Last week, my wife, daughter and I visited Washington D.C. It was a fantastic trip to a great city, and it is somewhere I would be very pleased to visit again.
The trip was planned because we were attending a wedding in South Carolina, and wanted to make a vacation of it, considering we’d both need to take some time off work for the trip anyway. We also could not leave our daughter for that long, so we decided to do a road trip. A road trip would allow us to have room to take everything we needed for a toddler, and have the capability of doing what we wanted to do, without the stress of air travel.
We had packed on Monday so that both Sheila and I could work all day on Tuesday. After work, we set off from our place in Tinley Park, Illinois at about 8pm (7pm local), and drove to somewhere this side of Cleveland, stopping at about 1am.
The only real difficulty on the drive was that our daughter is potty trained. We had to stop a lot for her to use bathrooms, because although she was wearing a diaper, the trust she needs to have in us when she says “potty”, that we’ll stop every time, is very important. So we stopped, a lot…
Rising early and setting off by 7am, we got close to DC in the early afternoon and decided we would go straight to the National Zoo, as we would be unable to book into our hotel, and too tired to do much else that afternoon.
The Zoo was quite nice, but much busier than I like a Zoo to be. I’m spoiled by the fact that when I visit Zoos in the winter, I usually have the place to myself… That said, I did have the privilege of seeing an Elephant and a Giant Panda with my own eyes for the first time.
My daughter had been obsessed with Elephants (Ele-pha-nets as she sometimes says it) prior to the trip, so it was really cool to take her.
We left the Zoo once we got tired of walking around, and started our drive into the city, only to find a bunch of the roads are closed in the afternoon to help with traffic congestion. We basically kept following the GPS in, and would find a road blocked, then again, then again. Eventually I just drove in the vague direction that I thought would be open, ignoring the GPS in the process, then started to follow it again. It worked, and the GPS then took me a route which was not closed.
I really didn’t find the traffic system confusing, or driving there a problem in the slightest. I had read a lot of negative comments about driving in DC, and although I think some people couldn’t do it, I loved it (I also like driving downtown Chicago, maybe I’m just crazy). Some of the streets were really tight, obviously built before the invention of the car, but then I am British… All our roads are like that.
It was interesting to see that on certain streets, which were really tight, parked cars had massive scratches down the sides where people had driven into them trying to squeeze by. My wife was very trusting with my awareness, she didn’t say a word, even when I was on the worst streets.
We checked into the hotel we had for the first night (L’Enfant Plaza Hotel) by about 7pm, and ordered room service, too tired at that point to do anything else, or go anywhere else.
We were up very early, and moved our car from the one under our first hotel, to the parking garage next to the second hotel (Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill). We then sat for breakfast in West Wing Cafe, and walked out towards Capitol Hill.
It felt really amazing to be in this place, to look down the Mall, and to see the Washington Monument. Not many people were around, it was still before 8am, so we took our time snapping photos and looking around.
Continuing down the Mall towards the Washington Monument, we could see the museums on either side, and knew that we were unlikely to have any time to visit any during our trip. Sheila wanted to see the Archives containing the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, while I wanted to go to the Air and Space Museum. We both agreed though that we would do the Mall first, get the walking out of the way, then possibly try to do the museums afterwards.
The most impressive thing for me in the first half of the Mall was the US Capitol Building, by a long way, it is so beautiful, full of features, and a piece of art. The Washington Monument didn’t do much for me, personally, and I think it is dwarfed by the feeling you get when you walk into the Lincoln Memorial as we did later on, but I’m getting ahead of myself…
Before the Lincoln Memorial, came the World War II memorial. I really liked it, the bronze bas relief art especially. It showed almost every major aspect of the war, including a notable one showing women working on aircraft construction, and another showing a Priest reading over a dead soldier, surrounded by the makeshift graves on the battlefield.
A short walk from the World War II memorial came the Lincoln Memorial. This was, by far, the highlight of our trip to the city. Walking into the building, you are filled with the sense of awe the designers probably wanted you to feel, and Lincoln feels as huge to you as he probably should. The minimalism feeling of white marble in there, mixed with beautifully colorful religious art and stained glass ceilings used to transmit light, are breathtaking. It feels like a spiritual place, and this is coming from someone without a spiritual bone in his body.
After the Lincoln Memorial, we crossed the bridge into Virginia and walked to the Arlington National Cemetery. We saw the grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), which was (for me) an “I’ve been there” experience. I was far more affected really by the ordinary graves, which reminded me a lot of the World War I battlefield graves in France that I went to as a teenager on a school trip. There was something both moving and deeply beautiful about them.
We walked back to DC across the bridge, then began walking towards the White House. I knew it would be small, but it still shocked me. Again, this was another “I’ve been there” experience, just somewhere very cool to have been, but still overshadowed in my mind by the Lincoln Memorial, and even by some of the beautiful buildings in the city. I was a bit shocked at how easily you could get to see it, and how close you could be. Although I am sure security were everywhere, it really didn’t feel like it.
The fact we had been walking all day was starting to get to us now… We were both very weary. We stopped at a nearby restaurant and ate lunch, before making our way towards the National Archives. When we got there, we were really disappointed to see a massive line outside, so we decided not to go. We had already discussed making another trip to DC, and now we knew to make this our first stop when we do.
Still weary, we made our way to the Air and Space museum, but I was really tired from all the driving and walking, we basically walked in, turned 360 degrees, then walked out. We went straight back to the West Wing Cafe, grabbed some food, then stayed in the hotel room all evening.
The funny thing was that all day, my daughter had been sat in the stroller, so while my wife and I were trying to relax, she was running around the room, full of energy. Pretty funny.
We left DC very early before the traffic started to build up, and vowed that we would return. We got all the way to our hotel in South Carolina, and went for dinner in Charleston that night.
There are so many fantastic things to see and do in DC, I’m just glad that we took enough away from the experience to make us want to go back. Everything we want to do is free, so being able to go somewhere like DC and just pay for hotels, food and parking is just fantastic. We’ll be back!