Washington is one of my favorite cities, a perfect blend of majestic but personal, deeply historical but cutting-edge contemporary, kinetic but contemplative, sometimes gridlocked but relentlessly in motion, meaningful and substantive but often exuberantly joyful. My new colleague Elizabeth Evans, who will be arriving in Auckland shortly, shares below her insider’s perspectives on our iconic Capital in this latest installment in my series of guides to great places to visit in the United States.
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A CITY FOR ALL SEASONS
by Elizabeth Evans
The abundance of festivals, free museums and tours make Washington, DC an extremely family friendly city easily explored on the city’s metro transit train and bus system or by a network of rental bikes and cars. Adults can revel in the city’s vibrant sports, bar, and restaurant scene.
This is a city where things happen. It is a city of past ghosts and current ambition. People visit DC to learn national history, but they live and work here because they want to be a part of the force that writes it. The National Mall, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Vietnam, and Martin Luther King Jr Memorials remind visitors and residents alike that DC isn’t just a city, it is also a symbol of our national character and values.
Built along the banks of the Potomac River and Anacostia rivers in a purposeful crossroads between northern and southern interests, Washington’s physical size is approximately half the size of Wellington at 68 square miles, carved out of land donated by the state of Maryland. It was founded in 1791, named after President George Washington, and constitutes a unique “federal district” created specifically in the Constitution to be the seat of government.
The population of the District of Columbia itself is approximately 553,500. If you include the entire Metro area, the population reaches just over 5.8 million. (The “Washington Metropolitan Area” refers to the District of Columbia as well as surrounding towns and cities including Alexandria, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland.)
Every Spring the city is overtaken by a love of all things pink as soon as the capital’s cherry trees begin to blossom. Tourists flock to the city to engage in Hanami, the Japanese tradition of gazing at and contemplating the beauty of cherry blossoms in spring. The cherry trees, which line the Tidal Basin and frame the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, were a gift of friendship to the United States in 1912 from the people of Japan.
In Japan the flowering cherry tree, or “Sakura,” is an exalted flowering plant. The beauty of the cherry blossom is a potent symbol equated with the evanescence of human life and epitomizes the transformation of Japanese culture throughout the ages. DC celebrates this generous gift every Spring with the annual Cherry Blossom Festival featuring boat races, a parade, and cultural presentations from the Japanese embassy.
When visitors and residents aren’t gazing at the blossoms, Spring offers the perfect weather for exploring the many buildings and collections of the Smithsonian Institute. Founded in 1846, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, consisting of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities.
One of the best aspects for visitors is that every Smithsonian facility admits visitors free of charge. A Scottish scientist James Smithsonian left nearly half a million dollars to the foundation of the museums in 1826 for the purpose of “increasing knowledge among men.” All of the museums are impressive, from the stunning Freer Gallery of Art to fascinating science and natural history museums.
In fact, as a child, my favorite way to spend a Saturday was with my family exploring the dinosaur bones, insect zoo, fossils, and fist-sized precious gems of the Natural History Museum, including the iconic Hope Diamond.
My son, on the other hand, always chooses to visit the National Air & Space Museum’s two locations (on the National Mall and in Chantilly, Virginia) where he can see aviation artifacts such as the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (the fastest jet in the world), the Boeing Dash 80 (the prototype of the 707), and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.
One of the newest editions to the Smithsonian collection is the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Even more than just a compelling feat of design and cultural diversity, inside the museum’s distinctive exterior lies one of the best food courts in the city, the Mitsitam Native Foods Café.
The café, named for the Delaware and Piscataway peoples’ expression meaning, “let’s eat” features Native foods found throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains. Each of the five food stations depict regional lifeways related to cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors found in both traditional and contemporary dishes. The fry bread, while less than healthy, is not to be missed.
A warm summer night or refreshingly cool summer sunrise are the best times to jog, stroll, or wheel around the National Mall. On many evenings, city parks project movies for picnickers to enjoy and free concerts mark the start of the weekend in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. One of the best nights of summer is the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall, featuring American artists like Dolly Parton and the United States Marine Corps Band.
DC is a city of monuments and memorials. These large stone structures offer tangible manifestations of American values, triumphs, and heartbreaks. In addition to serving as commemorative art, the memorials and monuments of the National Mall have born witness to great moments in American history.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks are part of the National Park Service and are home to an array of monuments highlighting the history of the United States. One of the largest is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, honoring the 32nd President and the era he represents, leading visitors through the Great Depression and the years leading up to WWII.
