D.C.’s American Ambiance

“I’m glad we were here together in our nation’s capital.” -Forrest Gump


I haven’t seen snow in more than eight years. But to my delight, I wake up to see white flurries trickling down from a crisp blue sky. Giddy with excitement, I rush to the window and squeal internally at the sight of the ground, which looks to me like it’s covered in powdered sugar. The road past the brick house’s long driveway is uncovered, but the snow continues to collect on the bare asphalt, treated so as to keep the road visible. The rolling hills beyond the road are doused in white, thin layers showing brownish-green turf in some places. Naked trees seem adorned with enough snow to pass off for pale leaves at a quick glance. I’d love to be a stereotypical Floridian- bundle up in umpteen layers of long underwear and jackets and venture out into this freshly sprinkled wonderland- but I’ve got to catch a train into our nation’s capital.

It’s spring break (although the phrase seems to have an entirely different meaning in this part of the country) and my parents and I are staying with our friends in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC. To me the state park surrounding our friends’ lot, undulating hills, and weekly dairy product deliveries make this neighborhood seem far more rural than suburban, but I’m certainly not complaining. While it’s definitely an adventure to get into downtown DC from this location, it is possible when you drive 20 minutes to a metro station and ride the train 40 minutes into the city proper.

Eating breakfast, I think back to the day of our arrival. We had hopped on a tiny little jet (to the point that it felt adorable just to be inside it) and after a little more than two hours were circling the city for our descent into Reagan National Airport. It was overcast, yet comfortably cool, and I could see the famous monuments and memorials lining the National Mall. It was now that I was beginning to worry, “What exactly does this trip have in store for me?” I’ve never really had a desire to visit DC, frankly because I assumed that it would be a glorification of American culture, American history, basically American everything. And that’s something I have a great deal of experience with considering, you know, that I live in America. But our friends had invited us to come up and I was excited to see the cherry blossoms blooming (spoiler alert- they didn’t), so I thought, “This might be fun!” Only eight days here would truly tell me whether my conjecture would prove to be true.

When we stepped out of the main terminal of DCA (which had the semblance of a turn-of-the-century train station), the sun had decided to tease us with its springtime deceit. After being whisked away to Gaithersburg, we had walked for the better part of half an hour along a trail through a picturesque river gorge that sat right behind our friends’ backyard. I actually ended up taking off my sweatshirt- something I had not expected to do outside for the nine days I would be visiting here. I chuckle to myself at mother nature’s bipolarity- but I suppose the monuments would look impressive in any kind of weather, so it doesn’t worry me about the day ahead. We climb into our friends’ car (which they had lent us for the week) and zoom along the twisting Maryland roads to Shady Grove Metro Station- the end of the line and the beginning of our daily commute. The train slices through the chilly air on the way to its next stop, and after 40 minutes we emerge in a bustling square by the National Archives. As my face begins to freeze, I hurry into our first stop: part two of the Newseum.

Let me say, without any bias or embellishment, that the Newseum is the greatest, most underrated museum in existence. It’s a modern, open, six-story tribute to everything that has to do with, well, the news. Now, to some people, that might sound like a snooze fest. But for this journalism junkie it was like a decadent six layer chocolate cake, each level bursting with richness, sophistication, and flavor. From a terrace with exceptional views of the Captiol, to a piece of the Berlin Wall, to hundreds of front pages featured from practically every year since Gutenberg’s printing press, this cake might be too much to devour in one sitting. Luckily, tickets to the Newseum (while putting you out 20 bucks) are good for two consecutive days. And trust me, you will need the extra day. I certainly did.

