How to Play Tourist for 24 Hours in Washington, DC

November 1, 2014

I landed in Washington, D.C. at 11am on a Friday morning. It was my first time in the city, and I had roughly 24 hours to explore before my workshop began on Saturday morning. Being in a new place for a short amount of time can be rough because you’re tempted to try and see as many things as possible. In my experience, following this urge can lead you to spend most of your time running around or in transit instead of actually enjoying your surroundings. There is nothing particularly enjoyable about riding subways for the majority of your trip. Luckily, in Washington the downtown core is pretty concentrated and most of the things you’d want to see on your first trip to Washington are within a few blocks of each other. Here’s how I split up my day:

Step 1: Check into hostel and get a crêpe around the corner at Point Chaud Café and Crêpes on 11th.

Step 2: You’re in Washington. Visit the White House, obviously (be slightly saddened when you aliens attack it, or that nobody crazy tries to hop the fence and make a mad dash across the lawn). If you look closely at this picture, you can see the secret service has set up all kinds of cool-looking scopes and bins across the roof.

Step 2.5: Tour the White House. I didn’t get to do this (this time), because of time constraints and also because I didn’t know about the lengthy vetting process beforehand, but if you’re a Canadian and you want to tour the White House, you have to contact the Canadian Embassy in D.C. beforehand, submit your passport, and a bunch of other rigamarole before you get let in. (A/N: as of Oct. 3, they’ve actually stopped reserving tours for the general public, but hopefully they’ll re-open soon).

Step 3: The National Mall/Smithsonian Museums

Check out all the free museums (kind of impossible to do in one day, but try your best).

The National Mall in D.C. is a huge strip of public park place that is kind of like the tourist landing strip in D.C. It begins shortly after the White House at the Lincoln Memorial, and extends 1.6km (metric – America, you’ll never take me alive!) as a grand avenue all the way until the Capitol Building. If you’ve only got one day in Washington, this is definitely where you want to go.

It’s also where the bulk of the Smithsonian museums are located. There isn’t just one ‘Smithsonian’ building. The Smithsonian is an institute, created in 1846 for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”, which is a totally badass and liberal-arts-y sounding goal that I can get behind. There are 19 Smithsonian museums (plus the National Zoological Park), and all are 100% free. Zero dollars. You just walk in. Free education for the masses. If you’re used to touristy American experiences like Disneyland, where they try to stripmine the money out of your pockets just for breathing in their magical air, then the free entrance to the Smithsonian museums will seem truly surreal.

Myself, I hit up the Hirschhorn Art and Sculpture Garden, The Air and Space Museum, The Smithsonian Castle, and the Museum of Natural History. Because I was running on a limited timeframe, I ducked into each, bookmarked my favourite exhibits to check out, and then ducked into another one. Very easy to do when you’re not hampered by entrance fees. You could easily spend an entire week in Washington just visiting the museums.

Step 4: Newseum

Once you’ve gotten your fill of hot dogs, museums, outdoor gardens and beautiful sculptures, head over to the Newseum. This was also the only museum I had to pay an entrance fee for, but considering I hadn’t paid for anything else thus far, I didn’t mind shelling out the $20, which I’d normally consider pretty expensive.  I only had about an hour here, as the museum closes at 5pm (although your ticket is valid for the next day if you show up late), but I’m glad I went. It is now personally one of my favourite museums.

The Newseum is amazing. For starters, the outside of the building has glass display cases that are updated daily with newspapers covers from around the world.

It is a seven-level archive/art gallery/exhibit centre/theatre, all journalism-related.  They’ve done a great job of setting it up to be accessible for non-journalism-savvy people as well, including a great introduction video that showcases many of the museums features, and helped me decide where to hit up.

There’s a great history of journalism section, as well as minorities in journalism showcase that I really enjoyed. Large quotes from that will make any J-school student’s spine tingle are engraved into the marble walls.

There is another section of the museum that is set up as a ‘game’, where you’re the newscaster and have to make ethical calls in ‘real time’. There’s also a beautiful outdoor terrace on the top floor, which provides a great view of the Capitol Building, the surrounding area, including the Canadian Embassy next door, and the National Museum of Art across the street.

There was a 9/11 exhibit room, which included the radio tower from one of the original two World Trade Center Towers in NYC. On the walls of the room were displayed the front pages of various newspapers from around the world the day after 9/11. When put together, it’s easy to see several words pop out over and over again: terror, attack, evil, America. That would really set the media tone for years to come.

