We got to Washington D.C. in the afternoon and took a metro to Columbia Heights, where we will staying whilst here. Our host, Dean, had laid on a party for the World Cup with the USA playing Portugal. We were expecting a few people when we arrived but there were 30+ there and we quickly dumped our packs and grabbed a drink. It was good fun hanging out with Washingtonians that night, USA drew with Portugal and it looked like they might win at one point. The result didn’t dampen their spirits though and the party continued late on. We even learnt how to play corn-hole, basically a beanbag toss game played on the street. Good fun.
We got up latish and had to do some chores (laundry) before heading out. Once out of the way, we left the house and caught a bus down to the National Mall area. This is where most of the museums and monuments are. We had a look around the National Museum of American History and walked around exhibits of the military campaigns, presidents and american inventions. There were so many people here, it’s summer and there seem to be groups of kids everywhere you look, seemingly on some kind of summer camp. The museums around the Mall are all free being part of the Smithsonian Institution, set up on the bequest of James Simthson, a Brit who had never visited the USA but wanted to set up an institution for learning and research in Washington. It started off as one building but has grown into over 10 museums and galleries.
We had some lunch in a mall next to the National Press Club (shared lunch to be cheap, we’re getting back into the budgeting thing) then tried to take a look at the White House but the roads were closed for some reason, they wouldn’t tell us why. We then wandered back to the Mall and had a look inside the Simthsonian, the original building. There’s not much there but it does tell the story of why all these museums and galleries are here. Next to this building is the National Air and Space Museum which has on display amongst other things the aircraft in which the Wright Brothers took their 1903 controlled powered flight in, quite incredible to see and read about the building of this machine. There are many other aircraft on display here, military aircraft, passenger and space craft. We were feeling quite tired by this point, the museums taking their toll so we grabbed a coffee and came up with a plan for the rest of the day.
We caught the Metro up to U Street, a neighbourhood at one point home to Duke Ellington at one stage home to the largest urban African American population in the USA, now overtaken by Harlem, New York. Kirsty spotted ‘Ben’s Chili Bowl’, an eatery I had heard about and was keen to try. I had a half-smoke, that is a their signature dish. Made famous by Ben’s in 1958 and a favourite of Mr. Bill Cosby’s since the early 60’s. It’s a quarter pound half pork and beef smoked sausage on a warm steamed bun and top with mustard, onions and a spicy homemade chili sauce. Barack Obama came in for one on the day of his inauguration. It was delicious and surprisingly my first chill-dog in the States.
We went for a walk along U Street through several neighbourhoods and down towards the Dupont Circle. The houses here are large and they seem to like turrets. It’s a nice area, residential but with bars and shops dotted here and there. In the Dupont Circle, a park in a roundabout, there was the customary chess and checker boards being played and a large fountain with people gathering after work. Kirsty grabbed a bite to eat at ‘Asia 54’ then we headed back towards the National Mall to see the monuments at night, all lit up – a tip from our host, Dean. We saw the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument standing in front of the reflecting pool which, you guessed it, reflected the image of the giant obelisk. We then went to see the Martin Luther King Memorial, seeing the Korean Veterans Memorial on the way. The scale of all these monuments is awe-inspiring. Most of them took many years to complete and you can see why. To see them all lit up in the dark is an impressive sight and of course you beat the heat of the day. There were many many people walking around the monuments at night, a popular time to visit especially in summer I felt. Again, there were large groups of teens on summer camps walking around, some chanting. A very American past-time. We called it a night and walked for what seemed like forever, being on our feet all day, for a Metro station and the train home.
Once awake, showered and fed we caught the bus again down to the National Mall area of downtown. Once there we explored another of the Smithsonian Museums (free, of course), the Hirshhorn Art Gallery. They had interesting photography, sculpture and video exhibitions there but it was quite small so we were in and out within the hour. The building itself was impressive; a circular structure reaching up as a column with a central courtyard. It was lifted off the ground by struts all around. Imagine a ring doughnut sitting on toothpicks on a table and you have the rough idea. After the Hirshhorn we walked across the National Mall to the National Gallery of Art on the way taking in the view of the US Capitol building. The art gallery was split in two, an East building and a West building. The East building was undergoing renovations so we didn’t see too much there but in the West they had their collection hanging in small gallery rooms and a special exhibit of German prints. We then went in search of some lunch and after finding somewhere walked onwards to the American Art Museum. This was the pick of the art galleries with mainly portraiture but fascinating to see the evolution of portraits over time from early through to contemporary. There was a special exhibit called ‘American Cool’, a photographic portrait exhibition of American celebrities deemed ‘cool’. We walked around this museum for over an hour and once outside had to get a coffee pick-me-up before we went on to view the White House.
We didn’t have a tour booked but just wanted to take a look and grab a picture like every outer tourist here. We took in the North view then walked around to the other side for the South view. It is certainly a very white house, they must keep it very clean. We decided to call it a day here feeling like we had seen a lot of Washington and with tired legs we caught the Metro back to Columbia Heights. I cooked up dinner and we stayed up to the early hours chatting with our hosts Dean, Thierry and Kate whilst finishing a bottle of rum and a bottle of bourbon. We had bought these in the hope of posting them home back we found out the US Post doesn’t ship alcohol so, instead of carting them around and adding to our weight we drank them instead. That’s what they are there for after all. The rum was form New Orleans (Old New Orleans Rum Distillery) and the bourbon from Kentucky (Buffalo Trace Distillery). We took a tour of both distilleries and it was nice to share these bottles with a favourite hosts so far. Next day we are off to Charleston, South Carolina.