A Monumental Day!

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve returned from our fantastic Washington, D.C. trip. I have been meaning to finish my blog posts, and I owe a dear friend some of this information in writing! I wanted to share with everyone our Monumental Day where we visited some of the most important D.C. sites in the most efficient manner.

I used to live in Washington, D.C., so I had been to the older monuments, but since 2000, many monuments have been added. Here is the list of monuments/memorials that we wanted to see:

  • Lincoln
  • Vietnam
  • Korea
  • World War II
  • Washington
  • Jefferson
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Air Force
  • Pentagon 9/11
  • Iwo Jima
  • Arlington National Cemetery

Just so you know, we did not see all of those sites in one day…but we saw a lot. Our secret is that we hired a private guide to explain the sites and drive us between sites. We went with Private DC Tours. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor! They had excellent ratings and seemed to be a good value for what we wanted. Our tour guide drove us to a site, explained what to see (including fun things, stories, hot tips) and then dropped us off. He then proceeded to park nearby and wait for a text from us for pick up. So we got cool information, but we still had the freedom to manage the visit the way we wanted.

Why pay the money? Temperature, temperament and time. I knew that we were visiting during December and there was a good chance that the weather would be wet and/or cold. That day it was wet. I knew that if my kids were miserable, we wouldn’t see very much. Also, our trip to D.C. was less than a week. So, if I intended to see most of the monuments on my list, plus everything else, I had to find a way to reduce the amount of time it took to travel between monuments. In addition, I knew that my kids would be more likely to listen to the guide’s cool stories than my blabber reading from an app or website (the guide had a video and told funny anecdotes…so I was right).

My advice when visiting monuments is take them in groupings: 1) Lincoln, Vietnam and Korea with the reflecting pool; 2) World War II and Washington (Washington just from a distance…you can’t go inside); 3) Jefferson; 4) FDR, MLK and a Tidal Basin walk; 5) Air Force and Pentagon 9/11 (have to drive between them); and 6) Arlington Cemetery. Iwo Jima is tricky and we never made it there (this trip), but it best fits as a drive-by on the way to Arlington Cemetery.

Our top monument/memorial priority before arriving was to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. My husband is former military, so the cemetery visit was of huge importance to him. We organized our day around ensuring that we arrived in time for a guard changing. In the winter, it is every hour and in the summer is it every half hour. Check out the website to be sure you know the schedule and can plan for it. I also wanted to see Lincoln or Jefferson at night (both are beautiful), so I was happy we made that happen as well.

IMG_2043

Even when we plan perfectly, we have to stay flexible. For our tour day, we overslept a bit, so we started 20 minutes late and decided to just go directly to World War II with the intention of seeing Lincoln, Vietnam and Korea later (see below).  We then proceeded in the numerical order above and saw almost everything. I liked that we took the time to look at things that interested us. We looked for “Kilroy was here” at WWII. We shopped in the store in the Jefferson Memorial because we felt like it. We took selfies with MLK because his statue was so impressive (and I photographed every quote). We especially spent A LOT of time at the FDR Memorial. Why? It was incredibly interesting, and at the time, the quotes and the stories relayed (it is more like an exhibit than a memorial with a lot to digest) were really relevant to the post 2016 election conversation. We forced our girls to look at and read everything.  It was my favorite, hands down. We also took our time to walk the Tidal Basin and take photos…it’s most stunning in the springtime, but we still found it beautiful in December.

 

Because of our time allocation choices, we sadly skipped the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial and headed straight to the Air Force Memorial on the Virginia side of the river. This spot gives you a beautiful view of the city. Of course, we took more pictures. Are you seeing a pattern here? Our guide then dropped us at Pentagon City Mall and we ate at the food court (because at this point it was 2pm). After lunch we hopped on the Blue Line Metro and went one stop to Arlington National Cemetery and made it in time for the 4pm changing of the guard. It is a long walk up the hill, so give yourself 15-20 minutes after entering the grounds to get to the tomb. There are also trams, but we wanted to enjoy the scenery.

IMG_2053

Another highlight of our day was our decision to walk back over Arlington Bridge from the cemetery toward the Lincoln memorial. We wanted to see the memorial at night and the weather had mellowed quite a bit. The colors in the sky at sunset (it was about 5pm or so) along with the water and the lit monuments was worth every step on my aching feet. There were tons of people at Lincoln by the time we arrived…the view is beautiful and you can go inside the monument at night and still enjoy it fully. We ended up not making it to the Vietnam and Korean memorials that evening because we didn’t think we would see much of them at night since they are not enclosed. Also, we were a bit jet-lagged and ready to relax!

