When I was a kid growing up in California, I remember watching Martin Luther King speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on black and white television. And I would picture myself on those steps with his faithful. School ‘sit-ins’ and demonstrations were an everyday occurrence back in the 1960’s and even children wrote revolutionary poetry, our tiny minds oozing political nous. So when the chance to go to the U.S. Capitol presented itself recently, I grabbed it with gusto!
I get my first impression of the nation’s capital when driving downtown to Union Station to drop off our rental car. We had travelled that day from Southwest Virginia and hubby was valiantly navigating. ‘Honey, stay in this left lane…Geez, watch out for that city bus!! Now take the third exit on the roundabout…’ I think I ran a red light the moment the Potomac River burst into view. This unbelievably enormous body of water spread out before me like a huge glistening sheet of silky latex. Crossing over the river via the 14th Street Bridge, we were immediately surrounded by cherry trees blossoming in the warm spring sunshine.
Then I spotted it. The Washington Monument soaring into the early evening sky; the enormous obelisk, and the dome of Capitol Hill behind it, completely dominating the city’s landscape. The vista took my breath away.
The parkland flows from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and then carries on up to Capitol Hill with the Smithsonian museums lining the route. Hectares and hectares of land open to the public with admission free to all these sites and museums.
The next morning, we schlepped up to the capital to see if we could get a tour of the inner sanctum. Sadly, these must be booked weeks in advance. I decided, instead, that we would take advantage of a tour of the Library of Congress that is reached via tunnel from the visitor’s entrance. The Renaissance style décor and painting of the main chamber is utterly stunning and looks freshly done. In this main chamber is displayed one of the few Gothenburg Bibles extanct in the world. We also saw the permanent exhibition of what is left of Thomas Jefferson’s original collection of books after two devastating fires. This is the bedrock of the Library. Another exhibit off the main hall displays the first map showing a continent named ‘America’ (a Latinised and feminised version of an explorer named ‘Amerigo’). I wonder how much politicking it took for Christopher Columbus to eventually get the credit for discovering the New World?
Next we hit the Newseum which is a must see. Front pages from daily newspapers all over the country line the outside of the building and passers-by have their noses glued to a favourite title. There is an exhibit here that includes an original piece of the Berlin Wall and there are also displays honouring JFK as this year is the 50th anniversary of his assassination. A 4D movie gives an overview of the history of journalism, though the kids seem to love the rather clunky special effects more than anything else.
I remember when Washington D.C. was simply not a family destination. In the heady days of Equal Rights Marches and protests against the Vietnam War, ghettoes surrounded downtown and riots were not unheard of. The city was in terminal decline.
Change came in the 1990s. Verizon built a large sports and entertainment complex in Chinatown which had previously been a no-go zone. Restaurants and cafes starting springing up. Clever and expensive refurbishments took place, such as the lease of the disused Federal Post Office to Kimpton Hotels. The Hotel Monaco and Poste Brasserie were the outcome of this innovative refurbishment. The Post Office’s architectural features: marble floors, sorting room with glass ceiling, vast hallways and wrought iron staircases all harked back to another era and could not be altered. But smart, brightly coloured accessories were added to update the space. Eventually, the whole neighbourhood made a miraculous comeback.
Not far from the entrance of the Hotel Monaco is the International Spy Museum. Kids and adults who love Bond films and Spooks will love this entertainment museum. There are loads of real spy equipment, such as a rectum vial to hold secret spy tools, and an extensive tribute to James Bond films’ villains.
Based in mid-town Washington D.C.? Mid-town is within walking distance of the White House. It’s surprising how the home of the President of the US is so small and how close you can get to it. From the White House, it is a longish walk to the impressive Lincoln Memorial or a short taxi ride. I spent $5 on a booklet at the White House Gifts shop on 701 15th Street www.whitehousegiftshop.com and got a free picture (taken on my camera) in a mock-up of the Oval Office. Really fun!
Old Ebbitt Grill on 675 15th Street is a great place to eat; especially for Brits. Go for either breakfast or try their famous Oyster Bar that’s put on in the afternoon. When ushered inside, I felt I had entered a posh restaurant in Victorian London. Built in 1856, Its Beaux-Arts facade, mahogany panelling and velvet booths are still in pristine condition. The gorgeous bars, set in marble, brass and bevelled glass, present Ebbitt Grill at its finest.
Georgia Browns on 950 15th Street is two city blocks from the White House. Traditional southern cooking and quirky modern décor make this a great place for dining. I had chicken fried oysters (cooked in the same batter as for frying chicken) and they were scrumptious. If you are looking for good value, every Sunday night they offer select wines half priced.
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Double rooms at Hotel Monaco Washington DC start at $229 per night on weekends.