By: Sol Lauría
Photos: Carlos Gómez
Washington, DC is everything. Everything is right here, people talk about everything, and every conceivable thing can happen. “Everything” certainly comprises an endless list of reasons to visit.
Washington, DC attests to the legacy of the past and the promise of the future. The Declaration of Independence, one of the most radical documents of modern history, is on display here; the signing of this document is commemorated every July 4th with music and fireworks. The city still thrills to its proclamations of liberty and equality.
This document laid the groundwork for the Constitution, which is on display at The National Archives. The Constitution was amended to abolish slavery, thanks, in part, to the work of President Abraham Lincoln, who is honored at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Smithsonian’s eighteen museums (with free admission) feature architecture and documents that take visitors on a trip through three hundred years of Western history. The list of reasons to visit grows.
The city is home to more than 50,000 Hispanics and an approximately equal number of other international residents who work with international organizations and create restaurants and markets while harvesting dreams. The city is also the stage for round-the-clock negotiations at law firms and a place for university students who come here to study at a dozen universities. It is a bastion of investigative journalism, as exemplified by the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal; this scandal was named for a complex of buildings on the shores of the Potomac, which is actually two rivers: the Potomac and the Anacostia.
Washington, DC is the country’s seat of government and the residence of the President of the United States.
The list of reasons grows. We can add the availability of some 230,000 acres of green space, not to mention many and varied nightlife options. The charming and logically planned streets may teem with hundreds of people, but no litter mars the ground, and the law dictates that, with few exceptions, buildings should not exceed 130 feet in height. Protestant, Scientology, and Catholic churches abound. The list of reasons expands.
This is Washington, DC: a dense world packed into sixty-nine square miles, conceived, by French architect Pierre L’Enfant, to be the capital of the country in 1791.
Since every experience has its bitter, dark side, visitors should also prepare for a certain sense of failure before they arrive. The DC adventure can degenerate into an interminable succession of destinations on a map, targets that cannot possibly be explored in a short time. One solution is to optimize your time by taking an overview of the area; know beforehand where you want to go and why. Fasten your seatbelts. Welcome to the nucleus of the spirit of the United States.
First of all, the city is small and friendly, but densely packed. It is divided into four quadrants: northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast. The streets follow a helpful logical pattern and bear the names of letters (horizontal streets) and numbers (vertical streets), accompanied by the abbreviation of the corresponding zone (NW, NE, SW and SE). Map in hand, it is easy enough to walk to wherever you would like to go.
And walking is undoubtedly the best way to get to know DC in depth. For non-walkers, there is always the extensive public transit system.
The most interesting attractions are located in the NW district, where many of the city’s icons are situated on an east-west axis: the Lincoln Memorial; the Washington Monument; the National Mall, with a dozen must-see museums; and the Capitol.
Your first stop should be the monument to the 16th President of the United States, who abolished slavery and immortalized democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The view from here takes in Constitution Gardens, with its memorials to the Korean War and the Vietnam War; the obelisk that pays homage to the country’s first President, whose name also graces the city; museums; and the Capitol building at the other end.
The Greek temple-style monument and the stern gaze of a marble Lincoln also recall the “I Have a Dream” speech that Martin Luther King gave here in August 1963 before millions of people. But it is equally evocative of major poet Walt Whitman, who lived in the city and merits his own eponymous tour. When Lincoln was assassinated, the poet paid tribute to the man behind the ideas:
“For you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills;
For you the bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths,
For you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass,
their eager faces turning.”
It will take a few hours to reach the Capitol. To enter, you need to make a reservation on the official website. Walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, which links the Capitol to the White House, and you will feel the weight of history and the elation of grandeur, and you will understood how people come to terms with the past and how it is revealed and honored. Part of it can be seen in the greatness of a country where images of presidents and poignant phrases leap out even from street advertising; the 18th century message still strikes a chord in local residents and resounds the world over.
The U.S. experience is reflected in the construction of its institutions, as is evident in the smallest details of every walk through DC. At the White House—which is not open to visitors now—the status of the present is questioned by daily demonstrations by groups carrying placards and screaming demands and complaints.
The liveliness extends to the museums. The National Gallery of Art, for example, displays Tocqueville’s quote: “The whole continent seemed prepared to be the abode of a great nation,” along with photographs, paintings, and drawings that depict the “American way of life.’”
