I’ve been curious about DC for a long time. As a resident in Canada, I have watched our southern neighbour my entire life from its TV shows and movies to its politics, literature and music. It was time to visit and experience it first hand.
Washington, D.C. (pop. 720,000) is the capital of the United States and is steeped in rich history. Washington, DC is not considered a “state”; it is a “district” and is not included as one of the 50 United States. DC has been the capital of the USA since November 1790. It is home to iconic landmarks such as the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument.
Things to see in DC
The Washington monument, in particular, is very imposing and impressive – you can see it from most parts of the city. We visited the Washington Monument and Lincoln memorial at night with all the lights against the darkening sky.
The “Mall” in Washington, D.C. refers to the National Mall, which is a significant historical and cultural area in the heart of the city. It is a large, open park-like space that stretches for about 3 km from the U.S. Capitol Building on the east to the Lincoln Memorial on the west. The great thing about it is that many of the iconic Smithsonian museums are located along the mall. You could spend an entire week in the area!
The Lincoln Memorial, at the far west end of the mall, was erected in 1922 to honour the 16th president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in the Ford’s Theatre in 1865. The monument is very impressive and has been the site of many notable addresses over the decades – including Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream. . . ” speech given in 1963.
At the heart of the memorial is the magnificent seated figure of Lincoln, designed by artist Daniel Chester French. Standing at an impressive height of 19 feet, the sculpture portrays Lincoln in a state of deep contemplation, his gaze directed towards the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument. Standing below it, you would swear Mr Lincoln is looking right at you!
Inside the memorial, the north and south walls contain inscriptions of two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches: the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. It all feels very inspiring and reverential.
Washington, DC is home to 17 different Smithsonian Museums and Art Galleries. You pretty much have to pick two or three of them to explore if you are there for a weekend. Even so, I don’t think we even scratched the surface! We chose to go to the most popular ones: The National Air & Space Museum (for which you need to get a timed entry ticket), and The National Museum of Natural History (think: dinosaurs, Neanderthal skeletons and lots of extinction events!)
The Air & Space museum has an extensive collection of aircraft, spacecraft, rockets, satellites and all associated paraphernalia. Some of our favourite exhibits included the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, and the Hubble Space Telescope.
I thought it was fun to see the spacesuits that the astronauts wore and explore the logistical issues of eating, drinking and eliminating in outer space! There was also a great planetarium there and we enjoyed two different features exploring the cosmos.
Also on the National Mall is a beautiful Art Sculpture Garden located next to the National Gallery of Art’s west Building. The garden is a delightful outdoor space that features a collection of contemporary sculptures and a central dancing fountain. The Sculpture Garden is surrounded by immaculate landscaped grounds, walking paths, lush lawns, and seasonal plantings.
After our first 10,000 steps it was refreshing to be able to wander through the gardens and relax on a bench by the fountain.
The White House was another must-see. People told us it looks smaller than you expect. I thought it was exactly how I pictured it – stately, regal, and of course, WHITE. The grounds are immaculately manicured and the fountain gives it a perfect charm. The house is surrounded by a wrought iron fence but there were no secret service men anywhere! We didn’t tour the inside – I feel we are pretty familiar with the White House thanks to “Designated Survivor” although it might have been nice to have tea with President Biden. Maybe next time.
Live Theatre in DC!
We were fortunate to attend one of the last performances of the musical “Shout, Sister, Shout” at the Ford’s Theatre. The show was fabulous! In the basement of the theatre is a museum dedicated to telling the story of Abram Lincoln and his assassination on April 14, 1865. The president, his wife Mary, and Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée were present in the Presidential Box (a balcony to the right of the stage). John Wilkes Booth entered during the final act of the play, “OUR AMERICAN COUSIN” and shot the president in the back of the head. He subsequently leapt onto the stage shouting a victory cry in Latin – “Sic semper tyrannis!” which means “Thus always to tyrants!” The president succumbed to his injuries the next morning.
Booth, a Confederate sympathizer and actor, evaded capture for nearly two weeks. He was eventually tracked down and killed by Union soldiers on April 26, 1865, in a tobacco barn in Virginia. Ford’s Theatre was shuttered up for many years. At one time it was converted into a government office building. Finally, in 1968, the Ford’s Theatre was restored and opened as a working performance space once again.
Where to stay in DC?
There are a lot of great choices for accommodation in DC. We stayed in the Riggs Hotel located right downtown on F Street. This historic building was originally the Riggs National Bank dating back to 1891. It was extensively renovated and transformed into a luxury hotel that opened in 2020. Many of the original architectural features were preserved and you will even find a cabinet in your room designed to look like bank safe.
Where to eat in DC?
You can get just about anything you’d like to eat in DC. We actually dined at our first Michelin Star Restaurant here – Washington, DC has 23 of them. (Stay tuned for a review of our Michelin Star experience.)
As for the restaurants meant for us mere mortals, I would say that in DC the portions were generous and the food was good, if not great. We did find a nice spot to grab pastry and cappuccino in the mornings. We had some tasty seafood and some sushi that was overpriced. One thing we found lacking in most restaurants was service. It just wasn’t as attentive as we have been accustomed to and very slow. Obviously, there is a lot more to discover in DC dining. Perhaps next time.
Art Galleries in DC
Goodness, you could spend a month exploring the many art galleries and art museums that DC has to offer. The National Portrait Gallery was right next to our hotel and was interesting to explore.
On our last day we headed back to The National Mall to visit the Hirshhorn Museum.
The Hirshhorn Museum was officially opened to the public in 1974. Its unique cylindrical building is one of the most distinctive architectural landmarks in the city. The museum’s collection focuses on modern and contemporary art including painting, sculpture, photography, video, and new media. It comprises approximately 12,000 artworks from the late 19th century to the present day. Notable artists represented in the collection include Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Yayoi Kusama, among many others.
We recognized the work of Yayoi Kusama (now 94 yrs) as we had previous visited the Japanese Art Island of Naoshima. One of her distinctive yellow pumpkins is located outside the ferry terminal there. Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms are immersive installations that create the illusion of infinite space through mirrors and the repetition of various objects or light sources – and she loves polkadots!
One thing that we didn’t find a lot of in DC was live music. We wandered into a place called “Howl at The Moon” (which spoke to us as we have a favourite song by Cheryl Wheeler with the same name). This club was huge – young people everywhere. There were two pianos and a drum kit on the stage. When we walked in there were 5 musicians on stage doing cover songs. Each request needed to be accompanied by a $10 bill and tossed into a giant fish bowl. The musicians took turns at performing the requests. The price for request went up from $2 to $10 while we were there for less than an hour. I had a feeling it would soon be $20/song. The din was unbelievable, so we hi-tailed it out of there after we finished our drinks.
All in all, we spent 4 days in the American capital. I can see that it is always changing and there is so much more to explore. If you are looking for a long weekend getaway and you can get there directly – DC is definitely worth a visit!
Here are links to some of our favourite cities to explore: