A monumental Saturday in DC

There’s so much to see in DC that a couple of days isn’t enough, especially if you’re quick to museum fatigue like us.

After breakfast we hot-footed it down the road to the Washington Monument with the intent of walking around the tidal basin to the Thomas Jefferson memorial. After walking for a while, we weren’t getting very far very fast but a hop-on/hop-off tour bus came along and we bought a ticket.

This ended up being one of the best things to do, and something Pete and Royden say they do when they go to a new city. Really helped us get around a lot quicker and see more of the city. If we’d done it all by foot, I don’t think we would have seen anywhere near as much.

We got out at the Jefferson Monument and checked that out, our brains instantly replaying the scene in the Simpsons where Lisa sees the Jefferson Monument because the Lincoln Memorial is too busy.

This is also where there are a lot of cherry blossom trees. It would be quite something to see them in bloom in April/May. We couldn’t help but laugh and shake our heads when the audio on the bus tour said the cherry blossoms were a gift from Japan in 1912 as a symbol of enduring friendship. No mention of the war or the atomic bombs.

Next stop was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr memorial. Both of these memorials, more so than the others, made me a bit sad because of the disparity between what the US is “meant” to be about and the reality.

If you read what was on the walls of the FDR memorial alone, you’d think that the US was a great country where everyone is treated equal and has equal rights, where the poorest is given a helping hand and it’s all wonderful. Hard to swallow when earlier than morning we’d walked past a park that was filled with homeless people, all African-American. Such a shock to see poverty so close to you.

After these sobering memorials, we got back on the bus, this time with a fun tour guide. We sat on the top deck (open-air…brrrr) where he was and he came over and chatted. Great guide. The bus does a pretty big loop around downtown DC.

We went past most of the Smithsonian museums as well as the national archives, the federal reserve and department of justice buildings. We also went past Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot, and the very ugly FBI building.

We hopped off near a burger joint called Ollie’s Trolley and had a bite to eat for lunch, before setting off towards Capitol Hill. It started to spit along the way so we detoured into the National Archives.

Here is where the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the four-pages of the American Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are held and displayed. They’re displayed in the Rotunda, inside specially designed cases that have titanium frames and are filled with inert argon gas. These cases (and their development) cost $5 million. There are three or four police on duty in the rotunda at all times. These three documents are treated like relics of saints or like the crown jewels. In fact, I’d say they’re religious icons.

I checked out the public vaults while Glen went downstairs and looked in the shop. The exhibitions in the public vaults are an ode to record-keeping. They highlight the importance of keeping records and the many different types there are. There was also a section about presidential libraries that I found interesting, mostly because it finally explained what presidential libraries are. Originally, I used to think they were setup by the ex-president as some sort of ego boost but they’re actually official archives of that president’s life. Fascinating.

Afterwards we continued our journey up to Capitol Hill, which reminds me of the Italian parliament building (the Wedding Cake). It’s an impressive building, temple-like, almost like a basilica. From there we went to the botanical gardens and looked around the different galleries. Quite a lot of the fruit trees were laden with fruit.

When we got outside again, it started to rain. Luckily there was a bus waiting so we jumped on that and went down the road, hearing about some more of the Smithsonian museums (there are 19 in total), before getting off at the Washington Monument and walking up to the Smithsonian American History Museum.

All of the Smithsonian Museums are free, which is wonderful because you don’t feel like you’ve missed out if you only spend a short amount of time inside. We only saw two exhibits in the American History Museum: the star-spangled banner and Julia Child’s kitchen.

Another relic, the star-spangled banner is the star-spangled banner (13 stars and 13 stripes) that inspired the poem that later became the American anthem. The flag is huge, it’s really something to see. I guess it needed to be that big as it once flew from the top of a fort and had to be seen for some distance.

We saw Julia Child’s kitchen because it was featured in the film Julie and Julia. It’s a kitchen, interesting because it’s hers and also because it was built around the time when kitchens were starting to become fetishised. Pots and pans and machines and cooking benchtops, all these things that were beginning to appear in women’s magazines as something every woman had to have. Commercialism through-and-through and Julia Child’s was right there with it, one of (if not the) original TV chefs. Strangely though, I’d never heard of her until the movie came out.

We were truly beat by that stage, our legs and feet incredibly sore. There are still so many museums to see in DC, and not just the Smithsonian ones, that a return visit will be called for.

I think Glen has sworn off museums for a while so I might have to come back by myself. Though I’m sure I’d get museum fatigue pretty quickly. If every museum had a “highlights” or “hidden gems” tour/itinerary I’d do that. The Art Institute in Chicago had one and it was marvellous. We saw everything we “needed” to in about 45 minutes.

We returned to the hotel and had a nap for a couple of hours before walking uptown to meet Manny at El Centro. Manny is a friend of a friend and the friend put us in touch. Not only did we get to meet a local but we also got to try a few places we otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. If we hadn’t met Manny, we probably wouldn’t have gone north of our hotel.

So we met at El Centro for happy hour, drinking a few tequila-based cocktails, then going to a Latino-Japanese fusion restaurant. More drinks and tapas-style food that I thought was really delicious. An interesting seaweed salad (not like the radioactive green one, which I also like), deep-fried okra (which Glen wouldn’t touch), baby octopus, calamari, crispy shrimp, edamame and a couple of other things.

After dinner we then headed to a speakeasy bar (nothing to indicate it’s there from the front, just a door in a wall) but they were full so we went to a Greek place instead for another round of drinks. Glen didn’t partake and I could only drink half of mine as the room was starting to spin. I’m not used to drinking. Sadly, by 10-ish we were a bit beat and had to call it a night.

But it was a great night. Manny was friendly and interesting, works for the government (like most people in DC) and has a penchant for cocktails. He invited us to his place on Sunday afternoon to meet a few friends before our flight home and then he walked us back to our hotel. A great way to spend an evening in DC.

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