I had my travel agent (yes I still use one) book my trip to Washington DC only five days before takeoff, so I couldn't complain that my choice of hotels was limited. I knew I had missed the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in March, so I didn't expect the city, in May, to still be splendidly dressed in shades of pink and white. But, it was a bit of a downer to land at rain-soaked Dulles airport and find it immersed in a cold gray gloom, especially after having left a bright and sunny Toronto only 90 minutes earlier.
At least I was glad I had pre-booked the Super Shuttle ($29 one way) rather than having to find my way by bus to my hotel the Marriott Courtyard in Chevy Chase Maryland. Pleased to find that my room was comfortable, I went to check out the premises. In the lobby, I found a tourist map and computers with free Internet links to attractions and public transport, which made it fairly easy to get my bearings.
My only plan was simply to aim for two or three must-sees each day and then wander at will on foot as much as possible. Urban rambling is my favorite pastime when I'm in new cities on my own. I get exercise; I get to know a place step by step, and because every step covers fresh territory, I never get bored.
There would be walking aplenty on this trip. To see Washington's major attractions, I would have to start and end each day with a three-block walk between my hotel and the Friendship Heights Metro stop (Red Line).
Rain or shine, it was time to start. But first, the chilly weather called for a fortifying bowl of soup. I found plenty of restaurants and shops around the hotel and a delicious French onion soup at Panera Bread on Willard Street, ($8.63 with salad). Then, I was ready to go.
It seemed sensible to buy a $10 SmarTrip fare card that could be used on city buses and the Metro and could be topped up as needed. A 15-minute ride on the Red Line aimed for Glenmont got me to Farragut North station, from where I supposed I would easily find my way to the White House, first on my hit list.
The rain had lightened, but the wind had a sharp bite; I covered my head with my hood and wandered until I came upon the statues and fountains of Lafayette Square. Then there it was: the White House, the most recognizable symbol of American power right before my eyes. Suddenly, a policeman ordered me to get behind a nearby trash bin. With eyes widening in alarmed wonder, I noticed other officers stopping cars and ordering drivers to pull over. Next, a motorcade whizzed by Hummers and Limos with tinted windows, a black van, a few police cars, and motorcycles.
A lady turned to me and said, "Welcome to Washington." Quite a lucky happenstance for me, thought I; that was about as close as I could hope to get to the President of the United States.
To actually get inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, these days, I learned that citizens must arrange a self-guided tour no less than 21 days in advance, either through their Member of Congress or, in the case of foreigners, via their embassy in Washington. That option wasn't going to work for me, so I aimed my sights somewhat lower.
Washington is filled with grand museums, monuments, and memorials. Many are free and within walking distance of the White House and the National Mall. The National Mall is a green way running between Constitution and Independence Avenues from Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument a distance of about a mile and a half lined with great museums. These I left for another day: the American History Museum, the Natural History Museum, National Art Museum, the Smithsonian Castle, and half a dozen other attractions.
Crossing the Mall, I came upon the United States Holocaust Museum (100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW). Here, I lucked out to get the last ticket for the 12:15pm slot for the Permanent Exhibition. At the elevator, I picked up an identification card and for the next two hours I was Irene Freund, born in Mannheim Germany in 1930.
The Holocaust Museum houses countless artefacts, videos, pictures, and even a Polish freight car used to transport Jews. The display from Auschwitz reminded me of my visit to that concentration camp in 1994. The Remember the Children: Daniel's Story exhibit revealed the horrors one Jewish boy faced during those dreadful days. I was glad to read on the back of my identification card that Irene Freund survived and moved to the United States in 1947.
A hotdog from the vendor across the street hit the spot before striking out along Independence Avenue SE for about 10 minutes. Spotting the Smithsonian Metro station, I opted to ride to the Capitol South station and continue walking from there.
By then I had been on my feet several hours and needed to prioritize. With just a passing glance at the magnificent domed United States Capitol, home of the Senate and House of Representatives, I aimed straight for the Thomas Jefferson Building and the Library of Congress. As a library worker myself, I had to see this impressive library. Besides housing the nation's most precious books, this building is a massive floor-to-ceiling treasury of artworks with its exquisitely elaborate Great Hall, stained glass skylight, marble columns and flooring, sculptures, portraits, and murals. Many special events and exhibitions happen here. I was disappointed the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment was closed for renovation.
About a block away from the Thomas Jefferson Building, I came across the Folger Shakespeare Library. It holds an amazing 256,000 books about Shakespeare. I was an hour early for a tour and, feeling exhausted, I didn't want to wait.
After breakfast at my hotel, I hopped the Metro for a 30-minute ride to Arlington Cemetery, which involved an easy change from the Red to the Blue Line at Metro Center.
