At long last, the Privilege[d] Guide To Washington, D.C. Everything in one place, for your future reference. Especially tailored for those who have 2-3 days, and a couple of boy children in tow. Gender-typing, I know, but for those two, it’s appropriate. I’ve marked the stuff I actually did with an asterisk but included as well all the recommendations from our wonderful Privilege[d] crew. Thank you all.
The Strategic View
Here’s the high-level assessment. D.C. is one of the easiest places to enjoy I’ve ever experienced. All those things you’ve heard about – especially if you’re an American – The White House, Smithsonian, Vietnam War Memorial – turn out to be not too big, easy on the eyes, conveniently located, and mostly free for visitors. You can spend two days in and around the central park, known as The Mall, and see 80% of everything you vowed you wouldn’t miss.
Do a little research, and you can even come up with a trip customized to your own specific interests, within the framework of Brand Name Artifacts, and Your Birthright, and 8th Grade History. And, if you’ve got ancestors involved in any of the 8th grade history, you can find their ephemera, one way or another. Do even more research, venture out and about a bit, and you could spend 4-5 days here very, very happily.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the St. Regis, 16th Street and K Street NW. It is a couple of blocks away from the White House, meaning it is also a couple of blocks from The Aforementioned Mall. You can read my full review here. My best friend, however, stayed in a short-term apartment rental. Turns out that D.C., because of all those people who must visit their senators, has a great store of short-term apartments at reasonable prices. What do I mean by reasonable? Something like $250/night for two bedrooms and a kitchen. My friend stayed in Foggy Bottom, at 1255 25th Street, NW. Right around the corner from the Westin. Quite swank. You can check this website for other options.
Inasmuch as my trip involved the aforementioned two boys, we weren’t going to do a lot of ground-breaking food tasting. I ate breakfast every day in my hotel. Day One we chose Chipotle in Georgetown for a chain restaurant burrito lunch. Day Two, we ate in not one, but two food courts, one underneath the Ronald Reagan building, on Pennsylvania Avenue, one at Union Station. They were both perfectly nice food courts. Union Station is far more picturesque.
I loathe food courts, by the way, but I love the aforementioned two boys.
For our one night out, we ate at the Sichuan Pavilion, downtown, having been advised that Californians would not appreciated the D.C. version of Chinese food. Very high-quality, mostly Americanized, but carefully. Nicely decorated restaurant with good service, and prices were not overly inflated. I’d go back.
Other restaurants recommended by the Privilege[d] include:
- Sonoma on Pennsylvania Avenue (near Capitol Hill)
- Cafe Atlantico, Zaytinya – any Jose Andres restaurant in DC, really.
- The White Tiger, a cheap-and-cheerful option within walking distance if you want to make a night of it.
- Dinner at Old Ebbitt.
- Lunch at the East Wing dining room in the National Gallery is a pleasure (you’ll need to make reservations).
- Ethiopian restaurants on U Street, in the area apparently known as “Little Addis.” (Ask around for specifics, your concierge, or your cab driver. Everyone has a different favorite.)
- “For extra credit, try afternoon tea at Teasism.”
- “The restaurant adjacent to Mount Vernon is quite a nice place to have lunch also.”
- “A walk around Georgetown and a stop in at Clyde’s for lunch would be nice.”
Drinking (apparently its own activity in D.C. I credit the aforementioned people visiting senators)
I did not manage to get out for drinks, as you can imagine. Here are the Privilege[d] recommendations, should you keep more adult company.
- “Head over to the W Hotel and head up to the POV rooftop deck for drinks and the best view of the mall in town.”
- “Also – drinks at the Round Robin at the Willard and Off The Record at the Hay Adams – both are classics.”
- “Great Iced Tea at the Four Seasons in Georgetown.”
I was in D.C. for very early spring. Like all East Coast cities, it’s probably gorgeous in the fall, hot and humid in the summer, too cold for long walks in the winter, and beautiful for that one elusive week they are going to call Spring and be done. The thing about D.C. is that there are cherry trees planted up and down the aforesaid Mall, and they bloom in the Spring. Come time to plan your visit, Google cherry blossom predictions, and they will tell you when the elusive white flutter is expected. On the other hand, crowds are few in the less biologically-gifted times.