The most recent addition to the park is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. After two decades of planning, the monument opened in August 2011. Dr. King is the first African-American honored with a monument on the National Mall. The size and grandeur of the monument captures the inspiration that Dr. King represents in ongoing efforts to create a more perfect Union.
Different styles and movements in art have been used to honor leaders and remember those touched by war and other sacrifice. Neoclassical structures like the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials use Greek and Roman inspired elements to represent the democratic ideals and strength of the men they commemorate.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Asian American architect Maya Lin, uses an abstract design to honor the men and women who served when their nation called upon them. The World War II Memorial honors the service of sixteen million members of the Armed Forces of the U.S. during the war. The monument is framed by fifty six granite columns, split between two half circles that create a Rainbow Pool representing the nation’s unprecedented unity during wartime.
American values and laws are carved in epic proportions onto functional buildings throughout the city, as well as onto adorning monuments. One example is the Newseum, an interactive museum dedicated to journalism history. Chiseled on a 75-foot tablet on the outside of the building is the First Amendment, by which the People prohibit Congress from abridging the freedoms of speech and of the press.
Another example is the Old Post Office, which remains one of DC’s most visited attractions. Inscribed on the sides is a poem by former Harvard President, Dr. Charles W. Eliot. Titled “The Letter,” the poem extolls the importance of the mail system:
Messenger of Sympathy and Love
Servant of Parted Friends
Consoler of the Lonely
Bond of the Scattered Family
Enlarger of the Common Life
Carrier of News and Knowledge
Instrument of Trade and Industry
Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance
Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and Nations.
No visit to DC is complete without viewing some of the most iconic buildings – the White House and the U.S. Capitol building. Located at 1600 Pennslyvania Avenue, the White House has been the official residence and workplace of every U.S. President since John Adams in 1800. Visits for groups are available can be arranged through the New Zealand Embassy in DC.
The U.S. Capitol building is another architectural and historic masterpiece. In 1792, Thomas Jefferson held a design competition and awarded amateur architect William Thorton the prize of $500 and a lot in the federal city to construct the capitol building. In 1960, the building was declared a national historic landmark. Visitors can tour the Capitol, viewing its impressive collection of art, sculpture, and visit the chambers where both the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate sit for hearings.
One of my favorite weeks of the year in DC is Howard University Homecoming. An historic African American college located in the Petworth neighborhood, Howard University boasts students known for being some of the best-dressed in the United States.
Howard is not a school where students wear pajamas to class. They dress to impress, and never more so then when it comes to attending the school’s step team competitions or the drum line’s Homecoming half time show.
Four of the divine nine historically African American fraternities and sororities, now known for their public service activities and step teams, were founded at Howard University in the early 1900s.
These fraternities and sororities used words, sounds, and movement to demonstrate allegiance to their organizations and in so doing created the dynamic performance style now known as “stepping.” (DC is also home to the group Step Afrika, which the Embassy sent to tour Samoa during the country’s 50th anniversary celebrations last year.)
The expression “step to the yard” is used to describe the experience of stepping in a large group in a public space, such as a campus green. The yard is a place where students can step together in unison, or battle by groups taking turns and escalating the difficulty and intensity of their routines.
Though stepping is traditionally aligned with college fraternities, the art form has become popular with high, middle, and elementary school students across the United States, as well as in churches and community-based organizations. Latino and Asian American Greek-letter organizations have recently begun to embrace stepping and compete in step dance competitions.
A special neighborhood the you should be sure to visit – Adams Morgan – lies between the posh surroundings of Dupont Circle and Massachusetts Avenue’s Embassy Row and the dynamic marketplace energy of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights. Famous for its bars, Ethiopian restaurants, and falafel shops, Adams Morgan is the live music lover’s paradise.
Celebrating the many sounds and communities of the city, the neighborhood’s bars offer everything from Korean Karaoke to performances by West African drum group the Akoma Drummers. For bluegrass patrons flock to Madam’s Organ, a dive bar offering half price beer to all patron’s who sport the same red hair as the iconic female figure painted on the side of the building.
Navigating the city’s streets is fun and interesting. Diagonal avenues cutting across the city are named for the 50 States. Grid streets carry alphabet and number names. During college, I spent my nights on M street in Georgetown, a historic neighborhood known for the like named University’s neo gothic buildings and its many shopping opportunities. Georgetown’s cobblestoned streets and charming brick facades balance with a bustling waterfront bar scene featuring boats that anchor next to outdoor bars and dinner cruises.
