Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Washington, D.C.....The Ultimate History Field Trip!

Our family just arrived home from 8 amazing days in Washington, D.C.  The ultimate history field trip! It was an appropriately-timed trip as we are just now learning about Colonial America leading up to the Revolutionary War.  Gearing up for the trip, we watched movies like "The Conspirator" about the plot to assassinate Lincoln and "Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian".  These got the kids excited about what they would see and hear when we got to our destination.

Day One:  After getting settled in our hotel, the Marriott Shuttle Service took us to Union Station, one of the most beautiful Metro stations in the city.  Like nearly everything else, it was being repaired due to earthquake damage from 2011.  Still, a beautiful example of classical architecture. 

We had a few hours to kill before everything closed up so we headed to the National Gallery of Art.  Here, nearly all the artists that we studied last year and this year were represented.  Botticelli, Bruegel, Renoir, Monet, Cassatt, Rubens, Vermeer, Seurat and even a DaVinci (the only one in America is here--and it's tiny!).  There was more to see in this museum than anyone could see in a week.  We spent most of our time in the French Impressionist room and the Renaissance room, as well as the Dutch room.  They had sculptures, tapestries, and just scores of beautiful paintings.  I'm sorry that we didn't make it to the museum gift shop :(  A word of warning:  You will have to check your bags, but carry your cameras.  We had five cameras and a zoom lens in a camera bag.  We had to stuff our pockets with the cameras and carry around the extra lens.  We were very weighed down.  So, you may just want to arrive there with a small bag and one camera.

Chinatown has the most wonderful food.  And not just Chinese.  Although we did have a very authentic Chinese meal on our first night at Full Kee restaurant.  A rule of thumb, if there are dead animals hanging in the window, it's a good Chinese Restaurant. 

Day Two:  We toured the Museum of American History.  They have a wide array of household items, science tools, toys, uniforms, sports equipment and everything else under the sun from every era.  They also had an impressive display of memorabilia from most presidencies and artifacts from every war from the Revolution to 9/11. 

After lunch, we went out to fly kites for the Smithsonian Kite Festival, a part of the 100th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival.  There were HUNDREDS of kites out there at the Washington Monument.  A perfect overcast, windy day for kite-flying! 

Then we packed up our kites and started the long walk from the monument, around the tidal basin to the Jefferson Memorial, then around the rest of the tidal basin, through Roosevelt Park past the FDR Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, then across the street and over a bit to the Korean War Memorial, which is really several seperate sculptures of KW soldiers walking through a field--kind of like a living, breathing memorial.  We walked up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.  We were disappointed that they had drained the reflecting pool to repair some leaks, so the photographic opportunities were a little frustrating there, but we've seen Forrest Gump.  We know what it would have been like.  After the Lincoln Memorial (which is way, way bigger than I ever imagined), we walked over to the Vietnam Wall.  It just goes on and on forever.  Be sure to notice the symbols.  They are tiny, but there are diamonds and crosses near each one, which signfiy whether a body was recovered. Or not. 

After a day FULL of walking, we had worked up quite an appetite and headed back to Chinatown for dinner.  This time, we went to Irish Channel, which is a traditional Irish pub, complete with stews, pot pies, fish and chips and lots of locals playing darts and watching sports.  Still, it was very family friendly.  Chinatown is the metro stop for the Verizon Center, so expect to wait for a table of you are arriving on a night where a game is playing down the street.

Day Three:  Sunday.  Nearly everything is free in DC, including the National Zoo. We have a Zoo in Tampa that is not nearly the size of the National Zoo and costs us almost $100 to visit.  So, we were happy to have the opportunity to see Giant Pandas and a nice variety of birds in the aviary, as well as some really up close and personal viewing of a cheetah pair.

After zoo-ing and lunching on Indian food, we visited the National Cathedral, an impeccable example of Gothic architecture, gargoyles and all!  There was a concert in the works, so we were only able to view the exterior this day.  We came back later on to see the inside.  We drove past Embassy Row a few times to see the different embassies.  In the depression, many wealthy families sold over their gorgeous homes to foreign diplomats which became that country's embassy.  Those who were built afterward, were generally built in the style of that country.  If you like architecture, you'll not want to miss strolling or driving down Embassy Row, which is near the Dupont Circle area.