The American History Museum, the Archives, and the Freer Gallery of Art house more quotes and images of history, told through a lens that has turned failure into success. Martin Luther King takes pride of place and reminds us that the successes achieved came at a great cost.
The self-lauding narrative is repeated, penetrating, and convincing. “We can do it, we can do it because we did it before.”
Those in the know might say that the true spirit of Washington resides in the bars and hotels. So, sit back and take a deep breath, because here are more reasons to visit.
If New York is the city that never sleeps, Washington, DC is the city of dreams or perhaps insomnia, a city that creates —or tries to maintain— change, businesses, opportunities, progress, and improvement in the world. It is this feeling that permeates bars and hotel lobbies.
“Bars” means downtown, Dupont, and Logan Circle, 14th Street NW, and Georgetown. “Bars” also means politicians and their advisors, journalists and philanthropists, international NGOs and government officials, and the entire cosmopolitan, humanist, and creative species that inhabits this city. Our list of reasons continues to grow longer. If you can stand to be asked over and over “What do you do?” you’ll have a great time here.
Georgetown, the charming neighborhood that is the hub of daily life for senators and high society, deserves a mention of its own. Wander through the Georgian streets and observe the brick on all sides; drink coffee at Dean & DeLuca; and round out the afternoon by enjoying the sunset at a bar behind the Potomac. Later, have dinner at Martin’s Tavern, where President John F. Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier.
Return to DC to experience its true spirit at the Willard Hotel. Legend has it that the term “lobbyist” was invented here by President Ulysses Grant (1822-1885), who used to come here from the Oval Office every day to have a drink in the lobby. Anyone wanting favors or preferential treatment went to this building on Pennsylvania Avenue to talk to him. Holding a brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other, Grant one day called those who tried to influence him in the lobby of the hotel “lobbyists.”
You should visit the Willard for the legend, for the exquisite architecture, and the weight of history: this is where Martin Luther King wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech. The hotel witnessed the birth of a Washington, DC phenomenon: the city is the capital of lobbying, with 12,553 registered federal lobbyists.
The list of reasons to visit continues to grow.
The Hay Adams Hotel, right across from the White House, is both hotel and bar. In the basement, Off the Record is where government officials, corporate representatives, and attorneys eat, drink, and converse. There is also the Mayflower, described by President Truman as the “second best residence in the city.”
The list of reasons to visit is still growing.
Washington, DC is like a song by Duke Ellington, the 20th century jazz king and DC native son: it is a unique universe with its own rhythm, elegance, beat, and simplicity of expression. It is everything done and still undone. The plane takes off and there comes a moment when the city left behind becomes an excuse to return.
Arlington Cemetery: this cemetery, built to honor U.S. war dead, should be visited early in the morning or at dusk (in summer).
U.S. Capitol: you need to make a reservation at www.visitthecapitol.gov, and you will also need time and patience, since there are always many visitors.
Library of Congress: thirty million books in 470 languages, including four copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the draft of the Declaration of Independence, and more than 61 million manuscripts. Admission is free and there are guided tours in English every half hour until 3:30 p.m.
Smithsonian: admission to all the museums is free. Don’t miss the National Gallery of Art, the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and the American History Museum.
News Museum: admission is not free, but it is worth the twenty dollars. The ground floor has a touching exhibit of all the photographs that have won Pulitzer prizes. Nearby are the front pages of the most important newspapers from around the world. The fifth floor shows newspapers and magazines that date to the founding of the industry.
Georgetown: the most elegant neighborhood in Washington, DC deserves a thorough visit. See Georgetown University—one of the best in the world—and stroll by the clothing boutiques, restaurants, chocolate shops and jewelry stores, along M and Wisconsin Avenues, and then walk along the canals to the Potomac to see the sunset.
Outdoors: the parks and plazas become venues for festivals, open-air cinema, and concerts during the summer. Rock Creek Park, the National Zoo, and the National Arboretum should not be missed. You can also enjoy the rivers by renting boats and kayaks from the Thompson Boat Center (starting at 10 dollars).
Alexandria: Old Town Alexandria, on the outskirts of the capital, is a dining and shopping hub that sits just across the Potomac River.