In mid-October, Jordan and I traveled to Washington D.C. It’s forever been on our list of places we both wanted to visit, and with it being an election year (albeit a contentious one) and the end of tourist season, I was even more interested in seeing the sights and learning more about the historical buildings, memorials, and monuments.
We were there for five days total (including travel days), and I would highly suggest that timeframe to avoid feeling rushed because there is just so much to see. It would still be doable in a shorter trip length, but you might feel squeezed or have less down time. Here’s a little summary of where we stayed, what we did, how we got around, and what we ate while we were in D.C.
After a little research on Trip Advisor to seek out some affordable and decent lodging options, I stumbled upon The Capitol Hill Hotel which was ranked in the top 10 hotels in D.C. Per the name, it’s located in Capitol Hill which is farther away from the National Mall and other big tourist areas in the city, but it’s really close to the U.S. Capitol and other politically significant buildings like the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, etc.
It seemed to be the area where a lot of Capitol interns live and spend their time, as evidenced by the local hangouts that included lots of restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and shops a few blocks away. Also – there are a TON of runners in D.C. I lost track of the number we saw while we were there.
The Capitol Hill Hotel is just a couple blocks from a Metrorail station so we could get anywhere we wanted in the city very conveniently without having to stay in the busy, downtown epicenter of D.C. Since Congress wasn’t in session while we were there, the Captiol Hill neighborhood was pretty quiet.
The accommodations of the hotel were also great – free breakfast, Wi-Fi, comfy bed, Keurig, clean – all the basic but nice expectations you’d have from a hotel.
Metrorail (Subway Transportation)
We were told by several others who had previously visited D.C. that the Metro was super easy to use and navigate for getting around the city. I was skeptical since I still have nightmares from when I was visiting NYC as a 20-year-old trying to figure out the subway map unsuccessfully.
Thanks to my tech-savvy husband, he showed me the public transit option on Google Maps. On our phones we plugged in the location of where we wanted to go, and it figured out which Metro line we should get on, how many minutes until the next train arrived, how much time until the next stop, where we were supposed to get off, and pretty much anything you’d ever want to know. It was a lifesaver. Once we got the hang of the Metro lines and routes we didn’t even need to use Google Maps.
I have nothing but positive things to say about the Metrorail experience. I didn’t even feel scared late at night like I expected to. Side note: Anyone who’s seen the first season of House of Cards might be able to relate to my irrational fear of being pushed off the platform and onto the rail…I’ll leave it at that.
Circulator (Bus Transportation)
The first night we were in D.C. realizing there were no Metro stations located directly near the memorials, we traveled on foot and thought there had to be a better (and faster) way. Not that we didn’t like walking, but spending an hour just to get to one place seemed like an inefficient use of our time.
On the city map we received from the hotel we saw several little stops that were marked near each of the memorials and upon further investigation realized there was a special bus line called the Circulator that went in a loop to all of these places. The best part? You can use your Metro card for bus fare and can hop on and off. The only downside was that the Circulator stops running at 7 pm so late evening visits aren’t really an option unless you choose to walk.
This is the stretch of public park area that extends from the U.S. Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. We walked it at night the first time and saw at least three different glow soccer games being played (I think it’s officially called GLOW Soccer or something like that). The grassy area is great for picnics, ball games, and other recreational activities.
What I found really interesting is the paths that flank the grassy lawn area are unpaved. I suppose it’s for less maintenance, but I just found it odd based on the amount of traffic it received from the bicyclists, runners, and walkers we saw. Anyway – the National Mall is worth the long walk to people watch and experience the downtown culture of D.C.
Arlington National Cemetery
As you’d expect, this is a pretty somber but beautiful and humbling place. The high points for us here were the JFK Gravesite/Eternal Flame, Memorial Amphiteater, and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where we had the honor of witnessing the changing of the guard. While we were walking through the cemetery, we also caught a glimpse of Thurgood Marshall’s gravestone and a few other political figures.
Memorials & Monuments
A few notes about these icons of D.C. Most are located on the National Mall, with many of them running along Constitution Ave. Many are open 24-7 and don’t require advance reservations. We visited most of them in the evening because the lighting is absolutely stunning against the dark night sky. So even if you go during the day to see the monuments, try to make a special trip at night to see a few because it’s a whole different experience than during the daytime!
We weren’t able to go inside and ride to the top of the Washington Monument because it was closed for maintenance while we were there, so that was a bummer. However, the exterior is a sight to behold on its own.