IMG_2074IMG_2083IMG_2081

Lessons learned? Four hours on the tour go by fast. Also, it’s important to know your own family and what you will enjoy. We like to go at our own pace. We spent extra time at the Tidal Basin taking photos because it was fun! And, on vacation, it’s important to have fun. If every visit is serious, focused and rushed, it will stop being enjoyable for my tween and teen very fast. If we had booked a 6 hour tour, started at 9am (because 8am is too early) and packed our own lunch, we could have seen more during the day (and still had him drop us directly at Arlington Cemetery). However, we decided, long ago, that it is better to enjoy the traveling process than to accomplish everything. That’s us…there are always things we don’t see on a trip and we are ok with it. That is why we prioritize! As long as we get to the “must sees,” then everything else is bonus. Considering how much we experienced in D.C. in just one day, I would say we had a lot of bonus!

Advertisements

Capitalizing on a Capitol Visit

Visiting Capitol Hill 

Seeing all of the views of the Inauguration today reminds me of being on Capitol Hill less than a month ago. Visiting the Capitol building and it’s neighbors the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress make a great day excursion in Washington, D.C..

Advance Preparation

It seems that the Capitol does allow walk ups, but I was originally told that I needed to get a reservation through my Congresswoman in order to enter and tour the Capitol building. I called her office and they instructed me how to apply through their website. I had to provide them days and times I was available…I could not choose the day and time. Unlike the White House, which is very difficult to get into, this reservation seemed to be easy for them to get. I made my reservation a month before my trip, but if you are going in the summer, I would recommend investigating this several months in advance.

I wish that I had understood that getting into the gallery (even when Congress is not in session) requires a SAME DAY pass. This means that before entering the Capitol (see discussion about the line below), you have to visit your Congressional representative to get a pass to the gallery (i.e., you have to go to their office that is in a separate building from the Capitol building and ask for it). That actually would have been fun to go to our Congresswoman’s office; however, once inside the Capitol, we didn’t want to leave and go through security again.

I had also assumed that when visiting the Supreme Court that I would be able to enter the courtroom. That is not the case. If court is not in session (attending a Supreme Court hearing is a whole other process that I didn’t investigate), you must wait in line (first come, first served) to attend a court lecture inside the courtroom. That is the only way they let you inside the courtroom. We arrived too late for a lecture, and I was so annoyed. This is not clear on their website, so be aware. Here is the link to the instructions and calendar for these lectures. https://www.supremecourt.gov/visiting/touringthebuilding.aspx

Getting There and Getting Inside

As with most places in Washington, D.C., we took the Metro to the Capitol and it was very easy. The walk from the Blue/Silver/Orange line to top of the Hill was a piece of cake. The visitor’s entrance to the Capitol building is not at the steps of the building. Rather, it is somewhat underground and close to the street. So, be sure to follow the signs to the visitor’s entrance; it is clearly marked.

The line for the Capitol entrance is long and slow. It was very cold outside, but thankfully, we were prepared. Depending on the time of year, this is important to think about. Also, you cannot bring any food or drink inside. It says so much on the ticket, but many people apparently did not read the ticket and were forced to scarf their nicely packed lunches before entering. I suggest you spend the cash and eat in the cafeteria inside after your tour. The food was pretty decent.

We ended up waiting in line 20-30 minutes and missed our tour time. Do not despair if this happens to you. Once you enter, go to the tour desk and follow the line instructions (“visitors with reservations”) and they will just hook you up for the next tour group. They have a group that leaves every 10 minutes. And, take a tip from me…use the restroom before the tour…it’s not easy to find one or stray once the tour gets going.

Getting into the Library of Congress is a dream if you take the tunnel FROM the Capitol. Since security is tighter in the Capitol, I don’t think we went through any security from the tunnel to the Library, and we took the water bottles we bought in the cafeteria. Beautiful. I saw people entering from the Library to the tunnel and they still had to have their bags checked. So, it seems, going to the Capitol first might be the most efficient. But since you can’t control the reservation time you are given, just roll with it. Clearly the tunnel is preferred regardless of the direction because it is easier, inside and much more fun for the kids!

Getting into the Supreme Court was fairly straight forward. No reservations were required, and it seemed that packaged food and water bottles were accepted. The line is outside, though, so be prepared for that.

Other Tips and Observations

Touring the Capitol was very interesting. The guide provides a combination of the history of the building, the history of Congress and the history of the United States…so there is something for everyone. The tour was shorter than I expected…there was a feeling of “is that it?” I would take my kids back to see Congress in session (and skip the tour…it’s only necessary once).

The Library of Congress was not originally on my list. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it’s significance, but I just didn’t have it on my radar. It is worth seeing, especially because it is so easy to get to from the Capitol. They had several exhibits there (art, artifacts, history…very interesting) and the architecture of the building is worth seeing for sure. The view of the Capitol building from the second floor is very cool. Also, (wait in line and) go upstairs to take a peek at the Main Reading Room…you’ll have flashbacks from several very cool movies at a minimum.