Arlington Cemetery is a must-see.  If you have a car, it's a quick drive, but use your GPS!  Driving in the district is tricky with all it's forks and circles.  If you are taking the Metro, you can connect to a bus.  Once you arrive, you can explore the large grounds for free.  However, for a few extra bucks, you can purchase a tour bus ticket that will allow you to hop-on and hop-off at the major sites:  The Tomb of the Unknowns, the Kennedy site and Robert E. Lee's house.  Also, the bus guides tell you alot of interesting facts as you drive around.  The Changing of the Guard ceremony was taking place every half-hour since we were at peak tourist season, so we got a chance to witness this poignant ceremony.  The Kennedy site is lit with the eternal flame that has been burning ever since JFK's funeral.  Jackie is buried next to him, as well as a stillborn child and their son, Patrick.  We wondered where John, Jr. and his wife were buried?  At the Robert E. Lee house, which is situated at the top of a great hill, you'll find the grave of Pierre L'Enfant, the architect of the city.  This is the best view of Washington, DC that we experienced and made for beautiful photographs.

We went out to U Street, a ethnically-diverse, artsy area of the district and visited a DC landmark, Ben's Chili Bowl.  It's nothing fancy; hot dogs, chili dogs, chili fries, burgers, shakes and pies!  It was just what we were looking for, as we had heard it was good enough for Bill Cosby.  As we made our way out, we were approached by three different men in three different spots for money.  It seems to be a little scary around U Street at night.  Just use common sense.

Day Four:  We spent nearly all day at the Museum of Natural History.  The geology exhibit killed over three hours!  It was pretty much beyond description.  Wall after wall of minerals, metals, gemstones.  If that sounds boring, you'll just have to experience it to understand.  All four of us left there thinking, "wow, I should've become a geologist".  They had a moving exhibit on the Chilean miners, which began by walking into a replica of a real coal mine.  The Hope Diamond is there as well and is the big draw.  Go there as soon as they open so you can get a good look and then explore the rest of the exhibit at a slower pace. 

We also loved the exhibit on bones, which pretty much has a skeleton from every living creature known to man, artfully displayed, categorized and labeled.  Also found here are Egyptian mummies and artifacts, spiders and insects, a walk-through butterfly pavillion (for a small charge), taxidermied mammals from all over the world and a massive oceanic exhibit!  Oh yeah, a huge room of dinosaur fossils.  And a theater on evolution, which we skipped. 

Don't expect to do much else on the day you visit this museum.  Take a quick lunch break and walk across the street to the Ronald Reagan Building.  It has a large food court and for about $9 a person, everyone can get what they want.  Your only other option is a questionable hot dog cart or the overpriced cafe in the Natural History Museum, which unfortunately, we chose and ended up eating dry sandwiches, standing up in the cafe due to lack of seating and spent over $50. As much as I don't like utilizing fast food or food courts on vacation, if you're on or around the mall, there are virtually no other opportunities for eating. 

There was one thing I didn't want to miss on this trip.  And it was Sprinkles Cupcakes.  After hearing about them on Oprah years ago and knowing that they are only in certain cities across America, I knew I couldn't get this close to a Sprinkles and not go!  There was one in Georgetown, which is about a 10 minute walk from the Foggy Bottom/George Washington University metro station.  There are also lots of cute shops and eateries located on this street.  I think it was "M" street?  There was an amazing store called PaperSource right next to Sprinkles, so after we indulged in our seven cupcakes (we got a half-dozen and earned a free one for whispering the secret word-of-the-day, which you can get if you are a Facebook fan), we went next door to look around at PaperSource. There are shops like Benneton, Dean and Deluca and a place called Bridge Street Bookshop.  Georgetown Scoops is an ice cream shoppe that looked awesome, but we were full of cupcakes by this point.  I'm glad we walked out to Georgetown.  It was a nice little upscale shopping district that broke up the days of museums and monuments.

Day Five:  The International Spy Museum is not to be missed, whether or not you have kids with you.  It is VERY interactive, educational and cool. This is not a free museum.  You will pay around $17 for adults and around $9 for kids.  It was well worth it, though.  You'll learn how countries have been using spies since the Trojan Horse and through every war since then.  You'll discover cool gadgets, surveillance tools, disguises, etc.  The museum goes on and on and has one of the nicest gift shops I've ever seen at the end of the tour (you can visit the gift shop without admission to the museum, through a sepearate entrance).  Kids can try to shuffle through overhead air ducts, and they can use computers placed throughout the many levels of the museum to test their skills at all things spy-related.