There are at least three hop on, hop off tours of the city, two on buses, one on trolley cars. Buy tickets at various hotels, and at Union Station. They cost $35 apiece, but when you’ve got kids along, nothing halts a whine session better than a nice sitdown on the top of a double decker something with wheels. Advice from the Privilege[d] includes:
- “I don’t recommend trying to drive around the National Mall and Arlington Cemetery if you don’t know your way, taking metro is a lot less trouble. The traffic around here is horrible.”
- “For heavens sake – STAND TO THE RIGHT on the escalators and when you buy a farecard put plenty of fare on it. The lines of confused tourists waiting to buy fare can get long at the stations near the Mall.”
- “Try not to be riding the trains during peak rush hour (unless you want to, of course; in the evening rush, they are most crowded circa 4:30pm–6:30pm, with rush hour extending from 3pm-7pm), because it can get exceedingly crowded both in the trains and on the platforms due to the large Federal workforce leaving offices and going home for the day. “
- “A good thing to do is the Monuments by Moonlight tour.” (Note that this, a bus tour of the monuments, lit up, at night, does not run in the winter. Or even early spring.)
We did it this way. Day One, buy tickets for bus tour, figure out we bought the wrong ones, dither, buy the right ones, go around the city, get off at the Lincoln Memorial, walk up the Mall, go to the museums, back to the apartment, out to dinner. Day Two, better prepared, walk from the St. Regis to the White House, then up Pennsylvania Avenue stopping only to feed boys, take the Metro the last bit, see the Capitol Building from the outside, take a Library of Congress tour, see the Supreme Court, take the hop on bus to Union Station, eat more, think about taking a tour to Mt. Vernon, decide it’s too late, get back on hop on, drove around a little more, go back to my friend’s apartment, call it a day.
Without boys, and without a best friend whom one sees once per year, more sights, or shopping, could easily have been added into both days. As it was, the series of events were perfect for our circumstances.
If you look at a map of D.C., you will see the Lincoln Memorial , the Vietnam Memorial and the Washington Monument, all in one line. Arlington Cemetery lies just over the Potomac, to the west. Did the river not run just there, Arlington might even be part of the long, green, Mall. Otherwise stated, it’s pretty much all in the same place. My friend took a cab to the cemetery the day before I arrived, so that I didn’t see. I will, when I return. My impressions of the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, and the Washington Monument, are here. An abridged version? The Lincoln Memorial, with its plaque for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and the Vietnam Memorial, are why one goes to D.C. for the first time. They aren’t large dead piles of stone, as I had feared. So yes, see them. Maybe even see them first.
And the Privilege[d] added:
“The boys might really like the Korean War Memorial since it is spookily like you are overtaking a hill yourself within the soldier statues. It was too eerie for me (with a son-in-law in combat).”
Something I didn’t know. There’s no one place that’s The Smithsonian. As the Privilege[d] pointed out: “The Smithsonian museums (and they are many, but most people are thinking of the castle building when they think “Smithsonian”) are the result of Smithson’s grand bequest to the United States. Most of the museums on the Mall are part of the Smithsonian collective (http://www.si.edu/).” That said, my friend and I visited:
- The National Museum of American History. I dragged the boys through our First Ladies’ Dresses. Attempt at your own risk. Next time I’d make a deal. You look at the dresses without complaining, I’ll drag my tail around the airplanes with you later. We discovered, serendipitously, that the museum has an absolutely fantastic Transportation exhibition, which uses actual buses and subway cars and automobiles to detail the history of transportation in America, and the degree to which our country was forged by our modes of getting ourselves and our stuff from place to place. Fascinating, for adults and kids alike., Oh, and you can see Julia Child’s kitchen in all its mid-century humility.
- The National Museum of Natural History. Turns out that boy children like the Hope Diamond. You know, anything that’s the biggest, they’re going to like.