My goal was a brief visit to the beautiful grave site of John F Kennedy, his infant son Patrick to his left, and wife Jackie to his right. I spent a few moments absorbing the encompassing serenity of the place and then turned around to a spectacular view of the Washington Monument across the Potomac River.
Two hours at least is needed to properly appreciate the full extent of this luxuriantly manicured peaceful cemetery. Above, on the hill, is Arlington House, the former home of Civil War General Robert E Lee. Worth staying around for is a regular changing-of-the-guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Back on the Blue Line Metro, a short 10-minute ride brought me to the King Street exit in Alexandria Virginia. I felt as if I was in Europe as I explored King Street admiring the brightly painted buildings adorned with plants and flowers.
The townhouses in the residential areas are painted an array of colors. My favorite is the blue house at 523 Queen Street, the narrowest (7 feet) house in Alexandria. Not far from there is a small section of Princess Street with original cobblestone. Now, if I could have that house on that portion of Princess Street that would suit me just fine.
To see the historical sites in beautiful Old Town, founded in 1749, would take about two hours with no stops. The Friendship Firehouse, built in 1885, exhibits historic firefighting equipment. The Lyceum, built in 1839, displays the history of Alexandria from the 17th to 20th centuries. Both George Washington and Robert E Lee attended mass at Christ Church, built in 1773. I zigzagged along the side streets and came across City Hall where I arrived in time to be entertained by a choir of school children. I took a few minutes to listen and rest my feet before making my way to the Potomac river front.
I found a bench, sat and, while snacking on fruits and bars, I noticed a few different tourist boats on the river. I thought about taking a cruise, but the cloudy, cool weather didn't fit with that idea, so I decided just to sit quietly and watch the passing river traffic until along came the free Trolley that runs between the King Street Metro station and the Potomac waterfront. I hopped aboard and left with one lasting thought: When I return, I'll definitely stay in Old Town Alexandria.
Once again, I boarded the Blue Line and, on a whim about 15 minutes later, got off at Foggy Bottom station. With no plan in mind, I passed by George Washington University and continued on with no sense of direction along streets lined with townhouses and apartments until I found the infamous Watergate Complex of apartment and office buildings. Interested only because this was the site of the Nixon-era political scandal back in 1972, I took one photograph. Then, a uniformed man stuck his head out the door and sternly told me, "no pictures." Startled, I apologized, although I saw no sign indicating photos weren't allowed.
Adjacent to the Watergate Complex, I found the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a handsome building idyllically set on the Potomac. I checked out the events calendar and noted that a free performance is offered at 6pm every day of the year. That would finish the day nicely, I thought maybe another day when I know my way about better. I didn't like the idea of finding my way on public transport after dark. Instead, I traced back the way I came, aimed for home base, picked up a light takeaway meal to eat in my hotel room, and tucked in for the night with a TV movie.
The sun emerged, the temperature warmed to expectations, and I began my third day of sightseeing at the Friendship Heights Metro station. A few minutes later, I stepped off at Tenleytown station feeling inclined for a pleasant 20-minute downhill walk to my next stop in this leafy residential neighborhood.
The Washington National Cathedral is said to be the sixth largest in the world. Its neo-gothic design, with spired towers, vaulted ceilings, and gorgeous stained-glass windows, reminded of me of medieval Notre Dame in Paris, even though this Episcopal church is a 20th century construction.
Many stately occasions are hosted here aside from regular services, but it is also a fine place to spend a few hours any day of the week as there is often something of interest happening: guided tours, lectures, musical performances, a carillon or peal bell recital.
There are no Metro stops in this part of the city, but I caught a #30 bus around the corner (Wisconsin/M St NW) which took me onward to Georgetown. In the mid-1700s ocean-going ships could navigate the Potomac River up stream as far as Georgetown, and this place was a busy port so I read in passing. When the river became silted up by the 1820s, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal was built to take over the trade route. Nowadays, the C&O is a National Park and recreational attraction.
The Old Stone House (3051 M Street NW), built in 1764, has been preserved for viewing, but it wasn't open the day I passed by, so I contented myself with window shopping the boutiques along Wisconsin and M Streets.
The City Tavern (3206 M St NW), built in 1796, once frequented by George Washington and friends, has also been preserved and is now a private club. Billy Martin's Tavern (1264 Wisconsin Ave NW) has been serving regular joes and presidents alike since 1934. They say JFK proposed to Jackie there.
On M Street, I picked up a DC Circulator bus for a scenic 30-minute ride cross-town to Union Station. Built in 1907 in the massive style popular in that era, this classic rail station, at the core of the city, is the hub for long distance trains. Its beautiful white granite exterior, marbled interior, and mahogany features received a facelift in 1988, and in the future, the building will be preserved as a national treasure.
