With the fallout from all the political brinkmanship going on in Washington, D.C., these days, it’s easy to forget that Washington itself is a fascinating place.
The average tourist has probably trekked to Washington at least once and has visited some of the major Smithsonian museums around the National Mall, such as the National Air and Space Museum. Then of course there are the iconic monuments seen in the media worldwide that draw in millions of tourists each year, such as the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial. Finally, those brave souls who have been genuinely patient and diligent may have succeeded in wrangling a White House tour.
But there’s a lot more to do in Washington than simply treading along the standard route of tourist attractions. There are some unsuspected, offbeat locations and events that might surprise you. Here are 16 of them:
1. National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History is the ultimate museum containing four centuries — and 3 million items — of miscellaneous Americana: social, cultural, political, scientific, and military. A two-year $85 million renovation completed in 2008 improved both the premises and the presentations considerably.
Just about any American “thing” you can imagine is here: The actual Star-Spangled Banner, the John Bull locomotive, Archie Bunker’s chair, Abe Lincoln’s top hat, Julia Child’s kitchen, an 1865 Vassar telescope, dresses worn by first ladies at their husbands’ inaugurations (including Michelle Obama’s glittering gown), and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”
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2. DC Jazz Festival
As the largest music festival in Washington, D.C., the annual D.C. Jazz Festival features more than 100 performances at various concert halls and clubs in the city. They’re held in June — the next one is June 24-29, 2014 — and they include diverse styles of jazz attracting jazz aficionados from around the world.
In the above photo, jazz drummer Lenny White performs with two young musicians at a free concert at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage as part of the first day's performances of the 2013 D.C. Jazz Festival.
3. The National Museum of Women in the Arts
The first and only museum dedicated solely to acquiring, exhibiting, preserving, and researching the many artistic achievements of women, the National Museum of Women in the Arts began in 1981 in the home of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, who started collecting art with her husband, Wallace F. Holladay, in the 1960s. Both of them had observed the short mention women artists received in college art textbooks, museum collections, and major art exhibitions.
In 1987 the museum moved to a 1907 Renaissance revival building on New York Avenue NW, a former Masonic temple just a few blocks from the White House. (It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.) The museum has 4,500 works of art by about 1,000 artists, from Mary Cassatt and Camille Claudel to Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Helen Frankethaler, and Louise Bourgeois. It also houses special collections of 18th century silver tableware, botanical and zoological prints, and there’s an 18,500-volume library and research center, too.
Today, the museum enjoys one of the 10 largest museum memberships in the world, and sponsors more than 20 national and international committees in states across the nation and in eight countries that advocate for women artists at local, regional, and international levels.
4. The Newseum
With its 15 theaters and 14 galleries, the seven-story, 250,000-square-foot Newseum is a dynamic, well-organized interactive museum on Pennsylvania Avenue devoted to the world of news and journalism. There’s a gallery of ever-changing newspaper front pages, an interactive newsroom, a collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, actual artifacts linked to major news stories — including a piece of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, a fragment of the Berlin Wall, and the bombed-out car that belonged to Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles — as well as four shopping areas and multiple eateries.
5. Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The free annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival is held for two weeks every summer around July Fourth on the National Mall among the Smithsonian museums. Founded in 1967 by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and folklorist Ralph Rinzler, it’s billed as “an international exposition of living cultural heritage.”
In the photo above from the 2010 Folklife Festival, members of the Teenek community of Tamaleton, Mexico, swing around a "fliers pole," known as a "palo volantin," while performing a "Danza del Bixom Tiiw," a dance performed on festival days. The Washington Monument is in the background.
6. National Museum of Natural History
Yet another Smithsonian institution, the National Museum of Natural History houses an astounding 126 million items, as diverse as the cursed Hope Diamond, fossilized pollen, Moon rocks, an insect zoo, a slice of a giant sequoia tree, an IMAX cinema, whale skulls, samples of a giant squid, and a hall filled with dinosaurs, such as the ever-popular Tyrannosaurus rex.
7. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
While many pass through Washington’s National Gallery of Art, other enthusiasts of modern and contemporary art seeking a quieter, more abstract venue can find their way to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on Independence Avenue.
Considered one of the “big five” modern art museums, the core of its holdings is an endowment to the Smithsonian in 1966 with the superb collection of 4,000 paintings and 2,600 sculptures belonging to the Latvian immigrant and uranium mining investor Joseph H. Hirshhorn. (The museum, which officially opened in 1974, now contains more than 12,000 works of art.)
The building itself — architect Gordon Bunshaft’s 60,000-square-foot austere, simplified echo of what Frank Lloyd Wright did with New York’s Guggenheim Museum more than a decade earlier — has its two-level sunken sculpture garden and plaza covering four acres adorned with masterworks by Rodin, Matisse, Koons, and Carpeaux.
8. National Christmas Tree and Menorah Lightings
In the upper photo, U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the annual lighting of the National Christmas Tree on Dec. 6, 2012. This year's lighting ceremony is also on Dec. 6 and starts at 4:30 p.m. The 2013 National Christmas Tree, with its more than 5,000 ornaments handmade by children across America, was designed and decorated by GE Lighting. The U.S. Forest Service is in charge of cutting and maintaining the tree, with donations covering transportation costs.
In the lower photo, with the White House in the background and the National Christmas Tree at right, people stand for a song at the end of the lighting of the National Menorah, marking the second night of the eight days of Hanukkah in Washington last year on Dec. 9. This year, the lighting ceremony starts Wednesday, Nov. 27 at 4 p.m.
The Jewish festival of lights begins at sundown. The U.S. Air Force Band will be on hand, doubtless along with a profusion of latkes, chocolate gelt, sufganiyot (deep-fried, jelly-filled doughnuts), and other oily foods, all of which symbolically recall the single, ritually pure flask of oil used by the ancient Macabees to miraculously light Jerusalem’s defiled temple for eight days, until a new supply arrived.