Heading northwest, visitors can experience a trip to what is often called the spiritual home of the nation – the National Cathedral. When President Washington commissioned Major Pierre L’Enfant to create a visionary plan for the nation’s capital, Pierre first imagined a “great church for national purposes.” It was not constructed until 100 years later. The Cathedral still serves as a place of worship, welcoming people of all faiths to service. It has been the location for memorial services of nearly every President since its foundation was incorporated in 1893.
On U Street – the corridor made famous by performers like Duke Ellington – people gather and talk about city news and personalities in Ben’s Chili Bowl, a local joint beloved by residents of all ages. You can find everything on U Street from hip hop battles at the U Turn club to vintage sunglasses at one of the street’s many boutiques to food to fill your belly and soul at restaurants like Busboys & Poets.
Further East, the H Street neighborhood has been undergoing a renaissance in the last 10 years. Visitors can listen to indie bands at the Red & the Black, putt-putt indoors at the H Street Country Club, and watch cutting edge performing arts at the Atlas Performing Arts Centre.
Accessible on the city’s Metro rail transit system, no DC experience is complete without a visit to Arlington Cemetery. Still a working cemetery that holds more than 7,000 funerals a year, Arlington is also the final resting place for President John F. Kennedy, other historic American figures, and more than 400,000 active duty service members, veterans, and their families. Saturday visitors are likely to witness a caissons rolling behind a riderless horse with backwards boots in the stirrups. This procession is an honor reserved for high ranking officers who have served in combat.
The cemetery is built on the lands of defeated civil war General Robert E. Lee. At its center lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a memorial built to honor unidentified fallen service members. The Tomb is guarded with care and pride by an Honor Guard which performs a solemn ceremonial changing of the guard at the top of every hour. The Tomb is never left unattended, even during hurricanes or attack on the city.
The second President of the United States, John Adams, once said, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
DC lives every side of this sentiment. It is a hub for art and theater, as well as the seat of American government. Every morning, commuters in suits and badges crowd the city’s Metrorail public transit system and set about the business of shaping, enacting, and challenging public policy. During the city’s annual Gay Pride celebration, the fountain in the center of Dupont Circle overflows with bubbles and tinted water as city residents merge political activism with artistic expression and parade floats.
The local flavor of DC grows more pronounced in the winter months. Flash mob snowball fights break out in blizzards when social media networks are able to quickly mobilize tuned-in young professionals to flock to designated intersections, carrying signs and sporting colorful hats and scarves.
Members of Congress plod to work in snowshoes to meet with constituents when the unpredictable weather makes travel by typical means impossible. Music lovers line up at the city’s performing arts palace, the Kennedy Center, for the annual sing along of Handel’s Messiah.
One of the pleasures of Washington is that it has four distinct seasons, each offering unique opportunities and activities. In December an Ice Harbor is built in the National Harbor complete with ice slides and below zero snow suits. (We dragged my grandfather there last year and he loved it!)
Novice and expert ice skaters enjoy skating in the seasonal rink on the National Mall’s National Gallery of Art sculpture garden. Slightly further afield there is a full array of recreational opportunities, whatever the season. In winter you can enjoy skiing, tubing, and snowboarding in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, all an easy day-trip away.
Whatever the season, DC feels like home to me. It is a city of transplants who have come to make a difference in public service as well as locals whose families have lived in their neighborhood for generations. Whether new or longtime residents, people in DC are always ready to engage in a debate about the great philosophical questions of power, liberty, justice, truth, and freedom.
In taxi cabs, in line for the city’s official lunch (the “half smoke and a coke,” a hot dog and soda combination offered from food carts), and at brunch with friends, the architecture, purpose, and history of the city keeps people sharing their opinions and trying to convince one another that theirs is the correct answer. The hum of all these voices articulating different perspectives, with arguments ranging from poetic to senseless, washes over newcomers like a welcoming roar. The city wants you to join the conversation, and it won’t take no for an answer.
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For more information about what to see and do in Washington, DC, as well as for tips on where to stay and how to plan a trip, take a look at Washington.org. It’s an excellent resource filled with ideas, events, and itineraries. By clicking here you can also register to get a free Washington, DC Official Visitors Guide, a twice-yearly resource packed with the most current information on hotels, attractions, tours, restaurants, shops, and discounts.