Washington, D.C., an American Anomaly

To me, Washington, D.C., is a most un-American city. Low-rise, with no structures higher than the Capitol permitted, it feels much more like Berlin or Vienna than Chicago or Cleveland. Filled with world-class museums, chi-chi shops, and imposing public edifices, this is a city to be reckoned with – and visited.


Washington, D.C., an American Anomaly

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Overlander on December 10, 2001

With so much to see, it's hard to know where to begin. My suggestion is to spend your first two or three days around The National Mall, the superb boulevard stretching between The Capitol and The Lincoln Memorial. Along its length you will find the principal museums and public buildings in the city.

The Smithsonian Institution
This is not just one museum but several. Consider starting with The Castle for an overview of the museum system.

The Air & Space Museum This is possibly the best aeronautical museum on the planet and forms another part of the Smithsonian. You'll find the Wright Brothers' first flyable aircraft, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo capsule, and many, many others here.

The National Gallery
One of the best art museums you'll find anywhere, pay careful attention to the American collection.

The Museum of Natural History
There is an enormous amount here. Don't miss the Hall of Minerals where you'll find an amazing collection of gems.

The Capitol
If you can get in through security, at least see the Rotunda, which is very impressive.

The National Archives
An original copy of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is on display here. ${QuickSuggestions} I've met many people who strongly dislike Washington, who say it feels "strange" or "oppressive" or even "spooky", and who can't wait to get out even after admitting that they were impressed with the place. I don't. I feel quite comfortable there. But I think I know why: it's not like other American cities. It's not a cookie-cutter copy of the next urban monstrosity down the Interstate. Washington has a unique personality, an identity very closely linked to its history and to its urban designer, the Frenchman, Pierre l'Enfant, for it was he who conceived all the main thoroughfares and public spaces. This is why Pennsylvania Avenue feels a lot more like the Champs Élysées than Fifth Avenue. This is a city built on a human scale, one that can be appreciated at ground level; one isn't dwarfed in high-rise canyons with ne'er a glimpse of the sun or sky. It has an intimacy about it that few other North American cities can match. ${BestWay} I hate driving in cities I don't know, so I park and use public transport, which is a viable option here. The buses and subways (metros) will get you where you're going quickly and reasonably. Surprisingly, taxis are affordable, too.

Transport from Dulles Airport
Be careful! Remember, Dulles is some 30 miles (50 kms.) away from downtown Washington, so taxi fare is pretty high -- figure $40 minimum. Instead, use one of the limo services that use air-conditioned vans. These transport firms have desks just outside baggage claim on the arrivals level. Some hotels lay on free airport transport, too.

There may be a city bus link, too, but I've never seen one. There is certainly no metro service out so far.


"The Castle" - An introduction to the Smithsonian

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Overlander on December 13, 2001

"The Castle": The original Smithsonian

Visitors' Center.
This is the place to go for the necessary overview of the vast storehouse of artefacts and knowledge that the institution possesses, but however well done the Visitors' Center is, the building is really much more interesting from the outside as an example of mid-19th century Romanesque Revival architecture.

The original contents of the Smithsonian were housed here; however, the public precincts of the building are now largely devoted to the task of introducing visitors to the Smithsonian Museums. The rest of the building houses administrative offices.

Historical Note
The world-reknowned Smithsonian Institution has a remarkable history. It came about because of an extraordinary bequest by a 19th century English Oxford don, one James Smithson, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, first Duke of Northumberland. After struggling for years to be accepted by his father, he developed a rather heightened sense of the importance of "legacy." According to the terms of his will, his fortune was to go first to a nephew, who died just a few years later. In the event that the nephew had no heir, then the money should go "to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." This was in fact what happened. His assets were converted into 105 bags of gold sovereigns worth some US $515,000, in those days a vast sum.

At first, many people, including members of Congress, felt it in some sense undignfied to accept such a gift. Better sense prevailed - not least because of the influence of former president, John Quincy Adams - and in 1846 the structure we still see today was built. During the tenure of its first secretary, physicist Joeseph Henry, it served as a scientific center. It was only after his death that it assumed its role as a repository for national treasures, for which it is so justly renowned today. It now comprises 14 museums, 8 of them on the Mall, with an annual budget of more than a half billion dollars, making it the largest and richest institution of its kind in the world.

