With so many Chicagoans flocking to Washington, D.C., to see Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, several Chicago-area newspapers and Web sites have put together lists of things to do in D.C. I’m going to jump on that media bandwagon by posting a travel piece I wrote for The Times in September 2007, a month after visiting the nation’s capital for the first time. I listed five pleasant surprises and five disappointments. Feel free to add your own by posting a comment.
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Visiting Washington, D.C., can be a monumental trip.
But it can be even better if you look beyond the obvious sightseeing spots like the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. You don’t need another travel writer to tell you about those tourist sites. What I can offer, however, is a list of lesser-known sights and places to visit or, in some cases, avoid.
First, the pleasant surprises:
Ford’s Theatre: I thought I would walk in, see where President Lincoln was shot and then leave. But Ford’s Theatre proved to be much more interesting than I expected. In the basement there is a plethora of artifacts related to Lincoln’s assassination, including the weapons John Wilkes Booth was carrying, the medical tools Dr. Samuel Mudd used on Booth’s broken leg, the flag Booth’s boot spur snagged when he jumped from Lincoln’s box (causing him to break his leg) and a still-stained pillow Lincoln bled on as doctors tried in vain to save the president.
Postal Museum: This branch of the Smithsonian Museum doesn’t sound too interesting, does it? I must admit, had I not seen a segment about it on the Travel Channel, I wouldn’t have visited. But I’m glad I did. The museum presented a history of postal service that was unexpectedly fascinating. Did you know rural America didn’t get postal service initially? And that changes in mail transportation over the decades clearly mirrored how Americans traveled at different times in our country’s history?
Interactive features include televised documentaries, a speed test to see how fast you can sort a bundle of mail and computer kiosks where you can create a preprinted postcard addressed to anyone in the country. An abundance of those types of things helped the Postal Museum earn my stamp of approval.
FDR memorials: The bigger, more well-known one located between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River is quite comprehensive, showing different aspects of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four terms as president, and includes waterfalls and shade trees. This contrasts most other presidential memorials that basically consist of a statue and quotes etched in stone.
I practically stumbled upon the smaller, lesser-known FDR memorial by accident while walking to a Metro station. A stone tablet about the width of a desktop is simply inscribed: “In memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1882-1945.” An accompanying plaque explains the simple memorial was created and placed in “the center of that green plot in front of the Archives building” in accordance with Roosevelt’s wishes, on the 20th anniversary of his death. Three decades passed before the larger memorial opened.
Holocaust Museum: Very educational and by far the most compelling Holocaust memorial I’ve seen. In addition to photos and film footage of the Nazi death camps, there also was an extensive explanation of how Germany’s culture changed to allow Adolf Hitler to take power — something that usually isn’t described in enough detail to truly understand how that situation came about.
U.S. Capitol at night: The Capitol building lit up at night is a must-see. That impressive building glowing in the dark, and its image reflected in the nearby pool, are majestic sights. Bonus if, like me, you get to see a reddish-colored full moon rising behind it.
Washington, D.C., disappointed in a few places, too:
National Aquarium: Not to be confused with the bigger and better National Aquarium in Baltimore, this one is an all-around letdown. Do yourself a favor and skip paying $5 to see a small selection of water-loving animals whose cages are mislabeled. Instead, go to the free Smithsonian Zoo and see a more interesting assortment of animals that includes giant pandas and a komodo dragon.
Museum of Natural History: The best part of this museum is the Hope Diamond. Otherwise it pales greatly in comparison to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Chinatown: Also pitiful by comparison to its Chicago counterpart. D.C. Chinatown is about a block long and has a single store where Chinese knickknacks can be purchased.
Billy Goat Tavern: Hoping to get a taste of home while on the East Coast, I checked out the D.C. locale of this classic Chicago restaurant — and was severely disappointed. The gritty character of the original Billy Goat Tavern is nowhere to be found here. Instead, there’s an antiseptic atmosphere that barely acknowledges its Chicago heritage, save for the Bears, Cubs and (gasp) White Sox pennants hanging above a small corner bar. At least they had the Cubs on TV instead of the Nationals.
World War I Memorial: After seeing the impressive World War II Memorial, I was disappointed in the much smaller monument to D.C. citizens who fought in World War I. Apparently D.C. tourism types are embarrassed by it too, because they didn’t include it on any visitor maps.