We had a tour of the Library of Congress scheduled through our local congressman.  This is, in my opinion, hands-down, the most beautiful building in Washington, D.C.  I just finished reading "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson and learned that they were so impressed by the architect who created the "White City" for the Chicago World's Fair in the 1880's, they asked him to design the Library of Congress.  We got a glimpse into the Reading Room but were not allowed to walk in without a library card.  We went through the red tape and got our own library cards across the street at the Madison Building. (Warning...they do not allow people to get library cards for "souvenirs", so make up a good story about some research that you've got to do and you'll get your card!)  FYI:  An excellent place to eat if you're anywhere near Capitol Hill, which is where the library is situated, is BullFeathers.  It is a great place for artsy sandwiches, burgers, etc. and is right there when you come out of he Capitol South metro station.  We went there two days in a row because the kids BEGGED. 

Day Six:  We toured the Capitol Building first thing--another tour scheduled through our Congressman.  Be sure to do this months in advance or you will wait for hours to get tickets.  The building is grand and beautiful, but once you are spoiled by the Library of Congress, everything else seems small-time.  LOL.  Still, the history of the building and the statuary hall with its sculptures and large-scale paintings is something to see. The intern who gave us a private tour led us out onto the balcony where the general public doesn't get to go.  There you can see the whole city and view the area where inaugurations take place.  It was a really nice tour and I recommend doing it for kids who are 10+.  Younger kids may get lost in the vocabulary of Congress, Senate, House, etc.

We planned to go to the Holocaust Museum, but got there and they were out of tickets.  So, we did the highlights of the Air and Space Museum.  We have a very, very nice air museum called Fantasy of Flight just 20 minutes from our house, so we feel like we've "done" a nice air/space museum already, but it was nice to see Amelia Earhart's Vega and the Wright Brothers have their own room devoted to the history of their glider.  Also, we needed a snack and they have a massive McDonald's (again, eww...didn't want to do a chain restaurant, but we were famished and needed to sit down)

We jetted back out to the National Cathedral (it's worth it to take a taxi out here--the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park subway stations are still quite a trek).  This time, we got a glimpse into the jaw-dropping interior of this cathedral.  Pictures and descriptions do it absolutely no justice.  Just go. 

Take advantage of one of the many free walking tours you can do through DC by Foot!  We did a nighttime Lincoln Assasination Tour that took us to all the major sites of the conspiracies and ended up two-hours later at Ford's Theatre.  Our guide, Erin, was a phenomenal story-teller and provided facts, photos and terrific suspense as we learned more than we ever thought there was to know about that fateful night. 

Day Seven:  We spent all day at Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington for more than 45 years.  Mount Vernon is accessible by subway with a bus transfer.  Take the yellow line all the way to the end--Huntington station.  Then take the Fairfax 101 bus another 20 minutes out to Mt. Vernon if you don't have your own car.  The metro ride will require another dollar or so since it's not considered a "short trip" like all of our other outings.  And the bus fare will cost you about $1.80 per person.  Well worth it. 

At Mt. Vernon, we toured the gardens, the mansion, the farm area and got to take the "National Treasure 2:  Book of Secrets" tour, which showed the many places in the movie where Mount Vernon is used.  We got to go into the basement, the only tour that allows you access to this area, as well as a glimpse of the old ice house and a walk down to the Potomac River wharf.  We saw the tombs of Mr. and Mrs. W. and spent alot of time petting their exotic sheep.  The place is just beautiful.  The inside had a very state of the art theatre, showing 4-D short films on the Revolution and many other movies to give you background about the Revolution and George Washington's participation in it.  The museum had over 700 artifacts from almost 5 decades of living on the property.  For lunch, you can choose the Colonial-themed restaurant or a food court.  The nicer restaurant will give you more of an experience, the food is wonderful, and the prices were about $10-$12 a person, what you would find for lunch in any restaurant in DC.

Day Eight:  Busy day!  We stood in line early for Holocaust Museum tickets and acquired them for later on in the day!  My husband stood in line at the same time for Bureau of Engraving and Printing tickets, but they "sold out" fast.  They are free, but they only give out so many.  They were gone by 8:30am.  We took a quick tour of the U.S. Botanical Gardens, which was a nice way to kill time until our White House tour. 