The following Washington museums make up the Smithsonian Institution:

Mall Museums
Arts and Industries Building
Freer Gallery of Art
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
National Air and Space Museum
National Museum of African Art
National Museum of American History
National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of the American Indian
(projected opening: 2002)

Off the Mall
Anacostia Museum
National Museum of American Art
National Portrait Gallery
National Postal Museum
National Zoological Park
Renwick Gallery

New York City
Cooper-Heweitt National Design Museum

S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Drive, SW
Washington, D.C., United States, 2002
(202) 633-1000

The National Air & Space Museum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on December 13, 2001

To walk inside the Air & Space Museum is to enter a gigantic time capsule. All around you, whether suspended from the ceiling or parked at floor level, the visitor is surrounded by aircraft that each, in its own unique fashion, represents a mile stone in the history of flight. It's an extraordinary feeling to find yourself in this cavernous room surrounded by so much ground-breaking aviation history.

You look up into the rafters of the building and there, suspended as in amber, is the recumbant figure of Wilbur Wright inside his "1903 Flyer", with which he accomplished the first sustained flight of a heavier-than-air vehicle. It looks fragile and skeletal and just barely air-worthy. Juxtaposed behind him and his craft is the golden, insect-like Pioneer 1 satellite that was the first man-made object to exit our solar system some 70 years later.

You move your head around some more and you see a DC-3, first produced in 1935, perhaps the world's most successful aircraft used for both passengers and freight -- and still flying in isolated places. Or you spot the TriMotor and the Boeing 247-D, the first successful long-distance airliners, while down on the floor is a DC-6 fuselage that you can walk through. Inside you get a view of the lost elegance that was once part of flying where windows had curtains, food was served on real china with sterling silver cutlery, and wood and leather were to be seen. No sterile plastic or Saran Wrap here, and no foil packages of salted peanuts, either... I found myself flashing back to my first flight over the Rockies in a DC-6 when I was a pre-teen; I also remembered flying in a DC-3 and being buffeted by winds just barely above a blizzard over South Dakota when I was about 9 years old -- and terrified, I might add.

When I noticed the replica of Russia's Sputnik I suspended from the ceiling, I also remembered the shock its launch provoked in the States. Then, when I viewed the charred Mercury capsule, so tiny and so vulnerable looking -- and it's there, too -- I recalled the flickery black-and-white television images of its launch from what was then Cape Canaveral, and the joy that Astronaut John Glenn had returned safely as the first American to orbit the earth in the capsule he had named Friendship 7.

For me, the experience of the museum is one of walking back in time and into my own past. That so much of American aviation history has been preserved here is a tribute to all those who had the forethought and the drive to make certain that it was all preserved and housed in such beautiful -- and accessible -- surroundings.

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
Independence Avenue At 4th Street SW
Washington, DC

The National Museum of American History

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on December 15, 2001

Few museums can match this one in its breadth and scope. Far from being merely a jingoistic celebration of America, it traces all the major streams of the country's historical and cultural development with wings devoted to agricultural advances, maritime and shipbuilding history, road and rail transport as well as electricity. A large section is also dedicated to the fundamental changes that took place during the American Industrial Revolution between 1790 and 1860. All this is in the East Wing of the ground floor.

The West Wing of the ground floor is devoted to Science in American Life. This is an exhaustive look at American scientific history from 1876 to the present. Topics such as DNA and the Information Age are covered with care and include many hands-on exhibits specifically aimed at children.

On the second floor, you'll find, among other things, the original Star Spangled Banner from Fort McHenry, the flag which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that eventually became the American national Anthem. You'll also see mock-ups of White House rooms decorated as they were in the early 20th century as well as ball gowns of most American First Ladies.

The third floor is given over to printing, the graphic arts, coins, ceramics, musical instruments, and military memorabilia. There's also the first American gunboat, once captained by Benedict Arnold, as well as a moving exhibition focusing on the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War II entitled, "Toward a More Perfect Union." It shines a rather harsh light on an unfortunate period in our history, one from which much has been learned since those dark days.

