The West Wing is one of my all time favourite TV shows. It is a fictional story about President Bartlett and the staff he employs in his administration. He’s probably the coolest president I’ve ever watched in popular culture. American politics is so much feistier than Australia. You have the right wingers (in my opinion, absolutely terrifying conservatives who make Tony Abbott look like a socialist) and you have the liberal democrats. I’m a huge fan of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. So there was no way that I could have gone to the USA without visiting the heart of it all, Washington DC.
Yes, if I was in America, I’d be a liberal Democrat. I remember during my last year of uni, Barack Obama won the election. I distinctly recall texting my friend because we were supposed to be studying for civil procedure but we were so enraptured by Obama’s win, the studying was just not happening. She texted me and said: “In 20 years time, I’m not going to be sitting there telling my kids about my awesome civil procedure grades, instead of telling them I watched the first black president of the USA give his victory speech! Who cares?”. I didn’t. I watched it. I passed the subject anyway!
We were only in Washington for three days. It was one of my regrets of the trip that we didn’t stay 5, or even 6, days there. There is just so much to do and everything is free. Yes, you read correctly, about 90% of the museums and attractions in Washington are completely free entry. It’s something to do with Smithsonian funding.
We arrived from Chicago, which had been freezing to about 30 degree weather. It washot. We had on jeans, jackets, etc. We arrived at Dulles airport, which is actually in Virginia, not DC. The cab was over $60 to our hotel, so we waited for about 40 minutes for the $6 bus.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn, which was in the Capitol district. One thing I didn’t like about Washington is that accommodation is expensive. Even more expensive than New York. We flew in on a Sunday morning, which probably explains the cost – most politicians would arrive in DC for work on Monday on a Sunday. However, the hotel we stayed in was right in the centre of the city so worth the extra cost. We were 2 train stops from the Capitol and 1-2km from the White House.
I had a huge to-do list when we arrived. Looking back, it was a very ambitious list for only 3 days. Plus my feet, by this stage, were in absolute agony from all the walking we had been doing, which probably slowed us down a bit. Blistered toes, soles throbbing as soon as I sat down. Because it was hot, on our first afternoon out and about, I decided to wear my pluggers. Big mistake. Huge!!! We walked all around the government district that afternoon and my ankles, not being supported by anything were in agony, in addition to my blistered toes and sore soles. Good times.
The White House
Getting to the White House is actually quite confusing. It is kind of on Pennsylvania Avenue, but sort of not. There are two entrances, one which was completely blocked off the afternoon we arrived and the other is down an almost side street. When we were there, we stood closely to a tour guide and listened to him rattle off some facts to the people who had actually paid for his services. Apparently, the White House has no front and back entrance. It has the North and South entrance only, so that no-one ever thinks that they are being brought in through “the back door”. It was so amazing to see it. White House tours are, as a foreigner, basically impossible. You have to get your embassy to help you make the application and the Australian Embassy states very clearly on their site that they do not assist Australians to go on White House tours. Still, the outside is phenomenal. Way better than anything in New York.
The Capitol is like parliament house in Australia. Except it is a few hundred years old and a completely magnificent building. We did a tour (which was free). They really have tourism down pat, instead of the guide having to yell at you, competing for sound with all the other tours, you are given headphones and it is tuned to a radio frequency, and your tour guide speaks into a mic so you can hear it. It works well, except I turned mine off by accident in the first 10 minutes so I had to stay creepily close to the tour guide. I think he thought I might ask for his number by the end. I was actually completely alarmed by three children in the group who knew as much about American history (when the tour guide asks questions) as I do about practicing law. They seemed completely indoctrinated! I actually wondered if they knew anything about anywhere outside of America, or if what they did know was as detailed.
Library of Congress
We didn’t actually plan to go here, but it was across the road from the Capitol so we went in. It was so beautiful, we saw Thomas Jefferson’s library and this enormous, old fashioned library/study area for those who are employed as researchers. So much lovely art as well.
