Virginia offers many holiday delights, from spectacular scenic drives to sandy beaches to wineries to historic attractions. And, as Donna Dailey discovered, it’s perfectly placed for a day trip to see the iconic sights of Washington DC.
From atop the ridge, we looked down into the blanket of misty grey fog that filled the Shenandoah Valley. Above us, there was blue sky and sunshine. We sat on the rocks, enjoying the cool morning air as we watched the clouds swirl, letting shafts of sunlight penetrate the haze to light up the farms and fields far below.
It felt like we were a million miles from anywhere, but in fact, we were less than 75 miles from Washington DC. With its stunning Blue Ridge Mountains, colourful forests, pretty valleys and Atlantic coastline, you could easily spend a Virginia holiday in rural relaxation. A sometimes overlooked bonus is that many of the popular resorts are a 90-minute to 3-hour drive from the nation’s capital.
Washington DC is synonymous with American politics. But the corridors of power are set on and around the National Mall, a veritable theme park for grown-ups filled with iconic national monuments and stunning museums that showcase the nation’s history, culture, and art. With dozens of things to see, we planned our visit carefully to make the most of our time.
The National Mall
It was my husband’s first trip to Washington DC, so we decided to start by exploring the National Mall. Here, you can see the full grandeur of this proud capital city.
The Mall is the gathering place of the nation, the focal point of progressive marches and political demonstrations, historic speeches and presidential inaugurations. It’s also a national park, with convenient visitor facilities.
The Mall was first envisioned by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Washington’s original city planner, in 1791. He proposed a grand avenue, one mile long and lined with gardens, which would run west from the Capitol to an equestrian statue of George Washington, directly south of the White House. But this was never built. Over the next century, a series of landscaped parks, squares and public buildings were constructed that began to resemble its present form.
Constitution Avenue borders the Mall on the north side and Independence Avenue on the south. Almost bang in the centre is the Washington Monument. Today the Mall runs for two miles - double the length of L’Enfant’s original plan - from the US Capitol in the east to the Lincoln Memorial in the west. It’s a good thing we wore our walking shoes.
Washington is a compact city, and the main sights are relatively close together, so if time is limited you can see quite a lot in just one day. Two days or more is better if you want to visit some of the museums and tour the Capitol as well.
The city has an excellent public transport system, with several Metro stations on or just off the Mall. Union Station, just a few minutes’ walk from the Capitol, is the hub for trains from around the region and connects with several Metro and bus routes.
For more active options, several companies offer bike and Segway tours of the Mall. The Capital Bikeshare program is another easy way to see the sights on two wheels.
Although we quite fancied the idea of gliding along the Mall on a Segway, we opted for a leisurely stroll so we could linger at favourite spots along the way. We began at the western front of the US Capitol, with its famous view looking down the Mall. Presidential inaugurations have been held here since Ronald Reagan’s day.
No matter how jaded your view of politics may be, the sight of this graceful domed building with its classical columns and symmetrical chambers is impressive - inside and out. Tours of the Capitol start from the Capitol Visitor Center on the eastern side. The 45-minute tours are free, and although reservations aren’t required, same-day passes are limited during busy times so it’s advisable to book ahead.
On the lower level of the visitor centre, Exhibition Hall tells the story of the Capitol and US Congress through artefacts, rare documents and models. East of the Capitol are the Library of Congress and US Supreme Court, which can also be toured.
The Mall officially begins west of the Capitol grounds. We walked around the lovely reflecting pool, past the US Botanic Gardens and into the centre of the long, green lawn.
The first half of the Mall is lined either side with museums, and art galleries, making it a virtual museum row. Eleven of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums are located here. Museum cafes are the best places on the Mall itself to grab a coffee or a bite to eat. Best of all, the museums are free, making it easy to pop in and out for a brief taste of their wide-ranging collections.
Our quick look at the National Air and Space Museum revealed a stunning entrance hall with “Milestones of Flight” on display. They included the Spirit of St. Louis flown by Charles Lindbergh in the first solo transatlantic flight; the Apollo 11 command capsule used in the first moon landing, and the filming model for Star Trek’s starship Enterprise.
Back outdoors, we wandered through the sculpture gardens of the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery of Art. The red sandstone Smithsonian Institution Building, built in 1847-1855, is the oldest on the Mall. Better known as the Castle, it now houses an information centre. This is a good place to stop for maps and questions.
We also popped in to the National Museum of American History for a look at its star exhibit. The Star Spangled Banner, the great garrison flag that flew over Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812, inspired the poem by Francis Scott Key which became the lyrics to the national anthem. It is now displayed in a special chamber on the second floor.
The newest addition to the Mall is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016. It is also part of the Smithsonian Institution. Spread over five floors, its exhibits range from moving displays on slavery and the struggle for Civil Rights to memorabilia from leading African Americans in contemporary times.
The Washington Monument
Nearby, the Washington Monument rises above the approximate midpoint of the Mall. Standing around 169 metres high, and made of marble, granite and bluestone gneiss, it is the tallest obelisk in the world.