- The National Air and Space Museum. Boys loved it. I sat on a bench and closed my eyes.
Privilege[d] recommendations we didn’t get to included:
- The National Gallery (by the way, my father was appalled, my mother surprised, that I didn’t see the National Gallery. My feeling is, I can see great art in many cities, I can’t see the bones of America’s Founding. Heretical, perhaps, but there you go. It’s also true that seeing art requires a great deal of my capacity, as I tend to get overturned and overwhelmed. The more sensible among you will feel quite otherwise.) And I quote, “For a more grown up experience, the National Gallery (both East and West) are divine, not just for the astonishing art on display, but the architecture of the buildings, too.” “The collection of Thomas Cole paintings. There’s a wonderful sequence of the stages of life there that I remember” “Homer, Moran, Turner), Sculpture Garden.”
- The Charles Lang Freer Gallery
” (http://www.asia.si.edu/) is my absolute favorite of the greater D.C. metro area museums. The Peacock Room is unique.”
- The Spy Museum, “Younger men would adore the Spy Museum. Expensive but interactive and educational.”
- The Newseum
We saw the White House, from the sidewalk. If you want a tour, go to your Senator’s website and request one. You will need to give them at least 3 weeks notice. The Capitol Building tours also require reservations. However, it’s pretty cool from the outside. The Library of Congress, just opposite the Capitol (how convenient is that?) consists of three buildings. The Jefferson is the most renowned. Just go. The ceiling paintings are phenomenal. And, while you can’t enter the main Reading Room unless you’ve made a formal request and gotten a badge, you can see its full fabulosity from the 2nd story balcony. You can just walk into the Supreme Court building, located right next to the Library of Congress. (See? Convenience is the American way!) The Privilege[d] recommend that you “sign up for the courtroom lecture – 30 min max, and check the Supreme Court schedule.” You can actually hear lawyers argue their cases.
For me, seeing the Supreme Court justices would be like the Oscar Red Carpet, only without the glam gowns and tuxes. Next time, I’m going to a session. The Privilege[d] added:
- “When you’re on Capitol Hill one block from the Capitol, there’s an intersection with the Supreme Court on one corner, the Library of Congress on the other corner, the Folger Shakespeare Library on the other corner, and Florida House stands on the other corner. This is a great place to flop in the middle of all that over-stimulation. Back in my day, we’d whip up a White House tour pass in a couple of hours, max. Ugh, to the new rules. Just pretend you’re from Florida, or your grandmother had a residence in Palm Beach, something witty.”
- The Mint/National Treasury (my friend’s husband took the boys to see the printing presses, the day I left.)
Hands down, you all recommended Mount Vernon most highly. We didn’t make it. Apparently by cab it would costs ~$75 each way, or one could drive, or one can take a tour that starts at Union Station. Next time. You all said: “I LOVE LOVE LOVE going to Mount Vernon. Take your friend and her boys there if you can. It’s quite the history lesson—and so well curated. We go there EVERY time we are in DC–and I dream about it in between times. The house itself is lovely, the gardens wonderful, the round barn spectacular. It’s all a great place to go.” “Our boys loved Mount Vernon—at ages 9 and 13. That was the first time we took them and we took them again a few years after that.”
Shopping and Wandering
My friend, her boys, and I, hopped off the bus in Georgetown. We ate at Chipotle. Then, as we passed Lush, my friend was overcome by the smell of soap. So we popped in, she bought gorgeous soaps and insisted on buying me some solid perfume called Lust. I did not protest. Such was our shopping. But you all recommended:
- “Walking around Georgetown is always nice. Some of the more unique shops are up Wisconsin Avenue around P St as well as Patisserie Poupon, a bakery I really like, also Cady’s Alley toward the waterfront. Old Town Alexandria is pretty too, beautiful historic neighborhood with some good restaurants and shops, and by the waterfront there’s the Torpedo Factory, which is a center for artists. Maybe visit Eastern Market on Capitol Hill on a weekend morning?”
