26 Dec History and Reflection, Visiting Washington DC
We couldn’t visit America without taking a trip to the Capital: Washington, DC. What we discovered during our fast-paced visit was a small, understated city full of museums, memorials, history and a few blogging friends. Visiting Washington DC was thought-provoking and intense as we looked back on past struggles, caught a glimpse of the less-affluent side of the city and learned so much about the history of the USA.
Thoughts on Visiting Washington, DC
We arrived in DC late in the afternoon and after checking into our Airbnb digs, we set off to get a taste of the city. Before long we found ourselves by the domed Capitol Building; despite the cocoon of scaffolding, it was still an imposing sight lit up against the dark sky. Across the street we stopped to marvel at the Supreme Court with its wide sweeping set of steps, Romanesque columns and ornate carvings.
Impressive as these buildings were, the atmosphere felt strange. For a capital city the streets were incredibly quiet, with none of the constant, churning bustle of people and energy you’d expect or typical spiky skyline of tall office blocks and glassy skyscrapers. There was a visible police presence on the eerily-quiet streets and we later heard that the whole of downtown had been closed off that afternoon due to a security scare, which accounts for some of the odd atmosphere.
What we experienced during the rest of our short stint in DC was a compact city with multiple personalities. There were some vibrant, trendy areas full of restaurants, offices and bars, quiet residential streets and the glossy, touristy areas along the Mall. Just a couple of blocks away from some of DC’s most famous attractions, however, we stumbled across a long, snaking queue outside a soup kitchen and next door, a women’s shelter. In other parts of the city we passed through pockets that reminded us of the rougher areas we’d experienced in Philadelphia.
One evening we had dinner with fellow travel bloggers Jenia and Sergey from House to Laos, who live in DC. They took us to a cool area of the city we wouldn’t have explored otherwise and shared their experiences of living in Washington and travelling in Asia, over delicious burgers and cans of National Bohemian beer (known as ‘Natty Bo’, Jenia explained after we’d ordered). I was also thrilled to finally meet up with Patti and her husband Abi of One Road at a Time for lunch at the National Gallery of Art. Patti is one of my favourite bloggers and after following her online for the last three years, it was great to finally meet in person and share travel and life experiences.
Washington DC Things to Do
There are so many things to see in Washington DC, but we foolishly granted ourselves just three days to explore. Thankfully, the city centre is walkable and most of the main attractions are situated along the Mall, a grassy stretch of museums (all the Smithsonians are free to visit), memorials, parks, state buildings and monuments. Here’s what we managed to see during our visit to DC:
National Museum of American History
We spent hours in ‘The Price of Freedom: Americans at War’ exhibition, which detailed all the different conflicts the US has been involved in over the years, from the Revolution and Civil War through to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. All countries edit and interpret history in different ways, so it was interesting for us to see how conflicts in South-East Asia were depicted in the museum, since over the last couple of years we’ve seen first-hand some of the scars left behind by American wars in Asia. The focus was definitely on American casualties and there was little mention in the museum of the chemical weapons used in Vietnam or the secret bombing campaign carried out in Laos, where unexploded ordinance (which the US Government refuses to clean up) still kills hundreds of people every year.
The White House and White House Visitor Center
It isn’t possible to tour the White House unless you apply months in advance through your national embassy. Instead, like most tourists, we got a glimpse of perhaps the most famous of Washington DC attractions through the garden railings. The nearby White House Visitor Center had an interesting short movie and exhibition about the White House’s history as both a home and working government building.
The National Archives
We couldn’t visit Washington DC without getting a glimpse of the famous Charters of Freedom held at the National Archives: the original Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution.
Memorials and the Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC
The Mall is full of beautiful memorials, parks and buildings, which we spent a lot of time exploring. To start with there’s the George Washington Monument, a tall, thin tower stretching up over the city and the circular fountain at the National WWII Memorial. Beyond that lies the famous Reflecting Pool and at the end, a set of steps leading up to the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.
In the gardens surrounding these memorials, there are smaller statues to commemorate veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars. Further on we discovered the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and spent some time reading inspirational quotes from his speeches which have been carved into the walls; his words are still so relevant today. As the sky grew dark we looped around the tidal basin through the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial.
Tour of the Capitol Building
We lined up early to take a free tour of the Capitol Building, which began with a movie about the building’s history and the birth of the US justice system and continued with a guide who led us through rooms in the ornate building. My favourite part was the National Statuary Hall, which used to be the meeting place of the House of Representatives but is now filled with statues of famous figures from each state. With its domed roof, the acoustics of the room are strange; our guide demonstrated how, from a spot where John Adams’ desk used to be, you could hear whispered conversations from the other side of the room.
After our tour we got a chance to sit in the public galleries of the House of Representatives and the Senate; we then walked through a tunnel to the Library of Congress, a beautiful building full of statues, marble and ancient books.
National Museum of the American Indian
As well as learning about American Indians and their beliefs, customs and traditions, we also found out about the sad history of persecution against American Indians. As the US gained its independence and started to expand west, the government began to push American Indians off their land using bogus treaties and eventually resorting to forcible removals and death marches across the country. Children were taken from their families to assimilation camps and sacred land was stolen.
It’s hard to see what happened as anything other than physical and cultural genocide. The prevailing American ideology was that American Indian culture was somehow ‘barbaric’ and should be eradicated. It’s hard to understand how this could happen in a country so recently oppressed by foreign forces; a country which built itself on the premise of freedom for all, but then continued to marginalise and discriminate against huge sections of society.
At the end of our short trip in DC we boarded a bus bound for New York City, the last stop on our three-month trip through the USA.
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