After a morning of pure news bliss, it’s time to chow down for real. But first, a pit stop at the National Archives and a glance at the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights (no big deal, right?) satisfies the curious history buff within anyone. Now it’s time to eat lunch. I had received an inside tip from a friend back home of the perfect place to grab a quick bite, so we walk over to the National Museum of the American Indian, on the southeast side of the mall. Besides being housed in an impressive building, the museum’s Mitsitam Cafe has a reputation for having incredible food, in the setting of a museum food court. It’s won Zagat awards and has been featured in lots of publications as the ‘best museum cafe in the world.’ And I must say, the food was pretty wonderful, while staying true to traditional Native American cuisine. A couple pieces of delicious (but extremely expensive) fry bread and some homemade chips & guac fuels me up for our next attraction: The Capitol. It is truly a magnificent building- made to look even bigger than it actually is by the fact that no other buildings may be taller than it. As impressive as it is, you don’t truly gain an appreciation for its history unless you stop into its visitor center. Located underground on the eastern side of the building, the center’s main exhibit is modern and chock-full of information. I learned quite a bit about the legislative branch (which is housed in the Capitol building), and loved seeing the maps of DC’s growth since its founding.

After a few snapshots in front of the building, we walk down into the National Mall itself. If you’ve never heard the scoop on the Mall, imagine a huge green field dotted with monuments and memorials. It’s basically the Central Park of DC, and is a must-do of any trip there. The Washington Monument itself is closed (due to damage from the 2011 earthquake), but I still gaze up at the giant obelisk as we pass by it. The western end of the Mall is where it gets juicy. The World War II Memorial is a great tribute to both the European and Pacific theaters, while the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a simple yet solemn tribute to the names etched onto its smooth black surface. And then there’s the Lincoln Memorial, the big one. The one I saw from the plane when we landed. And it’s definitely not less impressive in person. The whole building itself is actually bigger than it seems in pictures, and the same can be said for the enormous marble statue of Lincoln himself. It does get quite crowded, but not so much that it takes away significantly from the attraction itself. After a day spent exploring the quintessential DC sights, we commute back ‘home’ for some dinner and a backyard fire in the freezing cold. As I watch my marshmallow slowly brown as it heats up from the flames, I consider this a decadent end to an equally decadent day.

Over the course of the next several days, we venture into the city time after time to visit more museums, restaurants, and memorials. But one day, instead of driving to the metro station, we merge onto 270 and drive for an hour and a half to Chantilly, VA, a small town just south of Dulles Airport. Here lies another museum that only the geeky will find interesting: The Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum. While affiliated with the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum on the National Mall, the Udvar-Hazy center has twice the square footage and a third of the crowds- mainly because it’s so far away from where the normal tourists venture. And inside this converted mega-hangar lies the most amazing collection of flying objects I have ever seen (granted, I have limited experience with flying object collections, but still). From the Enola Gay fighter plane to an original AirFrance Concorde (my personal favorite), to even the Space Shuttle Discovery, AV Geeks will find a paradise at Udvar-Hazy.

And so, as we meander through the hilly cobblestone streets of the ultra-hipster Georgetown neighborhood, northwest of the city center, I make my final conclusion about DC. It’s not a ‘murica-fest, like I had previously believed. Sure, there’s probably a higher monument to person ratio here than in any other city in the world, but every single monument and memorial is done in a kind of elegance that makes it accomplish just what it was built to do- and nothing more. Even the Capitol, with its ornate curves and massive dome, makes a solemn impression on its visitors that is completely void of kitsch. And there’s more than just monuments: great food, incredibly interesting museums that you can’t imagine being placed in any other city, and that feeling that this city holds our country’s government make DC a city for anyone. But at its paramount is history. There are so many little bits of history sprinkled around the city like confetti that give it that extra layer of mystery and nuance that always enriches a visit. You’ll just be walking along the street and all of a sudden it’s just, “Oh look, there’s the State Department.” My final verdict: DC has a feel to it that’s electric, exciting, and reflective. It’s an aura that even a blanket of snow can’t cover- but I’m sure it’s still nice in May.

Check out The Capital List: What to See and Eat in D.C. for more of my recommendations on activities and restaurants to visit while you’re in Washington!

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