After traveling with Rafa around the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest on several occasions, part of the South & all around Boston, this year seemed perfect for us to experience the national capitol together. My first & only visit was 19 years ago in 2004, & I mostly stuck to monuments & walking the city. I knew Rafa would put together a busy schedule, heavy with fantastic, free museums… as you’ll see, we really took advantage of our time in DC.
Let the sightseeing begin!
The city itself is one gigantic museum, & there’s absolutely no way to see everything in a two-week trip. Since we also spent a few days in Annapolis, we divided the city into two sections & got different hotels for each portion of the DC stay. That gave great focus to our trip planning, plus we found good deals at the Phoenix Park Hotel by Union Station & the Royal Sonesta at Dupont Circle. Phoenix Park staff were amazing, the Royal Sonesta not so much (except for the genuinely wonderful Clara). RS gave us a big, chain hotel experience, but we also got a free upgrade & the room was spacious. All we needed.
As with our trip to Boston, we wanted to avoid renting a car. Fortunately public transportation in DC worked very well for us… even the new Metro extension from Dulles International Airport. Big, bold & Brutalist, DC Metro design has always been a personal fave. We topped up our SmarTrip card when necessary & made good use of $1 Circulator buses. Love that free transfer!
Worth a mention here is stunning Union Station built in 1907. Multimodal & busy —although I’ve read that the pandemic took its toll on merchants— the grand entrance, a cool statue of Columbus out front, immense archways & decorative ceilings throughout are worth a visit. We just missed a pop-up bar in the main hall, but I can imagine having a drink under such beautiful architecture.
One of the main attractions is of course anything related to the national government… the sole reason for DC’s foundation in 1791. We wouldn’t get to see the Oval Office since reservations are so difficult to obtain, but the White House Visitor Center has remarkable displays. In fact, we couldn’t understand why more people weren’t there. Housed in the Malcolm Baldrige Hall of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the center used to be the National Patent Office. I loved the open layout that allows visitors to appreciate the building itself… an educational & crowd-free experience.
The U.S. Supreme Court is over the top, like most grand architecture from the 1930s. I loved the chance to visit the space as well as the accompanying lecture; however, no photos were allowed inside the actual courtroom.
A testament to how much we enjoyed our experience, the only place we returned for a second visit was the U.S. Capitol. Once they found out I worked for Rick Steves, Capitol staff even arranged a private tour for me & Rafa as a favor. Sweet. I also contacted one of my U.S. Senators & Representatives to obtain chamber passes, but how to get them? No delivery to the Visitor Center possible for either; I’d have to go to individual offices & pick them up. With other reservations already scheduled, I didn’t think we’d have enough time. As a foreigner, Rafa had to bring his passport & hope passes were still available. A difficult day to organize.
In the end, most of those original plans fell through. I had no idea where to meet our private guide, even after asking, so we joined a group tour… that turned out to be excellent. I gave up any hope of seeing either chamber but thought I could help Rafa experience it. Turned out that they each gave us foreign visitor passes! Small miracles, so we got to see both the Senate & the House of Representatives. Plus we made it to our Halls of the Senate tour on time. We only had enough energy to see a portion of the museum before having to get lunch but returned for a quick visit the next morning to finish…
What a magnificent building, rain or shine. I said to Rafa, “Can you believe we’re here? Can you believe we’re this close?” Even though we weren’t first in line the next day, we knew how the system worked & were actually the first people inside! We joked with staff & asked what everyone else was waiting for. If only we’d had time to do another of the specialty tours. Still, the Senate Wing painted by Constantino Brumidi turned out to be a highlight of the trip:
Another magnificent building: the Library of Congress. Wowza. Photos speak for themselves:
Although no longer part of the U.S. government, the Old Post Office building now houses the Waldorf Astoria hotel… with the National Park Service in charge of the clock tower with stunning, free views. A fortunate find while walking around Pennsylvania Ave NW.
Monuments & memorials
Major conflicts —either internal or abroad— can be considered a pivotal moment in any nation’s history. DC does a stellar job of paying homage to those who fought & to those who lost their lives in the name of their country. Many monuments also recognize great contributions to humanity worldwide. Whether you believe in the cause or not, the tributes scattered around the city add endless artwork as well as places to reflect on our past.
