I’ve been hooked on visiting our Nation’s Capitol since my second adult trip in 2006.

Like every other conference trip for work, I scheduled pre-classes. That meant arriving on Saturday, giving me a half-day to explore the city (San Diego, Las Vegas, Chicago). That June in Washington, D.C. ended up being the month of the monsoons. The wonderful Smithsonian Museums were closed due to lack of power. No power but my feet required, I walked throughout Arlington Cemetery before the storms struck. After that, I made the most of a nice hotel room with a view of Georgetown.

In the last ten or so years, my husband and I have driven to Washington, D.C. several times during various seasons. The city is only five-hours from Pittsburgh, whether driving the turnpike or the rural Route 40 we prefer. It is a trek we enjoy, stopping at different spots along the way to grab lunch, relishing the different terrain we see from Pennsylvania to Maryland, sometimes taking a wider trip through West Virginia.

Sometimes we have an agenda, like the remembrance events tied to World War II and talks by author, Alex Kershaw. Other times, we wander around, deciding what to do each day. The breadth of memorials, museums, tours, and more. If you have the chance to visit, take it. I’ll be surprised if you don’t find yourself planning a repeat trip. 

The National Mall

The National Mall extends from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol Building. There are many memorials in and near this long stretch of land–ones we rarely miss seeing:

Washington Monument 

While we have yet to take the elevator to the top of the obelisk, at 555 feet, it dominates the skyline. On the rise of ground it stands atop, you get a broad view of the city even without going to the apex. During one trip, we stumbled upon a kite festival. It was joyful to see the colors 

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Our father served in the army during the Korean War, but did not fight. He served the bulk of his enlistment in Hawaii. That never lessened the affinity I hold for men of this era. As one veteran told me, “Your father was ready to go, that’s what counts.” This memorial is evocative with its just-so larger than life statues of GIs carrying heavy loads.

World War II Memorial

Last year, we attended an event here, put on by the Friends of the World War II Memorial with author Alex Kershaw. If you like reading non-fiction WWII books where the characters are vivid and memorable, indulge in any of Mr. Kershaw’s. He has the ability to intertwine facts with personalities to create a vivid narrative that often focuses on one key part of the war. Such as The Bedford Boys, The First Wave, and The Liberator. Excellent ways to learn about the unique men who became determined fighters and forever part of the greatest generation.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. 

One Washington, D.C. foray was a few hours en route to the beach with both sisters and my niece. Looking back, this trip was eerie for two reasons. The first is that it was August of 2001. In less than a month, on 9/11, the world of Washington—and more—would change forever. The other, simpler reason is that I drove about the city as if it were a routine event for me.

My older sister and I stood at The Wall, unexpected tears trailing down our cheeks. We were fringe kids of the Vietnam War—she graduated high school in 1975, me in 1977. We knew about the conflict via newspapers and class studies. Our parents watched the news and tried to answer our questions. But we didn’t have a personal attachment to Vietnam—no family or friends were there. Yet, here at this long black, engraved slab of granite, we felt profound sadness.

On subsequent trips, I’ve found Harry Griffith Cramer (Panel O1E Line 78) — a long ago relative and among the very first killed (1957) in Vietnam. I know very little about Harry, but it makes me sad to see his name there.

Each time, I am impressed that even with the very young, people are quiet and contained at The Wall. Does the long walk leading to this imposing, growing piece of stone and the force of it aid the hushed respect? Or is the impact caused by seeing name after name and knowing that each represents a death, a life lost? The reality of loss hits me like a cold hand slapping my face. These people fought in a conflict that they may/may not have supported. They served for a multitude of reasons and they did not come home.

Arlington Cemetery

As an American, seeing the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier always, tugs at my heart and brings tears. It is a ritual to be observed with a solemn heart and closed mouth. If you can, catch the opportunity to hear one of the guards explain what it takes to be them and the too-grueling-for-me work they have to do to become a guard. Times are posted near the site.