This simple, stunning memorial to George Washington, begun in 1848, far supersedes Pierre L’Enfant’s original idea for an equestrian statue. Construction was delayed part way through, first by lack of funds, then by the Civil War. Look closely and you’ll notice that the lower third of the obelisk is a lighter shade, as the marble came from different quarries. It was finally completed in 1885.
The White House
Directly north of the Washington Monument is America’s most famous residence. The White House, home to US presidents since 1800, stands a few blocks off the Mall, across the wide expanse of green known as the Ellipse. Encircled by a kilometre-long road, this park is the scene of several annual events, including the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.
Beyond is the south facade of the White House with its gleaming, semi-circular portico. Designed by the Irish-born architect James Hoban, it was modelled after the grand Georgian country houses of Ireland, and Leinster House in Dublin, seat of the Irish parliament. But he didn’t live to see its completion, and was the only US president never to have slept here.
A security fence prevents you from getting up close, so we had to admire it from a distance. Then, just as we started back across the Ellipse, three military helicopters roared overhead in formation. As they approached the White House, two escort helicopters broke away as the third landed on the South Lawn. It was Marine One, carrying the President of the United States.
Although there are free tours of the White House, you need to apply for tickets months in advance. And you have to go through a member of Congress or your embassy (for foreign visitors) to get them. It may be easier just to enjoy the artefacts and film at the White House Visitor Center, east of the Ellipse. Or simply admire its exterior beauty while pondering the 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases, swimming pool, bowling alley, movie theatre and more within.
The Tidal Basin
A popular tale surrounding George Washington is that, when he was a boy, he chopped down his father’s favourite cherry tree. When confronted by his irate parent, he admitted the deed, saying “I cannot tell a lie".
True or not, this legend endures and cherry trees, with their beautiful pink blossoms, have long been associated with Washington DC. The tradition began in 1912 with a gift of more than 3,000 cherry trees from Japan. Most were planted around the Tidal Basin and in East Potomac Park.
Each spring the National Cherry Blossom Festival, held in late March to mid-April, is one of the city’s largest events. Dates are set around the peak blossoming time, which varies from year to year according to the weather.
The Tidal Basin lies directly south of the Washington Monument. As well as creating a landscape feature, this reservoir was constructed to flush silt from the adjacent Washington Channel. During warmer months you can rent paddle boats here for a cooling splash across the water, which is only three metres deep.
Although the cherry blossoms were long gone by our visit in May, we strolled down for the lovely views from the shore, the water and trees softly framing the landmarks of the Mall. We couldn’t resist following the loop trail around the Tidal Basin, which took about an hour. It took us to several points of interest, including monuments honouring Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.
The Lincoln Memorial
West of the Washington Monument, we walked beside the long, narrow reflecting pool, shimmering with the image of the obelisk. This end of the Mall is dotted with memorials commemorating the veterans of America’s 20th-century wars, from the First World War to Vietnam.
Anchoring the far end, near the Potomac River, is one of the Mall’s most famous sights: the Lincoln Memorial. Shaped like a Doric temple, it contains a huge statue of President Abraham Lincoln, with inscriptions from his well-known speeches.
The monument, long a symbol of freedom and civil rights, has been the site of many important rallies. Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps here during the March on Washington in 1963. An inscription marks the spot where he stood.
As we gazed back at the Washington Monument, with the Capitol a distant dot beyond, it was a fitting place to end our first day in DC. But Washington’s wealth of museums still beckoned, and luckily, we were close enough to make a second day trip during our stay.
Museums and more
As journalists, we were especially keen to visit the Newseum, located just off the Mall on Pennsylvania Avenue. Dedicated to journalism in all its forms, the front windows are plastered with Today’s Front Pages, giving a daily round-up of headlines from around the world.
Inside, galleries are spread over six levels, with informative and sometimes humorous displays ranging from editorial cartoons to clips of early broadcast journalism to coverage of key world events. The gallery of Pulitzer Prize Photographs is filled with images so moving they brought tears to my eyes. In these days of “fake news” and media skepticism, this insightful look at press freedom seemed very relevant indeed.
From the black and white truths of the newsroom, we visited the shady world of espionage at the International Spy Museum. This delightful, interactive museum holds the largest collection of espionage artefacts ever placed on display.
After choosing cover identities, which I cannot reveal, we entered the School for Spies to develop our spy skills and examine secret weapons from a lipstick pistol to bugging devices to a James Bond car. Other exhibits told intriguing tales of past intelligence operations and outed some surprising spies from history, while video interviews with real-life, contemporary spies recounting their scariest ‘Bond Moments’ brought this shadowy underworld into the light.
It was a fun way to end our museum crawl, but we had only scratched the surface. There were plenty more art galleries, museums and monuments to visit, a wealth of good restaurants to try, and historic neighbourhoods like Georgetown to explore. Our DC daytrip was just the beginning.
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