I’ve been to Washington D.C. once, back in 2003 at the tender age of 13 for my 8th grade graduation school trip. To say I barely remember it is an understatement. It was such a brief and erratic trip – they shuttled us onto a chartered plane at like 4 am and brought us back to Illinois the same day, at around midnight – so it was hectic to say the least. They wanted us to see as much as possible, so it was literally go, go, go; and as a preteen, you don’t really appreciate everything you’re seeing anyway. Returning to D.C. 15 years later as an adult was an entirely different experience. It was still a whirlwind trip since we spent only one day there, but I will remember and appreciate it this time. The number one thing I came away with after visiting our capital city is basically what I learned after every city we went to: you need at least 4 to 7 days to see and do everything.
We arrived at our Arlington, Virginia hotel late in the evening, so we didn’t head into the heart of D.C. until the next morning. If you read my recent road trip blog, Epic East Coast Road Trip., you’ll know about my 5 Rules of Road Trips, and Rule #1 is don’t be cheap on the hotel. We certainly weren’t cheap with this hotel – we stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton, located 300 at Army Navy Dr, Arlington, VA 22202 – and it was one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed at, and by far the nicest on our entire road trip. It’s address is in Virginia, but it’s right across the state line, and only a stones throw away from the Pentagon (side note – I can NOT believe how enormous that thing is). I recommend staying here if you go to D.C.!
The next morning, we bought tickets for the D.C. HoHo, even after our disastrous NYC experience, because we figured it couldn’t be as bad as NYC (it was still “ugh” at times, but not nearly as bad), and made our way into downtown. First, we stopped by Arlington Cemetery, but the HoHo guide said it was typically a 1 ½ wait between HoHos, so we decided to wait to see if we wanted to stop by at the end of the day (we didn’t, #regret). Next, the HoHo drove us around the Marine Corps Memorial, which is basically next to Arlington Cemetery and one of the few memorials outside D.C. limits. The bus didn’t stop at this memorial, unfortunately.
Our first stop inside of D.C. was a big one – the Lincoln Memorial. A massive, mesmerizing marble building perched on a slight hill, it cannot be missed. One of the more famous sights in D.C., it was packed, as expected. It was a fight and a lot of patience waiting to get a picture with Honest Abe that wasn’t full of strangers unintentionally invading the background, but regardless it was breathtaking and amazing to view in person. I found it striking that a mere 50 feet from me was a police officer packing an AR-15, not because I’m anti-gun, but because this is what our world has become. I don’t recall there being so much armed police in D.C. (they’re EVERYWHERE) in 2003 but then again, I was a naïve and oblivious 13-year-old.
Directly south of the Lincoln Memorial is the Reflecting Pool, and on the other side of that, the Washington Monument. The Reflecting Pool was disgusting, something I wasn’t expecting. In pictures and videos, it looks clear, refreshing, and beautiful, but in person it looked like a swamp full of syphilis or malaria. I’m not sure if this is due to natural reasons like weather and plants, or because people are simply assholes who don’t care where their trash goes (or both), but either way it was a little disappointing.
We walked along the side of the Pool, making our way to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which is a very short distance from the Lincoln Memorial. I LOVED this memorial! It was by far my favorite in D.C., because it is so gripping and excellently done, and unlike any of the other memorials throughout the city. There are 19, 7-foot statues of soldiers who appear to be a platoon, lurking through the jungle, representing all 4 branches of the U.S. military (14 Army, 3 Marines, 1 Navy, and 1 Air Force). The detail in these statues is breathtaking, and you feel as if you’re transported to the jungles of Korea and can see all the stress and strain on their war-torn faces. There is also a mural wall, in the shape of a triangle and made from striking black granite, with various words and imagery etched into it. Much thought and planning went into this memorial.
We then continued our walk along The Mall (not an actual mall like a shopping mall, for those who are unaware), eventually making our way to the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial. Most of the main memorials are all located along The Mall and are within reasonable walking distance from one another. The MJK memorial was impressive, with an excellent likeness of the great Reverend, and it certainly did him justice.
We left the MLK Memorial and continued along The Mall’s sidewalk, eventually coming to the WWII Memorial. This is another one that I loved, and I think it was excellently designed. It is basically a giant circle, with a large water fountain and pool in the middle, and every state and U.S. territory that fought in WWII has its own column. We each found our respective states – California for me, Indiana for her – as well as our mutual “home state”, Illinois. We noticed that basically everyone who comes to this memorial finds their home state and has themselves a mini-photoshoot.