Visiting the Museum
My advice is to make sure you have a plan of attack before entering this gigantic edifice. With the help of a good guide good -- I'm a staunch advocate of the Michelin Green Guides, by the way -- decide what you most want to see and then prioritize the list. Once inside, quite single-mindedly go through the list, exhibit by exhibit, and try to ignore anything that comes between. If you don't do this, there's a very, very good chance that you'll find yourself sidetracked and never get to the exhibits you actually did want to concentrate on.

Food and Cafeteria Warning
Watch out here: the prices are pretty high, first of all. On the ground floor soon after entering you'll find a sort of snack bar with sandwiches and pastries with tables set up nearby. Beyond is a low room divider that separates this area off from another cafeteria. They appear to be one and the same operation. In fact, they aren't, and if you buy something from the outer snack bar, you are not allowed to take the food inside and use their tables there even if someone else in your party gets something from that one! Forewarned is forearmed.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
14th Street And Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC
(202) 357-1300

The National Museum of Natural History

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on December 15, 2001

Covering 16 acres with 300,000 square feet of exhibition space, this is one of the most inclusive museums anywhere. Considering its scale, you could never see -- let alone comprehend -- it all. Like the other museums of the Smithsonian Institution, this one also requires a plan of attack. Choose what you want to see and head for it immediately. Only after you've seen your own particular choices should you allow yourself to be distracted by its many other amazing exhibits.

Visiting the Museum
Starting from the rotunda, which you can't miss considering the gigantic African elephant at its center, you can easily find your way to the exhibition halls. You have the bewildering choice of the following:

Ground (1st) Floor
Mammals
Marine Eco-systems - with a life-size model of a blue whale and a living coral reef
Cultural Regions Exhibits - includes Native Cultures of the Americans and Asian & Pacific Cultures
Ice Age Mammals - see fossilized mammoth skeletons or example
Dinosaurs - watch out for the suspended pterosaur with its 40 foot wingspan

Second Floor
Mining Gallery - a preplicated mine shaft with exposed veins of minerals
Plate tectonics - excellent!
Moon, meteorites and solar system
Insect zoo

The Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals
Perhaps the single most spectacular exhibit in the entire museum, the astonishing collection of gems within the Hall of Minerals would be an admirable crown jewel collection if the country were an empire or a kingdom. Many of the high points of the exhibit, which by the way were donated to the museum by Janet Annenberg Hooper, are as follows:

The Hope Diamond
This is the showpiece of the collection. This flawless 45.5 carat stone, the largest blue diamond in the world, is surrounded by a ring of round brilliant-cut white stones on a diamond studded chain. This stone has a checkered history and has been considered cursed for centuries. It was given to the Smithsonian by New York jeweler, Harry Winston, in the 1960s.

The Star of Asia Sapphire
Found in Sri Lanka, this flawless sapphire weighs a phenomenal 330 carats.

The Hooker Emerald
This spectacular stone weighs in at 75 carats and is set in a brooch containing 138 diamonds.

Photographer's Note:
These photos were hand-held with an Olympus D-460Z digital, which is remarkable in low-light. No filtration or flash but some mild color temperature adjustment and cropping in Photoshop 6.0.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
10th Street & Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC
(202) 633-1000

Union Station

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on December 16, 2001

Anyone used, as I am, to modern, post-war, utilitarian European railway stations will find Washington's Union Station something of a revelation. This is not a place you necessarily want to get in and out of as quickly as possible. This is a monument to the railways and a celebration of turn-of-the-19th-century American power and wealth in all its Beaux Arts glory, for Daniel H. Burnham, Union Station's architect lived up to his oft-quoted dictum, "Make no little plans." His structure is a massive 760' x 344' with gigantic columns, arches, statues, gilded ceiling coffers, and solid mahogany woodwork. It cost a staggering $25,000,000 when it was built, and its refurbishment in the 80s hit $160,000,000.