The Supreme Court building had an excellent exhibit on Sandra Day O’Connor when we were there, but the inside of the building itself is not that exciting. Going inside the courtroom is the main draw. AND, you must exit from the upstairs so that you can descend the outside steps (and pretend, once again, you are in a movie).

img_2152
The courtroom was taunting us because we could not enter.

We had different plans that evening or otherwise I would have explored having dinner on Capitol Hill or going to Union Market or Union Station. There is so much to explore and so little time!

Ringing in 2017 in Washington, D.C.

We are off to Washington, D.C. the day after Christmas, and we couldn’t be more excited! With all of the chaos around the U.S. Election this year, I’m looking forward to sharing one of my favorite cities with my girls and reflecting on all of the incredible people and events that make up this country’s amazing history.  Regardless of our political views, it will feel good to appreciate and respect what it means to be American.

Both my husband and I lived in D.C. at different times in our lives.  So we both have our own perspectives and priorities for planning this trip.  Our time is limited, so we are going to be efficient and choosy with how we spend our days and nights!

Here are the items that made our must-see list:

  • The Monuments – this alone could take several days.  I have been to the biggies several times…namely, Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Iwo Jima and Vietnam Veterans. Since my last time in D.C. in the late 1990’s, several monuments have been added such as FDR and Korean War Veterans, among others.  I also have to consider that it will be December, and potentially, it will be cold.  I plan to explore a private tour to drive us to all the monuments…some by day and some at night.  I’m currently checking out several options on Trip Advisor.
  • The Smithsonians – the beauty of the Smithsonian museums is that they are all free of charge.  So, you can “zip in” to see a few things and then move on without worrying about getting your money’s worth.  I think the highest on our list will be Air and Space museum, and for that, I will leave several hours for exploration.  In addition, the American History museum is very unique  with displays that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, so it warrants a high priority visit.  I personally love the National Gallery of Art, but I may end up spending more time there than the rest of my family.  There are many more museums that we will consider visiting as well.
  • The White House – Getting a reservation to go into the White House was a very interesting process.  I had to contact my congresswoman (via her website, but then I also called for scoop).  The nice intern in the office said that every Monday morning, their office attempts to obtain open tour slots for the White House.  This must be done 90 days in advance…not a good candidate for last minute planning. Unfortunately, the White House is closed to visitors the week after Christmas, which is incredibly disappointing because I wanted to see it decorated for the holidays and my husband and kids have never been inside.  However, we will do a “walk by” and take photos, and we plan to go see the White House Christmas Tree on the South Lawn as well.
  • The Capitol Building – We were able to secure a tour of the Capitol during our visit also arranged by our congresswoman’s office.  I’m curious how much we will see since Congress will not be in session.  We will give a full report!  And, I understand they have a beautiful Christmas tree and Christmas decorations as well.
  • The National Archives – For my 8th grader who is currently studying U.S. History (and my 7th grader who will be next year), a visit to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are a MUST!  In my research I learned that you can make a reservation online for a timed entry to the National Archives, but it is not necessary (highly recommended for summer months).  I will explore this once I have my daily plan nailed down.
  • Arlington National Cemetery – This is an absolute TOP priority for my husband.  We will ensure that we see the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier.  My understanding is that the ceremony takes place every hour on the hour from October – March (and every half hour during the peak summer months).  Check out the website for more details. There is a long list of monuments at the cemetery, including the JFK gravesite and two Space Shuttle memorials.  We will try to choose our best weather day for this visit.  I’m assuming between the metro ride and the walking around, this is a solid half-day in the schedule.
  • The Kennedy Center – Situated on the Potomic, the Kennedy Center is a beautiful building unto itself and it hosts a wide variety of entertainment options.  On New Year’s Eve alone, it will have three different performances to include Wicked, a Second City comedy show and Into the Woods.  We chose to see Into the Woods so that we could go inside the center and enjoy the New Year’s Eve Gala afterwards (free to all patrons).  And, we think it will be a beautiful place to watch the fireworks at midnight that will be shot off in Alexandria down the river.

Washington, D.C. has a fabulous underground metro rail system for getting around to most all of the sites.  Since most of my priority locations are on the Blue/Orange metro lines, I am choosing a hotel that is located near a Blue/Orange stop.  I’m partial to the Foggy Bottom area because, as a GWU alum myself, I used to live there.  The Foggy Bottom metro is the closest to Georgetown as well as there is no metro stop in Georgetown proper. I’m considering a few hotels that offer family suites with kitchens to allow us to eat breakfast in our rooms, pack lunches for our day and just have the convenience of eating more familiar food (less restaurant food).  There is a Trader Joes and a Whole Foods within walking distance of this area.  Stay tuned!