Author: Bob W.
Date of Trip: April 2007
My wife and I had been promising ourselves a long weekend to visit some of the outstanding museums and war memorials in Washington D.C. Previously, we made very brief (on the run) visits to the National Gallery of Art and wanted, this time, to savor its world class collection. (In fact, I spent a semester schooling in D.C., regrettably too busy with academics to take in Washington’s great offering of fine and free museums.) We had not yet seen the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War Memorials. Late April seemed the perfect time for us to go, although we would be too late for the magnificent cherry blossoms.
Washington’s traffic congestion and limited parking dictated that we travel within the city by Metrorail. So, we looked for a hotel convenient to I-95 or I-495 and near a Metro station. I asked for help on the Independent Traveler message boards where the best suggestion offered was to find a hotel with a free shuttle service to a Metro station. We reserved a room for three nights at the College Park Inn and Fundome located on Route 1 in College Park, Maryland, near the University of Maryland campus. While not fancy, our room was comfortable and reasonably priced (about $90 per night). The included continental breakfasts were decent and the shuttle service was prompt, friendly and reliable. We chose a room away from busy Route 1 and the large, skylight-covered “fundome,” which contains an indoor swimming pool, putting green and shuffleboard court. Great for entertaining kids, but we had none in tow.
We drove through torrential rain from our home in New Jersey to Delaware but were pleased to find only overcast skies thereafter. We arrived at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, giving us enough time to head into the city before the 5:00 p.m. closing time for most of the museums. Although the motel’s afternoon shuttle service wasn’t scheduled to commence until 3:30 p.m., the staff at the front desk graciously arranged an early shuttle for us. (If you plan a similar trip, be aware that parking garages at the Metro stations can be full on weekdays but are free and have plenty of space on weekends!) When we exited the Metro at the Archives/Navy Memorial stop, we paused to enjoy a high school orchestra performing outside at the Navy Memorial. Then, on to the National Gallery of Art. The West Building holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Western European and American paintings and sculpture, considered by many to be the equal of the Louvre, Prado and Hermitage. The East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, focuses on contemporary and abstract art by American and European artists.
We gravitated first to the Impressionist paintings. Significant works by Monet, Manet, Cassat, Renoir, Prendergast, Van Gogh, Picasso and Gauguin dazzled the eye. Some time remained before closing for a look at the Old Masters including Da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt and a superb collection of German, Dutch and Flemish paintings. The National Gallery holds a truly stunning collection worth many return visits. I found myself envying visitors who had the foresight to bring cameras to photograph their favorites. At closing time, we headed for a nearby pub and decided to return on Saturday to spend all the time we needed to enjoy the remainder of the exhibits.
One of the nicest aspects of visiting the National Gallery is the freedom to wander at your own pace, with ample time to spend at each appealing picture. When we visited the Hermitage in 2005, we were herded through the galleries in large groups, forbidden by museum security to wander about on our own. Ever try to view a small Raphael painting over 30 heads? The problem appeared to be the large crowds visiting in July and ultra-tight security because of the damage done two years earlier when someone doused acid on a priceless painting.
Saturday morning, we made a brief tour of the Air and Space Museum with exhibits ranging from the Wright brothers’ 1903 flyer, and the Spirit of St. Louis, to the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes. There are a collection of rockets and space vehicles, including the Apollo 11 control module (from the first moon landing) and various satellites. A shuttle is available to reach the even larger, Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The impressive display there includes the Enola Gay that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Both locations are packed with interesting exhibits.
After the Air and Space Museum, we headed back to the National Gallery of Art to see many of the remaining exhibits, including large paintings of the Hudson River School, and too many others to detail here. Lunch at the Gallery’s cafeteria was a pleasure. Having satisfied our stomachs, we completed our rounds in the Gallery — paying one more visit to the Impressionists — and headed out to view the great national memorials.
The National Mall was filled with activity. Frisbee, softball, lacrosse and walking occupied many. By the Washington Monument, large numbers of high school and college age students were assembling for a war protest. Carrying large sheets of cardboard and magic markers, they were gathering on the Mall, writing their protests on the cardboard and, generally, enjoying a party-like camaraderie. We walked on towards the reflecting pool to the World War II Memorial with its center fountain and circle of pillars representing each state and territory. We continued past the reflecting pool and to the Korean War Memorial to one side of the Lincoln Memorial, to the Lincoln Memorial and to the Vietnam War Memorial. Who could help but be deeply moved by these remembrances of the sacrifices made by men and women who have served this country. From the memorials, we walked (now weary) past the Department of State building and on to a Metro stop. Back then to our motel and to a busy restaurant by the University of Maryland campus for a light dinner.
Sunday, we headed back into Washington to enjoy the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, also located on the National Mall with the other Smithsonian museums. Inside, the Hirshhorn exhibits works by contemporary artists such as de Kooning and Giacometti. Sculptures by Rodin and others populate a sunken garden and grounds outside the cylindrical museum building. In the inside hallways of the museum are exhibited fascinating sculptures of wood, stone, metal and plastic. Paintings, mobiles and other sculptures are displayed in rooms off the central atrium. Personally, I’m not much into some of the abstract paintings, which, although bold, looked like any child might have accomplished an equal result. Are my ignorance and prejudice showing?
The Hirshhorn has a nice outside patio area with tables and chairs for dining. We purchased Polish sausages (delicious!) and a bottle of water at one of many truck-based snack bars parked in front of the museum and had lunch in the patio. Next, we walked to the nearby Natural History Museum whose vast and well-ordered collection exhibits fossils, murals and reproductions of plant and animal life-forms displayed in the order of the epics of life on earth. This great museum is enough to thrill anyone with an interest in archeology and geology. We only began to see the many treasures housed there, including a large display of gemstones featuring the blue Hope Diamond. We shall return again!
With our time running short, we again entered the Metro, this time to head for Dupont Circle to see the Phillips Collection. The art collection at the Phillips includes works by O’Keefe, Cezanne and Mondrian. Perhaps the most famous and striking painting is Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” The day of our visit, the museum had a special exhibit of silent movies, including those of Thomas Edison, juxtaposed with paintings depicting scenes similar to those in the silent movies. This was a truly unique, amusing and extensive display. As the closing hour approached, we wandered off to Connecticut Avenue to select one of many interesting restaurants with outside dining. What a nice way to end a weekend in Washington! There are too many interesting museums in Washington to do in a weekend or even in two or three weekends. Most are worth many repeat visits. We shall return!