Below are photos of a few that we went to on purpose or those we stumbled upon during our walks: the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism during WWII, Isabel La Católica, the Marine Corps War Memorial, Taras Shevchenko, the George Gordon Meade Memorial, & the only equestrian statue of George Washington in DC. You could dedicate an entire trip to visiting all 160 monuments & memorials in the capital.
From my previous trip to DC in 2004, I remembered Arlington National Cemetery as a peaceful haven of rolling hills with many places to rest & reflect. Not this time. Heavily touristed with one main, inconvenient entry (especially on a hot & humid day in August), there was little peace to be found. The location is fantastic, & yes, we saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as a bunch of other memorials. But the oppressive humidity did away with most of my interest. Not my best morning.
So, so, so much to see at the National Portrait Gallery. While I always take time to look at everything I can, I spend more time with my own interests… like finding the Thomas Hart Benton or just admiring the stunning architecture of the building itself. Rafa & I were fortunate to see the temp exhibit “1898: U.S. Imperial Visions & Revisions” about one of our favorite topics: the Spanish-American War. Extremely well curated with some incredible objects, like board games of the conflict. Almost too much to take in for a single visit, but we did our best:
Likewise, a ton to see in the overcrowded National Gallery of Art. But since the main Spanish painting galleries were under restoration, I focused more on modern artists. Of course I found “Yawning Tiger” by Anna Hyatt Huntington & texted Rafa immediately, then soon found a Paul Manship. A gigantic Robert Motherwell —always a fave— loomed over the wonderful temp exhibit to Philip Guston. His “Poor Richard” sketches of Nixon literally as a dickhead reminded me so much of Picasso’s “Sueño y Mentira de Franco“. I adore being exposed to new artists & always look for ways to incorporate them while guiding. Nerdy, but no apologies 😉
Continuing with modern art, I could have spent even more time in the Renwick Gallery. Seeing such great work only made me want to learn how to make textiles… and I don’t need another hobby! Fantastic space.
We expected more from the National Archives. So many additional documents could be on display, so many options for the huge space unused, so much missed opportunity for education. Oh well.
While still putting on productions, Ford’s Theater does a fantastic job explaining the history of Lincoln’s assassination with help from the National Park Service. Museum downstairs, great talk in the theater itself & an opportunity to go across the street to the apartment where Lincoln died. They’ve got it all, from the weapon to the actual bed.
A recent Mall addition, the National Museum of African American History & Culture opened in 2016… late compared to many other museums that deal with this fundamental part of US history. We arrived for a tasty lunch at the Sweet Home Café, then spent the next four hours exploring. A bottleneck on entry was not a positive beginning, but I loved the attention to detail & straightforward discussion of slavery —especially Spain & Portugal’s involvement. How can anyone leave Emmett Till’s coffin with a dry eye? I grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Memphis, so the tv & music exhibits took me right back those amazing days.
Not on Rafa’s original schedule, I felt the National Museum of the American Indian should be included since we’d learned so much in previous trips throughout the U.S. The building itself is fantastic, but exhibits seemed put together in a random fashion. I wanted to learn more about specific groups, but overall presentation was too general & failed to educate why certain cultural traditions are important. The temp exhibit about using the image of Native Americans as brands or for marketing seemed to be more educational than permanent displays. At least the gift shop offered fantastic items divided by region with artist biographies… if only the museum had been as well organized.
Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown took our breath away with Byzantine & Pre-Columbian art, massive manicured gardens, & a history of bringing people together —this home even gave birth to the United Nations charter. Owner Robert Woods Bliss & his wife, Mildred, spent the end of a long diplomatic career in Argentina as U.S. Ambassador from 1927 to 1933… I would give anything to have been in Buenos Aires with them at that time! What an amazing legacy to leave behind.
Prior to the trip, we’d seen a video of how the Daughters of the American Revolution had been involved in recognizing the contribution of Bernardo de Gálvez to the independence of the U.S. The video showed their main library & we had to see it in person. But the experience was so much more: a collection of day-to-day objects (yes, we opened every single drawer!), an exhibit about gender roles, decorated rooms depicting typical houses in each state over a variety of decades, a chance to look at all the books, a beautiful ballroom & maybe only 6 other people visiting. We felt like it was DC’s best-kept secret! What a highlight.
