I’m a House of Cards fan and it seemed only fitting that I should make the pilgrimage to the nation’s capital with hopes of seeing Kevin Spacey driving around in a limo with a presidential motorcade. With recent visits to Boston and Philadelphia, I felt like I was missing the final element of the triad of the American revolution pivotal cities. Add that to the fact that almost forty years had passed since my last visit. I decided to catch up and see what was so exciting that would make Donald Trump and Hilary want to live in this city of monuments.
What does one do in Washington DC anyway? It turns out that there is a ridiculous number of museums to visit in the area; more than an average human can squeeze into even 2 weeks; I’m talking about world class museums that should cost a fortune to visit. Ironically enough though, almost all of them are free. You won’t get any deals on hotels or parking though. So leave your car behind and stay outside the city if you’re on a budget. Washington is actually pretty walk-able and the bike rickshaws can get you around pretty fast if you want to rest your legs and don’t want to sit in traffic.
The Smithsonian is one of the biggest draws in Washington DC. Named after James Smithson, who left his fortune for an “establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men”. Yeah….Whatever that means. It was the mid 1800s and after a few different “interpretations” of what Smithson really wanted by the nation’s leaders, The Smithsonian Institution was formed. The institute consists of nineteen museums, nine research centers, a zoo and is affiliated with 170 other museums. Nineteen museums is a lot, no matter how quickly you walk through them. Collectively they hold 138 million items. It’s doubtful anyone could visit all of them in one trip, so I suggest the second best option: visit the highlights, take pictures to keep everything straight and keep moving.
The National Gallery of Art is as impressive as the Louvre or Hermitage in my opinion and is much more up close and personal. When I visited, there were no lines to get in and no hordes of people pushing and shoving their way in front of the art headliners. Granted, there is no Mona Lisa or Venus De Milo, but there is a respectable Van Gogh collection, including one of Vincent’s most famous self-portraits. Rembrandt has a famous selfie there as well mixed in with some of his other works as well as his Dutch contemporaries. Ginevra Benci, sometimes referred to as The American Mona Lisa, is on permanent display. It is the only Da Vinci painting in America open to the public. In the next building there’s Picasso, Warhol, Matisse, and a smattering of splattering by Pollock.
A few minutes walk will get you to the Museum of Natural History. You’ll immediately recognize the interior from the movie “Night at the Museum- Battle of the Smithsonian”. There’s a giant de-gendered elephant in the foyer and an area that contains the skeletal remains of just about animal you can imagine. There’s a living aquarium, a reassembled neanderthal man, and a hodge-podge of random animals such as polar bears and lions. One of the biggest draws of this museum is the infamous Hope Diamond. This priceless jewel spins tirelessly in it’s illuminated box while tourists snap photos of it. There are lots of other colorful and unusual rock formations in the Gems and Minerals display including the Dom Pedro aquamarine, solid sheets of natural copper, and even meteorites.
Even those who are not big museum fans will likely love the Museum of American History with it’s famous pop culture exhibits. From George Washington’s uniform to Michelle Obama’s inaugural dress, America’s relatively short history is chronicled in this intuitive visit. You can see the original Muppets puppets, Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Lincoln’s stove pipe hat, The Star Spangled Banner, Edison’s light bulb and even the first teddy bear, named after Theodore Roosevelt. You’ll probably be amazed to learn that someone saved all these famous things you’ve always heard about.
The National Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited in the world and it’s collection is massive. From the beginnings of flight to modern space craft, you’ll find more than you can imagine could fit in this building. The Wright Brothers 1903 plane is on display so you can skip that trip you had planned to Kitty Hawk. Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis is on display as well as Apollo 11. The Bell X-1, the plane that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier with, is on display as well as the X-15, the fastest manned aircraft in the world. The Star Ship Enterprise model is on display and there’s real planetary explorers there as well, but let’s be honest… most people come just to touch the moon rock.
If you’d like to get some fresh air, one of America’s biggest zoos is also free and part of the Smithsonian family. The zoo’s most famous residents are the pandas, but about one fifth of the animals are endangered species that you may not see at many other zoos. The menagerie also has elephants, lions, and the usual zoo stuff, but is very focused on animal conservation and providing a habitat as near as possible to natural conditions. The recent elephant trails gives its denizens almost 2 acres of walking space. Animals are kept in their social groups whenever possible so that breeding and natural life cycles are encouraged. You’ll also find interesting exhibits such as the Cheetah Conservation Station and Lemur Island to name a few.
The Smithsonian is the largest museum complex in the world, but one cannot visit Washington DC without visiting the National Mall. “Mall” in this case doesn’t refer to a shopping complex but takes it’s name from the the meaning of the word from the 1700s. Originally referring to a place where people played a game called Pall-mall (similar to croquet), the name was shortened and came to mean”tree lined park”. The National Mall is made up by the Lincoln Memorial, The Washington Monument, The White House, The Jefferson Memorial and most of the government buildings in between. You’ll be happy to know that you can visit all of these places for the same low price….free.