10 things I discovered in Washington

It took me two trips to fully appreciate Washington DC. For a box ticker like me, Washington is full of boxes to tick, and the best thing? Most of them are free! In this post, I wanted to share some of interesting facts and places I came across during my trips to Washington.

1. There is a centre of government – literally

and it’s in The Capitol. The crypt underneath the Capitol Rotunda marks the exact centre of the capitol, and therefore, the centre of US government.  Beneath the crypt, there is a mausoleum meant to house the body of George Washington. However, the Capitol was not completed at the time of his death, therefore he was buried at Mount Vernon. You can visit the Crypt, the Rotunda and the National Statuary Hall on a guided tour of the Capitol. The tour needs to be booked in advance (some tickets are available on the day on a first come first served basis).

US Capitol Building
Centre of the Capitol (and therefore the centre of US government – literally!)
Capital Rotunda Ceiling
Statutory Hall

2. It pays to be an international visitor at the Capitol

When at the Capitol, you can also visit the Senate Galleries. To do this, you need to get a green gallery pass. This is where is pays to be an international visitor. To get the pass, US citizens need to go across the street to the office of their Senator, but if are an international visitor, you can show your passport at the Capitol visitor centre desk to obtain the pass. No cameras are allowed inside the galleries, so you need to check-in your audio visual equipment before you are allowed inside. But remember the galleries close at 4 pm (and a bit earlier on Fridays).

Green gallery pass – International visitors can obtain one at the Capitol visitor centre

3. The largest library in the world – Library of Congress

Holding 164 million items and more that 800 miles of book shelves, the Library of Congress is known to be largest library in the World. It sits directly opposite the Capitol on first street. It can also be reached via an underground tunnel connecting the Capitol and the Library. The main attractions of the library are:

  • The Great Hall: This is the centre piece of the library and has a very ornate Italian Renaissance-style ceiling. The ground floor is also home to the Gutenberg bible. The marble staircase leads to the mezzanine floor.
  • Mezzanine Floor: The mezzanine floor is also lavishly decorated with wall paintings and many quotes about the books, literature and knowledge.  Through the west windows of the mezzanine, you get a great view of the Capitol. This floor also leads to further reading rooms, temporary exhibitions and Jefferson’s original library.
  • Reading Room: This is the main attraction of the library. Visitors cannot enter the reading room, but you can go to the overlook on the second floor to get a view.
Library of Congress – Great Hall and Mezzanine Floor
Library of Congress – Reading Room

4. The National Mall is really long

National Mall is the area stretching for just under 2.5 miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Walking from one end of National Mall to the other, you go past the Washington Monument, White House, many of the Smithsonian museums, the Vietnam War memorial, the World War II memorials and the reflecting pool. It is the best walk in Washington and allows you to take in many important landmarks and sights.  There are not many places to eat and drink in the vicinity, so take some food, water and set aside plenty of time to see the sights.

The National Mall – view towards the Capitol
National Mall – view toward World War II memorial and Lincoln Memorial
The White House, as seen from the National Mall
View from the Lincoln Memorial
Statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial

5. US Presidents have to pay for their food

You would think that being the leader of the free world will entitle you to free food, but no. US Presidents have to pay for their food prepared at the White House kitchen. This I discovered at the White House visitor centre.  US residents can book a visit to the White House via their Member of Congress. This isn’t really an option for a tourist, so the next best thing is the White House visitor centre located on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Model of White House
From the White House Visitor Centre Exhibition
From the White House Visitor Centre Exhibition

The visitor centre has a scale model of the White House, exhibition about the presidents and you can also explore the White House in 3-D.  I also discovered that the White House West Wing and the Oval Office was added much later to the original house.

6. The Original Star-Spangled Banner

I didn’t realise that the US national anthem was inspired by a real star spangled banner, until I saw it at the National Museum of American History in Washington. This flag was sewn by local flag maker Mary Young Pickersgill. The original Star-Spangled Banner flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbour during the War of 1812. On the dawn of 14th of September 1812, after 2 days of fierce battle, the flag was still flying over the Fort and could be seen for miles. The sight of the flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry”. The poem was set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven” by John Stafford Smith, later became the national anthem of the United States.

Entrance to the Star Spangled Banner Exhibit

The original flag was 30 feet by 42 feet, but pieces from the original were cut as keepsakes and souvenirs, so the now the flag is 30 feet by 34 feet. It is on display as the centre piece of the National Museum of American History. In order to preserve it, it is displayed in near darkness and no photographs are allowed.

