It’s that time of year again. The city’s inundated with tourists wondering how to get the to White House from Adam’s Morgan by foot and you find yourself looking for the nearest fire hydrant to break into. The congressional term is winding down, and the dog days of august are fast approaching. It’s time to head for the hills- or at least the museums. A few of my friends from out of town are coming to visit- so I thought it’d be a good time to break down the do’s and don’ts of the DC downtown to prep for their arrival.
1. Skip the Writing Utensil
I’m going to admit something that very few other born and bred Washingtonians will: I have never been up the Pencil (some will call it the Washington Monument) and I don’t ever care to. I cannot think of a greater waste of time- especially now that there’s that weird casing on it. Washington from the sky is not especially breathtaking- the city was not designed to be seen or experienced from heights, it’s never intended to be like New York. This originates from the city law saying no building can be higher than the statue on top of the Capitol. The Angel of Freedom can be subservient to no one, especially not to a corporate structure (HAHAHA, here’s looking at you Dick Cheney). So save yourselves some time, and don’t take the hike down the Mall only to have to climb back up in half an hour feeling unfulfilled. If you still have an inkling to do some stair climbing, go to the Post Office Museum. Free, and, honestly, a much better example of architecture now that the Washington Monument’s been taken over by blue-ish Transformers.
2. Hillwood is where the Heart Is
This is not a free museum- nor is it in an area where you’d commonly think a museum would be. Trust us, though, once you get there you’ll see how much it’s worth it to truck down to Van Ness metro stop. Located in a NorthWest suburban area, the Hillwood Collection boasts the largest assemblage of Russian artifacts in the United States, collected by the wife of the former American Ambassador to the USSR who also happened to be the heir of the Post fortune (the guys that make cereal). Housed in a grouping of mansions and gardens, this place does charge a fee and requires and advance booking. But when it’s Hillwood versus the East Gallery filling with summer camp kids, the choice is obvious. Plus, this place holds a special place in my heart for personal reasons, one of which includes an unfortunate accident in one of the Japanese reflection pools…I warn you to not try to get a closer look at the fish, their flashy scales are not worth an unplanned swim.
3. Hungry? Don’t go the HotDog route
So many lost souls wandering around Capitol Hill and the museum areas make the same mistakes: they either pay an arm and leg for food at a schmancy place like the Capitol Grill or they risk finding insects in their popsicles by indulging in one of the curbside trucks (um, I’m serious about the bugs). The trick to bypassing these lacking options is to go up Constitution Avenue, behind the Capitol and to find many a yummy and affordable lunch option. I am partial to Good Stuff Eatery (the best milkshake outside of a dairy farm and Barack and Michelle go there), but there’s also insanely good Thai, Chinese, and Italian around there too. Just grit your teeth and climb the hill, once you’re past the House offices you’re almost there. It’s a hike- but nothing’s better than a Toasted Marshmallow milkshake and an Obama burger with rosemary/thyme fries on the side. A happy tourist is one with a happy tummy, every time.
4. The Native American Museum is Not a Museum
I love Native American history- a branch of my family is from the Ojibwa tribe and I think the foundation of this nation was built on the backs of those who were here before us. But this museum is an unfortunate example of a Smithsonian blunder. I went to see it on my mother’s birthday when it opened nine years ago (oh my god I’m old) and the moment we stepped inside we knew we had made a mistake. The entire building, a beautiful piece of architecture, is simply hallways- there is the sporadic interactive kiddy corner, but it lacks the oomph and in-depth research that so many other DC museums pride themselves on. When you do find an exhibit, you get the feeling that the museum was constructed by those not actually part of the American Indian community- they stress aspects of the culture that are downcast by the West as being primitive (for example, they stress polytheistic religion as it relates to the environment, “gods of wind and rain” etc, instead of discussing other vital parts of Native American history). It literally feels like a museum built by a white man for white men- as so often happens, we write the history we want to hear repeated. In effect, for those previously uneducated in Native American areas (especially young children) the museum comes off from the perspective of colonizing pilgrims by giving the viewers an almost denigrating image of these cultures. Word has it that the tribes could not agree on what to put or what not to put in the museum, and the museum’s director has come under fire for wasting Smithsonian resources and not being present enough to oversee its development. Whatever the case, this museum is a bust. Visit an indian nation in your area and you’ll be given a much more honest (and literally filled in) picture.
5. The Sculpture Garden is Multi-Use
Ever been ice skating at the sculpture garden? It was a mainstay for me throughout my childhood, but is also the breeding ground for 30 year old couples and the occasional community-oriented celebrity. In the summertime, though, it turns into a fountain. The signs claim no wading….but if you go you’ll see everyone dipping their piping hot toesies into the chlorinated waters. I recommend it as a pitstop between the Archives and Mall- a mid afternoon water fight is rarely unwelcoming. Just don’t go in the shop (hot chocolate in the winter and water bottles in the summer are both utter rip-offs).
Tips in general: don’t overwhelm yourself. DC has so many amazing things to do, but there is such thing as sensory overload. Whatever you do, don’t try to see the giant pandas, the NASA shuttle, the Capitol dome, Georgetown campus, and sit on Abe’s chair and go to Ben’s Chili Bowl all in one day. It’s hot, it’s sticky, it can get miserable, and that’s not the way to experience the capitol city. Last summer, my friend from Yorkshire, England came to visit during the dog days of summer. This is the call that I received in the middle of the workday:
“Hey, what’s up? You okay?”
“Ally…do you know how many miles it is to walk from your house to the Capitol building?”
“No I don’t. But don’t even think of trying to walk! It’s 98 degrees and it must be more than 20 miles!”
“Too late. Already did it, and the answer is 27 miles. Could you come get me? The bottom of my shoe melted off.”
Stiff upper lips get you nowhere in Washington. The metro is your bestest friend in the world.