National WWII Memorial
This was really neat to see in the evening. It consists of 56 pillars (representing the U.S. states and other territories) and a pair of arches that surround a plaza and fountain. From the Freedom Wall representing the more than 4000 soldiers that lost their lives to the detailed depictions of historical scenes, the WWII Memorial was quite magnificent.
You have to walk the length of the famous reflecting pool that’s located on the other side of the Washington Monument to get to this memorial. It lives up to the hype and has lots of little historical tidbits to offer besides the gigantic Lincoln statue, including the famous spot where MLK Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” Speech.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Most people would recognize the cascading black walls with rows and rows of names engraved over the surface of the Vietnam Vets Memorial. It’s even more astounding in person. Lots of people have left small tributes to the fallen soldiers, and reading those just puts life in perspective and fills you with gratitude for the sacrifices made.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
This is really cool (and admittedly creepy!) at night. The memorial is characterized by life-like statues of the soldiers in uniform. The second half of the memorial is a circular pool with a ring of benches and trees.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
This ranks up there with the Lincoln Memorial and takes a little more work to get to since it’s on the other side of the Tidal Basin (that’s where the Circulator came in handy!). But the view from this place is spectacular; there are lots of paddle boaters out and about, and you get a different vantage point of the Washington Monument. Not to mention the inside of the memorial includes a giant statue of Thomas Jefferson, plus inscriptions on the walls containing excerpts from his letters and the Declaration of Independence.
What I enjoyed most about this memorial is that it was a series of four outdoor rooms (one for each of his terms of office) that told the story of FDR’s presidency through the sculptures and “scenes.” It showcases a ton of quotes that we all know and love from FDR during the Great Depression and WWII eras. The lovely Eleanor Roosevelt was included too (fun fact: she’s the only First Lady featured in a presidential memorial).
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
Just a little ways down from the FDR Memorial is MLK Jr.’s Memorial. The central theme of the memorial is linked to the “I Have a Dream” speech, but the inscription wall is full of quotes from other speeches that demonstrate his desire for hope, justice, love, and democracy.
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
It just so happened that I was reading The Nightingale leading up to this trip, so the timing couldn’t have been better when visiting this museum since WWII history was fresh in my mind. We spent an entire afternoon here but could have easily taken the whole day to explore. Lots of information to take in and process.
I learned more on this day alone about the Holocaust than I ever did in a classroom. Fair warning: it is really depressing because you discover in depth about many of the terrible, horribly graphic injustices that you may have been shielded from when you were taught in school.
National Air & Space Museum
This is another museum where you could spend a whole day immersed in looking at all of the aircraft and spacecraft. Even though this wouldn’t normally be my first choice for a museum, I really enjoyed learning more about the history and science of aviation and spaceflight. In addition to the exhibits, they have a planetarium, flight simulator, multimedia galleries, and cool objects tucked into every nook and cranny.
National Museum of American History
This is my kind of museum! I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t love having to read every single plaque description of each exhibit in a museum. I’m usually one to skim and move on to the next thing. But the displays in this museum piqued my interest because they were all about American pop culture, technology, inventions, movies, TV shows, etc.
It’s also known as the home of the original ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz. There were even media crews there interviewing museum employees about a fundraiser for a preservation effort of the slippers.
Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House
It’s funny (and kind of sad) how you can be so well-versed in American history while in the thick of memorizing it all during high school history only to forget so many of the small details years later. At least that’s the camp I was in when we went to D.C. So much of what I learned about Lincoln’s assassination was fuzzy prior to visiting, but this historic theatre and museum really expanded upon the assassination, Lincoln’s role in the Civil War, and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth.
The highlight for me was getting to be inside the actual Ford’s Theatre (which still serves as a host to several stage performances today) and seeing the state box where Lincoln was sitting when he was shot. We also obtained tickets to the Petersen House across the street where Lincoln was taken and later died. Following the tour of the Petersen House is a two-floor museum of permanent exhibits that further address the aftermath of Lincoln’s death.
U.S. Supreme Court
Court wasn’t in session while we were in D.C., but the Supreme Court offers a self-guided tour of an exhibit hall, plus a courtroom lecture from a trained docent. The lecture was really enlightening, and it was an extra bonus to be in the room where so many decisions and rulings have been made. Many people in the tour group had great questions for the docent, and I learned a lot of new information about how the court works. The outside of this building is also simply stunning.