Today, the station handles 60,000 passengers a day, both suburban commuters and long distance, transcontinental passengers. But beyond that, it houses scores of shops, restaurants, two major bookshops, and a multi-screen cineplex. Unlike Victoria or the Gare de Lyon, this is a social and commercial center as well as a transport hub -- and it's all just a five minute cab ride away from the Capitol building.

Transport Options

Amtrak runs trains up and down the eastern seaboard as well as transcontinental services.
Metro There is a Metro station beneath the building.
Taxis and Buses There are taxi stands and bus stops in front of the station.

Union Station Shops
50 Massachusetts Avenue, NE
Washington, District of Columbia, 20002

The Viet Nam War Memorial

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on December 17, 2001

It was perhaps inevitable that the memorial to the dead and missing soldiers in this most contentious and criticized of American wars should have been nearly as controversial during its design, construction, and the first year or two after its dedication as the war that it commemorates. The simplicity of the design, the absence of romantic, vainglorious statuary and paeans to heroic deeds -- so often part and parcel of such monuments -- are utterly absent. Except for a trio of splendid bronzes depicting the common soldiers involved that were added later as a kind of afterthought as a sop to those who disliked the principal elements of the monument, it is but a simple marble wall built into a gash in the earth like a bandage used to staunch blood from an open wound. On this polished stone are etched the names of each soldier and officer, more than 58,000 of them, who died in action or were -- or are still -- missing in action. Significantly, the names are listed in the chronological order of their deaths or disappearances.

A visit to the memorial is a moving experience, much more so than I ever expected. We approached from the direction of the Lincoln Memorial on a cool and very misty, dreary morning. The wall sort of sneaks up on you, seemingly growing out of the earth just a few inches high. Almost at ground level is the first name, a soldier who died in 1963. As you walk along beside the wall, it gradually and inexorably grows taller and taller until it's over 10 feet up to its top. And each block of marble is covered with names and more names of the fallen. Very soon you feel the need-- at least I did -- to run your fingers over the names, for this monument speaks with an intimacy I've rarely experienced. Most war memorials dwarf you with their grandiosity; this one mesmerizes you with its quiet, almost introverted dignity.

One of the purposes of our visit was to look for the name of a brother of a college friend of my wife's. We were only vaguely aware that it might be possible; however, it turned out to be very simple, for conveniently located at the beginning and end of the wall are little enclosed "desks" with indexes listing each and every name, their origins, and their units, thereby enabling the visitor to look up the name of someone they knew who fell. The indexing system is very well thought out and the explanation is very clear, so we were able to find the name. We won't soon forget the experience.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Bacon Drive and Constitution Avenue
Washington, D.C., United States
(202) 426-6841

The Korean War Memorial

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Overlander on December 18, 2001

This most recent addition to Washington's catalog of monuments and war memorials, this one dedicated to the men and women who fought in the Korean War was built at the behest of an aging body of veterans who saw their conflict "lost" in the longer shadows of World War II and the Viet Nam War. The building project was approved by Congress in 1986 and dedicated nine years and $18,000,000 later by President Clinton.

My wife and I approached the memorial along a path that passes through a fairly thick stand of trees to the southwest of the Lincoln Memorial. Turning a corner, we were met by a series of seven-foot tall stainless steel statues of soldiers dressed in raingear, rifles at the ready, in point formation. The effect was rather startling: they looked as if they really were on patrol through the stand of junipers at their feet. On close examination, some of the faces looked gaunt, scull-like, and just slightly ghoulish. Shivers tend to run up and down the spine.

On the right, similar to the Viet Nam Memorial immediately opposite and on the other side of the Mall, is another stone wall, this one free-standing and made of polished granite, which is etched, not with names, but with the portraits of more than 2,500 servicemen and women along its 164 foot length. The effect of the etching is rather ghostly, the images fighting through the reflections of the trees and the Mall for your eyes' attention. A bit farther on is a large, round pool with the grim statistics of the war carved in the granite rim: of a total American participation of 1.5 million men between 1950 and 1953, 54,000 died, over 110,000 were taken prisoner, and 8,000 went missing. As a backdrop to the pool stand a flag pole and another free-standing wall stating simply and eloquently that "Freedom is not free."

Korean War Veterans Memorial
French Drive SW
Washington, D.C., United States, 20024

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