Date of Trip: July 2005
I lived in Washington D.C. for part of one summer while I was interning for a news magazine there. I had visited the city before that several times since I grew up only about an hour and a half outside the city. Since then I’ve probably visited another four or five times, mostly to visit my baby brother, who’s in college there (maybe I can get him to write a trip report someday!).
It’s a fun city with lots of young people — pretty much anyone who ever wants to go into politics interns “on the Hill” (ie in Congress), so you’ll see plenty of ambitious college kids trying to pad their resume. I met a bunch of them when I was staying in the dorms at Catholic University — a cheap option but certainly not the nicest place I’ve ever slept. The neighborhood the university is in is at best okay. One perk is that it’s right near a Metro stop (more on the Metro later), but apparently the McDonald’s parking lot that you can cut through to get to the Metro station has been a site of the occasional shooting, so…you know. Be careful as you would in any large city!
Catholic isn’t the only university that offers summer housing for interns and other people staying in the city long-term; I think I chose it because many of the other schools required a minimum stay that was longer than I wanted to be there.
Anyway, on to the sights! D.C. is mostly known for its museums and monuments, of which it certainly has many. The most famous ones are the ones that make up the Smithsonian. As a kid I thought the Smithsonian was one museum, but it’s actually an “institute” that operates about 14 or 15 museums/properties, does research, sponsors educational programs, etc. Obviously there are way too many museums to reasonably see in one visit, so you should pick and choose. My boyfriend is a geologist and so he’s big on the Natural History Museum, which I have to admit is fun even if you’re not really a science person (like me) — who doesn’t like dinosaurs? Meanwhile, my mom loves the American Indian Museum and my personal favorite is the National Zoo, which of course has the famous pandas but also plenty of other creatures. Most of the Smithsonian properties are located on or around the Mall, but the zoo is actually near the Adams Morgan neighborhood. (Side note: There are all sorts of fabulous ethnic restaurants in Adams Morgan — I passed by an Afghani one in the mornings on my walk to work but sadly never got to eat there.)
Best thing about the Smithsonian — admission to all of their properties is free!
There are plenty of other non-free museums in D.C. that are well worth the admission fee. The National Gallery of Art is wonderful and located right on the Mall. Aside from its large collection of paintings and other art, it has a quirky little sculpture garden next door. The International Spy Museum is relatively new and lots of fun, with interactive exhibits that let you pretend to be a spy.
D.C. has more monuments than you can shake a stick at. The newest, of course, is the WWII memorial, which is a lovely addition to the National Mall. (My brother likes to go jogging around that area in the mornings, which I can imagine would be wonderful — other than the jogging part, of course!) It’s fun to walk around and find the part of the monument that lists whatever state you’re from.
However, my favorite monument is still the Vietnam veterans’ memorial, which is one of the most powerful places I’ve ever visited. There’s something about the starkness and simplicity of it that makes it more moving than all of the grander monuments around it.
In my humble opinion, the best time to visit D.C. is not the summer, when it’s crowded with tourists and very hot and humid, but in the spring during the Cherry Blossom Festival. (Yes, it will be crowded then too, but at least it’s not so hot — and, of course, you get the cherry blossoms.) The cherry blossom trees lining the Tidal Basin were originally given to the U.S. almost 100 years ago by Japan, and every spring burst into a riot of puffy pink and white blossoms.
Looks like the 2007 festival will be March 31 – April 15. Don’t miss it! (Book early though, since hotels fill up during that time period pretty fast.)
Speaking of hotels, I did spend a couple of nights in a D.C. hotel for a conference a few years ago. We stayed at the Jurys, which has a great location right on Dupont Circle. The rooms were pretty luxurious as I recall, though not particularly memorable (in the way that most hotels aren’t that memorable — attractive but bland).
Finally, a word on transportation. D.C.’s Metro (subway) is fabulous, with frequent service, relatively clean stations and a pretty good route map that gets you where you need to go. I also took buses on occasion and they were generally comfortable enough. One cool thing is that if it gets hot enough in the summertime, all bus rides are free, to encourage people to take mass transit instead of driving (it has less to do with the heat and more to do with the air quality — more cars lead to more pollution). Unfortunately, I believethe Metro still has normal rates even on Code Red days.