Library of Congress
There are actually a few Library of Congress buildings, but we visited the main location – the Jefferson building. We hopped on a tour to find out more. There was a lot of information provided about the symbolic art and architecture, but not as much about the function of the Library as I would have liked. My favorite part was viewing the famous “Main Reading Room.”
We had a reservation for a guided tour through the Capitol. It was really interesting, but I was hoping to see a bit more. We found out we weren’t allowed to enter the House and Senate chambers because it’s not part of the tour on the weekend. I’m not quite sure of the reasoning behind that, but I was disappointed since that was one of the main features I had been looking forward to. Just a word of warning in case you plan on taking a tour over a weekend.
Our tour guide was very up to speed on his knowledge of the history and architecture of the Capitol building and threw in some humor, so I found the tour very educating and enjoyable. We specifically toured the Rotunda, the Crypt, and the National Statuary Hall. He also showed us where the President-Elect stands before the inauguration to go out onto the balcony of the Capitol. It was evident that a lot of construction was being done on the outside of the building to be completed in time for the 2017 inauguration.
I know it sounds juvenile, but ever since I watched the National Treasure movies, I’ve been dying to visit this place (yes, I know the movies are completely fictional). It’s most famous for holding the “Charters of Freedom”: the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights.
We had to wait in a line and were only released a few at a time to go into the Rotunda where the centuries-old documents are housed. No photos are allowed in the entire building due to the sensitivity and fragility of the documents either (which is why you won’t see any in this section).
After the viewing, we went to the museum area of the Archives which contains many documents and records that aren’t under as much surveillance and security as America’s founding documents. We saw the original Patriot Act, Magna Carta, as well as documents pertinent to the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements.
The White House
We put in a request to our congress member for a tour of the White House but were unfortunately denied due to the high volume of requests during the time period we were visiting. You can make a request up to six months in advance, and we did so about a month out, so you’d probably have a better chance the farther in advance you submitted your request.
We still took a stroll down Pennsylvania Ave. to be part of the crowd of gawkers to take pictures of the White House. There was an inordinate amount of security while we were there and we were pretty far back off the street from where they normally allow visitors to gather. We later discovered that the State dinner was being hosted at the White House just a few days after we left town. We were bummed we couldn’t go in or get closer but still enjoyed getting to see the residence in person for ourselves – even if from a distance.
On to the food! We ate at some phenomenal places and some not-so-awesome places. I’m only including the memorable ones here.
Old Ebbitt Grill
This restaurant is located just a few steps from the White House and seems to be where all the high-rollers of Washington hang out. It was by far our best meal of the trip – complete with seasonal cocktails (hello Cider Rum Punch), killer jumbo lump crab cakes, and trout the size of Jordan’s head with drool-worthy hollandaise sauce.
Good Stuff Eatery
This restaurant was blocks away from our hotel and reminded us a lot of our local Honest Abe’s burger joint. The burger creations were out of this world, as were the super crispy, greasy fries (made with REAL potatoes) and ridiculously over-the-top sweet milkshakes.
We, The Pizza
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a pizza place with as many off-the-wall toppings as this one, but it was totally up my alley since I’ve never been much for the traditional tomato sauce and meat toppings. They had everything from pulled pork and onion straws to spinach and artichoke. It was super tasty and hit the spot after a long day of walking.
We weren’t sure if we were going to get the all-day breakfast or lunch/supper when we went here. There were so many fabulous options that made it hard to decide. Jordan got the full breakfast works (eggs, sausage, hash browns, etc.) while I chose a decadent meatloaf sandwich – both were fantastic. We each got the “Ted’s Tarts” that so many people raved about (basically homemade pop tarts), but I was a little underwhelmed.
Time of Year
A quick observation on visiting Washington D.C. during the fall season since I didn’t address that. There were quite a few high school groups that were visiting while we were in town, but it wasn’t super crowded. Many museum employees said that spring is the worst time to visit D.C because it’s peak tourist season, so I’m glad we chose to go in the fall. Also something I forgot to mention – the weather was PERFECT. I brought a jacket and fall clothes, but because we were walking the majority of the time I was plenty warm. We really lucked out with our timing. Something to consider if you’re thinking about the ideal time of year to visit!
More than anything, this trip really made me want to brush up on my knowledge of U.S. history. It also had me wondering what the founding fathers would think about the current state of our country and whether they could have foreseen the issues we’re now dealing with today. So much to reflect on!
Finally, all of the photos were taken by my talented husband. If it weren’t for him, we’d never have any proof of our travels. 😉 You can view the complete set of photos from our trip in this gallery.