It's a bit tricky doing the White House tour because you can't bring ANYTHING but a phone, car keys and wallet with you.  No bags from any other stores or museums.  No backpacks, purses, diaper bags, food, etc.  We had to bring granola bars in a plastic bag from the hotel and then throw everything away.  Somehow I made it through the 3 security checkpoints with a lipstick in my pocket, even though that was prohibited.  Photography is not allowed inside and your phone will be confiscated by Secret Service if you are caught.  However, once you are outside (the tour spits you out on the front lawn of the White House), you can take photographs of your family with the house in the background.  The tour is quick--blink and you will miss it!  You tour the Blue Room, The East Dining Hall, The Red Room, The Green Room, and one of the halls with lots of historical photographs of various presidents.  They were preparing for the Easter Egg Roll, which was taking place the following day, so their were all sorts of signs that said "Egg Roll".  My kids wanted to know why the White House was promoting Chinese food.  LOL. 

After the White House, we were very impressed with ourselves, travelling so light.  We headed to the Old Post Office Building, a mega-huge building that looks like a cathedral and is supposed to have a wonderful view of the city (the best you can get now that the Washington Monument is closed for viewing).  It has a food court inside, but we were gravely disappointed in the selection.  They did have a Ben and Jerry's so we had ice cream for lunch and moved on.....

Next came the Holocaust Museum.  Plan to spend about 3 hours here, as you will want to really understand everything.  Yes, there is graphic violence and nudity depicted in the many photographs you will see.  You will see lots of images that will disturb you to tears, and that's what I wanted my kids to see.  I wanted them to see the truth.  Upon arriving, you will get a passport book of a real Holocaust prisoner.  You learn their story and their fate as you read more.  There are several levels to explore, several short films to watch, a train car to walk through, and a museum shop.  The boys got to meet a Holocaust survivor, Miriam Winter and purchased her book.  They asked questions the whole time and were completely engaged in the experience.  I am very, very glad we all went.  We saw the photo and inscription at the entrance of the building of a security guard that was fatally shot in 2010 by a Holocaust-denier, racist-animal.  Being a guard at this museum is dangerous business.  Your not just showcasing skeletons and rocks.  You're presenting a reality which some people still want to deny and attack.  It's just the same kind of violence and ignorance that started the whole mess.  For those with younger children, there is an exhibit called "Daniel's Story", which is a tour through the pre-war and post-war life of an 11 year old Jewish boy.  There are things to touch and diaries to read as you walk through the different rooms.  I thought this was very well done for children. 

Try to make it over to Cowgirl Creamery in Penn Quarter!  We took the Gallery Place/Chinatown subway and exited toward Gallery Place.  It spits you out right in front of Ella's Wood-Fired Pizza, where we had dinner.  If you walk around the corner to the left, there is Cowgirl Creamery, an artisan cheese shop that gives free samples and sells all things cheese, and all things that go with cheese!  We bought a half-pound of Wagon Wheel and smuggled it into Ella's Pizza to much on for an appetizer.  It was scrumptious!

After dinner, Dave and Denver went back out to view the monuments at night and take photos.  Me and Solomon aren't feeling so hot, so we head back to the hotel. 

Day Nine:  We are all officially sick now and luckily, have a slow-paced day of travel ahead.  We don't know it at the time, but we all have whooping cough.  We think of the number of taxis, subways, buses, airports and restaurants we have visited over the last week and cringe.  Where did we get it?  Who did we give it to?  We thought at the time that we just wore ourselves out and made ourselves sick with exhaustion.  But it was more than that.  Not the kind of souvenir one wants to bring back home..

Even with the cough, we had an amazing time, learned alot and got to experience some pretty cool things.  For the boys, their world-view was widened a little more.  I'm always jealous of how much they've experienced at their age.  I wonder how my life would be different if I would have learned about history and science at a younger age.  It seems the school system thought my brain wasn't ready for that until high school, but by that point, it was too late.  I only cared about boys and Aussie hairspray and New Kids on the Block.  Ah....hindsight.


Rachel said...

I love this post! Looks like you had a wonderful experience. Beautiful pictures. I can almost imagine everything.
Someday we'll go when we don't have a toddler.

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