Taking a trip to Washington, D.C. is no small task. There are so many things to see and do, it’s hard to fit it all into just one week, or just one post for that matter. I went there a few years ago to visit family, but who can resist trying the food, visiting the museums, and scoping out the architecture and history, right? I wanted to do a little of everything, so this is what I did.
The National Mall
The National Mall was the location for the bulk of the visit, but it is not a “mall” at all. Actually, it consists of nearly all of the 20+ Smithsonian buildings, many of the national monuments, memorials, museums, and even the fountains and gardens surrounding this area of the city. Set alongside the Potomac River, the Mall is a 2-mile-long piece of land with wide walking paths and a tree-lined, park-like setting. The Mall is capped by the U.S. Capitol to the east and the Washington Monument to the west. The strip is lined with world-famous museums and intricate federal buildings along Constitution Avenue.
What’s most amazing is the scope of historical events that have transpired here. “This is where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech to hundreds of thousands who marched on Washington. This is where protestors – from those opposing the Vietnam War during the turbulent 1960s to the peaceful protests of the 1980s punctuated by the AIDS quilt, to modern-day marchers rallying for and against everything from reproductive rights…” (washington.org) and where thousands converged when the news of Bin Laden’s death became public. Some epic scenes from movies like “Forrest Gump” and the 1951 classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” also capture this area well.
Some of the specific spots on my list to visit are…
The Smithsonian Buildings:
The Smithsonian was founded in 1846 and is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities. While I didn’t make it to all of them, here are the ones I enjoyed most and why.
Everything related to the history of flight is experienced here. There are several full-size planes and huge sections of some of the largest commercial airliners here, too.
[The Air and Space Museum] …has hundreds of artifacts on display including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, and a lunar rock sample that visitors can touch.
The Wright Brothers history section is very interesting and beautifully maintained. I really loved the space shuttle exhibits, too. Anything you can think of in relation to flight is on display in this massive museum. Think I’m kidding? Here’s a list of all the things on display!
Since the museum’s opening in 1976, it has been the most visited museum in the world, with more than 9 million visitors each year! When you visit this museum, keep one thing in mind: while you could spend a whole week looking and learning here, it is only a small representation of the artifacts managed by the museum. The National Air and Space Museum’s building on the National Mall has been limited by size to display only about ten percent of its collection of aircraft and large space artifacts. With another ten percent on loan to other museums, it is necessary to keep roughly 80 percent of their collection in storage. I say, what a shame.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum maintains the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft among some 50,000 artifacts that range in size from Saturn V rockets to jetliners to gliders to space helmets to microchips. The museum is a vital center for historical research on aviation and spaceflight and the related science and technology. It is also home to the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, which performs original research and outreach activities on topics covering planetary science, terrestrial geophysics, and the remote sensing of environmental change. – Smithsonian website.
The Smithsonian Castle
There are dozens of Smithsonian Buildings and museum extensions, but the architecture of the Smithsonian Castle is amazing. It may be closed for renovations at this time, but the outside is very impressive, as are its beautiful gardens. When it’s open to the public, it acts as the visitor’s center, offices, and some storage for their massive collection of historical artifacts.
The most interesting part of the Smithsonian story is how it came to be. It all began with James Smithson (1765-1829), a British scientist who upon his death left his entire estate to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
Smithson, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman, had traveled much during his life, but had never once set foot on American soil. Why, then, would he decide to give the entirety of his sizable estate—which totaled half a million dollars, or 1/66 of the United States’ entire federal budget at the time—to a country that was foreign to him?
Some speculate it was because he was denied his father’s legacy. Others argue that he was inspired by the United States’ experiment with democracy. Some attribute his philanthropy to ideals inspired by such organizations as the Royal Institution, which was dedicated to using scientific knowledge to improve human conditions. Smithson never wrote about or discussed his bequest with friends or colleagues, so we are left to speculate on the ideals and motivations of a gift that has had such significant impact on the arts, humanities, and sciences in the United States.
8:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. daily
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery ie Museum of Asian Art
The Sackler Gallery is one of two of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums of Asian art, welcoming its first visitors in 1987. The Sackler and its sister museum, the Freer, are physically connected by an underground passageway and ideologically linked through the study, exhibition, and sheer love of Asian art.
This museum was impressive. The ancient Asian artifacts were so well displayed and so beautifully ornate that it was hard not to fall in love. The use of precious metals and stones, ancient inks, fabrics, and natural materials were the elements in the art that stood out most to me.
10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. daily
American Museum of Art
What’s to say about this museum, besides that it’s amazing! There are truly breathtaking original works of art everywhere, from three centuries ago to today. There are so many pieces to appreciate and never enough time to browse them all.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the nation’s first collection of American art, is an unparalleled record of the American experience. The collection captures the aspirations, character and imagination of the American people throughout three centuries. The museum is the home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal key aspects of America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. More than 7,000 artists are represented in the collection, including major masters, such as John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, Helen Frankenthaler, Christo, David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, Lee Friedlander, Roy Lichtenstein, Nam June Paik, Martin Puryear, and Robert Rauschenberg.
National Museum of the American Indian
Home to one of the largest and most diverse collections of Native art and historical and cultural objects; exhibitions are designed in collaboration with Native communities from across the hemisphere.
The NMAI cares for one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native artifacts, including objects, photographs, archives, and media covering the entire Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.- National Museum of American Indian
The grounds and architecture of this building make it one of the best on the Mall, if you ask me. Its shape and landscaping are natural, as is the wandering river built into the side of the building. If I had had more time, I would have spent it there. The rotating exhibit on display while I was there is long-gone now, but their exhibits are all outstanding, diverse, and display some of the most sophisticated creativity I’ve ever seen. The Native people of our country had an eye and talent for creating beauty out of the natural world. It’s something I wish we still emphasized with the generations of today.
To see the monuments in their full glory, I like to make both a daytime and an evening trip to the Mall. While the monuments are glorious on a sunny day, they are much more peaceful and beautifully lit in the evening. They take on a bit of mystery as you explore them in the darker hours and you aren’t fighting the crowds. The Mall is home to the country’s most famous monuments and memorials.
The Lincoln, Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorials all reside here. You’ll also find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the National World War II Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Some of these monuments are downright eerie in the evening and with a little mist afoot can take on a life of their own.
My favorites are the Lincoln Memorial and all three war memorials. Each has its own feel and, depending on the time of day, its own mystery.
Don’t forget to get a few stamps in your National Park passport books. There are dozens of national parks, landmarks, and historic places that offer stamps in the visitor centers.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
This iconic cylindrical building was a piece of art all by itself and is surrounded by an interesting sculpture garden. It was worth wandering through, but I didn’t spend much time here and didn’t go inside.
Museum: 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. daily
Plaza: 7:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Sculpture Garden: 7:30 a.m. to dusk
More great stuff to see than there is time in a day, week or even month…
Some of the destinations on my Washington D.C. list were outside the National Mall as well. Stay tuned in for future D.C. posts about those hot spots and activities.
– The Spy Museum, Lincoln’s Death Place and the theater where he was shot, and Arlington Cemetery
– Ben’s Chili Bowl and fine dining at Brabo Tasting Room