This memorial has been steeped in controversy (isn’t everything), because people were pissy about the location. They whined that it would “interrupt” the view between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and that space had historically been used for protests and demonstrations. Luckily Congress told those people to shove it, because WWII veterans were beginning to die before ever seeing a proper memorial erected in their honor. Construction for the memorial finally began in 2001, and opened to the public in 2004 – 17 years after the request for such a memorial was initially made in 1987 by WWII veteran Roger Durbin.
Moving on, next was the Washington Monument. We used the Washington Monument for a photoshoot, which I’m guessing is probably the norm. Poor George Washington got the shaft in the monument department. Lincoln and Jefferson have grand mausoleum-type structures, and Roosevelt has his own freaking island, yet our first president, founding father, and overall puffy-haired badass of the Civil War gets a giant, pointy stick. I’m just sayin’. Fun note: it’s also the center of many conspiracy theories, mainly those involving the Masons. Note so fun note: it may have been built by slaves.
Next up – the White House. My memories from my 8th grade trip are foggy, but one that really stands out is the White House. When I first visited D.C., Dubya was president and times were simpler (George Bush Jr. for non-Americans); therefore security wasn’t as hardcore as this time around. I remember our teacher pointing out snipers on the roof of the White House, but that was about it. You could walk up, touch, or lean against the black gate that surrounds the home of the president. This is not the case in 2018. There is now a good 50+ foot gap between the black gate and where visitors can stand, and standing in this gap are armed police officers, some with AR-15s. I’m assuming this has something to do with the crazies that have popped up within the last few years who tried to jump the gate to bum-rush the White House.
We hung out outside the White House for a few minutes, where I bought Gatorade from some very business-savvy young men. It gets hot in D.C. during the summer and there were people selling Gatorade and water for $2 a piece on all the street corners and in front of various hotspot locations. Make sure to carry some cash, otherwise you’ll probably pay double at any of the stores. Sweet, sweet capitalism.
While the White House is cool to ogle at for a few minutes, there’s not much point in hanging out there forever, since you can’t get any closer than what is allowed, so we continued our journey. We found one of the HoHo stops in front of this super swanky hotel (InterContinental The Willard Washington D.C., where you can stay for $300-$400 per night) and chilled out for a while. Once back on the HoHo, we were onboard only for a few minutes before realizing the next stop was the National Archives. I quickly shoved Kristi off the bus to go to it. If you come to D.C., you must go to the National Archives, because this is where the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights are housed.
Viewing these famous and historic documents is completely free (as are all the museums in D.C.) but you must go through security, including a metal detector, and wait in line to view them. They only send up a certain number of people at a time to try to fight overcrowding, which honestly didn’t seem to do much good since people take forever just sitting there, trying to read every single line of the damn thing. Very few people seemed to get the memo that you’re supposed to just look, go “oohh, ahhh”, and move your arse out of the way. Regrettably, pictures are strictly forbidden of all three documents because one single flash from a camera speeds up the documents fading by 30 days. So basically, one single flash wipes away 30 days’ worth of ink from the document. The lights inside the document area are very low, which is also a way the government is fighting the fading. Unfortunately, the documents are already extremely faded, so I have a hard time imagining they’ll be around in another 30 or so years. I suggest getting to D.C. asap if you want to view the original documents (as opposed to copies, which is all we’ll have in the future).
We meandered around the National Archives for a bit before heading to our last stop of the day, the U.S. Capital building. You can take the HoHo to the capital, but we decided “screw it” and just walked – it’s not that far (all downtown D.C. is walkable, in my opinion). We didn’t go inside because 1) we didn’t know if we could, and 2) we were too lazy to find out. Rule #2 of my road trip blog keeps springing to mind as I write this, because had we spent more than one day in D.C., we would have had the time, energy, and patience to actually go into places like the capital or any of the numerous museums. However, since we had already spread ourselves so thin throughout this entire trip, we were somewhat defeated at this point and didn’t really bother with it (so much regret).
Seeing the U.S. capital building in person, however, was awesome in and of itself. As an American citizen who is currently rather dissatisfied with our entire government, it was surreal to be standing outside of where all those politicians go to duke it out and get absolutely nothing accomplished in the process. All I could think about while standing outside of the capital is how all our politicians get paid to do nothing, and then claim they did something, but that is a rant for a different time.
All-in-all, our day spent in D.C. was satisfactory, more than I can say for some of the other places we visited during the road trip. While we certainty didn’t get to do a lot, we did see the main iconic locations and monuments, and for that I cannot complain. I regret not being able to go to any of the Smithsonians, but that is our own fault for thinking we could foolishly do D.C. in one day. I don’t necessarily think you need an entire week in D.C. to see or do everything, but certainly 3 to 4 days. This city is one of the very few places I will be making a THIRD trip to in the future. I’m not done with you yet, D.C.!