7. The three most important documents in American history

The Washington National Archives hold the three most important documents in American history. The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and The Bill of Rights. The Declaration is all but faded but the others are legible. The reason for this is that The Declaration of Independence travelled widely in the early years, inspiring American to join the fight for freedom. The other two documents were less mobile, and as a result, much better preserved.

The National Archives

Tip: Although these 3 documents are the most popular documents in the archive, make sure you also allow time to visit the rest of archives exhibition. The exhibition is home to a number of other interesting documents, containing exhibits such as letters from Lincoln, Charles Philip Ingalls’s (father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote The Little House on the Prairie) for their homestead. You can also a see copy of the 1297 Magna Carta in a very good condition on the ground floor.

8. Smithsonian Museums

The Smithsonian museums hold an unparalleled collection of treasures from around the World, and the best thing is that they are all free to visit. There are 11 Smithsonian museums and galleries on the National Mall and six other museums and the National Zoo in the greater National Capital Area. With so many options, it is hard to know where to start. Few of my favourites are:

  • The American Museum of Natural History : Home to the Hope diamond
  • The National Space and Air Museum: Home to the Wright flyer (World’s first aeroplane) and The Apollo 11 Command Module.
  • The American History Museum: Home to the Star Spangled Banner (see number 7 above)
  • The National Portrait Gallery: Home to many famous faces from around the World
Inside the Museum of Natural History
Entrance to the Museum of American History
Apollo 11 Command Module – At the National Space and Air Museum

9. The Berlin Wall in Washington

You can see the largest piece of the Berlin Wall outside Germany in the Newseum in Washington. The Newseum is an interactive museum that centres around all forms of media and it aims to promote freedom of expression as well as trace the history of communication. In addition to the Berlin Wall gallery, there is also Today’s Front Pages gallery, The Journalist Memorial (Tribute to journalists who died in the course of their duties) and the FBI exhibit – giving an insight to how the FBI operates.

The Newseum
Today’s front pages at the Newseum
Part of the Berlin Wall at the Newseum

Despite being a very popular attraction in Washington, the Newseum has suffered heavy financial losses in recent years. Therefore following the sale of its building to John Hopkins University, the Newseum will be closing to the the public in its current location on December 31, 2019.

10. Best of the Rest

In addition to those I’ve discussed already, there are so many other places to visit in Washington. These are a few of my favourites:

  • Supreme Court of the United States: The US Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the United States. It is open to the public Monday to Friday on a self-guided basis.
  • Union Station: The Union Station is another great landmark in Washington DC. You will very likely come across this if you are taking the train in or out of Washington.
  • Monuments and Memorials: Washington is home to a large number of Memorials and Monuments. The top ones are: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr, National World War II Memorial, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial
  • The Pentagon: The Pentagon is actually located in the state of Virginia, across the Ptomac river, but is a popular attraction for many visitors to Washington D.C. Tours of the Pentagon are available, but must be booked in advance.
  • Arlington National Cemetery: The Arlington Cemetery is a US military cemetery. Here you can see the grave of John F. Kennedy, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier etc. Similar to the Pentagon, the Arlington Cemetery is located in the state of Virginia, across the Ptomac.
  • International Spy Museum: If you are a fan of spy thrillers or anything to do with espionage, this is one not to be missed. The spy museum contains a large number of exhibits, stories from real spies and you can also test your self to see how well you will fare in a spy game.
  • Museum of Crime and Punishment: The museum is dedicated to the history of criminology and penology. It has a number of exhibits such as America’s most wanted, Crime Scene Investigation, FBI, Notorious Criminals from history. However, the museum in Washington DC closed in 2017 and much of collection has been moved to the Alcatraz Crime Museum in Tennessee.
  • Ford’s Theatre: The site of Lincoln’s Assassination, the Ford’s theatre is a major historic site in DC. It gets busy in the high season, so it is advisable to book tickets.
  • Madam Tussaud’s: For any US president enthusiasts, the Madam Tussaud’s in Washington is a must visit. It has wax figures of all the American Presidents and spouses to date. So you can have your pick from who to take a picture with. Other celebrities are also available.
Supreme Court of the United States
Outside Union Station
Inside Union Station

Have you been to Washington? What did you see? Would you add anything to the list above? Leave a comment below and let me know.

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