I love seeing the different headlines from various sources for the same event. Is there a website out there that provides this service? I would love to know about it.

There was also a fantastic feature exhibit by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders called ‘The Boomer List’, a large-format portrait series of 19 men and women who’ve made revolutionary contributions to society, each born a different year of the baby boom, covering the years 1946-1964. Some of my favourites who appeared on the list: Amy Tan (I’m excited to read ‘The Valley of Amazement’!), Deepak Chopra, Maria Shriver, and Eve Ensler.

I’m pleased to report that the gift shop also offered plenty Anchorman and grumpy cat paraphernalia.

After the Newseum closed, I walked around the city leisurely, enjoying the sights on my way to the next stop…

Step 5: Obelisk, Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial was incredibly moving. It’s such an iconic sight, and I’ve seen it referenced in so many films. It was great to finally experience it in person. I got there right before dusk, so I saw the reflecting pool/obelisk/memorial both at day and lit up as night fell. I saw the huge, Zeus-like statue of Abe, and the classic ‘Four Score and Seven Years Ago…’ text from the Gettysburg Speech carved into the wall to his right:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

— Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address

 I spent the evening getting some good food, and prepping for my workshop the next day.

Step 6: Walk around, relax (you’ve hit up all the main sights), eat some food:

Here are some places to check out:

  • Ben’s Chili Bowl – Damn good chili. Iconic landmark restaurant. Tons of famous people have eaten here, and the chili/legend both rock.
  • Mimosa – a nail bar in the Du Pont area of Washington. They offer you champagne and orange juice while you get your  mani/pedi. This neighbourhood also has a lot of classy shops and restaurants. If you’ve got a bit of money to spend, this is a good place to do it.
  • Uncle Chips (sandwich and cookie place. Freaking fantastic). – A little bit off the beaten path. I ate lunch here on both days of my workshop. The sandwiches are magnificently crafted, and have great names, such as (my person favourite) ‘Saigon Sam’ (Pulled Pork, Carrot, Cilantro, Spicy Peanut Sauce); ‘Alison, I Know This World is Killing You’ (Tongol Tuna, Capers, Red Onions & Mayo with Provolone); ‘Buffalo Bill’ (“It puts the BBQ sauce on the bread.” Pulled pork, BBQ Sauce, House made slaw), and many others. Eat here. It is good.
  • Chinatown – I always check out the Chinatown in any city I’m in. I didn’t stay too long here because I was in a hurry on Saturday morning when I came through, but the Starbucks has a very nice view of the arches from the 2nd floor.

Some Final Observations About Washington:

  • Very white. Not demographically, but architecturally. There’s a lot of very clean, white facades with greek columns.
  • Not too tall . Nothing in Washington can be higher than the Capitol building. I love this. One of my least favourite things about large cities is that lots of tall buildings blocking out the sky makes me feel claustrophobic, like I’m in a maze (hello Seoul, Tokyo).
  • Long crosswalk times – I was pleasantly surprised to see that some crosswalks offered you a whole 60 seconds to cross! This was awesome, and I imagine way more friendly for people who have a hard time moving quickly.
  • You have to pay for green bin pickup, and it’s not mandatory. Therefore, a lot of places don’t do it. My hostel didn’t have one, and I was very confused as to what to do with my leftovers. It felt a bit strange and kind of wrong just tossing them in the garbage. It made me appreciate Halifax’s municipal compost pickup service.
  • The biggest negative – I observed and was the object of a lot of catcalling. It happened mostly when I was further away from the main downtown area, sort of north and north-east of Chinatown. I did find that in the main downtown core, people were extremely pleasant, nice, and helpful. An electrician waiting for a client to show up even used his smartphone to help me find the nearest grocery store when I got lost and was without wifi (the rates to use data on my Canadian phone while in the USA are criminally high).
  • On Sunday morning you can hear church bells ringing throughout the downtown, which was a great atmospheric touch.
  • Cabbing – getting a taxi is not too bad within the downtown core. They’re almost everywhere, and a trip across town will probably only cost you about $12, so it’s a nice option if you’re in a hurry, and definitely would be worth it if you’re travelling in a group.
  • The Pentagon has its own subway stop. So funny, in Canada the Pentagon definitely has an aura of mystery to it, and yet when you’re riding the blue line, the ‘Pentagon’ stop is right there, and so mundane (although the stop itself does have some ominous under lighting beneath the words Pentagon, which kind of makes you feel like you’re on a dystopian movie set)

For more photos of Washington, check out the Flickr album, here.