Spring break in Washington D.C.

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 21, 2024, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

People are fond of talking about visiting Washington D.C. on a an eighth grade trip, but going to an inner city school at the time, that wasn't a thing for me. I've driven around it a few times (Atlantic coast roller coaster trips when I was into that). We've talked about it as an educational opportunity, and with Simon studying American history this year, it seemed like as good a time as any. We've got friends who live in the area too, including Ken, who lives in the middle of it all.

We played pretty fast and loose with planning. I booked the flights, and found a hotel about half way between the Capitol and the White House. The Riggs used to be a bank. It's pretty obvious when you step inside, and they fashioned the front desk to still look like teller windows. There's a bar in the basement (which was unfortunately being renovated) in what used to be the vault, and they still have the massive door there. Overall, service was pretty great when we needed it, it was super clean and comfortable, and a solid home base for the four nights. It's a little expensive, but so is everything in D.C., and you can't beat the location.

Ken met us at the airport, because he just happened to be coming in for a work trip an hour before us. What was great about this is he had a few Metro cards for us, and I never so much as looked up a map. We just got on the train with him, since we were going almost the same place. Fortunately, the room was ready when we arrived at 1, so we were able to drop our junk and get some lunch across the street at a Shake Shack. It's not particularly economical, but we went more than once because Simon is picky about food.

After lunch, we went out to the mall just to take it in. Being about three blocks from it was perfect. Since we were there, we headed over to Air & Space, which we quickly learned required a "ticketed" time, since it was half-closed for renovation, but still popular. The Smithsonian museums are all free, but this one, along with the African American Museum, require specific entry times. That's really the worst wing-it mistake we made, but also not a big deal because there's so much to do.

We did a quick loop through the Natural History museum, and if you've been in one with a decent collection, honestly, they don't differentiate themselves much. It was so busy. After that, we met up with Ken and his lady friend and walked down to the Capitol, and just kind of hung out there for a bit. Simon was starting to get hangry, but unfortunately would not agree to eat at any of the places on Pennsylvania Ave. The youngest among us was tired of walking. So we went back to our hotel, got Simon more Shake Shack, and the rest of us went further down E to The Hamilton, where the food was solid, and the drinks were even better. We ended the night checking out Ken's place and a laser show.

Saturday was planned entirely around our scheduled White House visit. Going there is a whole thing, which starts with filling out a form from your representative well in advance. I guess there's some kind of random drawing, but if picked, they send you an email asking you to submit all of the details for your party, presumably to do a background check. We got all of that and had a noon time to arrive. When you get there, they verify your identity twice, which seemed a little weird. Then you walked between a fan and a dog, and finally through a magnetometer while they X-rayed the smallest of allowable items. From there, you follow the fence to the east gate, and enter through the east wing.

There's a White House experience app that walks you through all of the places you'll go, so check that out if you're interested. You cross the east wing through the colonnade, passing the movie theater, and you can peak in the China Room, library and Vermeil Room. From there, you go up the stairs and into the East Room. That's where it got interesting, because you more or less do a loop all the way around the second floor. From the East Room, you go through the Green, Blue and Red Rooms, then the State Dining Room. At this point, you turn back toward the Cross Hall and Foyer. It kind of makes you realize how relatively small the building is. The upper floor is the residence, with the various historic bedrooms, but you obviously don't get to go up there. They don't send you through the West Wing either, but that kind of makes sense since that's where people are actively working. The parts you go through are pretty extraordinary though, as they roll up the carpet and create lanes for you to walk through. The age and history behind much of the art is just staggering. My understanding is that the furniture is from a pool that presidents can choose from, so while much of it is quite old, the sets in the rooms vary from one president to the next.

But to stand there in those rooms, knowing all of the figures of history that stood in those same spots... I found it very moving. But it's also a reminder of the serious job that the presidency is, something that seems to be lost in the current political climate. That's a subject for another post.