9. National Museum of the American Indian
The Smithsonian’s most recent museum is the National Museum of the American Indian, a structure that holds more than 800,000 artifacts (including 300,000 images) about Native Americans and their history. The museum’s name is something of a misnomer, since it encompasses tribes of “Amerindians” (as the British would say) from all over the Western Hemisphere, even Hawaii. The building resembles a desert mesa worn by water and wind. The landscaping around the building is home to various kinds of foliage: plants and trees native to the western hemisphere.
And don’t miss the museum’s restaurant, the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, which might be the best place to eat lunch in the whole Smithsonian network.
The museum actually is represented by three facilities: the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the George Gustav Heye Center, a permanent museum in New York City; and the Cultural Resources Center, a research and collections facility in Suitland, Md. The collections sprang and grew from the former Museum of the American Indian in New York City, founded in 1916.
10. Paddle Boating in the Tidal Basin
Perhaps the best way to view Washington’s Japanese cherry blossom trees in March, as well as see unique perspectives of the Jefferson Memorial, is from a Tidal Basin paddle boat. You can rent one from March 15 through Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Tidal Basin paddle boat dock can be found next to the concession stand on the Tidal Basin’s eastern shore. From the National Mall, walk west on Independence Avenue until you reach 15th Street, then turn left and head south along 15th Street toward the Jefferson Memorial. The boat dock is on the right. Advance reservations can be made online.
11. International Spy Museum
America’s first and preeminent espionage museum houses an impressive assemblage of 600 international spy artifacts viewable by the public. Cigars that shoot .22 caliber bullets, the Enigma cipher machine, miniature cameras, concealed radio transmitters and receivers, toys and games, historic photographs, archival OSS and C-130 training films from World War II, interactive displays, even an exhibition on 50 years of James Bond villains: It’s all here; the whole history of espionage in both reality and fantasy.
12. Mount Vernon
George Washington’s estate is about 16 miles south of the Capitol in northern Virginia near Alexandria, but it is worth the trip, having become more engrossing with its new museum and education center. On Mount Vernon’s 500 acres is situated the 14-room restored mansion (complete with 1740s furniture), farm, garden (with magnificent views of the Potomac River), slave quarters, smokehouse, coach house, stables, a unique 16-sided barn for dealing with the wheat crop (invented by George himself) and the burial place of both George and his wife Martha.
13. Library of Congress
The world’s greatest library is an artistic masterpiece as well as a nexus of the world’s knowledge. The spectacular Main Reading Room and the Great Hall are astonishing to a first-time visitor. (Free tours are available.)
When the oldest of the three United States Library of Congress buildings — the Beaux-Arts style Thomas Jefferson Building — opened to the public on November 1, 1897, it was called “the largest, the costliest, and safest” library building in the world. There are nearly 150 million items in 470 languages, and 11,000 items are added each day, both physical and digital. It was the first major structure incorporating electrical wiring, powered by a Westinghouse generator.
The library also offers a concert series in the Coolidge auditorium as well as the intimate string quartet performances held at the adjacent Whittall Pavilion on the ground floor.
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14. United States Botanic Garden
Although the idea of a national botanic garden goes back to the 18th century, this 40,000-square-foot botanic garden has its roots in the United States Exploring Expedition to the South Seas (the Lt. Charles Wilkes Expedition) that brought living plants from around the world to Washington, D.C., in 1842. Continuously operated since 1850, its 15-ton Bartholdi Fountain was the first major Washington monument to be illuminated at night with gas lamps, in 1877. (The fountain was moved in 1927 to what became Bartholdi Park.) The Botanic Garden took up residence in its present location in 1933 along the north and south sides of Independence Avenue bordered by First Street and Third Street SW.
The Garden includes the Conservatory, which was renovated from 1997-2001; the National Garden, which opened in 2006; and the two-acre Bartholdi Park, created in 1932. A plant production and support facility opened in Anacostia in 1993, which includes an additional 85,000 square feet under glass divided into 34 greenhouse bays in addition to maintenance shops.
15. National Building Museum
Who would have thought that something called the National Building Museum could be so vast and fun at the same time? It’s just four blocks from the National Mall on F Street NW. Past exhibitions include miniature golf course designs; unrealized proposals for noteworthy architectural and urban design projects in Washington from the 1790s; small-scale, detailed replicas of famous buildings made of Legos; the art of architecture in Africa; and a Building Zone area enabling children to construct their own monuments with soft blocks.
16. Meridian Hill (Malcolm X) Park
One of the nicest and least touristy parks in D.C. is a place officially called Meridian Hill Park but known to locals as Malcolm X Park. Its 12 landscaped acres, designed to resemble a formal Italian garden, spans a hill overlooking downtown Washington D.C. The park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994 as "an outstanding accomplishment of early 20th-century Neoclassicist park design in the United States."
In 1819, naval war hero Commodore David Porter erected a mansion on the grounds and called it "Meridian Hill" because it was on the exact longitude of the original District of Columbia milestone marker. John Quincy Adams lived in the mansion after leaving the White House in 1829.
The park built between 1912 and 1936 was championed by Mary Foote Henderson, wife of Missouri’s former Sen. John Brooks Henderson. Today, visitors gravitate to the 13-basin neoclassical cascading waterfall in the lower-level formal garden (seen in the above photo). Dramatic stairways, walls, and fine statues and memorials are also scattered about the park.
If you visit the upper park on a Sunday afternoon between 3 and 9 p.m., be sure to experience the Drum Circle, an ad hoc assemblage of dancers and professional drummers who have made the park their stage since the 1950s.
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