pointed out the different stones embedded in the monument that had been contributed by states and countries (he was bitter that his home state of California only had one stone included, versus New York’s three).

Next up was the World War II Memorial. While it was visually appealing, it was the least striking of the war memorials to me. I found out later that it was built around the already-existing fountain, which made me appreciate it more for the DC mentality of confluence.

World War II Memorial

Detail underneath the Pacific column

Past the Reflecting Pool, was the Lincoln Memorial, my absolute favourite.

Reflecting Pool with Lincoln Memorial in the background

The Lincoln Memorial is definitely meant to be seen in person – photos can’t capture the absolute scale and magnificence of the statue, his solemn and wise gaze staring out into the distance. I love the idea of Lincoln forever watching over Washington (as well as some of the most significant events in US history – with protests at his doorstep), and the union he helped create. I have to admit I didn’t know much about Lincoln until after this trip, where we came across several exhibits dedicated to his life.

Mack at the Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial!

The spot where Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I have a dream” speech.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial was one I had read about somewhat – with the number of statues and their reflections in the cool stone wall adding up to 38 – the parallel that divides North and South Korea. I didn’t think statues of life-size men could make a strong impression, but I was wrong – their distinct eyes and troubled expressions were hauntingly memorable. We learned later that the Korean Ambassador to the U.S. lays a fresh wreath to commemorate the war every Monday – without pomp and ceremony, but with constant remembrance.

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Our last stop before lunch was the Vietnam War Memorial. Even though I had seen photos, I didn’t realize until I saw it in person that it was cut into the ground. The names of the fallen, which overwhelm the viewer in relentless numbers as you walk past the panels, made every bit the impact I expected. The Parks Department added a name to the memorial this year, making the total 58,261.

Vietnam War Memorial (objects left at the base are collected daily and kept by the National Parks Service)

Cut into the ground (to signify the scar it left on the country)

We wandered away from the Mall and towards the cluster of office buildings, in the hopes of finding a dine-in restaurant favoured by those who worked in the area. While we were consulting our map, a lady asked us if we needed help, and when we expressed the need for a place to eat (not wanting to resort to a food court), she actually thanked us for not eating in food courts! I realized we were near Teaism, a local chain that specialized in tea and Japanese food, and headed there for some subsistence.

Satisfied with our meal, we headed back in the direction of the Mall and decided to check out the Old Post Office. We had been told the view from the tower was spectacular, and that it was a good alternative to the Washington Monument. We waited in line for about 15 minutes, and eventually made our way to the top.


Inside the Old Post Office

One view from the Old Post Office (J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building and Capitol)

Unlike the Washington Monument, the viewing deck was refreshingly open air, although steel cables barred the windows. But both Mack and I agreed that the experience wasn’t as noteworthy – or breathtaking – as the one we shared that morning.

Our first of many museum visits followed. The American Museum of National History (one of 19 Smithsonian Museums) was first up. All Smithsonian Museums (like all of the national attractions we were visiting) were free of charge, which meant the bulk of our expenses on the trip was food – a stark difference from our New York getaway two years ago.

In hindsight, we shouldn’t have made such an effort to tour every corner of the museum, as our tolerance for exhibits lowered as the week went on, but it was amazing to see the breadth of the collection. Highlights for me included Carrie Bradshaw’s laptop and C3P0 (both in the lobby of all places), the flag that inspired the “Star Spangled Banner”, and exhibit that explored Lincoln’s life and death. Mack really liked the photography exhibit of President Obama’s inauguration.

“I couldn’t help but wonder…”

Mack and C3P0


Not the flag that inspired Francis Scott Keyes, but it’s pretty darn neat

The teacup that Lincoln used before he was shot (I was fascinated with the mundane objects that become historical upon the unthinkable happening)

Mack would make a grouchy Lincoln

We had a bit of time to kill before our dinner reservation that night, so spent it resting up and doing some Mall watching (jogging has to be the official sport of DC). Once our feet had forgiven us, we hopped on the Metro, and walked a little around Chinatown before heading to Proof.

Chinatown Gate (it was a little decrepit, actually)

For whatever reason, all of the signs in Chinatown were bilingual…does DC have a Chinese population large enough to warrant such measures?

You can read Mack’s day 2 recap here.