We followed our White House visit with a stop for lunch at The Hamilton, then worked our way down to the Washington Monument to meet up with a friend that Diana used to work with in Orlando. Eventually we headed back up to a Walgreens for snacks, then back to the hotel to rest a bit. That night, we planed to walk around the basin to the monuments.

The cherry blossoms hit a little early because of a warm spell of weather, so that was lucky. The walk around the basin was surprisingly dark, with the first stop being the Jefferson Memorial. It's such a crazy structure. The quotes on the inside are inspiring, and again, remind you of the gravity of the position. We also hit a snag here, when Simon thought he lost his earbuds (they were in his other pocket), resulting in an almost-meltdown. I drifted between sympathetic protector to stern disciplinarian in those moments, but it was ultimately a false alarm. Unfortunately, his demeanor changed from there on, and he insisted that he wanted to go back to the hotel. Being half-way around, it didn't matter really.

The FDR Memorial felt like a random series of water features, but shortly thereafter we reached the MLK Jr. Memorial, which I thought was extraordinary. It's modern but still timeless. And his quotes are both inspiring, and a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go.

Next was the Lincoln Memorial, which has all kinds of construction and restoration going on around it. He's another extraordinary figure in history, and arguably one of the most critical in making sure the US stayed a country. From there we walked around the WWII Memorial, and eventually back to the hotel. We walked almost 12 miles that day, and we were all feeling it.

Sunday, we got out of bed pretty late. We intended to go to the American History Museum, and maybe Air & Space at 3 if we were up to it (we had a reservation), but we weren't. The main priority in American History was their new-ish exhibit about the influence of popular entertainment, and it's really, really good. They have the ruby slippers, some Muppets, and even Lin-Manuel's Hamilton costume. We also went through their first lady and president exhibits, the latter of which includes the top hat that Lincoln was wearing when he was shot. There was a food exhibit with Julia Child's kitchen. We were ready to pack it in, when Simon noticed the trains in the transportation wing, so we were there a little longer. I was just happy that he found something interesting to him.

Knowing we pushed him the day before, we were content to let Simon just hang out and watch videos or whatever the rest of the night. Meanwhile, we met Ken at a pub and racked up a fairly large bar tab on St. Patrick's Day. The weird thing is that it wasn't really busy, and much of the city was like that. Ken explained that was pretty typical, the ebb and flow of crowds and tourists. It's also influenced by fed workers who tend to be remote on Monday and Friday.

On our last full day, our only intentional stop was the International Spy Museum, which is far from free, but easily the second-best thing we saw after the White House. The collection and exhibit design is exceptional. The upper floor is mostly about technology and historic profiles, while the next one down is more about history, including intelligence failures like 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, war spying, interrogation, Germany as the wall came down, terrorism, etc. All of it is really well done, including a big multi-surface video piece that talks about Washington's role as the first president and commissioner of American spies. Chris Jackson ("George Washington" in Hamilton) hosts it. People were bypassing it, and they missed out. The museum also had a temporary exhibit of James Bond vehicles from the various movies. We spent four hours there, more than any other place, and we could have stayed longer.

We had to pass the US Archives on our way back, so at 5, we figured we'd roll up to the place and see if we could get a quick look at the founding documents. Sure enough, there was no line, and we walked right in. The Constitution is in decent condition, but the Declaration of Independence is faded to the point of it being illegible. The Bill of Rights isn't much better. But they're there, the real thing, and again it's inspiring to think about what those folks were getting themselves into at the time.

We dropped another $60 at Shake Shack, this time actually getting milk shakes, despite it being like 43 degrees. The Smithsonian museums might be free, but it's expensive to eat and drink in the district. At this point, we had walked about 30 miles over four days, and we were pretty spent. We saw a lot of stuff. Diana and I met Ken for one more drink, and were in bed by 9, if not actually sleeping. Fortunately, check-out time wasn't until noon.

It was a very busy vacation, but totally worth it. We definitely want to go back, eventually. The comfortable, centrally located hotel made a huge difference. I left with a lot of thoughts about government and history, and I'll write about those eventually. I'm so glad we did this.


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