Supreme Court Building
This was always on the agenda for two lawyers. It is so strange – it is this massive, imposing building, but there is only ONE courtroom. Makes sense, the Supreme Court usually would only sit as the 7, but I was quite surprised. We were really disappointed as we missed a hearing that morning and there were none scheduled for the afternoon. We also weren’t allowed into the courtroom without a tour guide, and we had missed a tour by about 10 minutes. The building is very quiet out the front. There are two security guards standing and the rest of that big staircase is usually empty. My feet were serious agony by this stage, so I was grumpy and tired.
National Mall, WW2 Memorial, and Abraham Lincoln statute
Disappointingly, half of Washington was under construction when we were there. There was an earthquake in 2011, and the Capitol and a few other buildings still had construction beams all around them. The National Mall was also under construction, so the huge pool of water leading up to the Abraham Lincoln statute was all covered in and being excavated. The Abraham Lincoln statute was amazing. In the walk up to the statute, you walk along the National Mall and encounter the WW2 memorial which is lovely and respectful.
I didn’t get the appeal of this. Mr W completely loved it, though. He took several pictures and insisted we go back and see it at night in addition to seeing it during the day. It, too, was closed due to undergoing work to fix the earthquake damage.
We had a grand plan to go to about 5 museums. We made it to two. The Holocaust Museum and the International Spy Museum. The Holocaust museum was my pick. Entry was free but when you arrived you were given a time entry stamp and you weren’t permitted to the main exhibit until after that time. We had a 3 hour wait, which was really annoying and meant we had to cut some museums off our list. It was a very provocative place and deeply sad. We saw a speech by a Holocaust survivor, whom I would more so described as a WW2 survivor, as he lived in Yugoslavia and escaped in the last 12 months when the Germans were closing in. He was never in a camp, but it was moving all the same.
The international spy museum was loads of fun! It was away from the sort of “museum and government building” district and we did have to pay money to go in (about $20), but it was worth it. You get given a secret identity and have to answer questions about your identity going through the exhibits. I loved it, despite being a little apprehensive initially.
I insisted on going to Shake Shack, which is a chain in NYC and Washington. Apparently, it has amazing shakes and burgers. We went there one afternoon and while I was eating my ice cream, a motorcade came past. I RAN out onto the street screaming like a little girl because I thought it was Barack Obama! I was waving and squealing and taking photos. Then we realised that Barack Obama was in South America, so it must have been someone else. Oh well.
By this stage of the trip, I was so tired that I can’t remember where we ate. I know we went into Chinatown into a dodgy looking restaurant that was recommended in our Lonely Planet books. The looks were deceiving, it was amazing, and cheap! We also ate at a really delicious southern restaurant, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name. We were completely under dressed and didn’t think we’d get in but because it was early evening, they ignored my singlet and joggers!
The train system around Washington was expensive. We got a $10 pass, which we had to top up to catch the train to Reagan airport. It is not that great (I assume everyone else catches cabs or has motorcades) and deeeeeeeeeeeeply underground so a little bit scary.
Another reason we missed a couple of museums was that, on our way to the Holocaust museum one morning, we noticed all these people gathering in the big open space near the Smithsonian institute. Like, hundreds of people. We were all “What’s going on, we’re Australian?” and some nice man told us that the Discovery space shuttle would be being flown over Washington before touching down to be put in a museum. The last flight of the Discovery was about to take place! It was all very cool, but I was busting for a wee so it kind of dampened (haha, see what I did there?) the experience. Still, a great experience.
Washington was my FAVOURITE part of the USA. I desperately want to go back there. I loved it. I would recommend it above New York. Even if you aren’t into politics, there is something there for everyone. So many museums! There is an air and space museum, a natural history museum, an American history museum and the list goes on and on.
Have you ever been to Washington? Do you want to? If you have been, did you like it?
Whippersnapper has written 37 posts.