A short jaunt from the station, I was back on Constitution Avenue then heading along Pennsylvania Avenue and passing by one imposing building after the other the National Art Gallery, my Canadian Embassy, the United States Navy Memorial, the J Edgar Hoover FBI building an almost overwhelming display of contemporary power. I was exhausted and glad to spot Metro Center, which is one of the main Metro transfer points, and head for home base.
Arriving back at my starting point, I decided to stop for a light supper at the Cheesecake Factory (5345 Wisconsin Avenue NW) located just above the Friendship Heights Metro station. I ordered a small Greek salad with a bread basket, glass of white wine, and a strawberry cheesecake ($20.15). The evening air felt perfect to sit outdoors, and the meal was a fine finish to a satisfying day.
Thinking I had the lay of the land figured out by my fourth morning in Washington, I aimed for Foggy Bottom Metro station as the day's starting point, not realizing I had to walk another 20 minutes or so before the real sightseeing began. I didn't mind the walk, but maybe I should have taken the short five-minute bus ride to save my feet.
For a second, I thought I was in Greece, but I was at the far west end of the green parklands beyond The Mall. Designed after the Parthenon, the Lincoln Memorial has 36 marble columns representing the number of states when Abraham Lincoln died. This truly awesome monument houses a 19-foot marble statue of the 16th president. I stood on the top step catching a light breeze on a hot mid-morning while admiring the inspirational view ahead: a 350-foot reflecting pool stretching toward the Washington Monument, the gigantic obelisk that presides over The Mall and all other memorials.
Just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Almost 60,000 names etched on a V-shaped, black granite wall honor those who died or went missing in one of America's most divisive wars.
Two nearby statues complement the wall and tell a poignant tale. The Three Soldiers, by Frederick Hart, depicts life-sized servicemen, weapons in hand, faces tired and drawn, looking sorrowfully toward the wall. The Vietnam Women's Memorial, called Legacy, Hope and Healing, honors women, mostly volunteer nurses, who served. A woman holds a dying soldier while another looks up hoping for a helicopter to arrive, and the third woman's face displays emotion and helplessness.
Just south of the reflecting pool, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, a triangular shaped "Field of Service" has 19 larger than life statues of infantrymen who appear to be trudging wearily across the fields. Adjacent to this is a Pool of Remembrance honoring those killed, captured, wounded, or missing.
Heading east, I came next to the fantastic National WWII Memorial that honors the 16 million Americans who served. I can't believe it only opened in 2004! Fifty-six pillars represent each state and the territories of 1941-45. The 4,000 gold stars on the Field of Stars Wall is dedicated to the 400,000 Americans who lost their lives. Looking through the water fountain gave a great view of the Washington Monument.
With a head full of reflective thoughts, I hadn't realized how time had passed until my stomach loudly announced it was about time I stopped for a bite to eat at the nearest Caribou Coffee shop.
My legs wanted to call it quits but, inspired by my visit to the Lincoln Memorial, I had one more place to see before leaving town the Ford's Theatre National Historic Site (10th Street between E and F Sts), which consists of the theater where President Lincoln was shot, museum exhibits, and Peterson House where he lay mortally wounded.
National Park Rangers give interpretive talks in the theater. Museum artifacts include a blood-stained pillow and the gun used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the President on April 14, 1865. At Peterson House, across the street, a brief tour takes you to the room upstairs where Lincoln died.
I finished the day sitting outside at Potbelly Sandwich Shop (11th and F Sts NW). I had a smoked ham and cheese sandwich with sour cream and Creole chips, and a cold lemonade ($8.25).
I felt a bit depressed. Four days was not nearly enough time and too often I pressed on when I would rather have lingered longer. Ah well . . . maybe next visit I'll rely more on buses. And there will be a next visit to Washington DC come rain or come shine, I won't mind.
>> Destination DC: Accommodations, attractions, event listings, maps, restaurants. www.washington.org
>> Super Shuttle: Door-to-door airport service. www.supershuttle.com
>> Washington Metropolitan Area Transit: www.wmata.com
TIP! Buy SmarTrip cards at any CVS Pharmacy, Safeway, main Metro centers, or online. Top up at any Metro.
>> Courtyard by Marriott Chevy Chase, 5520 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland 20815 USA. Tel. 1-301-656-0638. Good as a home base. Three-block walk from the Friendship Heights Metro station. Free Internet, tea and coffee. Plenty of restaurants within walking distance. Rates: from US$119. www.marriot.com
>> Alexandria Virginia. www.visitalexandriava.com
>> Folger Shakespeare Library. www.folger.edu
>> Kennedy Center of Performing Arts. www.kennedy-center.org
>> Library of Congress. www.loc.gov
>> National Parks of District of Columbia. All historic attractions in DC and Georgetown. www.nps.gov/state/dc
>> United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. www.ushmm.org
>> Washington National Cathedral. www.nationalcathedral.org
>> White House. www.whitehouse.gov