Searching for restaurants near our hotel, Google Maps also recommended The Society of the Cincinnati. And thank goodness! I insisted, so Rafa rearranged a few days of activities to include this spectacular place. We joined a group tour of about 10 other people.
The guide explained that the society had been founded by soldiers who fought in the American Revolution & also remembered the French contribution to US independence. So naturally I asked if there was an equivalent organization for the Spanish. We live in Spain after all & know all about that history. However, she seemed offended by the question & dismissed it right away. Not a good start. But at least she warmed up during the tour & pointed out more artwork by Spanish artists, especially José Villegas from Sevilla. The HQ has been located in Anderson House since 1938, & I never thought I’d see such luxury on this trip. One more highlight to add to the list.
The final museum of the trip turned out to be one of the nicest discoveries: a two-in-one, the Washingtonia Collection & the Textile Museum on the George Washington University campus. The first is an urban planner’s dream that shows the evolution of DC thanks to a huge donation of maps, photos & prints from Albert H. Small. So happy to save it for last because we already had a good vision of the city in our heads. The second museum was beautifully didactic with a wide variety of old & new textiles on display, even modern textile art. I literally wanted to enroll after seeing this place!
Our trip wouldn’t be complete without several walks through a variety of neighborhoods. Close to our first hotel, we loved the vibe around NoMa & H Street NE. Even better, scattered throughout DC are signs with guided routes to learn more about each area:
Even around busy, central areas, the housing can be spectacular. I don’t remember Chinatown being so crowded, but that could have been due to a Washington Nationals baseball game we stumbled upon while having beer in the Navy Yard neighborhood:
I didn’t expect the Watergate building to be so curvy! The National Cathedral is beautiful, but we weren’t going to pay $18 each to visit the interior. Please. Loved the houses that trolled the Russian Embassy from across the street… painting fences with the Ukraine flag or waving banners to stop the war. Holy Rood Cemetery had surprising views, & we really enjoyed that whole stroll down Wisconsin Ave to Georgetown:
If only I’d read more about Logan Circle before visiting! The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House sat on a gorgeous street with Gil Scott-Heron’s house at the end… & of course, John Logan’s house right there. We saw stunning decor inside St. Matthew’s Cathedral, plus a slice of Sevilla at Taberna del Alabardero. We didn’t eat there, but the food we saw looked really, really good.
Given that our second hotel sat near Dupont Circle & so many embassies, we dedicated a morning to those buildings & walked out to Kalorama. Obama’s street had some security & no access, but the rest of the area had gorgeous homes. I waved to Portugal & France & enjoyed the old fire station call boxes.
Food & fun
Loyal readers & friends know that Rafa & I make craft beer a priority in the US; however, we didn’t find as many breweries as expected. What gives? Good news is that we loved what we found. Red Bear Brewing Co. turned out to be a lot of fun, & we even went back a second night when there was a drag show. Lost Generation Brewing Company had amazing IPAs & even better BBQ… as usual, we missed a bus & decided to walk all the way back to the hotel. Fun, fun evening! We also made it to Right Proper, Atlas Brew Works & Tap99 with self-service taps.
Our one Mexican meal at the 24-hour Surfside taco stand might have been the best nachos we’ve ever had, but no question that the best pizza was at Pizzeria Paradiso. Rice Bar had wonderful bibimbap & chicken curry with super nice staff. Rafa tried Vietnamese food for the first time, but we missed out on Ethiopian. No danger of going hungry or lack of variety in DC!
If you’ve made it this far, you can imagine how exhausted we were at the end of each day! With so much inflation & the $/€ exchange rate, Rafa & I always try to take advantage of every moment when we travel, especially to such an epic destination as Washington, DC. People we met along the way were very, very friendly… one of our tests of travel is thinking: could we live here? And yes, without a doubt, but we’d need a substantial increase in income 😉 In ten days, of course we only scratched the surface. But we learned so much & have such great memories that this trip will stay in our minds forever.