One of the best hidden gems in the city is a Marc Chagall mosaic in Georgetown on the wall of a private garden. You can see it walking down the street if you know what you are looking for: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/dc/blogging/marc-chagall-garden-mural-mosaic-washington-dc-053548. It’s in the 28th street/Olive 29th Street location of Georgetown.”
- “A couple of others that may speak to you and your interests: Tiny Jewel Box (http://www.tinyjewelbox.com/) and Ann Hand (http://www.annhand.com/). Just for a bit of fun and comparison, since you enjoy writing about things bejeweled. Maybe purchase a souvenir?”
- “If you want to wander and window shop, check out 14th Street between U and Rhode Island on a Saturday or Sunday – lots of lovely little clothing, giftie, fun shops including PULP (great cards and gifts), Go Mama Go! and Miss Pixie’s furnishings and whatnot (www.misspixies.com). Nothing high end but very fun and funky.”
- “DC is as you know a city of two quite separate and unequal halves. If you feel like a walk head north from the White House up to Malcolm X Park (which is also called Meridian Hill Park) and then over to Mount Pleasant (east of 16th) or Columbia Heights (west of 16th) and check out the gentrification.”
Pre-Trip Ancestral Research
- “The National Archives [www.archives.gov] is a good source for historic documents.”
- “If you’re truly inclined to pursue some research in re your relatives, you might want to call and make an appointment beforehand at repositories you think have something to share with a private researcher. Many do require advance notice. “
If You Have Extra Time, Say The Privilege[d]
- “Go to Gallery Place for the Portrait (Katherine Graham and portraits of all the presidents) and American Art (O’Keefe, John Singer Sargent) Galleries.”
- “The U.S. Botanic Garden is a bit off the beaten path but near to many of the museums on the Mall (http://www.usbg.gov/exhibits.cfm) and a little different.”
- “I also would recommend the Folger Shakespeare Library (www.folger.edu) – you can only go to the Reading Room one day a year, but they have consistently interesting exhibits with tons of old stuff from their archives (and it’s right by the Library of Congress and my favorite, very erotic Neptune fountain) and a great wee gift shop. They also have a gorgeous little theatre (a replica of the Swan) where there will be live music this weekend.”
- The National Zoo (panda bears)
- The National Cathedral, “noonish organ recital.””lots of historical crypts – and a really wonderful rose/herb garden for wandering around in. A little off the beaten track but absolutely worth it – and you can have a cup of tea inside the visitor’s center if you need a wee breakie.”
- “A place that I haven’t visited but would like to is Hillwood Estate which was home to Marjorie Merriweather Post – http://www.hillwoodmuseum.org/. “
- “The National Museum of the American Indian is really interesting and you can do a quick pop in and out (there’s a lot in here) – it also has, hands down, the best food of all the museums.” (On the Mall)
- “Roosevelt, you’re right, he didn’t want a memorial and there is a small memorial at the corner on 9th and Penn.” “But about 15-20 years ago, the powers that be decided we needed an FDR Memorial – http://www.nps.gov/frde/index.htm – it’s essentially an island in the Potomac. Quite the opposite of what he wanted.” “I have to put in a good word for the FDR memorial here. It is breathtaking, and it highlights beautifully those achievements of his on which, whether we know it or not, we all depend, regardless of who we are, and which are now largely in danger of being dismantled.”
- “Theodore Roosevelt Island [administered by National Park Service] might be just the trick with those boys, it’s a great place to romp and cut loose, a little bit of woodland [88 acres] at the edge of the Potomac, in the middle of the hustle/bustle of the George Washington Parkway. You’ll have your walking shoes on anyway.”
- Dumbarton Oaks
- Dumbarton House
- Emily Post’s House
- National Museum of Health and Medicine (boys would like this–lots of military history involved in the history of medicine)
- DAR Museum, wonderful antiques displayed in rooms donated by each of the 13 Colonies
There. Everything in one place. If you like any quotation in particular, please go take a look at the comments on my original trip-planning posts to see who wrote what. Thank you all very much for your help. I’ll be, as California’s former governor said, back.