A February 2005 trip
to Washington, D.C. by jansamoo
Quote: For a week of history, politics, and pomp, you can't beat Washington, DC. It's a highlight of any trip to America, but it has a special charm in late winter. From the cold, stark quiet of Arlington National Cemetery to the buzzing, over-heated museums of the Smithsonian Institution,it's a place you'll remember long after you return home.
Although there's the usual sugary, fatty rubbish you'll find all over the States, the giant food court also offers a range of cheap, good food and large servings - just right if you're on a budget or don't fancy some of the more forbidding-looking restaurants around town. Best of all, Union Station is at the centre of every subway line, so you won't have to walk far to find a feed.
If you're REALLY on a budget, take advantage of the free samples offered by almost every food stand throughout the day. If you do a couple of circuits of the station, you probably won't need to buy a meal at all! (It's also about the only way to avoid the 15-20% tip expected everywhere on top of the price of your meal.)
For my money, you can't go past the delicious food served up by the Aditi Indian Kitchen on the lower level. If, like me, you're desperate for a cup of tea after three weeks in the U.S., call into Bucks County Coffee Country upstairs. You'll get a teabag and a cardboard cup that must hold close to half a litre of water, but at least you can make it yourself. (There's even real milk - not those awful creamers or half-and-half sachet things!)
If a cleansing ale is more your style, visit Frank & Stein (across from Aditi) for a big fat hot dog and a beer.
About the only thing a homesick Aussie won't find at Union Station is a proper meat pie. But hey, that's why you're overseas, right?
The Union Station food court is open from about 10am to 9pm Monday to Saturday and from noon to around 6pm on Sunday. There's plenty of seating, but be warned - half of Washington seems to eat here during the week, so claim a place well before noon if you can.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 11, 2005
50 Massachusetts Avenue NE
Washington, District of Columbia 20002
Attraction | "The Smithsonian Institute"
The Smithsonian's museums are easily accessible by subway (hop off at the Smithsonian stop on the blue and orange lines) althoug you'll need a bit of stamina to walk between them. As with all major attractions in Washington since 9/11, security is tight and you'll have to go through a security process at each location. This can be tiresome, especially in winter with all the trappings of coats, boots, brollies etc but a smile (and no jokes) is the smoothest way through.
Most of the Smithsonian's museums are open from 10am to 5:30pm, and best of all, entry is free. For more information, log on to www.si.edu or call (202)633 1000.
Unfortunately, the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum were closed for renovation when we visited, but there are plenty of other choices. The African Art Museum is an absolute must-see.
The only disappointment for us was the newly opened American Indian museum. Perhaps they haven't finished stocking it yet, but we found this architectually exciting building almost empty and uninspiring. Spend your time elsewhere - especially if you have kids.
One other word of advice - plan ahead if you want to eat! While the Smithsonian boasts more than 140 million artefacts, we found a decent feed hard to find. Your best bet is the food court in the Natural History museum, where quantities are large and sugar content is relatively low. Go for soup and salad. If your kids will only eat pizza, buy one serving - they're about the size of roof tiles and will easily satisfy two to three little kids' appetites (and it's only a few metres' walk to the dinosaur afterwards...).
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 11, 2005
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Drive, SW
Washington, D.C., United States 2002
If you want to get a sense of what makes America tick, you'll find it here at Arlington. George Washington's stepson bought the site in 1778, and his son built gracious Arlington house there in the early 1800s. Robert E. Lee married into the family here in 1831, but the Lees later fled when Civil War broke out. In 1864, the property was confiscated by the Union Army, which began the tradition of burying the dead - on the former front lawn. Today more than 260,000 U.S. service men and women are buried here.
Arlington National Cemetery covers 200 acres of rolling hills, graced with beautiful old trees and manicured lawns, but it is the rows and rows and rows of simple white crosses that stay with you long after you head back home.
Everyone has seen pictures of Arlington on television and in the press, but the reality is something else. Visitors treat Arlington with respect, and so they should. This is no historic, mothballed site - it is still in daily use, as a small patch of newly dug graves and fresh flowers placed by recent mourners proved when we visited in late February.
Right at the heart of the cemetery is the haunting Tomb of the Unknowns, scene of a timeless ritual that in any other location would look like mesmerising street theatre - the changing of the guard, performed on the hour by clone-like soldiers sporting immaculate uniforms and impossibly polished shoes.
It's a fair hike up the hill from the visitor's centre to the Tomb, but it's well worth the effort. Leave time to catch your breath before the ceremony begins because you'll find yourself holding your breath while it's under way. For me the changing of the guard was a graphic insight into America's sense of self and place in the world - and about as far away as you can get from junk food and TV sitcoms.
On a different note, but still just as important to the American psyche, Arlington is also the resting place of several Kennedys. Robert F. Kennedy rests under the cemetery's only wooden cross, while nearby under the Everlasting Flame, you'll find the tombs of John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
Arlington National Cemetery can be reached easily by Metrorail (on the blue line) and is obviously a major stop for every tour offered around town. It is open from 8am to 5pm every day from October to March and 8am to 7pm from April to September. There is no entry fee.
If you're feeling fit, you can walk from Arlington across the Potomac River, around the impressive Lincoln Memorial to the nation's other important war memorials (honouring veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War). It's about a 40-minute walk, but after Arlington, you might like the time for quiet reflection.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 12, 2005
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, Virginia 22211
We found the Metrorail to be cheap, easy, and safe - and by far the best way to reach DC's major attractions in a short time. Sure, you could book a tour bus or buy a trolley trip, but this is how the city's half-million residents (and 18 million visitors a year) travel.
Whoever designed the DC Metro has one of the tidiest minds on the planet. It is logical, user-friendly, and efficient. The routes are colour-coded; there are arrows and station lists on each platform (so you never end up travelling the wrong way), and transfers between lines are easy to make. The stations are also friendly for people with disabilities, offering visual and aural cues and generally good access. (Although we did find that elevators at some stations were closed for servicing - perhaps because we were visiting in late winter and a low season).
The cheapest one-way ticket on the Metro is $1.25, but we'd recommend you buy a daily or weekly pass for maximum cost-effectiveness. A one-day pass costs $6.50 and is valid for one day of unlimited Metrorail travel on weekdays after 9:30am or all day on Saturdays, Sundays, or federal holidays. Seven-day passes cost either $22 or $32, depending on where you want to go. You can see all the major attractions using the $22 pass.
Buy Metro tickets from the vending machines at each station, and don't be shy to ask station attendants for assistance if you need it. Without exception, we found them courteous and helpful.
A word on safety: like anywhere, you need to use common sense when travelling around the city by train. Take note of places that travel guides and hotels suggest you avoid - Washington still has some very unsavoury areas, despite clean-ups in recent years - and expect to find homeless people gathering near the exits and entrances of subways after dark and late at night. They'll probably leave you alone, but for many people, these situations can be confronting, especially if you're not used to it.