I have got to be the biggest sap around.
I am the one who cries during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner with the Fourth of July Fireworks Display.
I am the one who cries watching Presidential Inaugurations — no matter who is President and regardless of which candidate I supported.
I am the one who directed a group of 11-year olds, standing in a circle in the center of the National Mall, Washington Memorial on one side, Capitol on the other, as they sang “As I Went Down the River to Pray,” with tears running down my face.
So much more the meaning in visiting our nation’s Capitol, Washington, DC.
First of all, let’s talk about when you should go: Springtime is breathtaking (but spring break for schools can be crowded – or fun) and summer is quite warm. As is expected in a mid-Atlantic location with almost perfectly equal seasons, winters are typically cold with the occasional snowstorm. Autumn is ideal with mild weather and gorgeous fall color.
Next, where to stay. Many deals can be found in Virginia and Maryland, and the Metro makes it possible to easily access the prime attractions the Metropolitan DC area has to offer.
Previously we had stayed in Vienna, Virginia, at a reasonably priced hotel, parked at the Vienna Metro station and taken the train into the city. This time we chose to stay in Crystal City, Virginia, at the Marriott Gateway, which was divine! Besides having very reasonable rates, we could walk from the lobby directly into both the Crystal City Shops and the Crystal City Metro Station. Voila! How easy is that?
For the Metro, you could certainly pay per ride, but if you are going to use this fantastic system as your main transportation, then purchase an unlimited and unrestricted 7-day Metro Card, which at the time of this writing is $40.50. Please be aware that if you decide to spend $8.00 on a one-day pass, it is not valid until 9:30am, and most adventurers prefer getting out earlier to avoid the crowds.
The Metro, by the way, is clean and safe and easy.
From Crystal City, we got on the Blue Line towards “Largo” (the end of the Blue Line) which took us first to Pentagon City (home of The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City), then Pentagon, then Arlington Cemetery, Roslyn, Foggy Bottom/George Washington University, McPherson Square, Farragut West, Metro Center (transfer to Red line for Chinatown), Federal Triangle, Smithsonian – you get the idea. After the first ride or so, we had memorized the map, which made getting around quick and simple. To go back to the hotel, we just got on the Blue Line towards “Franconia.” Awesome! It was so easy that everyone could figure it out!
The Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall are free and fabulous. Leave yourself a couple of days to enjoy them. The Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History are always favorites. Skip the McDonalds at the Air and Space Museum and check out Mitsitam Café located on the first floor of the Museum of the American Indian. With a menu featuring native cuisines of the America’s, it’s fantastic and different than anything around!
In order to tour the Capitol and the White House groups are advised to contact their local Congressman approximately nine months ahead of their trip. Individuals can contact the White House via their website for tour reservations up to six months in advance, while reservations to tour the Capitol can be made up to three months in ahead of time. Especially if you are traveling with a group you may be required to submit your birth information, parents’ names and the future of your firstborn child – all in the name of security. It is worth it, though. It’s not like they are going to let just anybody wearing a red dress and a tux walk right into a State Dinner, right?
Oops, they did.
When we toured the White House, we had a couple of kids in our group who, by some administrative error, were not on the “list.” They were quickly diverted to Starbucks for the Frappuccino Distraction. In the end I think they had more fun than those who actually went on the brief White House tour, who complained, “Five Rooms! We only got to see Five Rooms?”
Off the Foggy Bottom Metro stop, we had dinner at the Froggy Bottom Pub. When I read about this restaurant a while back, it was described as a down-to-earth place where staffers, families, students and congressmen could all mix together. Run by Hoang & Hien Bui, the restaurant boasts an incredibly efficient kitchen and affordable and delicious food. The flavor and texture of the marinara I had on pasta made for probably the finest I have ever eaten.
On two evenings we took advantage of the fantastic and free concerts offered each evening at the Kennedy Center. Held in the Grand Foyer on the Millennium Stage, the concerts start at 6pm and last about an hour and a half. Visit the Kennedy Center website for current schedule and plan on arriving 30 – 45 minutes early to ensure seating.
Another evening we attended an amazing production of “Little Shop of Horrors ” at the Ford’s Theatre located a few blocks from the Metro Center Station. Theater goers have the option to visit the Lincoln Museum located underneath the theatre. We did go down there but I have to say that I had no interest in seeing Booth’s gun, or Lincoln’s torn coat. Apparently some people like that sort of thing. To see what’s playing and buy advance tickets visit the Ford’s Theater website.
If time allows consider heading over to Mount Vernon to visit the beautiful estate and grounds of George Washington. Advance reservations will get you a breathtaking 45-minute boat ride on the Potomac. A crowd favorite was the 4D informational movie where the seats shake and snow falls on the audience!
Lastly, any DC adventure would be incomplete without a visit to Arlington Cemetery. Every hour, on the hour, a ceremony is held at the top of the hill for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (also known as Tomb of the Unknowns.) From the Arlington Cemetery Metro Stop it is approximately a 20 minute, uphill walk to the Tomb. To play it safe plan on arriving at the metro stop by twenty minutes after the hour to make the ceremony at the top of the next. After the ceremony, be sure to stick around for a few minutes. There may be a wreath ceremony and a coronet player will play “Taps”. (Yes, I cried.)
We told the kids that this was not just a place where people are buried, but this was a place that reminded us of those things upon which our country was built. The Tomb of the Unknowns has a way of saying so much more:
The United States of America was not built on iPods, flat-screen televisions, “pants on the ground” and weight-loss infomercials. It was built on the simple beauty of early morning light coming over the Virginia hills, marked by hundreds of thousands of white markers, underneath which are buried men and women who gave their lives, their dreams and their futures so you and I and our children could be who we want to be… and to grow to be who we were meant to be in this lifetime.
We honor those generous souls by showing up for them.
Like I said, I have got to be the biggest sap around.
And I am a Patriot.
Editor’s Note: If you’ve ever been to DC with your family or a school group, we want to hear about it! Any cool tips or experiences you’d like to share?