Arlington Cemetery, as a whole, can easily wipe out my emotions. The utter mathematical precision of the layout and the vast loss of life represented can overwhelm. It is a military cemetery. The people who are buried here served in our armed forces. During their lives, they honored our country. Remember to be respectful and quiet. This place is not, even with the multitude of pathways, a running course or picnic area. 

Some key memorials are located adjacent to the cemetery. They are important and evocative, don’t miss them. Many of these monuments are part of the National Park Service. The Netherland Memorial is a simple, eloquent work of art representing the thanks of the Netherlands to the United States contributions to their liberation in WWII.

The United States Marine Corps Iwo Jima War Memorial is in a dip of land. Once you spot it in the distance it grows and grows until you can’t believe how large it really is. The flag the men have raised is huge and furls beautifully in the wind. The Seabees Memorial is a tribute to the Naval Construction Battalions in both war and peace time.

Happier Places to Visit

The Botanical Gardens. 

As card-carrying members of Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory, we are drawn to the abundance of growing things at the Gardens. In the summer, the outside is a meandering maze of various greens and other colors. In winter, the inside brings you every hue and startling bloom—from fuchsia-tinged orchids to yellow buds I can’t name.

During one trip, artists created replicas of monuments and buildings in minute details. The intricacy and the use of natural materials was utterly captivating.

Botanical Gardens - Washington, DC - What is this?

Botanical Gardens – Washington, DC – What is this?

Cherry Blossoms

One brisk March we stumbled upon the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin—we thought it would be too cold. If you manage to catch every tree in bloom at the same time, it truly is a magical sight.

March Cherry Blossoms - Washington, DC

March Cherry Blossoms – Washington, DC

Tours

To get easy access to a tour, you need only ask your Congressman’s office. Tours are almost only during the week, and so far we’ve had excellent docents at the Capital and the Library of Congress. Did you know, oh avid reader friends, that the Library is open to all of us? Yes, truly, open for us to use for research —there are guidelines to be followed, so check it out at www.loc.gov.

If you are into researching your ancestry, we discovered that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) have a vast library that is open to the public! They are eager for members, so check your lineage and apply. A wide variety of connections may entitle you to membership. In the meantime enjoy their huge museum of state-named period-designed rooms. The attic toy room is particular fun.

The Smithsonian Museums

The Smithsonian Museums are not to be missed and not to be sped through. Take your time and only see one or two on any given day. The Hope Diamond resides in one, the Apollo Capsule in another, the Castle holds many works of art. The thing that stuns me every trip is: They are free. Free museums! How delightful is that?

Near Dulles Airport: The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air and Space Museum. It contains everything from the Nieuport 28C.1 (the first US fighter aircraft—who knew?) to the Discovery Shuttle. They ask a nominal parking fee, but the museum is free.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is difficult. Be mentally prepared. We made it through the first part, but did not use our Timed Passes (required March-August) to enter the Permanent Exhibit. We were emotionally drained.

At the National Archives, you stand before the Charters of Freedom (reserve a time through your Congressional office or go off-season) in awe of the bravery it took to split the colonies from British rule.

Getting Around D.C.

Some people I know shudder at the thought of driving around DC. Easy solution: Don’t. We never do. We park the car at the hotel and are done with it until the return trip home. The Metro is the easiest public transportation system I’ve used in the States. (The Pittsburgh T should go there to learn how it’s done.) The Metro staff are excellent and completely patient with your questions, passengers are polite and friendly. Simply purchase a round trip pass or all day ticket, grab a small Metro map and you’re set to go. Look at the map, pick the furthest point on the line/direction you want to go and hop on. The stops are clearly signed as you approach each station.

There are many more things to see in our Nation’s Capital, which explains why we like to get there a few times a year. It’s flat, wheelchair friendly, people are nice, dining is everything from casual pizza joints to elegant five-star restaurants. Don’t miss a chance to go!

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Read: George Washington–what history!